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The Wagner High Online Alumni (WHOA)
Barbed Wire and Rice
by James H. Cowan
May 1, 1972 - Part 3
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Continued from Part 2

  Late in 1944 there were a lot of rumors that American forces were near.  But there was no concrete evidence.  Our enemy still acted the same as always and their propaganda paper always claimed they were winning.  After so long a time even their propaganda was almost believable.  Our hopes were at a low ebb.

 One day the guards did not come in for the usual garden detail.  There was no explanation for the day off.  We were mystified as to why the Japs had never done this before.  But we considered it our good fortune to be able to rest a little and we took advantage of it.

 I had made myself a hammock in the upper part of the barracks to get away from the bed bugs.  I was resting in my hammock listening to the speculations of the other men when I heard a large formation of airplanes.  I did not think much about it because the Japs often flew over our camp.  However, they did not sound like the usual Jap planes.  Some of the men went out to look and comment, but I guess we could not believe after all this time they were American.  The formation flew on, but a short time later returned.  This time I got up to look with the others.

 The moment I saw the formation I knew it was not Japanese.  It consisted of heavy dive bombers in perfect formation and fast little fighter ships circling the large formation.  What a beautiful sight! Before I could gather my wits a Jap medium bomber came over the camp.  As soon as he was past the camp two little fighters hit him, one from the top and one from below.  They cut the bomber in two. Then we saw the U.S. Navy insignia on the wings.  I thought, "Oh God, is it really true?  After all this time, they really have returned."  One group broke and attacked a small airstrip near our camp.  The sound of their guns was terrifying.  The airstrip must have been badly damaged.

 The large formation had attacked Clark Field and was returning to their carrier bases.  We knew if carriers could get close enough to attack, the main American forces would not be far away.  We wanted to cheer and shout but we were afraid of the guard.  The next day the guards said nothing about the attack.  We went to the vegetable garden as usual.  The guards acted as if nothing had

 The planes came back while we were in the fields working. They attacked the air base nearby.  We were pretty scared because they were making their strafing runs over the vegetable field.  The Jap guards were also scared;  so we both hid in a ditch this time.  I guess we had something in common for once.

 The planes attacked for three days and then were gone.  We were not to see them again for several weeks.  So our morale began to sag again.  We wondered if they had been driven off by the Japs.  But when they did come back they came back in force, not only Navy planes but also USAAF planes.  Flights of B-25s and Giant Liberators could be seen all over the sky.  The sound of the guns and bombs furnished a constant serenade for us and our morale was very high.

 Finally our guards admitted that Americans had landed on Leyte Island and a terrific battle was in progress.  We knew then if we were not murdered by the Japanese we would soon be free.  The guards showed no emotion or change from their regular routine and we had no way of knowing how near our forces were, but from the air activity we knew that we must have wiped out the Japanese air forces for our planes seemed to have no interference from Japanese aircraft.

 Some time later we were in camp for a rest day.  In the afternoon, the guards came down the barbed wire fence to each station, picked up the guard, and soon there were no guards left in the camp.  An interpreter came into the compound and told us they were moving out and if we stayed in the camp we would not be harmed, but if we left we would be shot.  By 6 o'clock there wasn't a guard or Japanese soldier in camp.  Some of us wanted to leave immediately, but the senior officers in the camp decided that there were too many sick men and we would just wait for our forces to rescue us.  By this time we knew that they were near.  We could hear the rumble of big guns and the Japanese were moving men and equipment up the highway near our camp.

 There was intense air activity.  Even at night, the planes would attack the Japanese transport trucks on the highway.  We could not understand how these planes could attack without flares, but apparently they were doing a great deal of damage, because the Japs were shouting and jabbering all the time.  A truck or tank would catch fire and by the light we could see a large black plane.  This was the famous Black Widow.  It was equipped with radar, a device most of us had never heard of before.

 Since the Japanese were gone, we went to the fields to take what we needed to eat.  We rounded up some pigs and chickens and ate better than we had for years.  However, we were not without guards for very long.  Groups of soldiers moved in where the former guards had lived.  They watched us closely but they didn't bother us.  We continued to go to the vegetable fields and take what we needed.

