The heading of this chapter does not mean that we were flown, or even shipped directly back to the States when the fighting died down in Manila —, after our last week of waiting there under our liberators and ‘ protectors. Although some of the “fly boys” (then the Army Air Corps) and others were rushed home sooner, it was two months after our liberation before some of us reached home. Naturally we griped to high heaven about those _____ _____ fly boys being the “fair-haired ones who were
always on the gravy train”. However, as time went on — in spite of being so anxious to get home — we realized that we had really been done a favor. The opportunity to gain weight, to rest, and to regain a healthy perspective was really a godsend. Because of this period I’m sure we were much more presentable at home than we would have been earlier.
This (February 10, 1945) was my last time to leave old Bilibid, and I have never been there since. I had been through those gates a dozen times coming and going … in addition to those trips to the cemetery in the “horse manure collection” hearse. While I don’t have any longing for the place, it was really my best “tour of duty” out there. My having been assigned there for the last few months perhaps was the means of my life having been spared. But there were only tears of joy as several hundred of us were trucked (in U.S. Army vehicles) away from those walls. Although we were not taken on a sightseeing tour .through the city, we could see that much of the place was a shambles. It is so easy to tear down, but so hard to build-up! This applies not only to war, but also to so-called periods of peace when there are individuals and groups (some of them undoubtedly organized) bent on destruction, and with nothing constructive with which to replace what they have so quickly destroyed.
This leg of our journey home (what a beautiful word!) took us to the north coast of Luzon to Linguyan Bay, where we stayed at an Army rest camp for about a week. It was there that we received further rehabilitation in the form of rest, plenty of good food, and some Army fatigue clothes. It wasn’t too hard for us Navy people to swallow our pride on this occasion; any old port in a storm, you know! After all, we were all Americans together. This was where groups were organized–to be sent home by various routes.
About one hundred and twenty-five of us Naval personnel were kept together, and after our week ashore, were put aboard a Navy supply ship tied up at a nearby dock. She even supplied food for other ships! We couldn’t have chosen a better source of food — we had hit the jack-pot! Our first meal aboard was at noon. In the Navy we have dinner at noon and supper at night. Well, at dinner we had enough, but we could have eaten more. During the afternoon it was learned that the chow crew had not really realized who we were, and apparently decided to make up for this lack of information; so, at supper it was a different story. As the steward’s mates served us they went out of their way to say, “You know, at dinnah tahm we didn’t know you all was prisnahs uh wah; othahwahse you all could a had secons, thuds — or even foths. So you jes’ take all you want, and we’ll come back with mo.” That’s the way we were treated the rest of the several days aboard this “beautiful” ship. Further rehabilitation aboard consisted of such things as movies, being informed of what had been happening in the outside world during the last three years, etc. Also we had access to the ship’s service (now Navy Exchange) store, and also small stores. Between these two facilities we were able to buy all the toilet gear we needed, or could possibly use, plus some items of clothing, towels, etc. I was even able to get a pair of black (regulation) shoes big enough for me here!
While we were still aboard our supply ship (before we shoved off from Linguyan Bya), it was possible to get another letter off — so, I wrote the following to Rosie on February 18: “Dear Rosie: This is the first time I have had a chance to write from aboard ship. The last letters I wrote were from the rest camp where we were for a week — after spending some pretty exciting days in Manila. The way in which some of us have been spared is miraculous. I’ll tell you all about it when I see you, which may be a month yet, since we have to make several stops — as we understand it now. I’ll keep you posted along the way — as far as possible. I am getting very anxious, but, of course, will have to take it as it comes.
Since being freed we have received wonderful treatment and loving care. We are getting plenty to eat — for a change. I ought to be pretty well fattened up by the time’ I see you. I hope I won’t have changed too much. I need and want to talk over so many things with you that writing is quite unsatisfactory. It is wonderful’, though, to be able to write without restrictions — even though I am not where you can write to me. It is just great to know that I am on my way home! Even though we are not making as fast a trip home as we had hoped to, we will be in much better shape when we get there. Don’t be worried if some of the rest of the POWs get back first.
