Ex-POW, 86, still marvels he survived
For four years more than six decades ago, Jim Hildreth endured suffering that is hard to comprehend.
He was a 21-year-old sailor aboard a Navy ship when the Japanese attacked on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
Hildreth became a rifleman after a Japanese bomb disabled his ship in the Philippines, and he survived months of
bombardment and jungle warfare on Bataan.
Imprisoned at the capture of the nearby island of Corregidor, he endured 3-1/2 years as a prisoner of war - surviving
dysentery, pneumonia and malaria. Jaundiced and reduced by hunger and disease to 65 pounds, he was a slave laborer
at a coal mine in Japan when he saw the atomic bombing of Nagasaki.
"What kept me alive?" Hildreth has often asked himself. "I had hundreds of artillery shells shot over my head.
I was bombed several times. My ship was on the bottom. I had more bullets go by me," Hildreth said.
Hildreth determined never to give up: If one man was to walk out of the prison camp alive, he would be the one.
Hildreth survived World War II, ran roller-skating rinks in Northern California and became a teacher of ballet-style ski movements.
He wrote a 101-page book, "Thank You America for Bringing Me Home" at the urging of friends and published it in 1994.
He can roll up his right sleeve to show the scars on the arm he almost lost in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp.
Now 86 and living in Lancaster with his daughter, he will ride on a float Saturday morning in the Operation Welcome Home
parade for veterans along Lancaster Boulevard.
Hildreth is one of a dwindling group: survivors from the 26,000-plus American soldiers, sailors, Marines and Filipino Scouts
captured in early 1942 on Bataan and Corregidor, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
That number is equivalent to nearly half the American military deaths during more than 10 years of war in Vietnam.
Of the Americans imprisoned in the Phillipines, more than 10,000 died inJapanese captivity - a death rate of almost 40percent,
compared with a death rate of about 1.2percent among U.S. soldiers and airmen captured by the Germans, according to
Veterans Affairs statistics. About 3,000 remain alive today, though the effects of their captivity remain. A psychological study in 1997 called them the most traumatized of American POWs. More than 50 years after regaining their freedom, nearly 60percent could still be diagnosed with post-traumatic distress syndrome, with symptoms such as anxiety, indelible and intrusive memories
and guilt at surviving when so many comrades didn't.
Short and trim, Hildreth looks younger than 86, though his hair is white and he is hard of hearing.
Hildreth joined the Navy as an 18-year-old Sacramento Senior High School graduate in 1939.
He ended up on an old converted merchant ship named the USS Canopus, whose crew provided supplies and repairs
for submarines operating out of the Philippines, then a U.S. possession.
When Japanese planes raided the Philippines after the Pearl Harbor attack, the Canopus stayed to keep its submarine fleet
supplied until, within a month, it was hit by a bomb and disabled. Hildreth and other sailors became riflemen. They fought off Japanese soldiers who landed along Bataan's coast behind the main American lines, which were slowly moving backward
as the Americans ran short of food and ammunition.
Before Bataan fell, he and other sailors were taken by boats to the fortified island of Corregidor, lying off Bataan's tip, to fight as beach defenders. The U.S. sailors saw other Americans on Bataan surrender. "I could see the guys sending SOS with their flashlights across there. We had no way of getting them off across three miles of water," Hildreth said.
He escaped the infamous Bataan Death March in which thousands of captured soldiers died as they were marched to prison camps.
After Corregidor was captured a month later, Hildreth and other Americans were taken by ship to an old military prison in the Philippine capital of Manila. Hildreth knew it was likely that disease would soon kill all of them there.
"There wasn't a single inch that didn't have a fly or human waste on the ground," he said.
The next day, Hildreth and other Americans were marched to a train, then marched again to another camp.
As they walked, he supported a soldier friend, who had come down with malaria even before the final surrender.
Soon Hildreth also was sick: diarrhea, apparently from weeds cooked into their rice.
He soon had cracking and peeling skin, as well as ulcers on his legs. All the prisoners were jaundiced.
The prisoners cut firewood, tended rice crops and buried those who died of disease. Some prisoners were sent to build and repair roads and airfields. Hildreth grew a vegetable garden in the camp and brought food to his friend Roy Becraft, long near death.
After more than a year of captivity, Hildreth and other POWs, including Becraft, were sent to Japan to work in a coal mine
across a bay from Nagasaki. Hildreth became a cook for the prisoner miners.
Hildreth's right arm became infected. It turned black and swelled to eight inches across, while his left arm was skeletal.
Doctors wanted to amputate it, but he pleaded with them not to.
Although unable to get anesthesia for Hildreth, an Australian army doctor agreed to cut into the flesh and put rags in to drain it.
The doctor changed the rags every day and made more cuts while Hildreth lay with a fever at the far end of a barracks.
"I smelled the same way a dead man does. I couldn't stand my own smell," Hildreth said. Then he got malaria on top of his
other fever. Hildreth said he started healing immediately after he traded 1,000 cigarettes - he didn't smoke - for 17 green apples.
Back walking but unable to use his right arm, he got a job shoveling coal to feed a fire heating bath water for the men who
worked in the mines. Hildreth was given an armband that entitled him to be outside barracks after dark - usually forbidden for prisoners - and he started going into the Japanese soldiers' kitchen, where he helped a Japanese civilian wash vegetables or clean pots and floors.
"At the same time, I was stuffing food in my mouth," Hildreth said.
"When I left there, I had a full stomach and my mess kit full of rice to give Roy (Becraft)."
In August 1945, an old Japanese man who worked in the camp told him that the war was over after a giant bomb had been
dropped on Nagasaki, 30 miles away, killing thousands. Hildreth said he saw the atomic bomb's mushroom cloud, but amid the smoke billowing up night and day from bombing raids. He didn't realize it was something world-changing.
"I didn't think much of that, other than I thought they dropped on a petroleum refinery," he said.
After returning to the United States, Hildreth took a job doing aircraft sheet-metal work at an Air Force base near Sacramento,
but he didn't like being inside a locked fence with a guard at the gate. He went into construction and worked on
state office buildings around Sacramento.
An accomplished roller skater since boyhood, he operated roller rinks around Northern California. At age 57, he took up
skiing and was soon entering competitions and becoming a teacher himself.
In 1992, he received the Bronze Star medal he had earned decades earlier for heroism - though he isn't sure exactly what for.
His friend Becraft, who had stayed in the military and retired as a master sergeant, recommended him for the Navy Cross
for repeatedly saving his life.
"I'm not out for fame. I was in the wrong place," Hildreth said.
Credit: BY Charles Bostwick, Staff Writer
Article Launched:11/06/2006 LANCASTER
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