 We assumed that our forces had landed somewhere to the south and the Japanese army was retreating before them.  Various patrols moved into our camp to rest because they knew that the Air Force would not attack the camp.  We had been without our former guards for about three weeks, but were worried about these new soldiers that were moving in and out of camp.  They could come in and murder us at any time.  We could hear the rumble of guns to the west and we knew that there must be a battle going on close to the camp.  We knew that our forces were aware of our location because they had flown over the camp to look us over.

 On January 28 or 29, 1945, the prisoners had gone to bed early as usual.  There was nothing to do after dark but go to bed.  I had settled down for the night when all hell broke loose.  It was about 7:30 when guns started going off all around us.  I was sure the Japanese were going to murder us.  I jumped out of my bed and ran outside and started crawling toward the fence.  I had only gone a few yards when I saw a big man in a strange uniform.  My first thought was "My God! Now the Germans are helping them!"  Someone asked the man if he was a Yank.  He said, "Yes, let's get the hell out of here!" P.O.W.s were pouring out of the buildings.  The word had spread fast and men that had been sick for months got up and walked out.  The ones that could not walk were helped by the Filipino civilians that had come with the American G.I.s.

 We followed the Rangers out of camp across the rice fields toward the Pampanga River.  A terrific battle was going on all around us and the bullets were buzzing by.  We finally waded across the river and the shooting seemed to die down.  I guess the Japanese decided not to follow us across the river. We came to Plateros, a small Philippine village, where we were organized and the sick were placed in water buffalo carts so they wouldn't have to walk.  The American soldiers were from the 6th Ranger Infantry Battalion and they had valuable help from the Filipino guerrilla forces.

 We were then about thirty miles behind the Japanese lines and in the direct path of the American troops that were advancing from their landing at Lingayen Gulf.  We still had a long way to go before we would be out of danger.  We had to cross two main highways before we reached our own lines, and the enemy traffic was heavy on them all the time.

 The Rangers were great.  They gave their clothes and food to us without a second thought.  In Plateros, when a Filipino saw that I had no shoes, he took off his own and gave them to me.  What a generous people they are.

 We reached our main forces January 31, 1945.  Not one prisoner was hurt on the journey.  The next morning we were met by a field kitchen and American hamburgers were served to the men who could eat them.  Nothing had ever tasted so good to me.  We were given some clothes and taken in trucks and ambulances to Lingayen.  Shortly after I boarded the truck, I saw the first American flag I had seen in three years;  I broke down and cried with joy.  At Lingayen a camp had been prepared for us; Admiral Nimitz sent rations from his own flag ship - we ate over 800 rations a day, almost twice what the other G.I.s ate.  We gained one and two pounds daily.

 The full story of our rescue was told to us after we had settled down at Lingayen.  On January 27, General Kruegar's forces on their way to Manila had received word from a Filipino that American P.O.W.s were confined in a camp near Cabanatuan, directly in the path of the advancing American forces.  The General ordered his staff to plan a rescue immediately.  The rescue forces consisted of 107 Rangers from the 6th Infantry Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Henry A. Mucci.  There were also Company C, under Captain Robert W. Prince of Seattle, Washington, and one platoon from Company F, commanded by Lieutenant Frank Murphy from Springfield, Massachusetts, plus 150 armed Filipino guerrillas, commanded by Major Lapham and Captain Pojota, both former officers in the Far East Army.  A team of Alamo scouts, an intelligence unit, completed the force, and the whole operation depended on their performance.

 They had been sent in to scout the camp and had sent back detailed reports to Colonel Mucci.  The Rangers had moved up, dodging Japanese on the main roads, and keeping out of sight of the villages. They finally set up camp on January 29.  The Rangers surprised the Japanese completely.  In a few minutes, all of the guards had been killed, about 225 altogether.

