DONALD L. VERSAW, born June 23, 1921 in Bloomington Nebraska. Joined
the U.S. Marine Corps on Armistice Day, 1939 in Chicago. Following recruit
training and a short term with the Marine Corps Operating Base Band, San
Diego, CA he was sent to Shanghai, China for duty with the 4th Marines Band.
After the regiment was evacuated to the Philippines and at the outset of
World War II he became an infantryman in E Co. Second Battalion, Fourth Regiment.
When Corregidor was surrendered to the Japanese in May 1942, he spent the
next 40 months as a POW in the PI's and in Japan.
During captivity he was held on Luzon Island mostly at on work camp near
Clark Air Base for more than two years. In July 1944 he was moved to Japan
in one of the notorious "Hell Ships" - (unmarked freighter/troop ships) -
and put to forced labor in Nittetsu-Futase Tonko Kaisha (coal mine company)
on the Japanese island of Kyushu. This company paid enlisted men 5 sen per
day for their labor. [(A sen is one one hundredth of a yen)(One yen was then
equal to ten American cents)] Deductions were made at the rate of 50% deposited
in Japanese Postal Savings Plan.
Following repatriation, he remained in the Corps and married Amelda Gilmore,
a union that has lasted more than 52 years ending in her death in October
of 1999. They had two daughters, Judith and Denise. In 1950-51 he served
in Korea with the 1st Marine Division in a Photo unit. After retirement in
1959 he worked in the aerospace industry for 13 years on the Saturn and Apollo
programs. He completed 10 years of Civil service divided equally between
the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Air Force; he retired in 1984
with a total of 31 years federal service. He is a Life member of American
Ex-POWs and served two years as a Chapter Commander and it's Treasurer for
a number of years. He is a life member of the American Defenders Bataan and
Corregidor, the Disabled American Veterans, American Ex-Prisoners of War.
He is a member of the American Legion Post 142 Bloomington, Nebraska, the
China Marine Association and Marine Corps Musicians Association.
LAST CHINA BAND
For more information on Marine POWs, visit this very informatimve page:
Mikado no Kyaku
by Donald Versaw
POW at Futase Camp #7
(formerly Camp #10-D)
To the thousands of Allied soldiers, sailors and airmen who fought and
died that many millions of us would enjoy freedom again.
To all the Filipino people who put themselves in harms way to help the
plight of American prisoners of war in so many ways.
To the few Japanese soldiers who occasionally showed great compassion
to their captives along with the millions of civilians who had to suffer
and die needlessly for all the wrong reasons.
This book is the story of having been a prisoner of war of the Japanese during
most of World War II. A great many people -- thousands of them -- endured
an almost identical trial in their young lives as I did. A number of us have
written books about it and now, in the fading light of our lives, more are
doing so. Most have published their work at their own expense. This book
is another example.
Not unlike many other offerings, this one was originally titled "Guest of
the Emperor." It may have been one of the very first manuscripts to bear
that title, the first draft having been typed during the winter of 1945.
Some years later, a heavily edited version was hand-published on a Multilith
by Arlene Brown and Bill Holly, and a number of Accro fastened copies were
run off and given a limited distribution. The editor of that edition was
Ruth Reynolds, a professional writer of crime stories for the New York Sunday
Early in 1990, Noel and Norma Roberts, both avid readers, became interested
in the Reynolds' edited manuscript. They felt the story really prompted more
questions than it answered and left them wanting to know more about my experience
and in greater detail. I set about doing this. They gave me great assistance
with editing and encouragement.
was not yet 21 years old when the island fortress of Corregidor was surrendered
to the Japanese. I spent my 21st, 22nd, 23rd and 24th birthdays in captivity,
but the only birthday I was ever allowed to celebrate was that of Emperor
Hirohito each 28th of April. The observance was marked by extra long hours
at hard labor.
If nothing else, this will serve as a historical record for my descendants,
family members and friends who may have an interest in knowing what happened
to me in the Philippines and in the land of the rising sun so many years
I have struggled a long time with a title for my work. It is still "Guest
of the Emperor" to me and will remain so, but in Japanese -- Mikado no Kyaku,
was a phrase used by Japanese officials in the prison camps, where we were
often cruelly reminded that was what we then were, "guests". They were hosts
of a kind so cruel as at times to be beyond definition. It is only in recent
years that citizens of Japan have learned how their wartime government grossly
abused thousands of their captives. This story is an account of a luckier
one than many.
My saga begins where the experience ended. Enslaved at work in the Kyushu
mines, having survived more that two years of confinement in Luzon, Philippine
Island prison camps and following a terrifying and horrific voyage at sea
in a ship of Hell from Manila to Moji, Japan. I was made to work for food
in a coal mine. In Japan they are dark, dank and fearful places. The only
thing to help relieve the terror was to focus on the moment and try not to
worry about cave-ins, brutal beatings, the pangs of hunger or the hell of
tomorrow. This is the condition of the whole matter of being a prisoner of
war. You can't wonder if you will ever see the light of day again, if you
will ever taste the sweet joy of freedom. You must know that you will, simply
because there is a merciful God in heaven in whom you trust all things.
dlv / 1998
The Nissyo Maru -- A True Trip of Terror
After a light breakfast, which was nothing more than a tiny ball of sticky
rice, the big gates of the old prison opened and we marched out into the
nearly deserted city street. I was surprised how near it seemed we were from
the Manila docks, for we were soon there, standing in ranks. In the distance,
we could see Corregidor -- that little black bump on the horizon to which
MacArthur had not yet returned. Another large group of prisoners from the
Port Area work party was waiting for us. Together in the two groups there
were about igloo of us ragged looking, strangely clad, bone thin, weary warriors
-- already survivors.
There were many among us that had no idea of what we faced in the mottled,
rusty-red transport that's moored to the dock in front of us: the Japanese
ship Nissyo Maru. It looked as though it could accommodate no more than half
of us. We stood most of the morning in the dock house. The Japanese guard
came to us one by one. They asked if we had any knives, matches or pencils;
then, made us open any packages, quan bags and the clothes we were wearing
to see if we had any of those items. Those prisoners who were found to be
carrying cigarette lighters, scissors or razors were beaten on the spot and
the stuff confiscated.
In a long single line we then marched over the gangplank, stretched up and
over the brown oily waters in a hell ship. I could see some commotion on
the deck ahead. I came to a gamut of Japanese soldier guards and recognized
one of them as the notorious "Mickey Mouse" From Military Prison Camp 1.
He was given that name because of his huge ears and mousey-like personality.
He knew and could speak a little English and was curious why he was called
Mickey Mouse. When told that it was because he was a lot like a famous American
motion picture star, he accepted his "handle" gratefully. But, Mouse was
not grateful this day. Rather he was shouting like crazy, "Take off shoes!
Throw in hold! Hyyaku! (hurry) All bags too! Now! Go down ladder, speedo!
speedo!" He punctuated his urging with shoves and pushes with his rifle butt.
The men he struck pushed those ahead and terror struck others close by as
they hurried to get into the hold on to ladders as bags and boots bounced
off heads and backs of the hapless men trying to get out of the way. We moved
on as others poured onto the deck behind us to receive the same brutal welcome.
The orders were repeated in staccato. "Air Raid", another even more notorious
Camp 1 guard joined the Mouse at pushing, shoving, and hitting the men scrambling
to come on to the ship and into the hold.
My shock had little to do with the roughness even though I had no idea this
was the standard method for loading a Japanese vessel with its "subhuman"
cargo. I was more concerned as I scrambled down the ladder to find the hold
was already crammed full, as far as I could see, with half naked, sweating
men in ragged, beige-colored tatters. The quan bags and footgear had already
become a pile twice the height of a man. Nearly 700 men had already entered
the hold before me. Behind was another 800 more to come. There couldn't be
room for their baggage, much less the men. But our captors kept shaking us
down, like one shakes down the garbage in a bag to make room for more. And
that's what we were to them -- garbage. I was pushed back away from the opening
of the hold. My eyes became accustomed to the half light; under the covered
part of the compartment, I could see wooden tiers for sleeping. They stood
one above the other, five or six feet high, with an 18 inch clearance for
each, like cages for animals in a pet shop. I wedged myself into one of the
slots. It was very close even for a little fellow of five feet and six inches,
like myself. I found I couldn't so much as raise my elbow and, with more
and more men crowding in, there was no escape, no way to back out. I was
trapped. It was apparent the guards intended each box in the array made for
one person to hold five or more prisoners. I could hear them counting.
