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Chapter IX – Bilibid



On reporting as ordered to the main gate of Camp No. 1, I noticed a truck with two Japanese guards — looking as if they were expecting some kind of cargo. I soon learned that I was to be the valuable shipment, which was either so valuable and/or dangerous that these two armed guards stayed with me in the back of the truck during the trip to Cabanatuan City. I was told that I was the only one-man detail ever to have left Camp-No. 1. Quite a distinction! On arriving at the railroad station, which I had seen three times before, I found a troop train still discharging its troops; so, I had to wait a little while before boarding my “private” car.

As the guards were escorting me aboard this car, on which I proved to be the only “paying” passenger, a Japanese Lieutenant stepped forward and greeted me. He looked quite smart in his uniform. Whether or not he had disembarked with the troops, or whether he was assigned locally to greet me — I didn’t know. Nevertheless, he came aboard with me, and seemed to be anxious to “chat”. Evidently he knew who I was, and where I was going. Here, is the essence of our conversation: “You must be happy that you are going to Manila”. “Yes”, I replied, “I will be glad to be among friends.” Our chat in the aisle of the coach was necessarily brief, since he, no doubt, had duties elsewhere, and the train was due to leave momentarily. As my “friendly enemy” was about to take his leave he clicked his heels, stood at attention, and as he gave me a snappy salute he said, “I wish you luck.” Hoping to match his salute, I clicked my heels, stood at attention, and returned his salute with these words, “I, too, wish you luck.” I hope that this young officer, who probably had lived in America (his English was very good), survived the war, and that he is enjoying life — wherever he may be I had a feeling that he knew he was involved in a lost cause, and that his heart was not really in it.

The two young guards, who had been in the background, remained with me in the car, which was otherwise empty. These young soldiers (a corporal and a private) sat opposite me, and I had a double seat to myself. They allowed me to reverse the seat ahead of me, so I .sat there with my feet cocked up on the opposite cushion, and even had a couple of windows through which to view the passing scene — as we headed for Manila. Quite a contrast to the little hot metal box cars — filled with people sitting on all their worldly possessions! This train was no super chief, but it almost seemed like it by way of comparison.

One incident during this trip I must mention. At the train’s first stop there were several Filipinos selling their produce — at the inflated prices caused by the almost worthless Japanese invasion printing-press money. One little girl, perhaps about eight or nine years old, with big, brown wistful, calf-like eyes, had some boiled duck eggs in her little basket. As she came over (irresistibly) close to my car, my number one guard hollered out the window, “How much?” her reply was “Two pesos”, meaning, of course, two pesos for each egg. This the guard must have known, but he took all five of the little lady’s eggs, and threw her only two pesos for the lot. I cou^d .sense her helpless disappointment — as she looked up at me (I was on her side of the train) hungrily. As surreptiously as possible I reached into my pocket, and found I had two pesos, which I tossed to the little lass, whose smile was worth any risk that might have been involved. I don’t know whether or not the guards noticed what I had done, but they did give me one of the eggs So, at least, I had paid for my egg! Rosie says she isn’t jealous of this little lass, who gave me such a beautiful smile! I hope she is enjoying life, as a woman in her middle thirties.

That evening about dusk I entered old Bilibid for the fourth time, my two guards having delivered me in a small truck, which had met our train, on which there were only a few passengers. The guards did not give me a parting salute — as had the friendly Japanese officer at Cabanatuan; however, they had treated me all right — under the circumstances.

I was not a newcomer to old Bilibid; although I had stayed there only a couple of times (overnight), I had served with our Naval Hospital Staff, and also knew some of the patients who still were there. So, it was not as a stranger that I entered those gates again, and as I had told the Japanese officer at Cabanatuan City, “it waS nice to-be among friends,” from whom I received a warm welcome. Chaplain Wilcox and others were more than helpful in their efforts to bring me up to date — so that I could function as effectively as possible.

