Prisoner of War

words and memories by Pete George

We surrendered May the 6th, 1942, and I got wounded the night before when they invaded the island. Of course, the invasion portion of it was on the opposite side where I was because it was flat. I was located at Cheney Ravine, which had 200 to 300-foot cliffs and, of course, it was impossible for them to come in there because the ravine was heavily fortified with barbed wire so they'd have a tough time there.

So they went around to what they call Infantry Point, which was flat. There was an air field there. So they came in there and then started from there towards Malinta Tunnel which was a tunnel cut through solid rock that housed the hospital, and, of course, MacArthur's headquarters was in that rock. But I was on the opposite end. So the beach that I was on, they started an artillery barrage on that and I got caught in artillery barrage and got wounded that night.

I had a machine gun section and a squad of infantry and so we set up rocks and sand bags and it was probably maybe 8-foot high. We'd set it up 6-foot high with rock and sand bags and left the 2-foot opening so you could fire out of it, if you had to. We had probably six in there. So many for the machine gun section and the rifle section that was in there. And as soon as the barrage would lift, then everybody would go out of the cave and then man their positions on the beach and repel the invasion, which was impossible anyway. When they dropped this artillery shell, it went and fell right in front and exploded and of course the shrapnel went inside the cave and just ricocheted all over and I was the only one in there that got hit.

Well, it hit me in the leg and I guess it concussioned too because it blew my gas mask off and one of my shoes. The concussion just blew that shoe off. But then I got hit just above the knee and it cut the ligaments and muscle in two. And then I had another piece of shrapnel, which I didn't find out until after the war, that went through into my stomach. Went through two, five-round clips, a piece of shrapnel that went all the way through and lodged in my stomach which I carried during the whole three and a half years of prison camp and didn't know it. They pulled me up off of the beach and we had built caves in the side of a hill that the engineers wanted us to build. They would go 50 back, 50 feet across, and 50 feet back in case a shell would hit in front. The concussion would go through and go all the way around and not stop because if they didn't have the opening out, well, then the concussion could play havoc with you. It could even kill you if it hit you in the right spot.

And so they put me in there and then took the sulfur, we always carried our little first aid kit and they poured sulfur on the wound. Put a tourniquet and a bandage on there and stopped the bleeding and I stayed there the rest of the night. And then we got word 6 o'clock the next morning that we had surrendered the Philippine Islands, and that we were to assemble at Topside at 12 o'clock. So then they passed the word, destroy all of your weapons, grenades, get rid of everything. So we took our rifles and bent the barrels and just took the grenades and we buried the grenades and then they put me on a stretcher.

They started carrying me up to Topside and then as I was being carried up the road, well, the Japanese planes were flying over with this machine gunner in the back, the observer. Every time he'd see somebody, he'd take a machine gun and start shooting. Well, they dropped me in the middle of the road and they'd all scamper to the side and here I was laying there, looking at that Japanese plane with that guy with his machine gun. He was just spraying everything. I don't know how he missed me. I don't know. But he did it twice. So I finally got up to Topside and they set me down there and then, of course, we had a cigar box with our personal belongings or a shoe box. Whatever we had to put our cigarettes in and whatever personal belongings we had. So this one Japanese soldier came over and started going through and picking out what he wanted and then all of a sudden I heard, 'Pa-wow' ! This Jap officer had taken his sword and popped him real good with his sword and he yelled a bunch of words to him. Boy, and he stood up real fast. He got my canteen. He took it down. He got water in the canteen, and I'm sure what he told him that you stay with him because they honor wounded. They think that is a great honor to be wounded in battle. He was to stay with me until I got to the hospital and he did. He stayed. But as they were progressing to the hospital, they put me on a cart. And another kid named Strickland that got, wounded. A bomb exploded and broke his legs. So they put him and me on this cart with steel wheels and rolled us from Topside to the hospital which was probably quarter of a mile or so or a half a mile. And, of course, there we are in the rough, rocky roads and the pain that you had, it was really something.

news clipping

Postal Telegraph

I made it in the operating room. They put me on that table and this doctor said, well, the Japs have taken all of our medicine. We don't have anything. I have a little bit of solution here. He'd take a bandage and just dip it into that and he packed that. He said, that's all I can do for you right now. So they took me up and put me in the hospital room and gave me a shot of morphine and that's all I remember until the next day. The doctors would come around every morning and give sick call and this and that. So after the 10th day, I got to the point that I couldn't move my toes at all and I told that doctor, I said, now I can't move my toes. He had a little gadget that was kind of like an x-ray deal, he could look through like a 3 dimensional deal. And he said, oh, there's a piece of shrapnel in there. We'll take it out in the morning. So they took me and rolled me in the operating room, put me on the table, and he says, now, we don't have anything to put you out with, so you're just going to have to hold tight. So they strapped me real good and then they held my legs and arms down and shoulders and he took these forceps. And this hole in my leg was eight inches deep, from the hip went eight inches into my leg and hit the bone. He took the forceps and stuck it up that eight-inch hole and got a hold of that shrapnel and just pulled it out. And when he did that, everything from my head just went right out with it.