Others squeezed in to escape the rain of shoes and stuff still coming down
like hail from above. The racket from the yelling and shouting was deafening
back in the slots. I tried to listen and make some sense of it over the racket.
"Oops...What's the matter...He's fainted..." That was just the beginning.
As the newcomers jammed into the hold, those who had been there 40 minutes,
30 minutes, 20 minutes began to drop. Well, rather they slumped in their
faint. There was no room to fall. Those who still had their wits about them
in all that bedlam, sought to push the weak back up to the deck; a thinner
outgoing stream of limp humanity met a forceful incoming flood of men leaping
downward away from the frantic gamut above. "Air Raid" frantically tried
to wear himself out beating at the flow of prisoners trying to move in both
directions. He seemed to be inexhaustible. Obviously, he thought, some of
the limp were pretending. Maybe some of them were faking unconsciousness;
most were not and none was not terrified.
As others reached the fresh air above and were revived, they were redriven
back down into an already fully packed mass of flesh and piles of stuff below.
The once cool morning had now become a blazing midday inferno as the tropical
sun in a cloudless, July sky bore down on the steaming scene of misery in
Manila. The old, rusty, converted collier absorbed the scorching heat; it
was like being on the inside of a giant steam iron. We cooked and I felt
myself being pushed deeper into the sleeping slot, farther and farther away
from the air and the light of the opening. The bedlam subsided to a hum in
my ears: the hold turned gray. Without orders from the captors, a few brave
and desperate men snatched up the hatch covers from beneath them and began
tumbling the baggage into the hold below. Doing so made a little more room
for those still stumbling down the ladders, but offered little relief for
those already crammed into the space not larger than half a tennis court.
Even the most ignorant Japanese guard must have known it would be an
impossibility to stuff all igloo of us into such a small hold. They tried
their damnedest, nonetheless. Outside my crevice-like slot, men were still
slumping. We who were motionless and not struggling were still soaked with
sweat -- our own and that of our fellows. Water dripped on me from the slots
above. I thought at first some poor duffer's kidneys had failed him or that
a canteen had broken open. Perhaps so, but most of it was sweat. I sweat!
And the stench! God! The stench! "We must have more space! More space! It
would be better that we be shot now! We must have more space."
It could have been hours -- maybe it was only a few minutes -- for the American
interpreter to convince the Japanese that 1,500 men couldn't be jammed in
such a small, hot space and expect them to live very long. But it took long,
tortuous hours for our hosts to do something about it. After sundown, the
guards yelled down for all men whose numbers were below 700 to climb out
and go to the forward hold of the ship. Such a scrambling over each other,
and under each other! Finally those left behind found themselves with a little
more space; it was precious little. It did make breathing a little easier.
Those that went forward tried to scoop up lungs full of cooler evening air
before going down the ladders into the slightly larger hold. Again, the guards
urged every one along with little less frantic intensity even though they
had been at it for hours and hours.
I was among those moved forward. There were no sleeping bays, just solid
iron decks surrounding another hatch, covered with huge planks fitted with
metal bands and hand-holds, directly beneath the opening overhead. It seemed
larger on that account and probably was; there still was not room for all
to sit at one time upon the hard decking still warm from the blistering heat
of the day. To have enough space to lie down and stretch out was out of the
Out of Control...
The noise from all of us yelling and screaming just never stopped. Everything
was out of control. Officers and others who tried to get the group to quiet
down and organize things were shouted down. Men who tried to claim a bit
of space to stand or sit were shoved about in all directions. "This is my
spot!" one would proclaim of a square not much larger than his two feet.
"The hell it is!" an offended neighbor would yell back as loud as he could.
But the sound of his voice could not be heard five feet away as it would
be drowned out by the yelling there. Men in one quadrant of the hold would
find themselves in the one opposite without having made any effort to move
at all. The mass of flesh just seethed around like so many beans in a boiling
pot. It was sheer bedlam and pandemonium all through the night. Little by
little a tiny bit of order emerged. The few older officers, some of them
doctors and chaplains, managed a little control. It was very difficult for
them. Chaplain Stanley Reilley's effort is memorable and heroic. He
made himself heard and it helped, but there were others who tried.
The following day, enough water was lowered down to us by selected prisoner
helpers up on deck so that each man got about a half pint on two occasions.
A bigger problem was what to do once it ran through one's system. There were
no convenient latrines at all, not until a large wooden tub was lowered on
ropes to become our night chamber. It was quickly filled and sometimes overflowed
before being drawn above and disposed of over the side of the ship as a growing
long line formed around the perimeter of the hold to wait its return. It
made a mess around the tub that is beyond description. Those unfortunate
souls near it pressed hard against their neighbors to get away from it. The
line never ended and stood for the entire seventeen days we spent aboard
the Nissyo. The tub was hauled up, emptied and lowered down again, each half
hour, 1000 times or more. Some Medical corpsman were detailed to handle the
nasty chore in round the clock shifts. There was no shortage of volunteers
for the job however, because of the opportunity to be on deck in the fresh
air, and out of the teeming, hot mass of sweating bodies below. It was a
necessary but filthy mess, particularly for those in the vicinity of the
operation. Because of the motion of the ship these prisoners were subject
to many unfortunate accidents. A few latrines were available up on deck built
out beyond the gunnels, but only a lucky few were able to ever use them once
they managed to get topside.
It was a great relief to the men huddled so tightly together in the ship
when, after another long, hot day, the ship moved away from the dock. The
throb of the engine could be felt as the decks and bulkheads creaked and
vibrated. But all shuddered with it. The sooner things happened, the sooner
we could get off this terrible vessel. Then, after a short time, we shivered
with despair for we heard the anchor chain rattle out of its locker as it
was dropped. We soon knew we were standing just a few miles from Corregidor.
There the ship sat and sat -- and sat -- for four, whole. hot, sizzling days
while we stood and slumped against each other watching the yellow bucket
running up and down regularly to and from topside. Our beards growing bristly
for lack of razors and water to cut them. The rumor was that our ship was
waiting for the formation of a convoy. Men began to work out ways for some
to sit a while. In my turns I, fitfully, slept a little. This was complicated
by some space ruled off for a "sick bay". In this space, those who were
determined to be sick were allowed to stretch out and lie down. This made
it ever more crowded for the others. There was some compassion for those
still worse off than others -- it was not a lot. Small quantities of steamed
barley were lowered to us twice each day along with the little bit of drinking
water -- a half pint for each and it was not enough. Men became desperate
for water and attempted to trade their little ration of food for water. Those
who were too dry to eat soon found someone too hungry to eat. A strange thing
occurred. The "dog eat dog" attitude so prevalent within the camps seemed
to disappear in this awful, seething mass of men. "Here, Joe, you need it
worse that I need it..." was sometimes heard. I saw trembling hands of one
shove canteens into another's ghost-white lips.
We heard the anchor being pulled up and the ship moved again. I wish we could
say we felt a little breeze coming through from above. The men all joined
in a great deafening cheer which grew louder, ultimately growing into a roar
-- like a capacity crowd at a championship football game as the favorites
come trotting onto the field. There was no place for the sound to go so it
came right back at us. God knows why we were cheering, just the encouraging
thought and hope that our terror and desolation would end soon. Any change
seemed welcome. Had we known what was to happen to the Oroyoku Maru, the
Brazil Maru and the other hell ships that tried to come after us, and were
even more terrifying and sunk with great loss of life, we would not likely
have done so. Again, going on to anywhere was preferred to just laying-to,
broiling in the sun. Whatever it was we talked, we shouted, and our ears
rang with the sound of our own voices; the confusion went on all night. The
Japanese guards wearied of it and told us to shut up or they would shoot,
but we didn't and they didn't. You could tell by the roll of the ship that
we were out of the bay; out of sight of the black rock of Corregidor that
had once been our sanctuary and lost hope of victory. Out into the great,
blue, South China Sea. We could only imagine what it looked like and where
we were headed -- God only knew where.
Now, as men seem always to do, we tried to build ourselves communities. A
few of the inventive made hammocks in the overhead. Others staked out imaginary
claims on sitting space. Since there wasn't nearly enough to go around, there
were always arguments as to whose posterior was covering whose spot. The
men with the larger behinds caught the most hell. There were even some fights.
