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Chapter VIII – Changing Scenery

Soldier - Illustration by Rosella Brewster



Right after Memorial day we did get the definite word that we would be moving on within a very few days; the word was to be ready to go at any time, and that time proved to be June 5. So, after twenty long, weary months, surrounded by that jungle, beset by hunger, trials, temptations, sickness, and other experiences, we were leaving our “shangri-la”. We were pretty sure we would be heading north, but they didn’t tell us what our destination would be.

The first leg of our journey was to Davao, a distance of about ten miles, but we didn’t have to hike it this time. After breakfast on the . day of our departure we were herded onto the drill field — to bake in the hot sun for a couple of hours — until the cattle trucks were assembled,
‘ to haul us away. Before we were allowed to board these vehicles, however, we were forced to remove our shoes, and were blindfolded. Then we were jammed into the trucks, and tied together (standing up) with a half inch rope; maybe it was some that I had helped to make. This was a good way to get the maximum number in each truck, and also to make sure that nobody jumped out — or over. I suppose the blindfolds were to impress us with the fact that this was not to be just a sightseeing tour; subsequently we were duly impressed.

A guard was placed on top of the cab of each truck, armed with a rifle, and a long bamboo pole. When the latter weapon was wielded it resulted in a bop on the head of any of us who spoke, or were thought to be peeking. I didn’t peek, but it isn’t easy for a chaplain to keep still at any time — especially when the man next to him has fainted. The resulting whack didn’t hurt, since I was wearing a pith helmet, which I had acquired somehow — legitimately, I hope. As with a youngster who has been spanked, I could have said, “Didn’t hurt”, but I didn’t say it — not outloud, at least. It can readily be imagined that this trip, which was over a very bumpy road, and took almost an hour, was not exactly a deluxe sightseeing tour.

On arrival at the port of Davao, there were two rather small., old freighters waiting at a pier for us. Immediately we were herded aboard — for security reasons, no doubt. Even before we got aboard we could see (and smell) that those old tubs were even smaller and dirtier than the one that brought a thousand of us down from Manila twenty months earlier.
Now there were two thousand of us, and we could see that, with a thousand men in each of these ships, we were going to have even a more rugged cruise this time. Added to that, it was apparent that the enemy was realizing that our forces were headed north. Consequently, we were not surprised that our captors had become even tougher than ever — and more jittery. As we were marched aboard we passed by one of the ship’s holds, into which we were supposed to throw any gear that we had with us; most of it had been put in trucks which preceded our caravan. I had been able, so far, to hold onto my precious under-arm zipper-case, containing my most valuable possessions; but now I wondered how I was going to keep it from the possibility of being lost in the shuffle. I really hadn’t counted on having this problem, which was a pressing one, since an enemy guard was standing at the hold to see that we went to our “cabins” empty-handed — except for our canteen and mess gear, which were hooked to our belts. As I started to pass by the hold, the guard, noticing my zipper case, motioned to me, and pointed to the hold. Pointing to the cross on my collar, I kept walking — not too fast — and as he pointed his rifle at me I continued to point at my cross and walk, and managed to get by with it. As I heaved a sigh of relief I wondered if I hadn’t been pretty foolhardy; but I suppose I was thinking more about my valuables than about the risk involved. I wonder if I would do such a thing now, but I was younger then. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained”, I guess. Besides, “The Lord looks after babies, preachers, and other fools”. As we say in the Navy: I’m sure I don’t live that good”. Also, like Satchel Paige,”I didn’t look back — for fear something might have – been gaining on me”.

Well, these ships were even worse than the ones we had come down in from Manila twenty long months ago. We were more crowded, the coal bunkers were dirtier, and the cruise took twice as long, since we put in at almost every port along the way. We were so crowded that it was impossible for all of us to lie down, or even sit down, at the same time.
We tried sleeping (down in our coal bunkers — on the steel decks) in shifts, which was certainly less than ideal, and that didn’t work out too well. Some of us preferred to stay a good part of the time topside, where there was fresh air — even though sometimes there was standing room only.

The first night out from Davao I underwent a humbling experience. Some of us were standing topside, leaning against a bulkhead, which was the most comfortable place we could find. Standing beside me was my friend Warren, whom I have mentioned previously as having renewed his Christian commitment. As we were standing there – hungry, tired, and already dirty — I said, to Warren: “This looks like an almost impossible situation, doesn’t it?” Warren’s reply was, “Well, Chaplain, you’re going to have to eat those words. Here you’ve been preaching to us that with God’s help nothing is impossible, but with God anything is possible; how about that? Chaplain, in spite of everything, God is good to us!” Preacher, practice what you preach! As I have said before, this preaching is a risky business!

On this “luxury” cruise we were constantly hungry and thirsty; our rations for these three weeks consisted of a couple of rice balls and one canteen of water (for all purposes) a day. Together with only the crudest, skimpiest “sanitary” facilities — this was not exactly conducive to good habits and regularity. Add to all this the filthiness of the old coal-bum- ing.vessel — then you have the conditions that make for a hell-ship. We didn’t remove our clothes or shoes (the rats were too numerous down below) for three weeks, and, of course, we had no opportunity to bathe or shave during that time.