That was pain. I mean, that was pain. And he just pulled it, you know. When he did that, boy, just like I say, everything from your brain right on down to that hole, it's just like everything's right out with it. I never did pass out. He said, well, look here, this thing's shiny as a silver dollar. He said, you want a souvenir? And I said, yeah. I'll take it. Sure. I'll keep it. And I kept it all through the prison camp and still have it today.

I was in there in the hospital, I think, 30 days and then they evacuated everybody out of the hospital and put us on a ship and took us down to Manila. I got off the dock, and my leg was still pretty sore. I couldn't hardly walk at all, I was on crutches. And we had to walk from the pier to Bilibid prison which was five miles or so. It just tore my leg all completely up, started bleeding again. So the doctor there said, again, we have no medicine. He said, when you go wherever you're going to go, he said, here's a bandage. Just unravel it, cut it in half, just wash it out in clean water and let the sun dry it out and then just pack it every morning and every night. So I did that for over a year before it healed up. And twice it healed in the middle, I had to get a stick and punch the hole in there so that it would drain all the time. You know, the tropics, you just barely cut your finger and it festers up like, I don't know why, like it's going to rot and fall off the next day. It's a wonder I didn't lose my leg.

But see, I still had to put weight on it. They took us the next morning. Bilibid Prison is the place where the most serious wounded or sick stayed, that couldn't do any work at all, they stayed in Bilibid Prison. And the rest of us, they loaded 300 of us and sent us to Cabanatuan Prison Camp Number 1. Put us in a box car and you just sit there with your knees drawn under your chin and roll for over a hundred miles. In that old choo-choo train, it was five, six hours or so. Hot and Dusty. And you couldn't -- all of us didn't at that time really started developing diarrhea like we did at a later time, but you couldn't go to the bathroom. You know, a lot of them had diarrhea at the time and you couldn't do nothing. They just mess themselves right there so we had the stench and everything else.

So we got into Cabanatuan and I think they had roughly 10,000 prisoners: Navy, Army, and Marines. All at Cabanatuan . And I think in the first 45 days they had probably 5,000 die in 45 days. So they dwindled down to where we had maybe 5 or 6,000 in there and then you just did farm work. We built a farm, and, of course, I got out of a lot of that because of my leg. I couldn't stand up. But I got the tail end of it and you go out and work.

We had barracks there and then you'd go to sick hall every morning, we had the navy medics. Of course, they didn't have anything to work with. They would just be sure that what you had was not really infectious. You know, just wash it off or something. But I did most of that myself. And then, of course, we had our old guard duty again. We did barracks duty. And we had somebody who would stay awake all night long. You know, four hours on, four hours off. Just like you would at a regular post.

We didn't have a hospital in Cabanatuan. But if you got to the point that you were near death, they'd take you out of and put you in the Zero Ward. Just put you in there and leave you until you died. When we would be on a work detail, you tried to find anything that would help them. Food of any kind, eggs if you could find eggs or fruit of any kind. Smuggle it back in and give them something like that to kind of revive their system. And some of them, they got okay and brought them out of it. Of course, a lot of them died. They just couldn't live on that kind of stuff. So they died alone.

POW #250

Health Card

We watched executions. One kid was asleep during roll call and they thought he went over the wall, over the fence, so they executed him. You know, they said, well, he came back. We watched that. We watched a brother watch his brother get executed. But then one of their pet things was to tie them up as you come into the camp, tie them to a post for about three or four days. No food, no water, and every time one Japanese would come by, they'd just beat him. Then after the three or four day period was over with, then they'd execute him and that would be it. Pretty much in the camp you were all right. You could get by. You just had to take care of yourself, that's all, and not get in trouble.

And the treatment, it was rough. It was rough when you get on a work detail because they have roving patrol which they had, it wasn't quite as big as a baseball bat but like the bottom section of a bat where you'd hold the bat. If they catch you bending over -- you'd bend over and you would cut furrows and make furrows and you'd plant stuff that they wanted you to plant. They'd try to catch you in the kidney, hit you in the kidney and would rupture your kidney. I'd watch. I'd see it coming. When I finally had to work on the farm but I would see it coming and kind of turn just enough where I'd catch it on the hip. My hip was black and blue for a long, long time.