Not because anybody was really angry but, just because emotions had bulged
up like balloons, too full of air. They had to burst. After a fight, everybody
would sit quietly for a while and then "Hey, you, son of a bitch, who the
hell..." "Who's calling me a..." And another fight would begin. The ship
plowed on and on through smooth seas, rough seas, choppy seas. The sun rose
and the light came through the hatchway and zigzagged wildly around our pen
as the ship followed a defensive course to avoid our American submarines.
The sun set.
The noise, the din and stench went on all night. We watched the heavens through
the hatchway and tried to make them out. But, they skewed across the deep
blue-black field like shooting stars, first in one direction and then, as
the ship turned, scooted back again. Watching them kept your mind off the
possibility of a raging torpedo smashing into the thin hull of the old ship
and blowing us into kingdom come. The sun rose and there was light again.
I thought of the times that tourists had paid hundreds of dollars to take
this very trip from Manila to Japan in luxury and comfort. The food situation
was not ideal, but we had all been in worse situations. Cooked barley, sometimes
with a little rice, was lowered on ropes in the same kind of buckets used
to lift out the waste. We hoped they were different ones. Each bucket was
intended to feed 150 men, according to numbers. Control was just impossible
and some men got more than others. The weaker and sicker ones got the least
as the stronger ones crawled over them to get a second helping. Some men
died, their already weakened bodies unable to bear the stress and conditions
on the Nissyo. During the day, their bodies were taken up on deck and slipped
into the sea with Chaplain Reilley committing their souls to the Almighty.
Several prisoners went berserk and had to be held down until they became
too weak to resist.
The first leg of our miserable journey took us north along the west coast
of Luzon and then across to the Formosan Strait to the west of what is now
Taiwan. Conditions did not improve greatly enroute. The noise, the filth,
the smell and the tension went on 24 hours a day in my hold. I expect it
did in the aft hold also. After a day or so, a few men were allowed on top
deck for a short time. A gulp or two of fresh sea air can be refreshing on
any cruise, but on one such as ours it was as precious as food and water.
I made it to the top deck several times on this part of the trip and was
rewarded with a salt water bath from a pressure hose played on us by some
of the ship's crew of Japanese civilian sailors. The only bad part of that
was then having to go back down in that stinking hold again.
I spent some of my time weaving my way around my half-naked
comrades trying to find and visit with friends. That is when I was not waiting
in line for my bit of rice and water or the other line to get rid of it later
in the old scum bucket. I found only a few: There was Technical Sergeant
Jack Rauhof, the drum major of my outfit, the 4th Marines Band (more
lately known as the 3rd Platoon, E Company, 2nd Battalion), Privates First
Class Monford P. Charleton, S. W. Stephens, and John P.
Latham. All former bandsmen. Another, Leland H. Montgomery,
was also aboard but I didn't know it at the time. He was one of the Manila
Port Area work detail that had been waiting on the dock the day we boarded
It was Montgomery who helped me considerably with information about the Nissyo
voyage. He remembers details about the ship and the trip, often in a different
way than I do. But as he explains it, "Everyone saw his situation from their
own point of view...". We do agree that it was a very miserable ordeal from
the first hour in Manila to the last moment in Moji, Japan.
The ship had been made in Europe and sold to the Japanese sometime well before
the war. Montgomery remembers seeing a bronze plaque labeling the vessel's
origin, size, and other details. He thought it was a rather modern ship designed
originally for carrying cargo. It was fitted with booms and winches to lower
and remove stuff in nets. For sure it was not well designed to carry large
numbers of troops at all.
I also made a new friend or two on this not-so-pleasurable cruise as well.
Strangely they were staff noncommissioned officers and older than myself
but the condition of being a POW had a leveling effect on men, who in normal
circumstances, would not become close friends. Staff Sergeant Michael
Oss and I shared the same two or three square feet of iron deck for
almost the whole trip. He saved my spot for me and I saved his for him when
we had to leave it. We slept leaning against one another when we could both
get room to sit, otherwise one would sit while the other stood and tried
to keep the pack from trampling upon us.
I met Staff Sergeant E. D. Smith who was old enough to be my dad already
and reminded me of him sometimes. He was quiet, stiff and had a hard as nails
personality. He demanded respect with a bearing that he carried with him
despite his terrible degradation. Why we hit it off, I have no idea. We became
warm friends until his last days soon after the war. He helped bolster my
courage and strength to endure not only the hell ship experience but the
remaining year of our captivity.
Our first port of call was Takao, Taiwan. We were surprised and exhilarated
by the complete opening of the hatch over our heads and being allowed to
climb out and scatter ourselves around the Forward well deck. It was refreshing
to see the green hills that formed a colorful background to the port area
docks where we were tied up. I tried to imagine what might be going on out
there in what appeared to be a very beautiful place. Of course, most any
place looked mighty nice when compared to the inside of the ship's hold.
The hatch was opened on the deck of our iron stateroom in order that the
crew and some native stevedores could lower many 56-kilo bags of brown sugar
into the hold underneath. We spent the loading time watching the boom, winch
and net operators hoist the bags up from the dock to which the ship was tied
and lower the sweet stuff into the ship. We hungry men wrung our hands waiting
for the time when, after we had gotten underway again, that we might get
our hands on some of it.
Looking around on dockside, there were warehouses as far as we could see
with huge Japanese character writing on the walls -- writing in blue and
green that we couldn't understand. There were stevedores in blue denims with
little, white towels wrapped around their heads, women in pantaloons and
men in shorts, and Japanese sailors and soldiers eating bananas and carrying
little boxes on and off our ship -- goodies we supposed, the things soldiers
and sailors crave at sea and go wild for when they first get ashore. There
was none of it for us. We'd be lucky if we could just get to some of the
I was fortunate to spend a little extra time up on the deck while the hatches
were open and the ship was being loaded. I even had my little ration of rice
up there in the clean air -- strange smelling because it was fresh. It was
hot -- but it was clean, like Nebraska in summer. Thirst was a problem. No
one came around and issued me any water in a canteen cup I had somehow acquired.
I crawled beneath the workings of a steam winch that was not being used at
the time, more to hide than anything else, so I wouldn't have to return to
the ship's hold. I found a valve leaking live steam against the heavy metal
and water was condensing off of it. Holding my cup under the drip, I eventually
collected about a half cup of water. Except for a bit of oil, it was pure,
warm and refreshing. I stayed as long as I dared. As I returned to my place
in the hold, I caught a blast of the foul air and of the yellow bucket. It
shook me to my bones.
"To the rail, you fool! into the water!" something said inside of me. I shook
my head and drowned the temptation.
Considering where I was I didn't have a chance in a million for escape.
Furthermore, my effort would have been worse for the 1490 or so others in
the crawling mass of humanity that lay below. The shooting rule of 10 for
one still held. Maybe this time it would be upped to a 100 to 1.I couldn't
be responsible for any life but my own.
"You're insane not to do it." I was saying to me as my feet went step by
step down the ladder. "You're not in your right mind to go back."
Then, I was down, with my tortured fellow beings, still talking to myself.
Most of us, realizing the futility of battles, had stopped fighting with
one another. We tried to play cards. But there wasn't really room for that.
And anyway, have you ever tried to hear a bid, or a bet, or a call over the
roar of 750 men?
"Anyone with leadership could take over this ship. ANYONE with leadership.
You don't have the guts. We outnumber them seven or eight to one. YOU don't
have the guts!"
But my sane self answered.
"There's nobody among us that knows how to run this ship!"
Then I felt better.
Some of the men couldn't wait to get into the sugar and went to help themselves.
That was a foolish thing to do. Too much sugar dries a person out and there
was not enough water to go with it. I had a sweet tooth and the temptation
was great to eat all that was offered me; it was all I could do to keep my
self control. I didn't want to develop a case of diarrhea either what with
the sanitation facilities being what they were. Our hosts had warned against
thievery of the sugar and threatened severe punishment.
Fortunately, nobody was caught.
Those of us who could see the midnight blue sky through the open hatch of
our hold knew that dawn had not yet come when we were pulled away from the
dock and left Takao harbor and chugged northward.
We rolled, we pitched, we moved along in a not so gentle sea, up and down,
up and down, back and forth...proceeding.
As our beards grew, we could see the blue sky above the open hatch, then
the midnight sky.
It was my turn to sit close under the hatch and look at the deep purple above
like a giant television screen filled with the light of a million stars.
The date was July 26th, 1944. I had no watch but I learned years later it
was nearly 2:11AM. I leaned back against the legs of my new found shipmate,
Michael "Mike" Oss.