Although there were several changes in the use of the Bilibid buildings during their occupancy by American prisoners, the general arrangement had not changed. Prisoners and all others entered the compound via the front underpass just inside the double metal gates. The various buildings were adapted comparatively well for our hospital purposes, and also for temporary housing for prisoners as drafts were made up to be sent to Japan” This latter activity began in the fall of 1942, about the time one thousand of us were sent to Dapecol. In ^peaking of Bilibid’s lending itself to hospital and other needs I am, of course, speaking only in comparative terras — in relation to other facilities out there.

After being in Bilibid a few days (on August 1, 1944) I had occasion to write the following to Rosie: “Dear Rosie: I am not observing any special date this time, but am writing because something special has happened to me lately. I was called back to Manila to be with the Naval Hospital unit that I had left more than two years ago. This came out of a clear, blue sky, and was a very pleasant surprise. It is the next thing to coming home, and I hope I can stay here until I .do start back. The Protestant chaplain here became ill, and they sent for me to take his place. I hope I will be a good pinch-hitter, since there is a fine opportunity to serve here. I got several letters on arrival, and although this batch didn’t include any of yours, I know it is not because you haven’t written. The latest letter was written on August 20, 1943 — almost a year ago. I have been told I have latex letters here — being censored — so I’m looking forward to them.

Things look much better here, and I am very hopeful. I am feeling better, in that I am getting some good rest by sleeping on a thin mattress for the first time in two years. I also have the use of a cold water, outdoor shower. Being with old friends in this Naval hospital unit is a big plus. Actually, I’m having a hard time getting back to earth. I don’t know what I’ll be like when I get home, but hope I will at least be able to answer your questions; and, of course, I’ll have plenty to ask you. Writing is so unsatisfactory — as it has always been for us. We are missing a great deal, but because of this experience we will both have more to contribute. I hope our boys have not grown too far away from their Dad. Also, I hope that I will prove to be a better husband, father and minister — as a result of these experiences. I would like to be able to consider staying in the Navy — if it meets with your approval; not that I want to be away from home anymore! I am looking forward to the time when we can talk over such things — and many more. Always, Earl.”

My work as the Protestant chaplain in Bilibid was as enjoyable as could be expected, and it was a real privilege to serve fellow-prisoners, even though most of them were down physically, and consequently low, as far as morale was concerned. This business had stretched out so long that there was a lot of pessimism and discouragement in our midst. ‘The food ration had been reduced to less than a thousand calories a day, which, of course, is a starvation diet.

Among other things, it was my duty to officiate at burials more and more frequently, since some of our shipmates simply could not stand the strain any longer — after having held on for so long. These burials were inside the compound,’ and while grim enough, the situation was not as bad as it was during the early days at Cabanatuan, and also later in Manila.

A chapel of sorts had been rigged at Bilibid, and I was privileged to conduct services there regularly. Also, I was able to visit among the patients and staff — as well as “strays” and groups waiting to be formed into drafts — to be shipped up to Japan. These were mostly from Cabanatuan, so I had a chance to visit with some of my old friends now and then.

The morale level fluctuated from time to time — depending partly on the latest rumors — or the lack of them. It is difficult for a man’s morale to remain very high (humanly speaking) when he is hungry and sick. In my visiting and preaching I continued to emphasize the unseen values … such as faith, hope and love … without (I hope) seeming to be too “otherworldly” and “preachy”. Here was a real test of whether or not a man was practicing what he was preaching. Maybe more preachers (like me) need to undergo such a test.

August 22, 1944 (our eighteenth wedding anniversary) was the occasion for the following: “Well, Rosie, -it hardly seems like eighteen years since our beautiful little wedding, but it certainly seems a long time since I’ve seen you and the boys. Surely it just can’t be another long years before we get together again, and I really don’t think it will be. So much has happened that I can’t begin to tell you about on paper. Although I haven’t heard much from you, I know that you have written plenty. The latest letter I have received was dated March 15, 1944. I am ‘enjoying it here’ – compared to where I’ve been the last couple of years. It is nice to be with the hospital unit that I started the war with, and with which I feel at home. I think I am getting in somewhat better shape, and should be able to get back to par in comparatively short order — when the time comes to get back to “home-cookin’” and normal living.