As I think back on such an experience, I wonder how we were able to endure it. From a human standpoint, I suppose the fact that already we had endured so much helped. Also, the idea now in our minds that our being moved North meant the possibility that the day of our liberation might be drawing nearer — this may have helped to sustain us. However, some of us felt the sustaining power of the “friend that sticketh closer than a brother”.

Since on this voyage we sailed (slowly) close to the shores of inviting looking islands, it may have entered the minds of a certain number of the “passengers” that this presented a potentially good opportunity for escape — in spite of plenty of armed guards aboard. Abactor that might have made escape less difficult and dangerous at night lay in the fact that the ships were blacked-out after dark. This, as did the matter of sailing close to shore, no doubt had to do with the possibility of submarine attacks.

As far as potential escapees were concerned, however, there were at least a couple of major deterrents. First, most of us (even.the huskiest)
probably did not have enough stamina to complete what appeared to be a comparatively short swim. The second major deterrent involved the question: where would I be, and among whom, if I succeeded in making it ashore? In spite of these considerations, however, there was one young, rather brash, cocky, Army Second Lieutenant who did take the plunge one night. I never learned whether or not he made it, or what happened to him — if he got ashore. I hope he was successful — even though he and I were not exactly bosom buddies, having engaged in a couple of dialogues, in which we did not see eye to eye — so to speak.

I mentioned previously that we stopped at about every port along the way. At a couple we stayed only briefly, at a couple of others several hours, at one overnight, and at one we stayed a day or two; here we were allowed out on the dock awhile. However, we were not allowed to “go ashore!” The slowness of the ships, together with these stops, stretched this nightmare into three long weeks of the kind of discomfort that makes me shudder and experience nightmares even now. One other observation before we leave this pleasant travelogue. As we were tied up at a dock in Cebu (one of the largest ports along the way) we saw Filipino women and children (some pre-teenagers) having to carry coal to and from the ships.. Man’s inhumanity to women and children!

Perhaps it would be difficult for most of my readers to imagine what the. two thousand of us looked like when we finally landed at Manila, after those twenty months down south — and after that three weeks cruise. Maybe we were a potentially good”exhibit A” — from the standpoint of our captors, who had been preaching their “greater Southeast Asia co-prosperity sphere” propaganda to our Filipino friends. However, as our bedraggled, haggard, bearded and dirty crew was marched through the streets of Manila for all to witness the “superiority of the generous Japanese over the selfish, imperialistic Americans” — it was plain to see that not many of these gentle people had been swallowing this propaganda. As this (probably largely captive) audience lined the streets as we dragged ourselves and our gear along we could see that they had a fellow-feeling for us, and a sympathetic understanding of our plight, which they shared — in essence. There were handkerchiefs at the eyes of many, some of whom dared also to wave them in a friendly greeting.

Manila looked markedly worse than previously — as we noticed (even through our periferal vision) the deterioration and lack of activity. It was not hard to realize that its captors had caused this once bustling city to become almost completely paralyzed. In this connection — as I notice contemporary events — such as violence in our cities, I am struck with the thought of how easy it is to tear down and destroy, and what hard work and sacrifice it takes to be constructive.

As I entered the portals of old Bilibid prison for the third time I wondered how long I would be staying this time, and if and when I might return. It didn’t take long to get an answer to the first part of the question, since we were kept there only overnight. This did provide an opportunity (if you initiated it) for a bath and a shave — of sorts. I don’t recall, whether or not my tresses got trimmed during this brief sojourn, but I do remember how good and refreshing it felt to get at least some of the dirt, grime and coal dust, off — plus the whiskers — even though I didn’t have much to put on in the way of clean clothes. – I figured clean clothes wouldn’t make too much “difference, however, when I learned they were sending us back to .Cabanatuan. This was not the most pleasant possible thought for us to contemplate — especially for those of us who had been there. However, we heard at Bilibid that Camp No. 1 had improved somewhat. It has been the consensus among us that we would be going on up to Japan — either directly, or via Bilibid — until we learned otherwise. This would have meant that many of our number would have been more likely to have survived, . since in a couple of later drafts there were very few survivors. Later I will have occasion .to allude to these tragedies, which took the lives of many of my friends.

While at Bilibid I had a brief opportunity to at least say hello to some of the Naval Hospital Staff and patients with whom I had served at Santa Scholastica’s College in Manila. This unit continued to do a good » job at this crossroads. Some of my friends on the staff there again tried to have me assigned as the Protestant chaplain, since the current Japanese Commander of Bilibid was a doctor, who allowed two non-patients to be on the staff as chaplains. A veteran Army chaplain, who was not in good shape, was • serving the Protestants, but, since he was not yet in a patient status I did not get the job. Incidentally, some of my Bilibid friends told me that our contingent, which came in from Dapecol, was the worst looking large group they had seen — and they had seen a number of groups that didn’t look very “purty”! This was a dubious distinction, and I don’t know how much better we looked when we left for Cabanatuan.