Suddenly, the "screen" turned red, blotting out the stars and melting the
deep purple. Almost immediately we heard it --
The ship shuddered as it veered sharply in another direction. When the stars
appeared again they skewed across my view indicating that the ship was taking
another heading. Obviously it was being put in a sharply, zigzag motion.
Another big explosive flash shot across the sky. This time large shadowy
chunks of what had once been part of a ship sailed across the field of view.
Already our ship's siren had sounded, and guards were rushing about the deck
above us, hurrying to cover the hatch in case we all tried to evacuate the
hold. Escorting destroyers in our convoy began to discharge depth bombs,
some close, some far.
What had happened? Well, obviously, the convoy was under attack by submarines.
A nearby ship us had been struck and, my first thought was that it was an
oil tanker. Nothing else could have made such a blast. It was many years
later that I learned more of the story. In the book, "Silent Victory", by
Blair, I found the account of this strike. It had been made by the USS Crevale
commanded by Frank Walker; the USS Flasher commanded by Ruben Whitaker; and
USS Angler commanded by Franklin Hess. The Flasher fired all six of its remaining
torpedoes. One ran through the convoy formation, probably narrowly missing
our fragile Nissyo Maru and had sunk the Otoriyama Maru, a 5280 ton oiler.
Not all the booming sounds of explosions that continued during the night
were made by depth charging escorts. The pack took another freighter, the
Tosan Maru down later in the morning in what must have been a far larger
convoy than we had imagined it ever to be. It was an exciting night and one
that proved that a super, divine, guiding hand must surely have watched over
A few more of our comrades died in the remaining days at sea enroute to Japan.
Dysentery, malaria, and dehydration plagued us the rest of the way in our
iron dungeon with red-lead walls. Large water blisters broke out on the bodies
of nearly everyone, attributed by the knowledgeable, to the closeness and
lack of any means to keep clean. Those who had contact with our guards complained
and so instructions were passed to count off groups of 20 men.
It was one of the few orders given by the Japanese that I ever heard cheered.
Up the ladder we scrambled, those of us who still had the strength to climb
the red iron rungs. Some did not.
A hose played on us. We shivered with pleasure from a forceful stream of
water pumped out of the azure blue sea. I washed my only T-shirt in the salty
stuff but, instead of trying to dry it, I rolled it up around my neck to
keep cooler when I had to return to the fetid hold. It would dry soon enough.
So would our skinny bodies which were then left sticky with moist salt but
Probably none was happier about our topside baths than the men on latrine
detail. There were toilets on deck, wooden affairs built on platforms
cantilevered off the deck over the sea. During the time we were allowed up
there -- 20 allotted minutes and if you were smart, an hour and a half --
you could use them. That eased the work of the latrine detail.
Now the air was different. It was hot because it was summer, but it had less
of the heaviness of tropical air and more the pungency of the Temperate Zone.
Islands on the Horizon...
When we were topside, we could see a lot of little islands. Little, green
punctuation marks in a blue, sea-story book. Those in the distance looked
like little greenish dots peeking over the horizon. Some looked too small
to have inhabitants, but the larger of them had buck-skin tan, shore lines
with slivers of fishing boats beached upon them.
Later, the land fall was continuous and the shoreline longer with occasional
interruptions that erased the sands now and then. We knew that we had reached
a larger land. Our joy was not unlike that which gladdens the heart of any
sailor who has been at sea for a long time and anxious to set foot on God's
great, green earth. What we could see of it now surely looked inviting. Imagine
our disappointment when, after we had drawn so close, that the ship dropped
its anchor. Most of us would have gladly tried to wade or swim ashore, so
anxious we were to disembark the terrible Nissyo Maru.
Some in our hold knew that we had reached the port of Moji, Kyushu
Japan, the southernmost of Japan's three big islands. The ship was later
joined by a pilot and a small, harbor vessel, and pulled into and tied up
to the docks. We had to wait all night while a Japanese longshoremen crew
came aboard, opened the hatches and unloaded the sugar in the ship brought
from Formosa (Taiwan ). The noises of the winches and the yelling of the
crew made too much racket to allow sleeping; we waited awake all night to
disembark the ship.
Vague thoughts of escaping now came to mind. It might have been easy to slip
away in the confusion. One was not likely to be missed and the surrounding
area looked inviting, but a Caucasian prisoner of war would have been as
conspicuous as a cherry in a bowl of rice. One could not expect to be hidden
and protected in the enemy's homeland which had been common for the brave
escapees in the Philippines. Recapture would likely be swift and brutally
Anyway, were we not guests of the Emperor? Guests in a land famous for gracious
hospitality. Pitifully, they tried to make it appear so. Each debarking man
was given back some of the clothing worn and carried aboard and dropped so
unceremoniously into the hold some 17 long, hot days before. But no one got
his own or, necessarily, a good fit. Some of us were handed smashed, gray
and blue sun helmets of the old Filipino Army. As part of my "uniform," I
received a pair of yellow-green Japanese army trousers, worn, soiled and
threadbare, an oversized pair of army shoes and a ragged, dirty shirt that
I thought would be better than nothing.
One by one we were marched, or carried, over the gangway. It was not the
brutal disembarkation we experienced when we first came aboard. As we reached
the dock, a weak solution of some chemical was sprayed on and over each of
us so that whatever vile disease we were bringing to the land of the Rising
Sun would not infect them. The old technician who sprayed me did not seem
very serious about it -- just the normal operating procedure, I guessed.
What most of us were suffering was the lack of good ripe apples, hard boiled
eggs and fried chicken -- to name a few of the medicines that would have
restored and preserved what health we still had.
Other writers such as Manny Lawton, Colonel E. B. Miller and Preston Hubbard
have stated that the suffering of prisoners on hell ships was among the worst
atrocities of the war in the Pacific. Hubbard writes, "...Hell Ships do not
lend themselves to varied viewpoints or contrasting scenes. The damned, dark
world of Hell Ships lies buried beyond the reach of memory or imagination."
He feels that is the reason there has been no motion picture made of such
an experience. There is nothing to compare it to and good art must have contrast.
No doubt true in part but, nowadays, with the motion picture industry dominated
by the Japanese, it is most unlikely any recollection of this phase of World
War II infamy will be so recorded. As Dr. Hubbard so aptly writes,
"Unfortunately, they (remembrances of Hell Ships) will probably vanish from
the thoughts of mankind when the last survivor has gone to his grave."
As I rewrite the lines of an original draft of this account, written almost
50 years ago, I can hardly believe how we suffered. I am repelled by the
memory of the hideous voyage of the Nissyo Maru. I can scarcely believe it
really happened anymore. It is not much consolation to consider that at least
the torpedoes missed the ship we were in and no bombs from friendly war planes
struck us as they did the Arisan, Orokyo, Enoura Marus and a number of others.
Many prisoners were killed, drowned and died in these infamous ships. It
is almost impossible to recall that among us were those who hoped our misery
would end quickly by a torpedo that might mercifully explode into us with
a flood of cooling, cleansing water, washing away the terror and the incredible
filth and the noise of our teeming mass. It was, chilling as it may seem
now, true and I can hardly expect anyone who was not there to understand
or really believe it.
The Lord was merciful to our group, most of us, anyway, and we survived.
It was not the end of our suffering; we had another year of captivity still
ahead. We knew that eventually the real horrors of war would reach Japan's
precious homeland. We did not know that it had drawn as close as it had.
Neither did we know very much about how terrible the reckoning would be for
Now, in the Land of the Rising Sun, captivity as we knew it was a new dawning.
Gone were the days where the fence was such a distance from where we slept
that days might go by out of sight of even a single, enemy guard. This was
true only in the large camps but even at Clark Field, the interface with
our captors was often not long or frequent for some of us. It would be different
here. From the moment we left the Nissyo Maru, the Japanese would be in "our
We survivors of the voyage of the Nissyo Maru were lined up in units of a
100 each. What a crusty, filthy-looking bearded bunch we were. Any patriotic
Japanese civilian thereabouts must have wondered what was taking his army
more than three years to beat down such a motley enemy. Getting off that
terrible ship was immense relief. A detachment of horse cavalry stood by,
apparently waiting to board the vessel after it had been unloaded. They were
welcome to it, I'm sure, but I know they would not like it, especially the
horses. I could not believe that any amount of cleaning, decontaminating
or fumigating would make it fit for any purpose after we left it. I was amazed
to learn afterwards that the Nissyo survived the war and plied the shipping
lanes for some time after the war -- the only "hell ship" to escape being
sunk. Except for those who died during the trip and as a result of the stress
later, it was a lucky ship and we survivors were fortunate to be in her and
not one of the others.