We were building a farm, really, what it was. And we were planting potatoes they called agobby (phonetic) which is like a sweet potato only it was a white potato. Whatever was in season that you could grow: beans, tomatoes, whatever you could grow out of it. Then, of course, what was halfway rotten then they'd give it to us and they'd take the good stuff. And they'd even sell it. They'd turn around and sell it to the little town that we were close by and they'd make money off of it. And, of course, you went to work like 6 in the morning and you worked until 6 at night.

Then of course we all had diarrhea, malaria. I had malaria four or five times. Of course, diarrhea, we had nothing to combat that at all. In the mornings we had what called lugow. It was watery, like a cup of rice and you just put a cup of water in it. And of course, it was full of bugs and weevils and the whole bit. I guess that was for nutritional, you know. But that's what you had, lugow for breakfast and you had a cup of rice at noontime and a cup of rice at nighttime. It was the poorest rice that they had. They exported all of their good rice that they had. But every now and then, they'd have what they call greens. This was like our Johnson grass here. It would just stick in your throat because it had that hairy looking stuff on it. Every day, day in and day out. Just plain rice, that's all it was.

And then we got one Red Cross parcel, I think, while we were there. It was an 8-pound box and, of course, when we got that it had some cigarettes in it and some canned ham and butter and stuff like that. Of course, we ate that up pretty fast, you know. That was it. Of course, they kept all of that anyway because when they had the big earthquake in the 1900's, the United States Red Cross sent all of that food over there to them. They just put it in a warehouse and saved it for all those years.

We just kept going and day in and day out it was the same old grind. At Cabanatuan, I had an opportunity to write cards -- they were already preprinted. Post cards is all they were. All you'd put on there, 'I am well, bad, or sick or this and that. And, of course, everybody says they are well and say hello to mother and dad and the family. So they just couldn't write, you know. I weighed a hundred, about 158 pounds which was about my normal weight at that time. I went down to less than a hundred pounds. So we couldn't do much, you know. You didn't have the strength to do it. And, of course, working in the Philippines on that farm, you didn't really do heavy work. But once you went to Japan you did the heavy work there.

Each group had its own commanding officer, the army had two groups and the navy and the marines had one group. Of course, there were less of us than there were of them. And so each one had their camp -- their group commander and, of course, you had his exec. The same set up as if it was in civilian times. Of course, they got all of the best of the best, you know. And anytime food came into the camp, well, they'd get first choice on it and what was left, well, that's what we'd get, which, of course, was far and in between at that time.

When the war started, they sent a lot of that Red Cross stuff over at the time. I imagine the Japs used it up in their battles and other things. They fed their troops with it in China when they went into China and started their fighting over there since 1932. The Red Cross sent parcels during World War II and some of it got to us but most of it didn't. My health was good other than my leg. Of course, my leg gave me a lot of trouble because it took me over a year for it to heal up, but then I had malaria about four times. Of course, we had no medicine to counteract the malaria.

Beriberi is in two forms. You had the wet beriberi which your body would accumulate and retain all of the liquid that's in your body. Everything, your head down to your toe, would swell double size. And then, of course, once it did that, it would crush your heart and kill you. Now, what I had was the dry beriberi, that's where the oil in your joints dried up because of the malnutrition. Every time I'd move my legs, and knees, fingers, I'd get a squeak out of them because it was just the oil in your system was drying out. And of course, you had the diarrhea. Now, a lot of them would get the dysentery and then from that they'd catch malaria and then that would kill them. So you couldn't -- you couldn't do both. And the malnutrition would affect different people in different ways. Some, your hair would fall out. Some of them, your teeth would fall out. You'd go blind temporarily. So it just affect you in all different ways.

Whenever a new group would come in, the camp commander would come over and we'd all assemble and then he'd give you that speech, you know, about if you escape, we'll shoot you dead with guns, you know. But the commander didn't really associate at all with the prisoners. We always associated the Japs with Walt Disney characters. Mortimer Snerd because of his facial features that he had. He looked just like Mortimer Snerd and, of course, they wore glasses. You know, they had the big bifocals. We'd call them four eyes and they didn't know what we were talking about. If they ever did, why that would just be curtains for you. Did it under our breath. But we had nicknames for all of them really. but most of them, they were just flat mean people. Inside the camp, I would say you were all right unless that you messed up somewhere and then the Japanese would catch you. If you tried to escape, of course, why then they would execute you and at one time they had 10 men squads and if one would escape, they would execute the other nine. And, of course, we had to watch each other day and night to be sure none of them would take off. There was no place to go. There was 40 miles to the mountains. That's where the guerrillas were holding out. But then the Filipinos would turn you in because the Japanese put a reward out that if you caught one or saw one. It was just too hard to do really. You didn't know the country.

