FORT MC KINLEY
About the middle of November four hundred of us “cripples” were sent out to Ft. McKinley (don’t ask me why), which was not far from Manila. Here we spent Thanksgiving and Christmas of 1944, my fourth year to be away from home on these nostalgic days. Here at v this abandoned military base our living conditions suffered by comparison with those at Bilibid, and the food was definitely more scarce, ‘ if that seems possible. The fact is — they almost starved us there for a period of seven weeks. However, our being out there at this particular time undoubtedly meant survival for many of us.
In effect I was a member of our Administrative Staff there during these bleak and hungry days. The only other officers among us were three young public health service doctors, who had come to Bilibid as a part of this October draft. So, they were fortunate, too, in that they had not been sent north, and that they were not at Bilibid at the time the last draft left in December. The senior doctor, about thirty-five years old, was our head man — under the Japanese command, which wasn’t very high-powered. Naturally our captors had the final word. The other two doctors were quite young; all three did a good job, and I was. glad to be associated with such fine Americans, who were dedicated to healing the sick, and who carried on so well — in spite of such adverse conditions. In spite of all that could be done, we had several deaths during this period. We gave these casualties of war the most dignified burials of which we were capable. Perhaps they wouldn’t have made it had they been kept at Bilibid, since some were in pretty bad shape when we left there.
At Ft. McKinley our diet consisted of practically nothing but rice and watery soup. Most of what little meat we did get (a very few times) was, so spoiled that, before it was cooked, it could be smelled for a distance of twenty-five yards. But, by the Grace of God, we were able to hold services, a few reading groups (as I had done at Dapecol), and even some special observance of Thanksgiving and Christmas. We had nothing (materially speaking) with which to celebrate these festivals, but some of the men still had inner resources, which caused them to be able to endure. “Though the outward man perish, the inner man is renewed day by day.” For the Christian — Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving are always meaningful — no matter what the outward circumstances.
So, life went on; more properly, perhaps I should have used the word existence, since materially and humanly speaking — that is what was taking place — but, “man does not live by bread alone”, and “the things which are seen are temporal, while the things which are not seen are eternal”. Everything considered, our morale on this detached duty was not too low. We had seen our planes over Manila, and could at least hear some “doing their stuff”, over the dock area from “our” fort, which was no more than ten miles from downtown Manila. These factors, together with the word we had received over “mini” radio (at least, indirectly) in Bilibid helped us to retain our hope and expectations, and to realize that “he that endureth to the end shall be saved”.
We were furnished no extra food for Thanksgiving, However, some of our foresighted people connected with the kitchen were resourceful — in a way. They evidently decided there wasn’t enough food around for all the local stray dogs and us, too, so they proceeded to do something about it.
The result was that for our Thanksgiving dinner we had a choice: we could have our “soup” either with or without canine meat; each individual had his choice. I didn’t learn what percentage did or didn’t choose to partake of the optional item on our Thanksgiving menu. I made the negative choice — not because I didn’t need the protein, which we all needed so badly — perhaps it was false pride. However, I had eaten (or tried to eat) everything else that had been set before me, and I concluded I would just feel better without having partaken of such exotic food! I certainly did not, however, presume to blame others who made the positive choice; I figured it was strictly an individual matter. Perhaps another thing that entered my mind was the thought and belief that we were not far from liberation, and since I had made it this far without that particular protein item — I could (by the Grace of God) finish the course.
Since, at the fort we did not have work details — except for policing-up the small, compact area assigned to us — we were able to have a special Thanksgiving service, which could have been the most meaningful of the four I spent out there; one (the first) was aboard the Holland — on the way to Manila in 1941. We didn’t have the nice sanctuary, music, decorations (such as pumpkins, cornstalks, etc.), but some of our resourceful people did find and arrange some make-do decorations – of sorts. These ingenious Americans, again! You can’t keep a man down — even when he is down physically — if he has retained those inner resources, which only God Almighty can supply. Also, necessity really is the mother of invention! For my Old Testament lesson I read the 92nd Psalm, which begins with these words: “It is a good thing to give thanks unto the Lord, and to sing praises unto Thy name, 0 most High: To show forth Thy loving kindness in the morning,’ and Thy faithfulness every night”. For the New Testament lesson, which formed the framework of my Thanksgiving message I used St. Paul’s testimony in Philippians 4:11-13, “not that I speak in respect of want; for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; everywhere, and in all things. I am instructed both to be full, and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ, who strengtheneth me”. I still think that was a pretty good Thanksgiving text. However, I won’t give you the sermon now — you’ll have to wait for my next book: “Barbed-Wire Sermons!”