We were marched to an auditorium, a single story, wooden building badly in
need of repair. We were assigned to sections and given a meal consisting
of a rice ball mixed with a few, cooked soya beans and some kind of
unidentifiable leafy vegetable that may have once been green but now was
a deep, vile viridian after having been cooked in soy sauce. No matter, it
was welcome and delicious but, we wanted water as much as food.
"Don't drink the water in the washroom. It is polluted," we were warned.
Nearly dehydrated now, we ignored the message. Our bodies must now be immune
to Japan's friendly microbes. After those in the tropics, whatever we might
encounter at this time could not hurt us much. Most would take the chance.
I did and drank as much cool water as I wanted. It was almost too much to
believe. The faucets were left running as men held whatever cup, can or bottle
they could locate to catch a drink. Hardly a drop ever hit the floor.
Where the Birds don't sing and the Flowers don't smell...
All afternoon we sat, we lay around, in the auditorium trying to talk to
Japanese guards, those who could and would speak a little English. One was
a rather gnarled, swarthy, older man that we quickly named "Hawaiian Joe."
His English was amazingly fluent with hardly an accent. He claimed to have
lived many years in Hawaii but had returned to his homeland for retirement.
At his government's insistence, he had to work, so he had taken on a job
of guarding POWs. He wore the uniform of the Nittetsu-Futase Tanko
Kaisha coal mining company and carried a wooden replica of an issue rifle
tipped with a sharpened metal bayonet.
"Joe" informed us that our group was going to a nice place where there was
plenty of good food and many cigarettes. He was right about the nouns but,
as we were to discover, wrong about his adjectives.
There was plenty of room in the large auditorium not like the cramped space
in the ship. We spread out so we could sit or lie without touching anyone
near. After being pressed against someone else's body for 17days it was just
sheer joy to have a little room. Some guys joked about it now, "Hey move
a little closer, you seem so far away." Comic relief often follows great
stress and pressure.
The great relief of being off the ship began to wear off; apprehensions of
what lie ahead for us invaded our thoughts. Of course, it could hardly be
worse than the Hell Ship Nissyo but, if the place we were going to really
was really worse, then surviving longer would be unlikely. A few men in our
group were finding it difficult just to walk and one or two could not at
all. We thought it was the dehydration.
In the dead of the night, we half-dead, sleepy, groggy POWs were hustled
off to a nearby railway and loaded onto a passenger train. The car I went
in was smaller than an American railway car. The seats were smaller and the
windows were smaller. Cuspidors were countersunk flush with the floor.
Most of us quickly dozed off or went soundly to sleep not even noticing when
the car lurched and the train moved. Those who were still awake got no look
at our surroundings or the countryside. "Do not raise blinds!" was the order.
I hope it stemmed from a Japanese desire not to have seen their homeland
wrecked by our Yank planes.
When we reached the train's destination we debarked onto the platform of
a fairly large city. Later, we were to learn this was Shin Iizuka in Fukuoka
province. It was early morning and all the shops and places of business were
still closed and shuttered. Many appeared to be boarded up permanently. Most
of the people in the streets were either older males wearing the peaked caps
like the military or school children carrying backpacks. The young boys were
all dressed in little uniforms with military-style caps, too. The few women
who were about were dressed in light pantaloons and wrapped with a light
kimono tied with a sash. Not much attractive about any of them. It had been
many months since we had seen any women at that close range.
Take a Hike...
From the rather modern-looking railway station we were ordered to hike --
silly word. Some lagged, some limped because of ill-fitting shoes. Some slogged
along the cinder-coated streets barefooted. Those that could not walk at
all were carried off and loaded onto trucks with strange looking contraptions
affixed to them for cooking charcoal to make engine fuel.
It was not far from Shin Iizuka to the smaller, coal mining town of Futase
City -- three or four miles maybe, but the long days in the Hell Ship had
done us in. It seemed as long as the Great Wall of China. We finally came
to an unpainted, 10-foot tall, wooden fence atop a small hill. The fence
was topped with sharpened spikes of bamboo. Two, large double gates, large
enough to admit trucks, opened and we were marched in. The gates closed behind
us. Welcome to Futase, Camp 10.
We were lined up and "bango-ed," the word for counting off. Around us were
a number of armed soldiers led by a senior sergeant. Looking us over was
a young and rather handsome Japanese officer, a long saber dangling from
a belt. His olive-green uniform had a richer, cleaner quality about it and
he wore a clean looking white shirt. His peaked cap matched his trousers
and was slightly decorated with several blue threads sewn around it from
front to back. He took no part in the "welcome" procedure. Several older
men wearing gray uniforms the color of dirty putty did. Each was decorated
with sewn-on patches of 5 gold stars, each one slightly smaller than the
other. We learned eventually that the insignia denoted they were members
of the Japanese Propaganda Corps. They may have had a better name for themselves
but that is what we called them. There were about six men in that group;
two of them had arms missing, one a right and another a left. We guessed
they were disability-retired soldiers now pressed into service to handle
They quickly established the impression among us that they had plenty of
authority. They acted mean and angry from the first and remained that way
until the very end.
Additionally there were more of the older men like Hawaiian Joe, all carrying
stick rifles with fixed (real) bayonets. All wore the same civilian garb:
light striped shirts, thin cotton trousers in a gray pattern and the familiar
Japanese army peaked cap with small crescent bills and laced in the back
to provide adjustments for "one size fits all." A distinguishing feature,
however, was the enameled pin fixed in place of the army gold star on the
crest of each cap. A large Arabic letter S was framed in a field of white
enamel bordered by red and brass decorations. These were employees of the
Nittetsu-Futase Tanko Kaisha hired to guard and handle prisoners of war.
All of them seemed to be last in the pecking order and rarely hassled or
gave us much trouble.
Just inside the gate was a guardhouse the whole front of which was the door.
Inside was a table and a couple chairs for the watch on duty. It overlooked
the small assembly area, the size of a couple tennis courts. A small, wooden
platform with several wooden steps leading up to it was placed in front of
the first low, long building that housed the Japanese Camp Commander's office
and living quarters. Beyond that, bordering the same side of the square was
a larger, one story, barracks-like building that housed the Japanese army
detachment of about a dozen soldiers.
The gap between the two buildings led to a large, two story building in the
shape of the letter U. It could have been a school or even a barracks in
prior years; now it housed some 200 prisoners of war taken in the Dutch East
Indies, Java, Sumatra, places like that.
None of the present inmates came forth to greet us with the exception of
one Hollander who was speaking what seemed to be fluent Japanese and acted
as both a camp official and an interpreter. The comments being made by the
Japanese, we learned later, were such things as: "These prisoners are unfit
for anything;" "little work they can do;" and "the smell hurts the nose."
He became known only as Lieutenant Braber.
After the Japanese were satisfied all were present and accounted for we were
led back in to the camp where the building seemed to receive less care. We
passed the Aso, the punishment cell. A tiny box of hideous proportions and
design. Then, on by the bath house which housed a large concrete soaking
tub about twice the size of a farm stock tank. We proceeded under tiled,
covered walkways to a long, narrow building that perhaps had been a warehouse.
This was to be our home for the next 13 months. The building had recently
been remodeled to accommodate the expected arrival of more POWs. Three rooms
to house about 40 men had been parceled off a hall leading to the back. Each
room had two platforms built off the floor on each side of a center aisle,
one above the other. The platforms were covered with the straw mats common
to most Japanese households called tatami mats. A single shelf lined the
back wall of each platform. At the end of the aisle was a small, casemate
window. Except for air entering the rooms from the hall, it was the only
ventilation. The first of these rooms was to be my home for the coming year.
The office and examination room was located between our sleeping rooms and
the infirmary. A Japanese doctor, "Ishi" we called him, (the Japanese word
for doctor is pronounced eesha) was in charge there. His name was Yoshiwaka
Suenaga. His hard-fisted medical assistant was the ever-terrorizing Sugi
Horibumu. Next and beyond that was a larger room with platforms on either
side for the sick. It was called the "Nushisu" or sick room. At the end across
the back of the building was the latrine.
