I WAS A PRISONER OF WAR
OF THE JAPANESE
by James O.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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:
I am well
– I am in the hospital – I am recuperating – I am fine
working for pay.
I am being
music in camp.
We have a
canteen in camp.
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.