Solomon Schwartz - Account of my POW years
Sol Schwartz, 94, sits at his office in his Mission Viejo home and talks about being a prisoner of war during World War II. Schwartz was a Japanese prisoner of war for 42 months after being captured. He marched 50 to 60 miles in what became known as the Bataan Death March. Behind him is a painting that was done about a month after his release in 1945. He says he weighed 100 pounds.
A vet talks about forces within - Nov. 7, 2012
Photo above: Sol Schwartz, 94, sits at his office in his Laguna Niguel (Calif.) home and talks about being a prisoner of war during World War II. Schwartz was a Japanese prisoner of war for 42 months after being captured. He marched 50 to 60 miles in what became known as the Bataan Death March.
Behind him is a painting that was done about a month after his release in 1945. He says he weighed 100 pounds. At 94, Sol Schwartz doesn't look tough.
He says his hands are "clumsy" so he can no longer garden or fish. Little things, he confesses, have gone wrong. But looks deceive: If Schwartz weren't tough, he wouldn't have reached this state at all.
He was born at the end of World War I, but the next war defined him. He saw only a few months of Army combat in the Philippines before the Americans surrendered in 1942. Then he was marched up the Bataan Peninsula to the first of three prison camps. In all, Schwartz spent 42 months as a Japanese prisoner of war. For years he never spoke of it. Now, matter of factly, he tells his story.
"I was what I was." He was tough. And buried inside must be a core of steel because he never broke.
Schwartz was one of five brothers. All five were born in Pennsylvania, all five served in World War II, and all five returned safely home. He enlisted in the summer of 1940, landing in the Philippines by November. In May, U.S. forces surrendered to the Japanese. Some troops faded into the jungle to fight as guerrillas. Schwartz did not; he couldn't find a Filipino to join him.
"An America in the jungle alone is in trouble." Turns out, so was an American POW in Japan.
Ask Schwartz about marching north 50 or 60 miles up the peninsula -- what came to be called the Bataan Death March -- and he answers tersely and moves on quickly. "I get emotional."
He tells of people run over or beheaded. He ate one meal in six days and was given no water. He drank from gutters where dead bodies floated.
Schwartz was in two prisoner camps before he was shipped to Japan, O'Donnell and Cabanatuan. At O'Donnell he remembers 40 or 50 deaths per day. "We buried them, but it was half swamp... The rains would come and the bodies would float up."
He recalls dark humor. They'd ask where God was during all this. Their answer: Out for a two-martini lunch.
Eventually, Schwartz was packed aboard a freighter to Japan. Prisoners slept on top of each other. They relieved themselves in the bowls in which they ate. Their unmarked ship was strafed by U.S. pilots, but they didn't report the dead among them. They wanted those rations.
"I haven't remembered this in years," he confesses as he talks.
He survived the war at Camp No. 17 in Kyushu, Japan, but his descriptions of that period are incomprehensible. Schwartz slept on the floor and suffered 20 or 30 beatings. Once he was tortured for taking a short cut across the campground, made to kneel for more than a week with a bamboo pole between his legs. If the pole fell off, they beat him.
"I learned not to be hungry. I used to eat rice one kernel at a time with a pair of chopsticks. It would take me an hour to eat one little bowl of rice."
He worked 12 to15 hours per day in a mine, drilling holes in rock to blast out the coal. At war's end he weighed 100 pounds, sick, swollen with fluids, and suffering from wet beriberi. A mine wasn't entirely a bad place to be when the atomic bomb hit Nagasaki, 28 miles away. The power went out, so it took Schwartz five hours to walk out of the mineshaft. Soon after, the guards fled. B-29s flew overhead dropping food and leaflets with news of Japan's surrender. Both saved him.
Schwartz has a cabinet where he keeps his medals: The Bronze Star, Purple Heart and Prisoner of War award. He has a thick scrapbook: a 1943 telegram informing his parents he was a prisoner of war, post cards the Japanese forced him to send from prison:
"I am uninjured." "The quarters are comfortable."
Years later Schwartz and his wife visited the Philippines and Japan. He showed her the old prison camp town.
"Why not? I stopped hating them. The day I got out, I stopped hating them ... It's hard to forgive, but I've forgiven them a long time ago." He points to positives.
Schwartz recalls the elderly Japanese fisherman, a civilian conscripted as his foreman in the mine, who shared his lunches.
In Camp 17, he knows of only one suicide.
After Japan surrendered, Schwartz and two others hitchhiked to the airport. The Japanese fed them as they walked.
"We were three guys walking down the street wearing rags." The MPs at the base, he recalls, started crying when they appeared.
Schwartz was flown to Okinawa and then to the Philippines. He traveled by boat to the U.S. "They wanted to take me off on a stretcher. Toughie that I was, I said: 'I walked on and I could walk down.' "
He boasts of his toughness, wounded once and fighting again the same day. "You couldn't lay down or you'd be dead."
He spent two years after the war in hospitals. It was a hard readjustment. Talking, Schwartz' thoughts drift, and he tears up.
"I haven't thought about this in years." Did a different man come home?
"The camp made me smarter. You lived a life; you understand things better. You learn what it is to be hungry. In prison camp... it doesn't matter who your parents were, rich, poor... if you went to college. Everybody is equal. You're all naked. That was one of the best things that I ever learned."
Schwartz promised himself he would never again be poor and hungry. He married, moved to California for his wife's health, and opened a jewelry store in Beverly Hills. He began casting his own jewelry. Eventually, the guy with the hardscrabble life found success selling bling to celebrities like Elvis Presley and Flip Wilson. There's a metaphor in this.
He was a perfectionist; polishing the inside of the casting, the part you don't see. There are parts of a veteran we at home don't see. We don't know all that shaped them. To make jewelry, Schwartz explains, "I would make something from nothing."
Photo left: Sol Schwartz, 94, sits at his office in his Mission Viejo home and talks about being a prisoner of war during WW II.
Photo right: Sol Schwartz, 94, holds a photo of himself shot months after he was released from a Japanese POW camp.
Sol Schwartz, 94, looks through a scrapbook of letters and newspaper clippings from his time in the Army during World War II. He fought in the U.S. Army for 4 months in the Philippines before being captured and held as a Japanese prisoner of war for 42 months. He marched 50 to 60 miles along the Bataan Peninsula to a prison camp in what became known as the Bataan Death March.
Credit: By TERYL ZARNOW, COLUMNIST, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Biographies Page Main Page