I found myself housed with some members of the original 4th Marines Band
(E24) with whom I had played in Shanghai a few years before. My room leader
was Technical Sergeant Jackson P. Rauhof, the drum major and leader of my
platoon on Corregidor. Others in my room were Platoon Sergeant Felix
McCool, Staff Sergeant E. D. Smith, and PFC Edward "Eddie"
Howe. Next door were others from the band: PFC Cedric Stephens
and PFC Monford P. Charleton. A few of the recently arrived American contingent
were housed among the Dutchmen in the big building. Among them were Corporal
Franklin Boyer, another bandsman.
Our captors decided that two weeks rest would be enough to restore us before
we would be put to work in the coal mines. Many, however, would not recover
enough to do so, but some who were fearful of working in coal mines would
manage to stay "unwell" enough to avoid it for the whole of our stay.
For two weeks we did not go to work. We exercised in the sun on a field just
outside the camp. We were taught certain Japanese words peculiar to coal
mining which would be our occupation. We learned a little close order drill
using Japanese commands for: forward march, right face, to the rear which
our captors believed would build up our strength so that we could work. We
were even allowed to play a couple of strange ball games. We did it with
little enthusiasm although most of us knew that what we were doing would
help get our strength back. It was the purpose they intended to put it to
that had us worried. And they gave us food which, by previous standards,
we could consider ample.
At the end of two weeks, Captain Roscoe Price, our senior American
officer persuaded the Japanese to give us more time. He must have been surprised
at the success of that, for the Japs were not easily dealt with.
Unlike camp life in the Philippines where we pretty much governed by ourselves
with a minimum of supervision by our captors, this camp was run very closely
by the JPCs (disabled ex-soldiers) and civilian employees of the mining company
and the military. The soldiers were by far the most brutal, along with Sugi,
the medic, who took a sadistic joy in tormenting anybody, particularly sick
Americans. His usual weapon was a samurai saber, scabbard and all.
Most of the guards and troop handlers were laid back and didn't bother or
interfere with us much. There were a few that were just down right mean and
meddlesome all the time. A few more were sadistic. "Right Arm" and "Left
Arm" were the two most notorious prisoner beaters. Because they only had
one arm each it seemed to please them that they had us where we could not
retaliate from the sticks they carried to flail us with. Sometimes they would
just sock us with their remaining bare fists. They were the most hated of
the JPCs. "Smiley" was one who wore a deceiving grin most of the time, and
was generally a mild driver. I was to discover later that he had a pretty
good left hook. Whatever his disability was, it did not lessen the power
of his punch.
The camp routine was very rigid, of course. There was a time to do everything
and many times when doing almost any other thing was forbidden. We ate, smoked,
slept and went to the toilet at the sound of a bell. Anyone caught doing
the wrong thing between bells was punished on the spot; slapped, punched
and kicked if he did not get up quick enough. The fastest response back to
a position of a soldier at attention was always the quickest way to halt
the attack. It was hard to learn. Otherwise, the punishment was brutal and
One of the more serious offenses was smoking after the bell rang to stop;
it was worse yet to begin before the starting bell. It was usually a 15-minute
period, long enough if you didn't have to wait to share a part of the cigarette
or wait to get your butt lighted. Since no matches or lighters were allowed,
someone had to run to the kitchen located clear across the compound and bring
back an ember or something. The result was that some fellows did not get
theirs lighted until almost time for the bell to ring. Because the guards
couldn't be everywhere at once, the period could be over run. Not without
some risk and the penalty was severe.
My bunk mate, Eddie Howe and I were caught in this "crime" one noon. The
last dying rings of the bell had not even faded away when the Japanese First
Sergeant, still limping from his China war wound, I suppose, came bursting
in the door. And here we were taking just one last puff. With a raised right
and left he knocked us both to the floor. I jumped back to my feet before
he could kick me, preferring to take another blow I could roll with to being
kicked. Eddie may have been struck harder and didn't get up. He was kicked
with a series of blows and beaten again with a stick the size of a riding
crop. It took some heat off me, but I stood there with fists clenched wishing
I could help him up. Defending him would have sealed my fate and his too,
I expect. There is nothing so easily riled to uncontrollable anger as a wounded
Japanese First Sergeant. It was not our first beating nor would it be the
last, but we boys from the Philippines may have been able to take it better
than the Japanese home boys knew. Things like this created a tension which
always persisted in the camp.
The day came when we were turned into coal miners on the night shift. I
remembered what Professor Clark, my geology teacher had said about the brown,
coal mines of Japan. She had hoped I could visit them one day.
And here I was! I'm sure it was not under these conditions that she had in
mind. We had been issued a gauze-thin blouse, light cotton shorts, sandals
made of rice straw and a black miner's cap made of rubberized cotton with
an Indian red, fiber bracket to hold a lamp.
The company we were consigned to operated two mines in this local. The first
was a deep vertical shaft called Honko. A huge multi-wheeled lift was built
over it; all around the opening were buildings of many sizes housing power
plants with huge tall, chimneys, offices, and coal sorting apparatus. Within
this complex we called the "Fabrique" was the auditorium decorated with Japanese
flags and company insignia. Before we were taken to work underneath we "stood
up" for some kind of a formation designed to inspire hard work and safety.
As part of our training for coal mining we were taught a number of Japanese
words: Abunai, for danger; Shigotoe, for work; Ebu, for coal basket; Kakita,
a short handled hoe for raking coal into the Ebu; and Juji, for pickaxe.
Little was said about Yasimei for rest, or Shigotoe awari for stop work.
Somehow we had learned those words before ever reaching Japan.
Down in the Mines...
The cars descended, a couple to each lift. It seemed that we were going slowly.
The electric lamps connected to our caps bobbed around as the new American
crew searched the walls of the pit trying to see where and what we were getting
into. The change in air pressure bothered my ears; I had to swallow to restore
equilibrium like coming down a mountain. Some said the foot of the shaft
was a 1000 meters below the surface. More than likely it was for it took
a long time before the lift stop and the gates opened. We stood in a huge
gallery or tunnel. The walls and overhead were cemented over and lined with
many dim incandescent lights.
When all had reached the bottom, we assembled and later divided off into
work parties, some large, some small. I was assigned to one of the latter.
We were told what we were going to do but had not yet learned enough to
understand. We marched out of the lighted area and through huge, double doors
into a much smaller tunnel lighted now only by the lamps on our caps. We
hiked along the tiny railway tracks laid in the center. Other tunnels branched
off to the right and left of the one we were in. Up ahead, the racket of
an approaching Hako (box), an iron tub-like cart was heard. We all had to
cling to either sides of the tunnel to let the car pass. Two bent-over bodies
were pushing it; who they were we couldn't see but we supposed they were
other slave creatures like ourselves.
Reaching our work area, a Horye, we found it was our job to help our work
leader, an older Japanese civilian to install shoring along the walls and
overhead of a tunnel being extended. We had a pneumatic drill, it's long
hose connected to a pipe running along the main tunnel and found a car of
pine posts already there to use as shoring. The drill was large and heavy
with a hardened steel bit. It took two men to manage it, drilling inch-diameter
holes in the rock and coal for setting dynamite charges.
Rich deposits of coal, when found, were blasted out and loaded into cars
brought up from the main lateral by another crew. Large rocks were left in
the mine to build pillars to help support the overhead. The mine was humid
and stuffy. The rugged Japanese miner (honcho) in charge had nothing but
contempt at my weakness. I felt he couldn't make up his mind whether to cuff
me or get on with the work. Before it was time to eat the little rice and
sliced pickle radish we had brought to the mine for lunch, it was apparent
to me that I couldn't last the shift no matter what he did. The light shirt
and shorts I wore were soaked with sweat. My grass shoes had begun to
disintegrate. It was slowing me up and I was already dead tired. I knew the
miner would soon start swinging -- at me.
Then fate stepped in. My electric lamp dimmed, its red glow was lessening.
The batteries in the metal box hooked to my waistband were losing their charge.
It wouldn't last long.
"Hey! My lamp is going!" I called attention to my captor. With a curse, he
ordered me back to lift base to get a replacement. Batteries with lamps attached
were drawn from a room topside (kogai), but extra charged batteries were
available at the lift.
I started along the mine track. One hundred yards and two curves away from
my detail, the light went out completely. There I was, many meters deep in
the bowels of Japan, still a couple of miles from a fresh battery. It was
pitch black. Just being underground, thinking of cave-ins and Japan's notorious
earthquakes was terrifying enough; to be without light in these conditions
was very frightful. There was little sound, muffled blasts way off in the
distance occasionally. The opposite direction of those was the way to go,
feeling along the dank tunnel wall and stumbling over the ties and rails
of the car track.
