I WAS A PRISONER OF WAR OF THE JAPANESE

by  James O. Peters, 

1924 - 1954

Corregidor had surrendered.  As the little Japanese tanks made their way up the hill to the Melinda tunnel, there was much excitement inside.  Everyone wondered what our little brown friends would do when brought face to face with the enemy.  We hadn’t long to wait.  The first tank pulled up in front and two Japs came in.  One was tall and lanky, probably a field officer.  The other, short and squat, carried a notebook.  Both were very dirty and looked the part of battle weary soldiers.  Neither of them carried a gun and didn’t look frightened in the least.  One evidently spoke English. 
There was a bit of writing on the concrete wall (to hell with the Japs) written in chalk.  The Jap walked up to it and read it very closely.  Then pointing to two Americans, he jabbered something we couldn’t understand, but we knew from his expression that he wanted it removed.  He stood silently and watched while it was rubbed off, then walked on through inspecting our men.

That night was very restless for us.  We stayed awake and discussed out fate.  No one went outside the tunnel. 
Then at about three o’clock in the morning in burst a group of Japanese Marines jabbering and yelling.  None of us could understand a thing that was said and we all stood at attention and said nothing. 
They began pulling at our clothes and making signs for us to undress, which we did.  Some were slow about it and were pricked with bayonets.  We piled our clothes and shoes all together in one big pile, then marched out in front of where we were lined up facing a sharp drop
over a cliff.  The Japs got behind us and prodded us with bayonets, edging us closer to the drop-off.  Just at this time a
Jap command car came up.  The officers jumped out and began yelling at the soldiers, evidently reprimanding them for what they were doing.  Then the soldiers marched away and the officers motioned us back in the tunnel.

          Later in the day we were lined up and marched down the hill to a large bombed out area, where we were made to sit down on the dirt, with Jap sentries encircling the entire group.  Some of us had blankets and these we used in warding off the hot sun.  Our big problem here was water.  All day long we sat in the sun.  Early the next morning a Japanese interpreter told us we might send a small group up to get water.  Several men went, found cans and filled them up, but it wasn’t nearly enough.  Some of the men didn’t get any.  One of the men suggested to the Japs that we be allowed to run a pipe down the hill, which was agreed upon.  Even so, it still took hours for every man to get a drink.  After you had a drink you had to line up again because it took five or six hours to get back to the pipe.  For food we had what we carried down with us.  Most of us had several cans of food we had taken out of the tunnel.  This was gone in three days, after which we waited for our captors to feed us.  The next two days we only had water and we were all glad when we finally saw a transport ship coming for us.  This ship took us to Manila, where we were marched through the city in the hot sun, for all the population to see.  Some passed out from hunger and fatigue on the way and were picked up and carried by their buddies.  The Philippines watching us cried.  They knew we were their only salvation and now even we were beaten.  We were marched through town to the Bilibid prison where we were fed rice and onions.  We stayed there overnight and the next morning were put on a train and taken to Cabanatuan, a town about one hundred miles from Manila.  Fifty men rode in each boxcar and no one could sit down.  By the time we reached our destination we were worn out, thirsty, and hungry.  That evening we stayed on the grass of a school yard, worked half the night cooking white rice and trying to rest a little.  The next morning we started for the camp, which in peacetime was a Philippine army training camp.  We marched all day in the hot sun with no water.  Philippine civilians who tried to give us water on the way were severely beaten.  When we finally reached the camp we all fell down exhausted, too tired even to think about food.

          Thus we began our imprisonment with the Japs.  The next three years and four months would be beatings, work
and starvation but for two-thirds of this group death would come, relieving them of their suffering.  As they died, there was no sorrow, for the peaceful look of death on their faces is much easier to see than the awful look of sickness and hunger.

