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The Wagner High Online Alumni (WHOA)
Barbed Wire and Rice
by James H. Cowan
May 1, 1972 - Part 2
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Continued from Part 1

 The first Japanese I saw came down the road in brand new Ford trucks.  The Ford Company must have had a plant in Japan before the war.  They stopped to eat and opened five gallon cans of rations with "Made in USA" printed on the tops.

 An officer walked over to us and demonstrated the sharpness of his sword by clipping off some small trees.  I guess he wanted us to know they could just as well have been our heads.  He directed us to a large open field where many men had gathered already.  We had put down our weapons before the Japs had taken us prisoner.  I had taken my rifle and broken it over a rock.  I had a wrist watch, a large sheath knife, and my wallet, which I put under a large stone.  I was determined they would get nothing from me.  They must have searched us a hundred times, each Jap hoping to get a souvenir.  The only thing they did not take from us were our New Testaments-maybe they were superstitious about touching the Holy Book.

 We were held in this open field for about 24 hours.  Then we were ordered to move out to the road and start walking.  Most of us had not anything to eat or drink for at least a day and we were getting hungry and thirsty.  The Japs gave us nothing.  The Battle of Bataan had cost the Japanese a lot, slowing up their timetable of conquest and costing them thousands of soldiers.

They started taking revenge right away.  Every time we passed a truck load of soldiers they would bang us on the head with sticks and rifle butts.  It was lucky that most of us had our GI helmets.  It was humiliating to us to be treated like this.  This was just a sample of what we were to endure later.

 They pushed us as fast as we could go, because they were preparing an assault on Corregidor and wanted us out of the way.  They set up their artillery behind our two field hospitals, since they knew that our artillery on Corregidor would not fire on them.  As we walked by our little air strip at Cabcaben, we saw the Japanese setting up gun batteries and firing on Corregidor.  I was delighted to see a 12 inch mortar shell make a direct hit on one of the batteries.

 They marched us without rest, giving us no food or water.  They changed guards every three hours so they were always fresh.  Our men, already weak from short rations and disease, soon began to fall out of the column.  The Japanese wasted no time with stragglers; they were either shot or run through with a bayonet.  Soon the sides of the road were littered with dead men.  This had become a march of death for the men that had fought so gallantly for America and the Philippines.

 The heat was terrible and men risked their lives for a sip of the vile, scum-covered water in the ditches along beside the road.  I stumbled along, my mind blurring, not caring whether I lived or died.  We passed dead American and Filipino soldiers who had died fighting the advancing Japanese.  The Japs had not even bothered to remove them.

 We marched for what seemed like an eternity.  Still we were not allowed to stop for water.  American and Filipino prisoners became targets for Japanese bayonets.  I was beginning to get so tired I knew I could not go much further.  There were sugar cane fields along the road and many men were killed trying to get a stalk of the cane to chew on.  I knew if I did not get something to quench my thirst soon, I would not be able to go on.  At this point I no longer cared whether I was shot or not, so I ran into one of the fields, expecting a bullet at any time.  I fell behind the column.  But a strange thing happened.  One of the Jap guards grabbed my arm and helped me catch up;  I still clutched the stalk of cane.  I am sure a higher power must have been protecting me.  I chewed this stalk of cane, easing my thirst and receiving energy to go on.

 The Bataan Death March had lasted six days and nights.  As we came to the town of San Fernando, 65 miles from Miravales, the Japanese finally let us rest and gave us a little rice and some water.  Many brave men had been murdered during those six days.  As we departed for our first P.O.W. camp the next day, little did we know this horrible nightmare was only beginning.

 At San Fernando we were stuffed into little box cars for the final journey to Camp O'Donnell.  I am sure if this had been a long trip more men would have died from suffocation and heat prostration.  We arrived at Camp O'Donnell 8 days after we had surrendered.

 At last the Death March was over.  But if we had known what lay ahead, most of us would have preferred to have died on the march.  A total of 55,000 Filipino and 8,000 American P.O.W.s entered Camp O'Donnell, after the most barbaric, sadistic march of death in the history of modern man.  Over 2,300 Americans and almost 10,000 Filipinos had been murdered on the march and thousands of others would perish from its aftereffects.