My head struck a low overhead beam.
The little stars were just fading when I heard the clatter of metal wheels.
A string of cars was approaching!
In utter ignorance of the width of the tunnel and the clearances of the cars
and walls, I hugged the stone as the first car passed. Very closely.
I must have exhaled. The second car caught the battery case on my belt and
jerked the connecting cord off my cap. My hand swung out wildly to catch
the cap. Another car scraped my skin. I moved tighter against the wall. Each
car took its token of me.
The rattle faded in the distance. I wiped the cold sweat from my face, groped
about for hat and dead headlight and stumbled on through the darkness. Two
hours more and a dozen hard bumps later, I saw a dim glow. It was the lighted
tunnel near the mine shaft.
I exchanged my dead battery for a good, hot, fresh one. It was made up of
wet hydroxide cells. The caustic electrolyte could cause deep and painful
wounds if it spilled out. The covers on some did not fit tight and prisoners
would be burned. Later, some men learned to use the battery fluid to aggravate
and sustain wounds and sores in order to render themselves unfit for work.
I set out to return to my work place. I don't know how I ever found it and
perhaps would not have done so had it not been for some engineers or supervisors
along the way who shuttled me off in the right directions. Their lamps had
a red circle painted around the lens so they could be recognized. I yelled
"Guan Jin" to each one, hoping they would not recognize me as a loose prisoner
slave wandering around in alone in the mine. I was not stopped and questioned.
It was a very large mine and large numbers of Chinese prisoners and Korean
laborers were worked within its many stapes galleries, and tunnels. Because
of the limits of the lifts the work hours were staggered so that gangs would
come and go and hardly see anything of one another.
When I reached my detail, the honcho was very much on edge and disgusted
with his American miners. They had all eaten their rice and pickle but I
was not given time to eat mine which remained tied up in a rag handkerchief
still in the little wooden (bento) boxes; one larger, one small but neither
containing very much food and looked even less in boxes that could have held
more. I was famished but only managed to eat it on the hike back after work
time had expired. It had been a long, tiring night.
The sky had begun to lighten slightly when we finally reached the surface
after our first ten hours of coal mining. Thankfully, we were allowed to
use the company bath to try and wash some of the grimy coal dust from our
weary bodies. The bathhouse was a huge room almost entirely filled with a
concrete tub, about four feet deep and nearly as large as a tennis court.
At several places, pipes from overhead extended into the steaming water-filled
pool, injected live steam to heat it. A foot-wide trough surrounded it and
a stream of fresh water ran within. Scattered around on the floor and in
the trough were dozens of little, wooden buckets bound with darker, wooden
bands. The idea was to first wash well from the water in the trough and then,
when clean, soak in the warm pool. There was no soap or towel so it was very
difficult to get clean. Most of us used the cloth we had carried our bentos
in as a combination wash cloth and towel. The bath was not segregated sex-wise
and we were mostly amused to see some women using the facility. The few I
saw congregated in one corner and kept to themselves. They showed far less
interest in us than we in them even though these women were not Las Vegas
showgirls. Far from it, in our physical condition only food seemed to occupy
I worked the Honko mine only for a short while, perhaps an entire shift of
ten days. I expect the honchos my crews worked for gave up on us in disgust,
for I was soon transferred to work the other mine called "Shinko." It was
an old, inclined shaft a couple miles further from Honko over the huge, ancient,
slag heap mountain. Once closed as unproductive and having once been damaged
by earthquakes, it was now opened again for Japan's war effort.
The Shinko shaft had a concrete entrance, nothing elaborate or anything;
over the top of the arc, in English lettering the word SHINKO had been cast
into the structure. Nothing was written in chicken track style of Japanese
lettering. The shaft inclined at about 30 degrees with rail tracks down the
center and steps leading down along the left side. On the rise just above
the opening was a building that housed the motors and winches that lowered
empty Hako cars into the mine and pulled those loaded with coal out.
It was not considered safe to ride in the cars to the coal faces below and
against the rules to do so. The cables only went so far. Then the cars were
unclasped from the cable and handled by prisoners from that point. A Japanese
civilian ran the track and cable system using a hook-like tool about a foot
long to operate the cable clamps. It was a tiny bit like the cable-car system
so famous in San Francisco. The cable Honcho was a wild creature -- always
in high gear shouting words and warnings that meant little to us those first,
few weeks after starting work in the Shinko.
Walking down into the mine was tenuous and tedious. Crews were made up above
ground and assigned to honchos who would escort their work gang of prisoner
slaves down into the mine. At the lower end of the main shaft, lateral tubes
cut off to the left and right. Each lateral was numbered: Migi Itchi (right
one), Hidari Ni (left two), etc. We were told the system of mining was a
kind of technique developed in Belgium. The Hollanders knew more about it
than any of the rest of us and, some of them, the Caucasians particularly,
were assigned to the mine engineer office above ground. The Indonesians were
enslaved at "unskilled" labor along with the rest of us.
Usually the laterals on either side of the mine shaft followed parallel courses
about 100 feet apart. Within the geology of the earth below, deposits of
coal sandwiched with rock and dirt ran between the two, usually at a gentle
angle. The coal was blasted out in sections by the drilling and dynamite
crew, after which we hoe and basket operators, would scoop up the loose coal
and toss it into a conveyor carrying it to a waiting car in the lateral below.
As the process continued, coal was mined during one shift, called "production."
The next shift, called "construction" would move all the machinery and extended
the laterals, and lay more track. The overhead would slowly subside behind
and along the coal faces as everything went forward. Loads of pine poles
were brought down from the upper laterals and used to erect support of the
immediate overhead. Big rocks were also used to build pillars of slag to
help hold up the "roof." These were also used as toilets while under
construction. The Japanese forbid it but there were no other places of
sanitation. In the course of a few days the tremendous pressure of the earth
above would crush the poles and smash the rock pillars (bota maki) to a space
of just a few inches. Some spaces along the conveyor would not allow one
to stand fully erect. Excavation was limited to just enough to get the coal
out and move on. Only along the laterals could short men stand up. Tall men
had to look for special places with head room.
Shinko being closer to the surface was cooler than Honko but there were hardly
any facilities above ground, no heated assembly room, no bathhouse and no
coal processing and sorting unit. The coal cars were fastened to other cable
systems and transported over the slag heap mountain to the Honko system.
A vertical shaft was located at the rear of the mine for ventilation. We
called it an escape tunnel. If there was a ladder in it, I don't know, because
I only saw it from topside and I never went close. It gave us a sense of
security in case of a major cave-in, knowing there was another way out.
There were other small details performing general maintenance tasks in the
laterals. Usually these were better jobs than with the big crews, but they
could be worse depending on the Honcho or Japanese miner in charge.
I often worked for an older man we called the "Skunk" because he gave off
such a strong smell. I expect we prisoners did not smell ever so sweet to
him either, but he was a kindly old fellow and didn't complain about it.
He was always in good humor and was never mean or nasty with his crews. It
seemed to us that he had once been retired and compelled to work again in
order to qualify for larger rations. Working for the Skunk meant starting
to work later, longer rest and bento (lunch) breaks and an earlier quitting
time. He often asked for "go hako hatchi" my prisoner number, 508. I was
always pleased when he did, but never knew why. It was not that I was an
eager beaver worker. I doubt that my work ethic impressed him. It may have
been that I just talked to him. He taught me Japanese words and how to say
them and seemed patient with a slow learner and what must have been a gawd-awful
The Skunk's prize possession was a big, railroad-style, pocket watch. He
carried it in his pocket wrapped in about two yards by two inch wide felt
cloth. It was his habit to declare a short rest period every night (he always
worked nights) upon reaching the work site. Then he would take out his watch,
slowly unwrap it, check the time, give the winder a couple twists and carefully
wrap it back up in what once may have been an old yellow army legging.
During the course of the night I would sometimes ask, "Mo nonji desu ka"
(what time is it?). Most often he would stop what he was doing and break
out his watch, unwrap it slowly and then say, "Ema kuji han desu." (nine
thirty or whatever it was). We got a little extra rest that way, but he never
worked us hard. He usually took about three of us to his task. That was mainly
repairing rotten or crushed overhead timbers in the main laterals. The old
ones were removed and the rock and shale cleaned up around where they had
been. If there was any coal found, it had to be loaded into his car, tagged
with his metal ID tag, and new supports cut and put into place.