          In the early part of 1943, the Japanese issued the order for five hundred men who were able to work hard.  In Cabanatuan there were approximately two thousand men.  None were really able to work at all on the food they were being given, but when the order came for five hundred men everyone wanted to go.  We didn’t think any place could be worse but how wrong we were.  Eventually the men were picked out and ready to go.  I was among them.

          I won’t describe the trip to Japan, for it was the same, except we were cramped for room on the transport ship, not much food and water, and many wished for Cabanatuan again before we reached Japan.

In Japan we were taken by train to Fukuoka, a mining town, where a camp was ready for us.  It was a much nicer camp than we were used to.  The buildings were of wood and we had straw mats to sleep on.  We also had clothes, shirt, pants and rubber, canvas-topped shoes.  These were our mining uniforms.  The second day at camp we began training, marching in order to Japanese commands and getting an explanation of mine tools we would use.  We even went down in the mine for a day to see Japs do the work we were training to do.  We trained for one week and at the end of the week we knew how to use the tools.  The next week the first shift went in and started to mine coal in earnest.

          What we also knew by this time was that the Japs expected us to work hard and obey orders.  Also, any attempt to get out of work would be considered sabotage and the offender would be shot.  We had seen men shot in the Philippines and knew they meant every word of it.

          Some of the fellows had lived in mining towns at home and knew something of mining.  If we were going to do this kind of work, they all thought we would have to have more than just plain rice to eat.  As we reasoned it, they would expect full production from us and it wasn’t humanly possible to do it on rice alone.

          “Show, Show, Show,” deep and gruff came the voice of the Japanese sentry as he walked the dim corridors waking the American prisoners for the morning shift at the dreaded coal mine.  Five minutes later one hundred and fifty sleepy, skinny American prisoners (survivors of Bataan and Corregidor) marched through the mess hall to receive breakfast and lunch.  The breakfast consisted of one bowl of rice and radish soup and the lunch was one bowl of rice put in a small red lunch box, which was carried to the mine for the mid-day meal.  Now we line up to be counted and after all were accounted for we start the trek to the mine. 

          The mine is only one mile away, and we walk with guards all around carrying steel tipped sticks to keep us in line.  There is strictly no talking.  But each man is thinking,  and every thought is of home.  Little do we know that home is still two long years away, and if we did, there would be many who wouldn’t even try to live.  But no news is good news, and maybe tomorrow it will all be over.  Now we are at the mine, counted again, and marched into the Buddha  room, so named by the Americans.  We line up in front of a birdcage-like box where we worship, a simple procedure, but very important to the Japs.  First we take off our caps and in unison bow three times, while one Jap says a short prayer.  Then we clap our hands three times and put our caps back on.  This, they say, will keep the ceiling off  of our heads.

          One hundred and fifty men make up three crews.  One digs the coal out, one puts up rock walls where the coal is taken out and one crew looks for new veins of that precious black coal.  We work for eleven hours and the Jap overmen (civilians) are constantly yelling “Hyako, Hyako, which is Jap for “hurry, hurry.”  They will get a bonus, usually a piece of bread, if their crew gets out more coal than the last.  They are very eager, so we rush around getting our tools.  My crew takes out the coal.  The tools we need are a jack hammer, picks, shovels and round logs to prop up the ceiling.  The logs we must carry for about a mile.  The ceilings are very low and we must stoop down.  The laterals were cut for Japs and our smallest man is taller than the largest Jap.  After all the logs are carried we begin drilling the face of coal, the Jap overmen place the dynamite charges and soon the tunnel is filled with coal and rock.  We move the largest rocks and shovel the coal out of a chain conveyer.  When it is all out we put up timbers and blast again.  The most dangerous part of this is going in after the blast, when there is liable to be loose rock that is about ready to fall.  The overmen are in such a hurry that they won’t allow us to pick down the dangerous rocks and many of our fellows have been pinned down by them, some only crippled.

