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Chapter XI – Bilibid Again



This was the fifth tine that I had entered those never to be forgotten gates to this compound, which had almost (but not exactly) begun to seem like a home away (a long way) from home. Not knowing what was to befall us there we were naturally anxious to learn what had happened in our absence, and what future plans might be. It didn’t take us long, however, to learn that another large draft (mostly from Cabanatuan) had left on December 13 — three weeks before our street car ride from Ft. McKinley. From the rumors we heard, this was another very tragic trip, while subsequent reports indicated that it was the most fateful and ironical of all these ill-conceived attempts to send our people north — regardless. Naturally, this caused increased anxiety about what they would do with us. The general consensus was that they aimed to send the rest of us in Bilibid (seven or eight hundred) north, if possible — before the “Yanks and tanks” got far enough north to liberate us.

I found that I was the only active Protestant chaplain left in Bilibid, since the several’ Army and two Navy Protestant chaplains who had come down from Cabanatuan were included in either the October or December draft. The other three Navy chaplains caught in the Philippines (McManus, Quinn and Trump) were on the December draft. All three of our Navy chaplains were lost on this trip. I do not know all the details of this ill- fated voyage on an unmarked ship with between fifteen hundred and two thousand weary prisoners jammed aboard. Following are some of the reports that I have gleaned from several sources: On the way from Bilibid to the ship in Manila Bay our people were marched by a roundabout way — apparently to humiliate the Americans in the eyes of the Japanese military and the Filipinos a’long the way. It is reported that many deaths resulted within a few hours after our people were herded aboard a waiting freighter with its suffocating conditions aboard. Statements of survivors tell of men, emaciated by three years of malnutrition and brutal treatment, collapsing and dying under the ghastly conditions below decks of this unmarked ship.

The ship was evidently spotted by American planes soon after leaving Manila Bay, and since the vessel showed no signs of carrying American prisoners, she was bombed. After putting in at Olongopo, Subic Bay, the ship was again bombed; this bombing resulted in many casualties. Then the survivors spent a couple of days on a tennis court — in plain sight of attacking planes. After this ordeal, the survivors (a dwindling number) were loaded like cattle into small metal box cards, where many deaths occurred on the way to San Fernando, which had figured in the infamous Bataan death march. Finally, about two weeks after leaving Bilibid, the remaining group was put aboard a ship from which horses had just been unloaded. The horse manure aboard this ship had to be scraped into piles — in order for our people to be able to move about.

As far as I know, no one has been able (or willing) to try to describe in detail the horrors aboard this second ship. Men evidently died from starvation, thirst, brutal beatings, exposure, and a combination of diseases — including diarrhea and dysentery. It is reported that on January 9, 1945, nearly a month after the draft left Manila, this second ship was heavily bombed by American planes, resulting in about five hundred killed instantly, while there were another four hundred casualties, many of whom soon died horrible deaths. The depleted ranks were transferred to still another ship, which got to Japan with only a handful of the original
draft, from which only a few survived to get home — to be able to tell this almost unbelievable story of man’s inhumanity to man — in this supposedly civilized twentieth century. Our three Navy chaplains were among those who did not survive. I got in touch with their next of kin as soon as I could after getting home — to tell them of my association with these “soldiers of the Cross”.

The Catholic Army chaplain, who had been serving in Bilibid, had been retained; apparently my early return had been anticipated — to fill the quota — to serve among the eight hundred of us left in old Bilibid. Chaplain Wilcox had done what he could to serve after the December draft had left — but his heart condition did not allow him to be very active — so he again (along with others) gave me a warm welcome on OUR return on January 5, 1945. Our eight hundred people represented a majority of the military prisoners left in the Philippines, since there were’only about five hundred cripples left at Cabanatuan, where at times there had been as many as twenty-five time’s that number. These were liberated in a thrilling surprise rescue by a group of our courageous Rangers.