POWs at a Japanese Prison Camp
 Camp O'Donnell, originally built to house a Philippine division of 12,000 men, was not equipped to house over 60,000 men.  The buildings were soon filled to overflowing and many men had to crawl under the floors of the buildings to escape the torrents of monsoon rains.  This was where I slept.  Shortly after we arrived, the Filipinos were separated from the Americans and we had no further association with them.

 A Japanese interpreter called an assembly and the camp commander told us we were guests of the Japanese Empire and must obey all orders without question.  The interpreter made a special effort to let us know he was born and reared in California and was a graduate of U.S.C.  He told us the Japanese would take California soon and they would be the bosses.  After all that had happened I wondered if he could be right.

 Since almost everything had been collected by the Japs while they were "souvenir hunting" most of us had very few possessions.  I ended up with a mess kit, a canteen, and the clothes on my back- a pair of Army fatigues.

 The Japs gave us half a mess kit of rice per meal.  This diet was designed to slowly starve us and remove any resistance we might have had.  The water supply in camp was short and we barely had enough drinking water to go around.  There was none for washing and laundry.  Sanitary conditions deteriorated fast and by the end of the first month dysentery had reached epidemic proportions.  Many men had contracted the disease from drinking contaminated water from the ditches on the death march.  Open latrines and lack of sanitation made the camp a perfect breeding place for the disease.

 Of all the diseases to plague the weakened, confined men, dysentery was without a doubt the worst.  It caused terrible pain, uncontrollable diarrhea, and vomiting.  It turned men into skin and bones almost overnight.  The disease literally ate up the intestinal tract and caused a horrible death.  The death rate rose to the point where the able-bodied men could not bury the dead fast enough.

 An attempt was made to establish a hospital, but without medical supplies and water, the hospital became one huge mass of suffering men dying in their own bloody feces.  The smell from this place defies description.

 Other tropical diseases soon began to appear.  The terrible, malignant form of malaria kept under control on Bataan by small prophylactic doses of quinine began to appear.  The disease affected the brain and men died within 24 to 36 hours.  Tropical ulcers appeared and once they became large they literally could rot a man's leg off.  Men weakened by dysentery and too weak to go to the hospital would lie near the latrines.  The filth and their own excrement covered them until they died.

 The death rate rose to 40 or 50 per day and although we tried to bury the dead in shallow graves outside the camp, dead bodies would often remain unburied for days.  The smell of rotting flesh, dysentery, and open latrines was so horrible I will not attempt to describe it.

 The dietary deficiency diseases began to appear and added their misery to the other diseases.  Beriberi, the terrible disease of the starving, was first to appear.  I can only describe the disease as we P.O.W.s knew it-wet and dry beriberi.  The dry caused wasting of the body, unsteady walk, and loss of memory.  These poor men staggered around more dead than alive, falling and crawling.  They tried to carry on.  There was no room in the hospital already overflowing with dying men.  The wet type of beriberi could turn a seemingly normal man into a horrible, swollen, bloated man overnight.  I have seen men with this disease stand up and the water would run out of them in a stream from any broken spot on the skin.  These poor creatures usually died from heart failure.

 There was little help for the sick from friends or buddies because the struggle for survival had taken over. I am sorry to say we became callused to the suffering of others and thought only of our own survival.

 I was too weak to do much and spent most of my time lying on the ground under the building.  But I was determined to find my good friends Howard Gunn and Tex Blair and see if they had come through the Death March.  What strength I could muster I used to look for my friends.

 At last I located Howard in the hospital area.  He had contracted dysentery and was very sick.  I hardly recognized him;  he had lost so much weight.  We talked for a long time and although his spirits were good and he thought he would get better, I left with a heavy heart because I knew that without medical care and food my friend had little chance to live.

 Shortly after my visit, my friend passed away. He was a devout Christian and I am sure his faith was with him until the end.  I could not find Tex and assumed he had died on the Death March.  I heard later that he had survived the three years of prison camp only to lose his life on one of the Jap Hell Ships while being relocated to Japan.

 Repeated requests to the Japanese for food and medicine were refused.  Indeed, it looked as if we all would die in this wretched hell.