Each time we see an accident it only makes it more difficult to face death in this deep, dark prison.  Many times our men will take a beating with a pick rather than go in a place  where there is falling rock.  Usually the overman will beat him senseless, then go in and pick down the rocks, but there had better be loose rocks in the place he refused to go in.  If not, he will be reported to the soldiers when we get back to camp and probably be starved and beaten for two or three days.  In the winter time he would be made to stand out in the cold, day and night, with a bucket of water thrown on him every so often.  This sometimes resulted in having a leg or an arm cut off from frostbite. 

          Our overmen are changed every day and some are better than others.  But as a whole they are all the same.  Some are good about not beating us so much and some will help do the work.  But for the most part we had no favorites.  We all spoke some Japanese as we had been prisoners for eighteen months but we still couldn’t grasp everything that was said to us.  This would sometimes irritate the overmen, and they would scream and wave their arms.  Then you really couldn’t understand what was said.  As a rule when they told you what to do, they would point and make signs, so you could grasp it.  If you didn’t fully understand, the best thing to do was go ahead and do what you thought, then ask someone else when you had a chance. 

          The overmen were all given nicknames by us to identify them in our conversation.  We have them names like greyhound, termite, liverlip, frog, pretty boy, sailor and so on.  Each one reminded us of something.  When addressing them we called them by their right names:  Sadoholoson, Nakamotoson, Kishamotoson, Kiwanoson, Watanobison, Satoson.  The son stood for mister and must accompany the name.  If they ever learned the nicknames we gave them I probably wouldn’t be here now.

          The miners in Japan take all the coal out, leaving only enough rock wall support to get all the coal.  Sometimes the ceiling would cave in ahead of us, crushing the coal between.  Then we would start from the back side and work to the middle.  This was extremely dangerous as large sheets of rock would fall, holding up the work for days, while we broke the rocks and moved them away.  Once on the night shift a large sheet of rock fell, killing sixty Japanese miners, who were working on our day off.  The next day when we went in, our day was spent in taking the bodies out and to the surface, and clearing away the mess, and starting again in the same place.  All of our men were very shaky after that.

          After our shift is finished and we are back on topside, we are allowed to bathe in warm water without soap.  Soap is indeed a luxury in Japan.  We bathe in a large concrete tub about twenty feet long and twelve feet wide.  All the men get in at one time and the water really gets dirty with coal dust.  We can’t get very clean, but we get the worst of it off and are ready to march back to camp.  Our time in camp is for the most part  spent in drills and inspections by the camp commander.  We are taught all the marching commands in Japanese and soon to learn to recognize them at once.  The inspections were carried out in the barracks and each one had to be as clean as a broom could make it.  After we had been counted off for the evening, we were made to stay inside for the remainder of the night.  During the night a guard would roam the camp and anyone caught outside would be severely punished -- usually a couple of days at the guardhouse without food or water.  It was very seldom a man would be caught outside,  because everyone was so tired they were glad to be allowed to sleep.  About three months after we came to this camp we were allowed to write home.  This didn’t excite anyone as we had written Japanese printed forms before, only to learn later that they were destroyed without ever leaving the camp.  This time the form read like this:

Dear  _____________

I am well – I am in the hospital – I am recuperating – I am fine

I am working for pay.

I am being treated well.

We have music in camp.

We have a canteen in camp.

          Love,

                   Signature

          On these forms you underline the sentence you like best on the top line.  The rest were always the same only sometimes worded differently.  We actually were getting paid ten cents a day in Japanese paper money.  We were paid once a month and with the money we paid for our issues of cigarettes.  The rest they kept for Japanese war bonds.  These we signed for, although no record was kept of how many we bought.

