By Joe Merritt

My patrol, a unit of the 17th Squadron, 27th Bomb Group, was overrun the night of April 3, 1942 on Bataan. Seriously wounded in the hand to hand fighting, I was evacuated to Field Hospital #2, a primitive medical facility near Cabcaben.  When the remaining Fil-American forces surrendered a few days later, I was still in the hospital. During that time, the following incident took place. 

A Field Hospital On Bataan

In the chaos following the surrender, we hospital patients faced many serious problems. Two, seemingly unrelated issues, were absolutely vital to our survival. First was to find a source of food since most of us were near starvation and second was to learn enough Nippongo to understand our captors’ incomprehensible orders. I solved the first, at extreme risk, by utilizing the Nippongo learned while attaining the second. 

To further clarify our tenuous position, I must explain that the occupation troops then in control of Hospital #2 were a sadistic, unpredictable group of older men, undeserving of being called HeiTais. (soldiers) Mostly rejects from the China Campaigns, many were “shell-shocked” along with a plethora of other disabilities. To a man, they disliked being relegated to a non-combatant role for such was considered a second class status to the old warriors.

The hospital’s Fil-American patients suffered accordingly, not only from the guards’ habitual, ingrained cruelty but from their own inability to follow their wardens’ difficult to understand orders. This situation resulted in frequent and severe beatings, many so brutal that several weakened patients died. Thus, I determined the prime need was learning enough Nippongo to understand orders, explain my position whenever possible and otherwise conduct a reasonable conversation.  BUT, I needed a teacher and this is how my search began:

To find a teacher, I went gimping around the hospital on a pair of crutches borrowed from the gangrene ward.  The death rate there was high and extra crutches plentiful. My first objective fell into place when I came upon a small, barbed-wire stockade holding some two dozen Japanese POWs. A sorry-looking lot, they were soldiers that our troops had captured during the Bataan campaign. All were recovering from wounds and ill with malaria. My initial attempt to speak with them through the barbed-wire failed. Showing extreme animosity, they hissed and turned away. One young soldier finally decided I meant no harm and crawled over to the fence. Conversing in fractured high-school English, we soon were visiting about our families and homes. After a day or two, we reached a point of trust where the lad told me about his military career.

“Mori” had still been in school when the Imperial Army drafted his all-male High School class. After a brief period of training, his group of draftees was sent to the Philippines. Sighing, Mori confided that he feared most of his classmates were probably dead by now, making him so homesick he wanted to die. Then, straightening up his frail body, he stated proudly, “But, I’m a Christian. I cannot take my own life and expect to go to Heaven.”  When I told him of my desire to learn his language, he smiled, “Let me help you. Perhaps I can improve my English as we both learn.”  Starting with simple phrases, “Do you have, how much does it cost, how many are there, how do I recognize the rank of non-coms and officers and the names of various foods,” we progressed to words and phrases about Japanese life, culture, and protocol. During those sessions, I wrote everything down in a small spiral notebook while “Mori” did the same in his language on a sheaf of rice paper that he always kept carefully rolled.

Japanese Captured on Bataan

That evening while my partner Blackbeard was at the kitchen drawing our supper, I studied Nippongo till it was too dark to see. Early the next morning, I purchased two extra rice balls from the kitchen and left for Mori’s ward. The poor kid was overjoyed with the extra food and ate like he was famished. (I also had a small can of sardines for him.)  We then returned to our studies where my life-long affinity for languages paid off. I had little trouble learning basic commands and other frequently used words. Of course, my speed in learning was helped along, substantially, by the aura of life and death that hung over us. Eager bayonets pointing one’s way surely helps to speed the learning process! As our schooling continued, “Mori” happily continued to jot down his “lessons” on his roll of rice paper. It wasn’t long before we were chatting and joking together like two happy youngsters.

With his help and encouragement, I became so immersed in learning Nippongo that all our wartime animosities were forgotten. It was as though my life now depended on conquering Mori’s language, which, in fact, it did. Now that we were actually friends, he frequently spoke of being afraid of the Japanese Occupation troops that still roamed at will through the hospital grounds. Woefully ignorant of the sinister nuances lurking in the Japanese culture, I often said, “Mori, don’t worry. You’ll be going home soon to be with your loving family.” Secretly, I would wonder, “Why haven’t the occupation troops released their own POW’s by now?”

While I viewed the chaos wreaked in Ward #14 by an errant shell from Corregidor, I mused, “Friendly-fire can be even worse than hostile fire.” Seeing the stoic suffering of the helpless patients, I had thought, “Surely nothing can be worse!” But, I was quickly proven wrong! Since Blackie and I were listed among the “walking-wounded,” we were issued shovels one day and assigned to a burial detail. Limping along behind a Jap sergeant, Blackie muttered, “What kind of shovel work can this sickly crew possibly do?” We’d soon learn. Nearing Mori’s ward, I could detect the smell of death, a sickish, abattoir-stench marking an indescribable scene. When the battle-hardened men in our work detail saw what waited in the Japanese ward, several became ill. It was a scene straight from “Dante’s Inferno,” one of such unspeakable horror, it would haunt us the rest of our lives. The bodies of the Jap POWs were scattered about the cage, limbs hacked off, their bodies slashed open, organs lying in bloody piles. The extent of their mutilation gave mute evidence of the insanity vented during the atrocity.

As we entered the enclosure, clouds of huge, green flies, drawn by the death-stench of viscera, rose from the remains to attack us. Pulling shirts over our heads, we vainly tried to prevent the flies from crawling into any orifice. Then,  while covering the pitiful remains with soil, I came across Mori’s severed arm, the precious roll of rice paper still clutched in his little, brown hand. I nearly lost my composure. This horrible atrocity had surely been the work of a Satanic mob of frenzied maniacs. Literally, a pack of rabid curs that no American, or Nipponzin, can possibly visualize today. That brutal, mass execution, the disemboweling and mutilation of their own people, should be known. The depravities of a nation’s soldiers against their own comrades must be recorded for posterity! A horror for that nation’s present day and future citizens to contemplate with disgust for their past…

My own battle-hardened experience failed me that day and I wept, realizing Mori had become the victim of the very barbarians he had feared.  Then the enormity of the perils lying ahead for us POWs struck me and I asked Him for strength. On finishing the grisly task, I said a prayer for my little friend, the first Japanese to ever offer me friendship. Then I promised myself, “Always be aware and alert. Never forget you are now in the hands of unpredictable, inhuman, vicious savages.”  Luckily, I didn’t know that ever greater atrocities lay ahead. 

Former Japanese POW Joe Merritt is writing a book about his experiences during the Bataan Campaign and subsequent incarceration by the Japanese Imperial Army.  This true story is an excerpt from his book.

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