 I was weak and hungry and did not escape the diseases of my friends.  Soon I was burning with fever and shaking with chills.  I had contracted malaria and was soon out of my head.  I also contracted dysentery.  God only knows why I did not die there like the others.  Maybe it was a blessing that my mind became blurred by the disease.  I do not know if I could have endured the suffering.  There was a long period of time when my mind was almost a blank.  I remember nothing of what happened to me, but somehow I survived.

 A few things remain in my memory. I dreamed I was home and could hear and see children playing.  I also remember seeing Christ come down in a vapor with his arms outstretched as if to welcome me, and I tried to go to him, but the vision faded.  I have tried to analyze these visions or dreams and why they remain in my mind but to no avail.

 During this time the Japanese decided to move us to another camp.  abanatuan was also built to house Philippine Army soldiers and was more suitable to house the P.O.W.s and their guards.  I remember only riding in the back of a truck with other P.O.W.s to the camp.  I saw the trees along the road and wanted to lie under a cool tree and die.  I probably would have jumped if my buddies had not restrained me.

 The next thing I remember was lying on a dirt floor in a building with dying men all around me, and the ever present smell of dysentery.  I was sure I must be dying and I wanted to talk to someone that would tell my folks what had happened to me.  I seem to remember talking to someone, but it could have been my imagination.  The man lying next to me was dead and a blanket covered his body.  I took the blanket and covered myself.  Then my mind was blank again.

 The next thing I remember was being in a long building.  Bamboo bays had been built up from the floor for people to sleep on. There was the ever present dying men, most of them with little or no clothing; living skeletons with dysentery eating their guts out, maggots working in their rectums.  The American medics did what they could for them but sometimes cried in frustration because they had nothing to work with.  I do not know why I remained alive after all this time.

 Somehow a Chinese man from Manila persuaded or bribed the Japs to let some condensed milk come into the camp.  It was decided that the very sick should have it.  I began to receive a small portion of milk each day along with the meager rice ration.  This must have saved my life, for I came out of my stupor and began to see my surroundings.  I gained strength slowly and came to see what a terrible state I was in.  My coveralls had not been removed since Bataan.  All body eliminations had gone into them.  My beard and hair were down to my shoulders and were matted and full of lice.

 The able-bodied men had gotten the camp water system working, and thank God we had more water.  I gradually got myself cleaned up the best I could but I was still very weak.  I remember borrowing a pair of scissors and a friend helped me cut my hair and beard as close as possible.  Someone brought me a pan of water and as I washed my head I left a layer of squirming lice on the water.

 The condition of the men remained very bad, since we received little food or medicine.  The death rate was still 35 to 50 per day.  The burying detail that left each day with naked, emaciated bodies was something I can never forget.

 Death was always present.  The only thing that kept a man alive was a strong will to live.  I have seen men in apparently better shape than I give up and be dead the next day.

 The hospital had about six buildings.  Two of them sat a little outside from the others.  I was in one of these buildings.  I found out later that they were called Zero Ward and St. Peter's Ward, both of which had been set aside for the extremely sick and dying men.  Indeed, St. Peter's Ward was more like a morgue than a place for the living, and Zero Ward, where I was, was very little better.  Every morning the dead were gathered up and taken to a shallow mass grave.  By the next day the torrents of monsoon rain would have washed away the soil revealing parts of the dead men.

 Men crazed with pain would crawl out of the building and die on the ground outside in the rain.  At one time, diphtheria raged through the camp.  The Japanese simply had the victims dragged outside to die in the rain.

 I am glad the mind can blot out some things, but there is one incident that will always haunt me.  One of the men weakened by dysentery made it to the open latrine, but being weakened by the disease fell into the horrible mess; he crawled out completely covered by slimy feces and maggots.  To this day I get sick when this comes to mind.

 The other buildings in our area housed men that were not quite so sick and acted as transfer between living and dying.  As soon as one could work he was sent to the worker's compound, which was separated from the hospital buildings by a road and two fences.

 By this time the Japanese had given some control of the camp to our American officers.  The officers didn't always use this power for the good of all.  They immediately set up their own separate quarters and I was told they took the pick of the rations.  I never knew if this was true.