The Japanese were losing their first-line men, quite a few were being killed out. So what they did, they got a bunch of these Taiwanians from Formosa and made guards out of them. Then the wounded ones out of China that couldn't fight anymore, they made guards out of them. So these Taiwanians were young kids, you know, and they just gloat like I don't know what, see. Of course, you had to salute them and bow and all this jazz. So then towards the end, why, it just got thinner and thinner all the time. They even took some of them and put them in the fighting areas. So then you really started getting the scum, you know. Just beat you just for no reason at all, if they could do it and they did that quite a bit.

We had a lot of talent in the camp and like on Sunday they'd make up a show and had some comics in there. The guys were pretty good on their jokes . In fact, on Sundays even the Japanese would come over and watch it. They'd put on a pretty good show, you know. They'd dress up as they could. Some of them dress up like the gals and do the hula dance and all this and that so it was pretty good. We had chaplains of all our denominations. You go to church on Sunday, go to mass. So they had that set up to where you could have the religious portion of it. They didn't interfere with that because they don't have any religion of their own except the Buddha's, you know. But it was mainly just same old thing, day in and day out.

One time the Japanese showed us a movie of Pearl Harbor which it's almost the exact thing of Tora, Tora, Tora. It's the same scenes and the whole jazz and they would show Japanese shooting down American airplanes and these Japs would say hooray. So it got to the point we'd see an American shooting the Japanese down then we'd all start hollering, you know, not knowing how they would take it. And Judy Canova, they showed us movies of Judy Canova until we were sick of it. They just loved it. But Sunday was one of our afternoon outings that we'd go down to the barracks where the dentist had set up. Everybody that had toothaches and tooth problems would go down there and we used to watch them just take a pair of regular pliers and pull teeth with it. And I guess that's one thing I really hated or feared the most is having a toothache because it was really bad. We had navy doctors but they couldn't do anything. Didn't have anything to do it with. Now, we've had people who had appendicitis and navy doctors would take a razor blade and take the appendix out with that. And, of, course the Japanese, they all claimed to be doctors themselves. They loved to do it too. But they'd cut you up so they'd just never would find the appendix anyway.

So all in all, I took care of myself. I ate what came out of our mess. I didn't eat anything that was -- if you go on a work detail outside and pick up anything, you don't know how it's made or what's in it. A lot of them did that and a lot of them got sick. You know, it just got tiresome and, of course, in the eating part, you know, where you had rice, rice, and rice. Well a lot of these guys would catch a dog or something and then kill that dog. Cook that dog up and eat dog. I never could. I was hungry but I never got that hungry. They had the snakes. Somebody would go out on a work detail and catch one, they would bring it back to camp and skin that thing and fix it up, you know. You could hide it because they didn't search you when you came in off of a work detail. The only time they really searched you is when you came into a camp and when you left.

You just do what you can. And, of course, we all had diarrhea so bad that we had no paregoric to combat that. So some guy came up and said, you need some roughage. He said, burnt wood will do it. So the galley would finish fixing the rice. We had a big old cauldron, looked like a World War I helmet only it was probably four foot across. And we'd tell him, burn that rice. Burn it at the bottom, you'd eat that and that would give you some roughage and in addition to that, you would take the wood and as the wood burned, it curls up, you know. And you just break it off and you just chew that and eat the burnt wood.

POW Uniform Patches

POW Patch

POW Patch

Prisoners of the Japanese by Gavan Daws

Book to Read

From Kirkus Reviews: A wide-angle saga that adds a chapter long missing from official and traditional histories of WW II's Pacific theater: the story of the torments endured by Allied military personnel captured when Japanese forces overran Greater East Asia. Drawing on interviews with survivors of the Japanese prison camps as well as archival sources, Daws (A Dream of Islands, 1980, etc.) effectively combines the experiences of individual American, Australian, British, and Dutch POWs with a panoramic perspective. He probes why the death rate among the more than 140,000 men interned by the Japanese reached 27% (as against but 4% for military prisoners of the Germans). By the author's painstakingly documented account, the causes were legion: inhuman living conditions, starvation diets, an almost complete lack of medical care, constant beatings by brutish guards whose (heartily reciprocated) racial hatred of whites often led to summary executions, forced labor on construction projects like the Burma- Siam railroad, and workaday atrocities. Thousands more POWs perished when the ships transporting them from the fetid jungles of conquered lands to Japan were blown out of the water by Allied aircraft or submarines. Daws provides a start-to-finish narrative, tracking the battered veterans of Bataan, Java, Midway, Singapore, and other campaigns before, during, and after their captivity. "