Most of our eight hundred people were pretty sick, and I began conducting burial services nearly every day, since the food ration was simply not sufficient to keep people alive. Several weeks before I went out to Ft. McKinley the Japanese command had decided that there was no more room within our prison walls to bury our dead. So, they decided that these burials would be in the huge Del Norte cemetery across the city. I believe this is the cemetery that Chaplain Ray Cook and I visited the afternoon of the only Sunday I was in circulation in Manila — a week or ten days before Pearl Harbor. I was allowed to accompany the bodies, for which the Japanese sent a truck. The first and favorite truck (belonging to the sanitation department of the city of Manila) was labeled “horse manure collection”.

The bodies were wrapped in burlap sack with no embalming, of course. Then the body was placed in a plain, wooden box (which had to be used over and over again), and placed on the bed of the truck It was a good thing that this was in th# open-air, since even a few hours in that heat made quite a difference. Sometimes the truck was not sent in for a day or two after death — and that really made a difference*. I had to climb onto the bed of the horse manure collection truck — to accompany the body. There were always at least two armed guards in the back of the truck with me, and on one trip there were as many as seven! Maybe some came along for the ride, but I like to point out — at every opportunity … what a dangerous man our captors considered me to be!

On these occasions I always wore my one khaki uniform, consisting of pants, shirt, tie and cap. I wanted the service to be as dignified as possible, but I had to make it brief, since the guards didn’t allow me much time. At the cemetery Filipino workers were waiting to carry the body to previously dug graves — usually partly filled with water. After my brief committal service (sometimes in the rain) the body was rolled out of the box into the watery grave, and the moist earth was splashed into the grave, while the chaplain was guarded back to his Bilibid “home”. During a period of a month or so this procedure was repeated at least twenty times. The burials included not only Americans, but also some English and and Dutch prisoners, many of whom had been doing forced labor for the Japanese on a railroad much farther south. Their living conditions, diet and work must have been plenty rough — judging from the condition they were in when they were brought into Bilibid. Then, too, the ship they were being sent to Japan in must have been another hell-ship. She evidently was slowed considerably on this already long voyage by engine and/or propeller trouble, which caused her to have to put in at Manila for repairs.

These poor fellows must have looked even worse than our group when we arrived in Bilibid from Dapecol six months previously. Some of them were so near death that they had to be carried by their buddies. In spite of all that our doctors could do, some of these kindred souls were too far gone — physically. As I conducted the burial services for these members of our Allied forces, I tried to get as complete a list of their names and addresses as possible, but the results were quite skimpy. There was virtually no records with these victims of uncalled-for brutality; what information I did get was largely secured from close friends in their group. I was able, however, to get in touch with a few families of these victims .. after I got home. While speaking of the burials in Del Norte Cemetery, I might mention that I was quite readily recognized (having been in uniform) by Filipinos as I leaned against the cab of the truck going to and from the cemetery. Almost all seemed friendly, and many, in spite of the beating they had been taking for three years, gave me a smile of recognition, while some dared to« give me a wave — or even the victory sign. On several of the later trips to the cemetery I noticed in a grove of trees, quite close to the gravesites, hundreds and perhaps thousands of oil drums. Evidently it was gasoline — for safe keeping, since they must have been pretty sure the Americans wouldn’t bomb a cemetery — and that their precious fuel would be safe there.

After a week or ten days the ship that brought our gallant allies to us was either repaired or replaced, and the survivors were marched or carried back aboard. None was left with us — except the dead. I never learned what the fate of the others proved to be. I would guess, considering what had happened to our people, that very few of them landed in Japan. There were some fine, high-caliber young men in this group; what a waste is war!

Now our planes were coming over quite often, and they continued to be a beautiful sight to us. A few came over our bastile low enough that we could see the pilots wave to us. We were thrilled to wave back … even though there might have been some risk involved. There wasn’t much of an opportunity for us to greet our comrades in the sky, since our guards hurriedly herded us into our barracks — to keep us from enjoying the show. However, resourceful Americans often find ways to circumvent harsh regimentation.