 So many men died the first year that the Japanese increased our diet and gave us some more rice and some water buffalo meat and seaweed soup.  This slowed the death rate but a lot of men were just too far gone for it to do any good. I eventually became well enough to be transferred to the worker's compound, and I went to work in the vegetable fields.  What a relief it was to get away from the sick and dying and be able to do something.  We got the water system in the camp working and even rigged up a shower, which was a blessing for us all.

 Most well P.O.W.s had a cooking pot called a quan can.  The word "quan" in Filipino means almost anything.  I don't remember where the cans came from.  They consisted of a large can and a smaller one that fit inside.  Charcoal was salvaged from the main camp kitchen, and when put in the bottom of the large can which had holes for a draft, the small can acted as the cooking pot when it was set on the hot coals inside the large can.  Anything we could scrounge or steal was cooked in this manner.

 In order to live, I decided I must eat as much as I could and figure out any way I could to get food.  I acquired a large pair of pants and a hat with a high crown.  When I went to work, I tied the legs around my ankles and let the legs bag down.  I had holes in the pockets and I would put small vegetables in them and they would fall down the legs to the tie around my ankles.  I also put vegetables in the crown of my hat.  At the end of the day we were searched when we re-entered the camp.  The Japs would slap at my pockets and let me go.  If I had been caught it would have meant a terrible beating, or they might have even broken my arms.

 The Japanese took most of the produce from the fields for themselves and we got what little was left-sweet potato vines and a weed called pig weed.  So rice remained the principal diet and the prisoners were always hungry for protein, even if we got a good portion of rice.

 Anything that could flavor the rice was a treat.  A detail sent out to gather firewood would bring in wild peppers which were put with water to flavor the rice.  The peppers were as hot as hell and very few were needed for flavor.  One of our Mexican P.O.W.s decided he could eat one of these little green devils.  He bit into it and immediately headed for water.  He took a lot of ribbing after that.

 Almost everyone worked in the fields and we had the guards all named.  This was partly for amusement and it also served a purpose.  There was Big and Little Speedo, so named because all the English they knew was "Speedo" which they yelled all day.  Each one had a large stick, which they took every opportunity to use on someone's back.  We named one guard Air Raid so when we would see him approaching someone would yell Air Raid and everyone would get busy.  He was too dumb to catch on.

 The Japanese that guarded us were not front line troops, but an old home guard type with some Korean and Formosan converts.  Most of the guards knew very little about auto mechanics or even how to drive a motor vehicle.  Soon P.O.W.s were assigned to help drive and maintain the vehicles.   In fact, our P.O.W.s maintained just about all their equipment.  It was rumored that a radio had been built from stolen parts that would pick up newscasts from San Francisco.  But if so, I never saw it. However, some of the rumors that filtered down to us proved to be true.

 We also got the Japanese propaganda sheet which made claims so fantastic that they made us laugh.  One such sheet said Jap warships had steamed up the Mississippi River and shelled Chicago.

 Sometime in 1943, the Red Cross managed to get a few medical supplies into the camp.  Among these drugs were a few sulfa pills.  The Jap guards found out about the pills and seemed to be willing to do almost anything to get some of them.  Maybe they all had VD.  Anyway, someone got the idea to make a mold to make exact copies of the pills to trade to the Jap guards.  A perfect mold was made and a lot of plaster of paris pills were turned out.  Anyone going on a small detail would have a supply of pills to trade for tobacco or anything else we could get from the guards.  Long after the real pills were exhausted, the supply of plaster ones continued.  Why they never wised up I'll never know, but I guess some of them must have wondered why the American wonder drug would not work on his ailment.

 Once in a while a funny thing would happen to our captors.  One day the Japs loaded up a two wheel Filipino buffalo cart with sweet potatoes.  They had piled the potatoes as high as they could reach.  Apparently they were going to trade or sell them to the Filipinos.  The cart was so full I wondered if the buffalo could move it.  However, the water buffalo is a very powerful animal.  The water buffalo has no pores in his skin and must have water poured over him periodically to cool him off, otherwise the animal gets too hot and goes crazy.  I guess this one had been neglected and got too hot.  All of a sudden he took off at full speed, scattering sweet potatoes all over the road.  The last time we saw the cart and buffalo he was still going with a half a dozen guards in pursuit.  We had a welcome laugh.