 Captain Pojota's guerrillas had set up a roadblock about twenty five yards from a bridge north of the prison camp on the road leading to Cabu, where the main force of the Japanese army was located.  About 1,000 Japanese troops were rushed to the camp, but they had to cross the bridge that had been fortified by the guerrilla troops, who opened up their automatic weapons.  The Japs brought in eight tanks to help their men, but they were taken care of too.  More than 400 Japanese were killed on that bridge.  They had managed to fire some mortar rounds and had fatally wounded Captain Roy F. Sweezy and Captain James C. Fischer.

 The two guerrilla outfits formed a rear guard and we moved out to join our main forces.  A bond was forged between the prisoners and the Rangers and great friendships grew.  We stayed at Lingayen for about a week, rested, ate good food, and gained weight.  After a week, we boarded planes for Leyte.  We were anxious to get home, but we did hate to leave our new friends.  We stayed at Leyte for two days and boarded a transport ship for home.  We made one stop in New Guinea.  Our servicemen there gave us a tremendous welcome.  We were given the run of the New Hollandia Army Base and could have
anything we wanted.  We stayed there only a few hours before resuming our trip to San Francisco and home.

 All in all, the Rangers had rescued 512 men: 490 Americans, 20 British, and 1 Canadian.  Only 490 Americans, the survivors of Bataan, Corregidor, and three years of hell.  The British were survivors of the Singapore campaign.  They had been on a Japanese ship headed for Japan that had been sunk off the coast of Luzon.  They had been lucky enough to make it to shore where they were recaptured and brought to our camp a few months before the rescue.

 Our transport arrived in San Francisco on March 8, 1945.  After a great welcome from fireboats and service people we were taken to Letterman General Hospital for physical examinations.  After a few days in the hospital we were allowed to attend the official welcome prepared for us by the great city of San Francisco.  Their city had seen many parades, but none so strange as this one.  There were 275 ex-P.O.W.s riding in Red Cross station wagons.

 The other men were still too weak to participate in the celebration and remained in the hospital.  The people of San Francisco declared the little band of Bataan veterans heroes.  Thousands turned out to see us pass.  We were taken to the City Hall where Mayor Lapham expressed the city's greetings and presented each of us with a medallion which had been struck as San Francisco's tribute to our heroism.  From there we went to the Palace Hotel for a luncheon with relatives and high ranking officers.  Because we did not consider ourselves heroes we were overwhelmed by all the attention given to us, but we were thankful for it and will always remember the people of San Francisco.  For me there will always be something special about the Golden City.

 A short time after I arrived home, my old friend Gordon Smith got in touch with me.  He had read about my release and had come to see me as soon as possible.  It was great to see him alive and well.

 He had many stories to tell.  He had gone to the jungle and had joined up with a group of native Moro tribesmen after the Japanese had captured Mindanao.  They had carried on guerrilla warfare against the Japanese until the American forces came back.  They gave valuable information to the American forces when they landed. Smitty later became best man at my marriage.  He married a friend of my wife's.

 As years passed, we drifted apart and I lost track of him.  As I was writing this story I thought a lot about him and hoped that somehow my thoughts would reach him.  Suddenly, I received a phone call from him.  He had been living in the San Francisco Bay area, approximately 100 miles from me.  We have since renewed our friendship.  I hope I never lose track of him again.

 I only wish Tex and Howard could have joined us.

 The names of Bataan and Corregidor have almost disappeared from the minds of the American people and our youth probably would not recognize them at all.  Out of approximately 22,000 men captured by the Japanese, less than 3,000 are alive today.  The picture of my wasted, tortured friends will always remain in my mind.  I don't know why the Lord chose me to live.  He must have had a purpose - maybe it lies in my children.

 Today there are also brave American men imprisoned by a foreign power.  They languish in the disease ridden, rat infested torture chambers of Hanoi.  The United States seems helpless to do anything about it.  Perhaps these men have given themselves a name, as did the men of Bataan.  We called ourselves the "Battling Bastards of Bataan;

No mama, no papa, no Uncle Sam;
No aunts, no uncles, no cousins, no nieces;
No pills, no planes, no artillery pieces;
...and nobody gives a damn."

Part 2
Part 1