Naturally, at, the time, we didn’t know what was going to happen to us — out there at this deserted fort — any more than we could figure out why they brought us out in the first place. We were a bunch of “cripples” and low-ranking reserves — so, maybe we were the most expendable — and perhaps we were the ones they could afford to leave behind — just in case. Then some of us realized that we had been pretty crowded in Bilibid when the October draft came down — and that there were two or three thousand more of our people up at Cabanatuan, whom the Japanese probably planned to send to Japan via Bilibid. Perhaps all of these conjectures contained some truth — but, again, “their only consistency lies in their inconsistency”.
Since there were no permanent work details at Ft. McKinley, too many people had too much time on their hands. Even if there had been work to be done, however, I doubt if very many of our sick and lame could have qualified. There were a few books available, so, J was able to resume reading each day to groups made up of those whose eyesight was impaired, plus others who wished to join our “club”. A chaplain has, in a sense, an advantage over others’ in a situation like this — in that he doesn’t need to have time on his hands. His opportunities are right at hand — not only in the formal ministry of conducting services — but also in the more casual (but no less important) activities Of the day. It was a great privilege to be able to serve — not just in a formal sense — but as one who “sat where they sat”. Thus the days melted into weeks, and we found ourselves approaching another Christmas’.
Christmas, 1944 was to be my fourth and last away from home. As was the case with Thanksgiving, we had very little that was temporal with which to celebrate but perhaps we had a greater appreciation than ever of those unseen, lasting values, which give real meaning to life. “A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of things that he possesses”. We did have a special service, with some improvised decorations, and carol singing, for which I heisted the tunes. I would not mean to imply that this was not a time of homesickness and nostalgia — as we thought of our homes and family gatherings with our- loved ones and friends. However, I do believe that some of us had a greater realization of the meaning of Christmas than we had ever had before. We were in a position to visualize the humble surroundings at the birth of our Savior, and to more fully appreciate the humility of those who had listened to and believed the words of the prophet, Isaiah: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given; and the government shall be upon His shoulder; and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The Mighty God, the Prince of Peace”. (Isaiah 9:6)
Not long after Christmas we got word (or, at least, heard rumors) that we would be going back to Manila soon. Naturally we were excited about this, although we had no more of an idea about what this might mean than we had about our having been brought here six weeks earlier. It could have meant that we were going to be shipped to Japan — so, there was apprehension, as well as excitement, among us — as we remembered what we had heard about the tragic fate of most of the members of the October draft. Soon after the first of 194S, we got the word that we were going back to the city very soon. Naturally we arranged out belongings accordingly.
Since we were brought out to Ft. McKinley in trucks, we hardly expected that we would be called on to try to hike back. However, we did not expect to see the kind of transportation they had arranged for us. Would you believe: trolley cars? We knew there were rails running close to the entrance to the fort, but since this line had not been in commission since our arrival (and probably not for some time before), we didn’t expect that it would be reactivated for us. So, you may imagine our surprise when we saw this string of a half-dozen street cars waiting just for us! Most of us had seats, so this was better than standing up in trucks,* or being jammed into the little hot, metal box cars on the “Cabanatuan express”. However, it wasn’t as plush as ray special, private car when I was a one- man detail from Cabanatuan to Manila a few months earlier. Our trolley line didn’t go to the Bilibid gate, but we did ride to downtown Manila, and had a comparatively short hike (again as “exhibit A”), which most of us were able to make, without too much difficulty, back to “good old Bilibid”.