 When we first came to Cabanatuan the lice were very bad.  Then someone brought in bed bugs, and they must have killed or run the lice off because they disappeared.  The bed bugs were worse, however;  they tried to get what little blood we had left.  There was just no way to get rid of them.

 There were very few escape tries for the Japs made it almost impossible to escape.  They had us in ten men squads and if one man escaped they shot all the rest.  There was some guerrilla activity and the Japs built two fences around the camp-one to keep us in and the other to keep the guerrillas out.

 Beatings became so common most of us just took them as a matter of course.  I guess the worst beating I had was for eating a sweet potato in the field.  The guard hit me in the hip with the butt of his rifle.  I got an egg sized knot from that one that hurt for months and even bothers me today.  It was a wonder I was not shot, because I got mad and called him a lousy Jap S.O.B.

 Sometime in the latter part of 1942 or 1943, the Japs took a lot of men to Japan and Korea.  Some of these men were there until the end of the war.  The only contact we had with the outside was from an occasional work detail returning to camp.  We found out that Bilibid Prison in Manila, a former Philippine prison, was used as a stopping place for details to and from work details and a place to wait when being shipped to Japan.

 I had not yet seen my good friend Little Tex but I heard he was alive and somewhere on a work detail.  In Cabanatuan I did not make many friends.  I was too busy trying to stay alive.  Indeed, everyone was occupied with this task.

 In Cabanatuan we found out what had happened at Corregidor after the fall of Bataan.  When I talked to some of the survivors they told me that the Japs had mounted an all out amphibious assault from Bataan peninsula.  The men on Corregidor had put up a tremendous battle and held the Japs off for almost a month.  But they finally managed to land tanks at Monkey Point, the narrow end of the island. The defenders turned their artillery point blank on the Japanese and took a tremendous toll.  But more Japs took their place and to avoid complete annihilation General Wainwright arranged to surrender.  The prisoners were taken to Manila and marched through the streets.  They were beaten and ridiculed before they joined the rest of us.

 In a prison camp you live from day to day, endure the ridicule and beatings, and have faith that the next day will bring something better or decide to give up and die.  As time goes by, you pray and hope.

 Sometime in early 1944 a group of men was picked to leave Cabanatuan on a work detail, destination unknown.  I was one of the unfortunate men chosen for this trip.  But at the time we thought anything might be better than where we were.  Little did we know what we would have to endure for the next few months.  We were taken to Manila by truck and turned over to guards from the Japanese Navy.  We knew then we were going to the Nichols Field detail.  The work on the former American Air Base in Manila had been going on since our surrender.  The Japanese, using P.O.W.s and slave labor, intended to make it the longest air strip in the Pacific.  First they had used P.O.W.s captured in and around Manila and then, as their ranks were thinned by disease and death, they got replacements from the Bataan survivors.

 This detail was run by one of the most brutal and sadistic bunch of Japs in their whole armed services.  It has always been a mystery to me how a civilization so old could produce anything like these beasts.  Our buddies before us had already named the guards.  The White Angel was a navy lieutenant who always had spotless white uniforms.  This beast had murdered at least two men in cold blood, shooting one man and hacking the other to death with his sword.  He also caused the death of many others indirectly.  I am glad he had been transferred when our detail arrived.  The Wolf, Cherry Blossom, Pistol Pete, Sacky Sam and the Fox were the others.  These made up the leadership of the Jap guards when we arrived.

 When we arrived at the camp we were given a blanket and a place on the bare floor to sleep.  Then we were assembled in the courtyard for briefings by the camp interpreter.  He told us there would be absolutely no question of not obeying their rules and to emphasize this they grabbed a poor man from our group, threw him to the ground, stuck a water hose in his mouth, pumped him full of water, and jumped on his stomach.  When the American doctor tried to interfere he was beaten unmercifully.