          The climate in Fukuoka is about the same as we have in the middle western states, with the temperature dropping to about zero in the winter time.  Our clothing was the same for winter as for summer, with the exception of one light coat which we were allowed to wear only for inspections.  During the coldest weather we were encouraged to exercise in order to keep warm.  Although we were mining coal, we weren’t allowed to have a fire.  We were issued charcoal smudge pots and a small pile of charcoal.  Along with this issue came the order that they must be kept clean at all times.  Consequently, no fires could be built.  During the two winters in Japan we were never by a fire.  To warm our hands, we rubbed them together.  The only times we were warm was in bed and in the mines.  We found that by two or three of us covering up together our body heat would help keep us warm.  Of course in the mines we would sweat, summer and winter.  During the winter, several of the fellows died of pneumonia, which they caught from coming up out of the mines into the cold weather.  It seemed that the winter time was much the worst season for us and many more died in winter than did in the summer.

          My company was working the evening shift.  We left camp at nine p.m. and quit work at seven-thirty a.m.  This particular day we were working in an extremely dangerous place and all dreaded to go down.  We had almost finished a complete lateral, and there was very little coal to help support the roof.  We all knew this, but all we could do was to be careful.  Down at the coal face the water kept trickling in from the roof and now and then a large piece of rock would break off.  Everyone was shoveling the coal out when the overman came to me and said to take another man with me and bring back a large twelve foot log to support a particularly bad spot.  We located the timber and started back.  Just as we came into the lateral, we had to pass a place where there had been a cave-in recently.  Suddenly the rock began to fall and the next thing I knew, everyone was yelling, “Don’t go in there until the rock stops falling.”  Then everything went black again.  Later, the fellows told me that the boy helping me had been completely covered and was dead.  I was saved because they reached me first.  I was bruised all over and was cut up pretty bad but not too serious.  The other fellow, when uncovered, was beyond recognition.  After about five days I was ready to go back to work.  Of course, I couldn’t bend over to shovel but was put at pushing coal cars.  I was so afraid of the rocks after that, that I began to figure out a way to get out of the mine.  I knew that the only way was to get injured so badly that I couldn’t possibly work.  In order to do this, I would have to get someone that was willing to injure me and help me make an excuse the Japs would accept.  We would have to be careful as there had been quite a few legs and arms broken recently without very good excuses and the Japs were watching for this sort of thing.  In fact, I had broken several arms myself.  The way I did it was to get an iron bar that was pretty heavy and have the fellow’s arm between two logs.  Then when he turned his head, I hit it in the middle as hard as I could.  The worse his arm was torn up, the better.  There had been more arms broken than legs,  and I finally decided I could make a better excuse by breaking a leg; so I walked to a fellow that had done it before, and we began working on it.  He said that I should pay him two rations of my rice if everything went well.  I agreed to this.  Inside the camp there was a large ditch being dug for an air raid shelter and was about ten feet deep.  We decided to break the leg inside where we couldn’t be seen.  Then he would carry me out and put me in the hole.  When I saw a Jap sentry pass, I would cry out and thus have an excuse.  Then, after many days in which I was trying to build up courage, I said I was ready.  He had picked out a place and an iron bar.  It was in back of the barracks, and we would wait until the sentry had passed, making his round.  It would be dark outside, and the rest of the fellows would be getting their rice.  While he was watching for the sentry, I placed my leg on the two logs he had provided.  When I had it just right, I called for him.  I looked up and for the first time I saw the bar he was going to use.  It was about six feet long and three inches in diameter.  I told him I thought it was too big, but he said the more it is battered up the longer you will be out of the mines.  Then, while I turned my head, he raised the bar.  I can never describe the feeling in my stomach at that moment, but I was plenty sick.  I had tried to picture it before in my mind, but it didn’t seem so bad.  Now I was sick and shaking like a man who is real cold.  When the blow had fallen, I felt better even though the pain was almost unbearable.  I  at least knew the job was done.  Next, he half carried, half dragged me to the hole.    I must have passed out just as he let me over the side.  When I came to, a Jap sentry was shining a light on me and telling two American boys to get me out.  They carried me to the camp doctor and after explaining to him and the interpreter how it had happened, he put two boards on it and had me taken to my barrack.