Religious services were sometimes interrupted by air-raid alarms. I had more than one service interrupted abruptly, but we did not object too much to this kind of intrusion, for it meant that the day of our liberation probably was drawing near. I should point out the fact that these planes of ours were not bombing indiscriminately, but their targets were facilities, supplies and equipment, which the enemy could have used against us.

As the days went by (sometimes pretty slowly) we continued to wonder if they were going to try to send us to Japan, too, since apparently their plan had been to get all of us off Luzon — if possible. However, we figured they must have been running low on ships, fuel, and expendable manpower, so, hopefully, we kept our fingers crossed. Some of us went deeper than that, and there were probably prayers that went up from some who had had very little previous practice. I wonder if it isn’t quite true in the case of most of us — that the occasions when we really and desperately pray could be counted on comparatively few fingers. It is no doubt a good thing for many of us to find ourselves in a situation which causes us to pray with Kagawa, “take Thou the burden, Lord, I am exhausted with this heavy load; through faith in Thee alone can I go on”.

Since production, transportation, communications, and the whole economy had been CTippled and brought to a standstill by “the greater South east Asia co-prosperity sphere”, naturally everything and everybody suffered. Now we could more readily understand why our .food ration became so low (down to eight hundred calories), but that didn’t help us forget the situations (especially at Dapecol) where needed food was available, but was withheld from us. It was “for the birds — not the Americans”. We knew, of course, that something had to give — that we could not survive much longer on this diet. We were losing more and more people now, and it was the exception, rather than the rule, when there was a day without at least one burial. Our captors now “found” burial space within the walls, since evidently they figured things were getting too hot for them on the outside. The shortage of gasoline and guards also could have helped to end the trips in the horse manure collection truck.

Eventually some of us did get some help, even though I never learned the source of the limited supply of these vitamin pills and shots ( which were made available. The doctors chose some of us to receive these medications, which certainly were timely. Before leaving Dapecol I had begun to develop a “drag” or “drop” in my left foot. This condition had not improved over the months, so I welcomed this treatment, which did help, and no doubt caused me to be able later to get back to par faster.

I hope during these last weeks of our three year ordeal, which in some ways were the most trying of all, that I was able to share some of the great eternal truths of hope and faith with my fellow-prisoners. If I, by the Grace of God,, was able to bring a message of hope and assurance of God’s love, which made the way brighter — then I felt repaid for the privilege of serving in this part of the Lord’s vineyard. Here were men — defeated, brutalized, worn out, hungry, discouraged, and almost without hope, in spite of the signs we had seen. Such people need to hear great, eternal truths read and proclaimed. God help us preachers when the hungry sheep look up and are not fed! One of the texts I used during this period (perhaps not in context) was a part of Luke 21:28, which says, “Look up, and lift your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh,” I wanted to use every possible legitimate means to bring — not simply human — but divine encouragement and inspiration to these men (and myself) during these anxious and testing days. I didn’t want to see anybody loosen his grip and let go during this final lap of the race. Quarter-horses wouldn’t do here, but “he that endureth to the end ” More and more I used such texts as “Ye are
saved by hope”, “without faith it is impossible to please God,” “bear ye one anothers burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ,” “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble,” “cast thy burden upon the Lord, and He shall sustain thee,” — and many other words for comfort and encouragement. Just as an important television event can,fail to be caught for lack of just a few feet of cable, so can a man lose his goal if he fails to continue to press on to complete the picture.

Not that I have achieved or attained the goal, but my aim in ministering to my compadres here – as well as in my ministry elsewhere — was to extend the human touch, while brining a divine message, without trying to play God.  At least a part of this thought is expressed in the following quote by Spencer M. Free, which I copied earlier in our sojourn:

‘Tis the human touch in this world that counts,
The touch of your hand and mine;
Which means far more to the faining heart

Than shelter, and bread and wine.
For shelter is gone when the night is o’er,
And bread lasts only a day;
But the touch of the hand and the sound of the voice

Sing on in the soul alway. ”

 American Flag - Illustration by Rosella Brewster