 Our day started the next morning at 6:00 a.m. with a shout from the Jap guards.  We were forced to do exercises for 15 minutes;  even the sick were not exempt.  We also had to count off in Japanese, which most of us did not know.  Each time we missed a number we received a rain of blows.  How we learned our numbers so fast I will never know, but I never will forget how to say 836 in Japanese.

 Our meals consisted of fish eyes, guts, and sometimes whole fish and a little rice.  After breakfast, sick call was conducted.  Only 50 men a day were allowed off and many had to be carried or dragged to work.

 We were marched through the streets to work and often the Japs would beat us for no reason other than to humble us before the Philippine people.  They used clubs, iron bars, and rifle butts.  The Jap sentries broke so many arms and put so many men out of commission that the superior officers had to relieve some of them for fear of impairing the airstrip operation.

 At work we were forced to push small mining cars to and from a cut through a hill where the Japs were extending the runway.  We worked two men to a car, pushing it to and from the cut.  A leveling crew worked at one end and a loading and digging crew worked at the other end.

 We became robots plodding along in the hot sun with bleeding feet and Japs yelling and beating us all the way.  Many men went insane.  Some committed suicide and many injured themselves just to be sent to Bilibid Prison Hospital.  At Bilibid the medical treatment was fairly good but the food was bad.  There are a lot of good American boys buried under the dirt at Nichols Field.

 The Wolf also murdered men in cold blood right before our eyes.  One day a man was discovered missing.  We were brought off the job and assembled while the guards looked for him.  He was found passed out because he was too weak to go on.  He was dragged before the group, beaten and kicked, and led away and shot.

 Another time, a boy passed out from malaria.  That evening Wolf saw the man was still unconscious.  He banged his head on the concrete floor and had him carried to the shower.  There he held the boy's head under water until he drowned.  Some of the other tortures included hanging by the thumbs, or being tied to a post in the hot sun with no water.

 We also had "rotten apples" in our own ranks.  A few bullies took what they could from the weak and helpless.  One of these accused me of stealing from him and was going to give me a beating.  I had concealed a pair of broken scissors.  When I backed up against the wall I prepared to defend myself as best I could.  But when this guy saw I had a weapon he backed off like the coward he was.  This continued until one day one of these bastards hit a poor weak man and killed him.  This was murder.  The rest of us turned on him and would have killed him if the Japs had not taken him away.  We never knew what they did with him.  The days dragged on and most of us cared little whether we lived or died.  The beatings and torture became so routine we just endured it and hoped and prayed.

 I tried to make myself as inconspicuous as possible and look busy.  But each morning in line the Fox seemed to pick me to slap around.  I endured his beatings, trying to maintain as much dignity as possible.  Maybe he could see the hatred in my eyes, for although I am not a violent man, I would have gladly cut his heart out.

 The air field was used by the Jap Air Force, and being an Air Force man I took special notice of their aircraft.  They must have had poor pilots or weak landing gear for they seemed to have a lot of crack ups when landing.  The wheels just seemed to fold up.  We hoped and prayed they would all crack up.

 At last there came a time when I could not go on anymore.  My malaria had returned and I was too weak to work.  It was my good fortune to be sent to Bilibid Prison.  My first look at the old prison, originally built by the Spanish with thick stone walls 20 feet high, was one of foreboding.  The ancient walls were covered with a fungus growth and the smell of death that was present in all Jap P.O.W. camps was present.

 Upon entering I received the ever present kicks and abuse from the guards and a search for God only knows what.  But inside the place was heaven compared to Nichols Field.  I was given some medicine by the American doctors and had a chance to rest.  Soon I was recovering as much as I could on the starvation diet.  I was lucky enough to get a job helping in the kitchen where I received a little more food.  This helped me regain my strength.

 Soon a group was sent back to Cabanatuan and I was with it.  If I had gone back to Nichols Field I probably would have given up and died. B y this time Cabanatuan had dwindled from thousands of men to a few hundred, and most of them were very sick.  The Japs had been transporting men to Japan for several months until just this handful was left.  We learned later that most of the men moved out of the camp were put on unmarked ships bound for Japan.  Most of these ships were sunk by our own submarines.  What a terrible thing to happen after surviving so long in this hell.  I can't understand why our intelligence did not know about these ships.


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