          After four or five days I was able to hobble around the camp with the aid of a walking stick and even then they had me picking up trash.  As my leg grew stronger, I did harder work.  In Japan everyone must work, and they pick the job that fits the sickness.  Even a man with no legs will have to work at weaving baskets or making brooms.  Men with no hands weave with their toes, but everyone must do something.  When my leg was pretty well healed, I still had a terrible limp and it stayed swollen, so instead of sending me to the mines they included me in a detail that planted a garden just out of camp.  In this detail the men were all cripples that could still walk enough to get to the garden. There were about twenty-five in this group, and we only worked nine hours a day, but we were expected to keep busy all day.  You couldn’t find a happier group of men than we were.  We were the envy of all the boys in the mine, and they would gladly have given their right arm to have the job we did, working in the nice sunshine all day.  The only thing, the Japs were always threatening to send us back to the mines if we did anything wrong. 

          About this time was when the U.S. planes began to bomb Japan proper in earnest and every day about noontime we would hear deep rumbling noises in the distance.  We knew it was bombs as they would fall in a string and although they were too far away for us to see, we were all so terribly happy that the war was coming to us.  As time went on we would see scattered flights of planes.  They were large bombers and so high we couldn’t make out what kind they were.  We had never seen a flying fortress and had no idea they were that large.  Around our camp was a concentration of factories, coal mines, and shipping docks.  There were also some anti-aircraft batteries, although we never knew exactly what they were.  In the camp we had dug out large holes and covered them over with dirt and boards.  Although they weren’t very solid they would protect us from flying shrapnel and incendiary bombs.  Whenever the air raid signal sounded we would all run into these shelters, they would shut the doors and were in these for as high as four hours without coming out.  Later as the planes came closer, the Japs would get in their own holes and we would have a chance to peek out and see what was going on.  Sometimes there would be four or five dive bombers come over in a group and they would all concentrate on one factory.  They would stay only four or five minutes but when they left, their target was in ruins.  After one of these raids, the Japs would be on their worst behavior and would knock you down for just being close to them.  They also cut down our rice ration, but as we weren’t worked so hard we did very well, and we were all sure that it wouldn’t be too long now.  We had always figured the going would be tough when the Americans started invading Japan and now that their homes were being torn up and their people being killed right in their very faces, we were very much in fear that they would take their spite out on us.  They did, only it was in the form of beatings, rather than shooting, and where we used to talk to them, now we only answered them, and we never encouraged a conversation. 

          One night about a month before the end of the war we had an air raid about nine p.m.  We all lined up on the parade grounds to be marched into the shelter, but before we could get started, the incendiary bombs began to fall.  There was much confusion and everyone was trying to find a hole.  There was a large group of planes and although it was too dark to see them we knew they were low.  The bombs fell fast, and soon the south half of the camp was in flames.  The Japs were all in their holes and if we tried to get in, they hit us and said to fight the fire; so we just ran around keeping out of their way.  All there was to fight the fire with was water and sand, which we threw on with baskets.  There was so much confusion that none of the fires were put out and one-half of the camp burned to the ground.  We lost only a few men that night, but the next morning there wasn’t a house or building left standing, except for a part of our camp.  Luckily there was enough room for us to double up and have a place to stay.  Every day from then on we had at least one raid, but the number of planes kept getting smaller and smaller, and we knew that the end must be near. 

          At about 8:00 a.m. one morning, the group I worked with in the garden was putting fertilizer on the plants.  There was a large concrete tub at the end of the farm and all the local people dumped their toilets into this.  We would dip it out in buckets and put it on the plants.  While we were busy doing this, we heard a plane fly over but it was so high that we couldn’t see it, so the air raid siren wasn’t sounded.  About a minute or two after it flew over, the whole sky suddenly lit up around us and the ground shook.  We all thought maybe a refinery or something like that had blown up across the bay but after the flash a large mushroom cloud began to form.  It first appeared bright red, then it changed to blue, then several colors at once.  We all just stood and looked and didn’t know what to think.  That night in camp the Japs were talking all night and we knew something unusual had happened.  Then about two weeks later, we saw a group of planes go over in the opposite direction . This time we didn’t see a flash but felt the ground shake and saw the mushroom cloud form again.  This time we knew it wasn’t just any explosion but some man-made implement of war. 