So, I left this bastille for the third time, and again we were hiked to “Union” station, where we had our reservations validated on the “Cabanatuan Express” — for accommodations in our cute little mini hot-boxes. By now I was a confirmed commuter on this line, but that doesn’t imply that I enjoyed the trips. There was nothing terribly eventful about this ride compared to the ones I had taken a couple of years before. This time, however, there was a difference in the mode of transportation from Cabanatuan City to Camp No. 1. What a pleasant surprise to find trucks — not only waiting for our gear — but for us, too. Quite different from that miserable Memorial Day forced march in 19421 Perhaps there were a couple of reasons the enemy had for this change. First, we surmised when we left Dapecol that the Japanese figured that the Americans were headed for the Philippines, and that a little less rough treatment of prisoners might be indicated. Secondly, and connected with our first assumption, was the apparent realization that, for the most part, we were in no shape at all for such a march. So, we rode, if not in style.

Those of us who had served time in Camp No. 1 anticipated seeing some of our friends (many had been sent to Japan) there — even though we were not exactly anxious to renew our acquaintance with the place, itself .. in spite of our having heard at Bilibid that conditions here had improved. However, we soon found that our renewal of friendships was not to be realized until after a three week period of quarantine, which was now required for incoming individuals and groups. This must have had implications and ramifications other than health precautions, even though we couldn’t figure out what “they” might have had in mind. Maybe they thought we might have had “secret” information to exchange — or something.

So, we were kept in barracks on the hospital side, which had been cleaned up, and was not the stinking, filthy place it used to be. The fittest had survived, while the bodies of the unfortunate victims of hunger, filth, disease and neglect were in shallow, common graves, many of which the wild dogs had visited, in the so-called cemetery north of the old hospital area. Our conditions in our temporary home were about on a par with those we had left at Dapecol. Here in our interim situation we did have an opportunity to clean up and become somewhat rested from those three weeks on that dirty coal-burning “Maru”.

During this period I was able to conduct some services, and also spend some time on my sporadic running account of periods and events. One of these brief narratives was written to my mother to commemorate her birthday in June. “July 1, 1944 — to my mother — on her seventy-seventh birthday: Well, Mother, I’m a few days late for your birthday; but it couldn’t be helped, since we have been on the move again — from June 5-28. We have had a trying three weeks — coming back to where we were before, after having been gone for twenty months. This was the hardest trip we’ve had, and all of us are completely worn out, but are gradually getting somewhat rested again. It is amazing what the human body can stand. We lost only one man on this trip, although many were in bad shape to begin with.

I have stood the ordeal fairly well, except that I’m still very tired. Things may be a little better here, although we Can’t expect too much at this stage of the game. We are hoping we won’t have to move any more — until this dirty business is over — and that it won’t be too long before we are free again. I am certainly hoping it won’t be more than three years altogether. Also, we are hoping to get more mail here. Since we can’t see you, it is wonderful to hear, although the few letters we have received have averaged about a year old. A fellow gets so lonesome and homesick — but I have not lost faith, and am not too discouraged. I will continue to be optimistic — no matter what might happen. I hope to come back to you all a better son, husband, father and minister. Hope you are all well, and that the good Lord spares you, so that I can see you and tell you how much I love you. Earl.”

This was the fourth 4th of July away from home, and, although I didn’t know it at the time, it would be the last away from my native land and loved ones. We were just finishing our first of three weeks of quarantine, and, of course, there was no opportunity for any loud, outward celebration of the birth of our country. They couldn’t keep us from thinking, however, and there was plenty of inward celebration, as well as discussion among us.
The longer you are away from your country — especially if it is a forced absence — the more appreciation you have for it; that is, if you have ;he capacity for appreciation. Those old familiar words again come back to you, “Breathes there a man with soul so dead, who never to himself has said: This is ray own — my native land?” God help such a person!.

The rather long period of isolation in the old hospital area finally did come to an end, and around the 20th of July we were moved (under our own power) to mainside, where about half of us had spent five months early in our game of “musical chairs”. The place was essentially the same, although there had been some improvements and refinements accomplished — mostly at the initiative and with the hands of our people, many of whom had been sent out — mostly to Japan. Some of our old friends were still there, and we began to renew friendships as soon as possible. They, of course, had lots of questions about how we got along at Dapecol, and especially about our ten-man escape, about which they had only meager reports (or rumors) through some kind of grapevine.
I didn’t remain on mainside long enough, however, to do much visiting; in fact I had hardly had time to get unpacked before a messenger came to my new barracks, saying that I was to report immediately to the main gate … with my gear. So, it was a good thing I was not completely unpacked. I took this message as an order {wondering what’ I had done of failed to do) to not only comply “with all deliberate speed”, but almost to “do it yesterday”. Consequently it didn’t take me long to proceed to the main gate, where I found that I was being taken back to Bilibid … to become the Protestant chaplain, since Chaplain Perry Wilcox, USA, had become a patient. I later learned that some of my old friends on the staff of the Naval hospital there had requested roe by name, and the Japanese medical commander had granted their request.

slice of bread