PRISONER OF WAR CAMPS IN JAPAN
& JAPANESE CONTROLLED AREAS
AS TAKEN FROM REPORTS OF
INTERNED AMERICAN PRISONERS LIAISON & RESEARCH BRANCH
AMERICAN PRISONER OF WAR INFORMATION BUREAU
by JOHN B. GIBBS 31 July 1946
FUKUOKA CAMP NO. 10 FUTASE, KYUSHU ISLAND
This camp, on the crest of an ancient slag and rock pile, was located between
the villages of Futase & Iizuka, approximately 50 miles from Moji on
the north and 45 miles from Fukuoka on the west. Nakatsu, on the Inland Sea,
was approximately 35 miles northeast of Futase. The coordinates of the latter
are 33°26'N., 131°05'E.
Size of compound was 300' x 300' and was surrounded by a 10' wood fence.
Bamboo pilings sharp ends up and pointing inward, had been fastened into
the barricade at the top. An alarm system had been fastened in the fence.
The project was mining coal in the mines of Honko & Shinko Mining Company.
It was a typical mining town. The power plant of the Mining Co. was located
here and was topped by 4 smoke stacks said to be about 100 feet high.
2. PRISONER PERSONNEL:
A detail of 200 American prisoners from the Philippines reached this camp
on 4 August 1944, the Senior Officer being Capt. (now Lt. Colonel) Roscoe
Price. A Capt. Corrigan was of the officer detail, and Capt.
Barshop, Army Medical Corps was the Camp Surgeon whose associate was
Capt. Sidney Vernon, Army Med. Corps. The American personnel was divided
among the service groups as follows: Army 75; Navy 65 and Marines 60.
This installation was first occupied by 350 Dutch and 2 British prisoners
in 1942. The total of 552 reached after the arrival of the American contingent
remained about the same until the camp was liberated.
3. GUARD PERSONNEL:
The first commandant was 1st Lt. Seijiro Yashitsugu who was succeeded by
Tsuyoshi Sakai. Camp doctor was Yoshiwaka Suenaga whose assistant was Sugi
Horibumu. Two guards merely indicated by nicknames as "Gorilla" and "Blackjack",
along with the medical assistant, were extremely cruel in their beatings
of the prisoners, and in the most of the cases the prisoners themselves did
not know the cause. See further under the sub-heading of "Treatment."
4. GENERAL CONDITIONS:
(a) HOUSING FACILITIES: There were 2 barracks, light frame structures, unheated
and very poor lighting. One barracks, rectangular in shape, was 120' long
by 40' wide. The camp hospital and a latrine were located in this building,
which also contained prisoner sleeping quarters divided into 3 rooms with
double deck bays for sleeping. The larger barracks, divided into 14 rooms,
was built in the shape of the letter "U". Each wing was 120' x 40'. The enclosed
end of this building also was 120' x 40'. This structure was divided into
15 rooms, each holding from 20 to 40 prisoners and was equipped with 2 elevated
sleeping platforms, one being 8" from the floor and the other at an elevation
of about 6'. Neither of these barracks was insulated. The floor in the larger
building was concrete. The smaller building was floored with wood. The roofs
were of leaky tile. The barracks were filthy and infested with vermin of
every kind. The other buildings for the prisoners in addition to the barracks
were 3 for storage; 1 bath house; 1 combined mess hall and kitchen and 1
carpenter shop. A covered outside latrine had been erected.
(b) LATRINES: A single latrine was in the smaller barracks and at the end
thereof. Two were in the larger building and a separate latrine had been
provided in a disconnected structure. Holes were cut into and flush with
the floors with receiving pits underneath. Straddle type. The latrines were
emptied by the prisoners, equipped with buckets, at least twice weekly. Concrete
urinals had been installed in the latrines.
(c) BATHING: A separate bath building had been erected and it was entirely
inadequate. The bath was equipped with 3 concrete tubs, 2 of which were 7'
x 10' x 4' and one was 4' x 7' x 4'. The water was heated by steam but the
building was not heated.
(d) MESS HALL: A rectangu1ar building with 2 ells making out from one corner
and one end. It was equipped with tables, benches and dishes for feeding
the prisoners. The size and equipment of this structure enabled the seating
of 400 prisoners at a time. The two ells evidently contained the kitchen
and a store room. The building was constantly filthy, and was unheated and
unlighted. Because of leaky roof the building could not be used when it was
(e) FOOD: Rice, as usual, was the staple item of diet ranging in amount per
man per day of 260 to 350 grams. Soup made from vegetable tops and vines
and sea weed, poorly prepared, was also served as well as small portions
of fish, both of which were consistently putrid. The cooking was done by
Dutch prisoners using steam heat. No meat was served. The rice was of good
quality. The menu was varied from time to time but the quantity of food in
these words: "hunger will drive one to eat most anything."
(f) MEDICAL FACILITIES: Capt. Barshop, Army Med. Corps, was the Camp Surgeon,
but worked under the direction of a Japanese Army officer who willingly shifted
his responsibility upon the shoulders of the American officer who by temperament
and medical skill is credited with saving many lives and boosting morale
under disheartening conditions. Little or no medicines could be obtained.
There were no hospital facilities. Capt. Barshop also protected the prisoners
against the imposition of work decrees issued by the Japanese camp physician
when they were too weak to stand on their feet for even a brief period.
The sick prisoners were bedded on filthy bags in sick bays located in the
smaller barracks. Proper food could not be obtained and no cooperation could
be obtained from the Japanese officers.
(g) SUPPLIES: (1) Red Cross - Y.M.C.A. - Other relief. Three 10-pound Red
Cross food parcels were issued, one at Christmas 1944, one in Feb. 1945 and
the third one after surrender. These parcels constituted the entire issue
by the Japanese from Red Cross supplies.
(2) Japanese Issue: The Japanese issued to the American prisoners shortly
after their arrival 1 cotton summer uniform, shorts and shirts made of flour
sacks and one coverall suit. Canvas shoes were given to the prisoners. Winter
clothing issued in Nov. 1944. After Nov. 1944 no further clothing was given
(h) MAIL: (1) Incoming: None. (2) Outgoing: On 2 occasions the prisoners
were allowed to write 25-word cards. Letters varying in length was a privilege
extended to a few of the prisoners.
WORK: The job was mining coal in the mines of the Honko & Shinko Mining
Co. From the time of leaving the barracks in the morning until the return
of the enlisted prisoners at night, the working period was 11 to 14 hours.
The officers were assigned to work in the camp such as mess detail, service
in the library, morning muster and physical drill. Enlisted men too sick
to work in the mines were assigned to emptying latrines and other menial
forms of work. Working conditions were very bad. The mines were wet and the
air was suffocating. One mine was 3,800 feet deep and the other had an inclined
shaft 200 yards long set at an angle of 45°. No safety measures had
been installed. Inadequacy of food and frequency of mistreatment by Japanese
soldiers and civilian mine workers impelled one prisoner to state that "this
life is possible only with the knowledge that to tough it out would some
day mean freedom."
(j) TREATMENT: Proclaimed to have been brutal with variation. While no charges
of cruelty were lodged against the commandant, it is apparent that he condoned
the constant beatings. The officer medical assistant is charged with doing
the "dirty work" of the Japanese medical officer in engineering some of the
punishments to which the prisoners were subjected. Reference is made to the
medical assistant and 2 guards under the sub-heading "Guard Personnel". The
testimony of 4 prisoners of the U.S.M.C., 2 of the Navy, and 1 of the Army
declare that the beating of the prisoners, frequently into insensibility,
were administered for the slightest cause, generally unknown to the offender,
and that they were so cruel and damaging as to require hospitalization.
(k) PAY: (1) Officers: From 20 to 50 yen per month.
(2) Enlisted Men: 15 sen per day. Sergeants and Master Sergeants 20 and 25
sen per day respectively.
(l) RECREATION: None provided. Even had facilities been furnished the prisoners,
by reason of their weakened condition, could not have indulged in any forms
of physical exercise beyond that imposed by their work detail. Incidental
mention is made to a library probably furnished by the Y.M.C.A.
(m) RELIGIOUS ACTIVITIES: The first camp commandant would not permit religious
services. As the time of American victory approached some limited religious
services were conducted. There were no chaplains in the camp.
(n) MORALE: Fluctuating according to food and "grapevine" news.
This camp was liberated 16 September 1945. The prisoners in several groups
were taken by train to Nagasaki from which port they embarked on American
steamers via various routes to the United States.
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