          The Japanese captain of our camp called all the American officers together one morning and told them that the noon shift would not go to the mines due to a power failure.  He said he would notify them when to have the next shift ready.  There was plenty of talk at this, and everyone thought this might be it.  The day passed, and no one went to work and no planes flew over.  That day there were only two or three Jap guards around; next day the same thing, except there were no guards at all.   Then late that evening three guards and the captain came in camp and gave our officers some Jap rifles and ammunition, with the order that they were to post guards around the camp with the guns and to keep our men inside the fence until our people came for us.  Then right away we found paint and put a sign on the largest building:  P.O.W. Camp.  That night no one slept.  We stayed awake all night and cooked all the rice we could find.  Some of the fellows cried, some of them prayed and held church services on the parade ground.  Others just sat and wondered if it was really true.  The fellows that were sick suddenly came to life, and for the first time no one seemed to be troubled.  The next morning early, someone spotted a plane coming in real low.  It was a B-29 and we could see the men looking out.  As it roared over, everyone cheered and cheered.  They dropped a flare with a note attached which read:  The war is over.  Our men have landed in Yokahoma and will be down here very soon.  Meanwhile we will drop you food.  Then they circled camp and dropped food in parachutes.  As they dropped it, we grabbed.  Everyone had something:  canned food, candy and cookies.  After they left we just sat around and ate and waited for the next one to come over.  Boy, we were happy. 

          That night when everything was dark, I crawled over the fence.  I knew that Yokahoma was to the north and my chances outside were just as good as inside.  The Americans were in Yokahoma.  If I could get there my worries would be over.  There had been a railroad station about a mile from camp.  I walked there and asked an old Japanese man how I could get to Yokahoma.  He was frightened and told me a train would be there soon, so I waited.  When the train came in I started to get on but a Japanese trainman grabbed me and said it would be too dangerous as the train was full of Jap soldiers going to turn in their arms.  But I managed to get on after telling him that I wasn’t afraid.  Once on the train I sat down behind a seat in the floor.  The Jap soldiers glared at me and spit in my face.  Some kicked me but evidently they were afraid to kill me; probably because the Americans were moving south and might stop the train at any time.  At different times we would all have to get off and wait for another train.  I rode in the coal cars and flat cars.  To find out which train to get on I had to ask civilians.  They told me, but the soldiers would only hit me when I asked them.  After about twenty-four hours we came into Yokahoma and there were no Americans that I could see.  I was really frightened.  It was almost dark, and I had no idea how long the Japs would let me alone.  I asked a young fellow where the Americans were and he said he would show them to me.  We walked along together and then we sw an ambulance stopped with a flat tire and two fellows changing the tire.  I was almost exhausted by this time and when I stood face to face with them I just cried and hugged them to me.  They soon understood where I had been, and when they had me quiet, they gave me a big drink of alcohol.  When the tire was changed, they took me to the docks where the Army had set up a receiving station.  There the men fed me.  When I felt better a doctor examined me and I was sprayed with a disinfectant for I was full of lice.  They gave me clean clothes and made me lie down.  The nurse talked to me and found out where I was captured.  After she had all the information she needed, I was given a shot to make me sleep. 

          During the night about ten more fellows drifted in from different places and when we awoke we were all put on a large plane.  None of us was able to sit up.  In the plane there were beds for us and a couple of fellows who prepared food for us.  We were taken to the U.S. and put in a hospital where we had all the food we wanted and the best of care. 
                                                             None of us would ever forget the Japanese.

 

  Biographies Page     Main Page