This is probably rambling and disconnected, but you will understand, I just wanted to mark another milestone. I’ll answer all the questions I possibly can when I get home; what a great day that will be — to see you and my precious boys — and all the rest! May God bless and keep you. Earl.”

I mentioned a little earlier that I was able to conduct divine services regularly here at Bilibid. The only interruptions of our services were really not so unwelcome, since they were caused by our planes flying over to bomb the Manila waterfront. Our captors required us to go to our dormitories and close the wooden shutters during these raids — so,that we couldn’t see what was going on. However, these shutters didn’t always close completely, and, although we didn’t exactly have ringside seats, we enjoyed the show. This happened only a cpuple of times during divine services, and we figured the Lord would, understand these interruptions.

We saw our first American planes (or first anything American) over Manila on September 21, 1944, and they were a beautiful sight (for sore eyes) for us who had not seen or heard anything from our side for so long. This was really a shot in the arm — causing us to realize that this part of the war had not been forgotten. It also renewed our confidence that we were getting the upper hand, and gave us renewed hope that the Philippines would not be by-passed by our forces. Truly this was a red letter day, although all was not smooth sailing for the rest of the cruise, which, for some of us, was still to last for several months, and for nearly a year for others, while for many it ended abruptly and tragically within the next three months.

I have mentioned that the drafts were formed here at Bilibid, to be sent to Japan. This had been going on for about two years now, but there were still about five thousand of our people left at Cabanatuan. Apparently the Japanese had In mind sending as many as possible of us north (especially since recent developments) to keep us from falling into friendly hands— and also, perhaps, in order to have greater bargaining power in the future. In line with this procedure, one of the largest drafts (nearly two thousand) of our people was brought from Cabanatuan several days before sailing north. In this group were many of my friends from early Cabanatuan days, and from Dapecol. Renewing friendships and acquaintances was a pleasant experience — while it lasted. Telling these fellow-prisoners goodbye, however, was a different matter, since we suspected that it would be a hazardous voyage — in a crowded, unmarked ship — with our planes and subs now operating in the area.

I thought for a while that I was going to be included in this draft; in fact, my name was on the list until only a matter of hours before the contingent was to leave. They did take almost all of the Naval hospital, staff, which was replaced by an Army unit from Cabanatuan. Some of us thought this wasn’t fair (although we had learned not to expect fairness from our captors), since this Naval unit had done such a good job of cleaning up and putting this place in commission, and continued to carry on for almost two and one-half years. You don’t have to have been prejudiced against the Array to have made the above statement.

Why did the Japanese make this change? You just have to repeat, “their only consistency lies in their inconsistency”. There are, however, a couple of factors that could have entered into this decision to change hospital staffs. By and large, the Navy group represented more seniority, and also it was made up largely of regular Navy people. The Array unit was made up largely of junior people, most of whom were reserves. This followed the plan that apparently had been followed by the Japanese: When there’s a choice retain the lowest ranking reserves. This may have been what happened in my own case; since I was quite a low ranking reserve, and also since the Army unit included no chaplain, I was retained as the Protestant chaplain. Perhaps this is giving our captors too much credit; at any rate, if I had had a choice would not have chosen to go north.

Apparently “the powers that were” did not have other more important factors in mind in making up the roster of those who were to go. For instance, I saw non-ambulatory patients (on crutches) herded into formation, and sent out the main gate, and at least a couple of bed patients were carried out, to unspeakable suffering, and almost certain death. You will realize that I am not exaggerating here when, only a handful of the two thousand survived this “shipment” on this overcrowded fetid, ghastly hell-ship. Many of my good friends were lost on this unnecessarily hazardous voyage on an unmarked ship, which gave no indication of who might be aboard. It would have been more humane and merciful if the enemy had lined up our men and machine-gunned them. Two or three of my close friends, who did survive, were reluctant to tell even me some of the details of the worst things that went on during this horrible nightmare. I did learn, however, that thirst was so intense that some were reduced to drinking urine and blood. I’ll leave other things to your imagination. You don’t need to use much imagination, though, to surmise that a certain number of our people were forced into stark, raving madness. Of course, we did not hear this story until sometime later. When I did, however, my question was, “Why was I spared?” My only answer was, and still is, that there must have been unfinished work for me to do. I can assure you — it has been a humbling experience — even though I may not seem to be so humble.

On October 30, 1944 — on the occasion of his eighth birthday — I wrote the following to my number two son, Leonard: “Well, Butch, old boy (I notice Mother still calls you Butch), there isn’t too much that I can write about, but I like to put down something now and then — so you three will know that I always think of you, and especially at certain times of the year — like your birthday. It is hard to realize you were still four years old when I last saw you, and that you’re going on nine now. But, I expect to see you while you’re still eight. I’ve got to get you that bike I have in mind for you — before you get so big you’ll have to have a full sized one — like your big brother’s. I’ll try to make up for all your birth days, and Christmases, too — with some things I hope you’ll like.

I’m here now with the hospital unit I was with before the surrender. I hope I will not have to go north — so I’ll have a chance of being with you sooner. I have really been very fortunate in many ways, and I’m so proud to have such fine boys. I have been so anxious to get some pictures of you, but haven’t received any yet; nor have I gotten any personal packages, but I know it isn’t because you haven’t sent things. I certainly have enjoyed the letters that have reached me, but I’m getting so anxious to see you three. Even though all of us will have changed some … especially you boys … still, I’m sure we can still be the same happy foursome as before. I know we can have some swell times together. Some things will depend on whether I stay in the Navy, or not. We’ll have to talk over a lot of things together. I’m feeling pretty good now. Love — from your Dad.”

The next several weeks after the October draft were more or less routine — if anything in that strange experience out there could have been called routine. In a sense, however, since not only hearing, but seeing, our first American planes in September, and hearing more and better rumors from time to time, most of us were living with more hope and expectation than we had had before. Also, a new element had been introduced into our one-way “communications system”.

During my brief sojourn at Cabanatuan (before being returned to Bilibid — as a one-man detail) 1 got word of a couple of radios that had been built by some ingenious Americans — right under the noses of the Japanese. These “forerunners” of the transistor radio were put together (over quite a period of time) bit by bit. from discarded materials, and also from parts Jhat were “requisitioned” by some of our people detailed to work in the quarters of the Japanese. This was risky business, but those who engaged in it evidently thought that the rewards could outweigh the risks involved. The result was — after many months of stealth, evasiveness, and ingenuity — there were two working radios in Camp No. 1 that delighted the privileged few who were in on this deal, and evidently puzzled and frustrated the Japanese camp commander. We were told that the enemy was sure the Americans were getting word from somewhere, and that it must be through radio, but no radios were to be found in the camp. The, reason that their inspections did not bear fruit was that these two radios (one placed inside a mess kit, and the other in a canteen) were in plain sight when the inspection parties came around, and these commonplace articles were never suspect. I can imagine, however, the potential panic in the minds and hearts of the owners of these instruments — as the inspectors breathed down their necks! The above “activity” represented the kind of ingenuity, as I mentioned earlier, that caused the Japanese commander to say, “If I don’t watch these _____ ______ Americans, they’ll build a railroad right through this
camp, and take off.’”

When our people came down to Bilibid for the October draft, one of these mysterious instruments was brought along. While not many of us were privileged to listen directly to this marvel of American ingenuity, the good word that our forces were making steady progress northward did get around. This, together with our planes, which we were seeing with our own eyes, combined to be about the biggest morale booster yet. Although our living conditions (especially our food) had not improved, such encouraging word undoubtedly caused some of our people to gain new hope, and a new determination to hang on a while longer — in spite of hunger (actually our food ration was diminishing), pain, and homesickness.

Old Bilibid Prison, Manila
Old Bilibid Prison, Manila. Illustration by Rosella Brewster