We are with the Navy, and I am the only Navy chaplain (out of four captured in the Philippines) coming back. The reaction to all this is quite a strain, and I probably won’t get back to earth for a while.
The mail goes out soon, and I wanted to take advantage of this opportunity to say that I love you — and that goes’ for all of you. Lovingly, Earl”.
The following telegram was sent about this time (February 19) to Rosie — from Washington: “The Navy Department is pleased to inform you that official information just received from General McArthur’s headquarters states that your husband, Lt. (j.g.) Earl Ray Brewster, U.S. Naval Reserve, last reported to be a prisoner of war, has been rescued by our forces and returned to military control. His condition is reported as fair. Further details will be forwarded promptly when received.
Vice Admiral Randall Jacobs
Chief of Naval Personnel
If you are wondering what our medium of exchange was … it came from the first $500.00 (that nice green stuff) paid to us here against our back pay; our collateral was good! I musn’t forget to mention that here we enjoyed our first hot showers in three years.
Within a few days after we boarded our first ship we had been taken to Subic Bay (still on Luzon) where we boarded our second vessel, which was quite different from the one we had just left. This transport-type ship was built in America, transferred to Great Britain, and in effect was an English vessel, manned solely by an English crew. Here we were welcomed royally, and received the best possible treatment and food, although-this did not have the advantage of being an American supply ship. There was something added each day — in the form of tea at four in the afternoon. This was really looked forward to, since they apparently added a number of food items for us hungry Americans. Another thing they added for the thirsty American officers (our enlisted men had extra grog) was hours to the regular wardroom bar schedule. This was the first time that our people had had access (legitimately) to anything stouter than beer, which was available at the Linguyan rest camp. As is generally known, liquor is not allowed aboard American Naval ships. This I think is a good rule, although the British figure otherwise. Some of our people, who had been deprived of their liquor for so long made fools of themselves by trying to drink the hospitable and experienced Englishmen under the table. It worked the other way, and some of us were not proud of the conduct of a few of our fellow – Americans’.
A certain rather young (his beard hid his age) English officer is the only one of our British brethren whom I remember. I suppose it is partly because we had something in common in that he said that when the war broke out he was about to “take Holy orders” in the church of England. On learning there was a chaplain aboard he sought me out, and we had some quite pleasant chats. He had one great distinction, which he seemed to prize quite highly,, and loved to demonstrate; this was his ability to drink beer from a stein … with his pipe in one corner of his mouth! This might have been quite a feat, I have never tried it, nor have I seen it tried by anyone else.
Subic Bay, which now is reported to be one of our finest Naval bases in the Far East, must present quite a contrast to what we saw there in February, 1945. There had been heavy fighting in and around this fine natural harbor. We didn’t have to use our imaginations much to realize what had happened there just a very few months previously. The evidence of the bombings and shellings, which had taken place* including the sunken ships — didn’t make for a very pretty sight. It was here that we were transferred from our beloved Supply ship to our English vessel, which after a few days, proceeded south with our one hundred and twenty-five Naval personnel aboard. We were not reluctant to leave the devastation of Subic Bay, and any move toward home was more than welcome.
One additional incident — while we were underway toward Leyte Gulf, might be’ of some interest; it was a unique, once in a lifetime experience for me — as it would have been for any chaplain. My bewhiskered, pipe-smoking former candidate for Holy orders had informed his Skipper that there was an American chaplain aboard. When it had been determined that we would be aboard through Sunday, a request was brought to me from the Captain of the ship (via my friend) to conduct the regular Sunday morning divine service. I sent back an affirmative answer — with thanks._ I was glad that I had acquired a Book of Common Prayer (by legitimate means, I hope), and also that I had a good advisor in the person of my English friend. I was free to conduct the service as I saw fit; the only limitation was that of time, which was doubly important, since, on British vessels the crew is mustered on deck, and stands during the service — usually conducted by the Captain. I was used to short services, but the idea of an American garden variety Methodist preacher conducting a service on one of His Majesty’s ships — that was something else! But, the Lord was with us, and we had what I trust was a helpful service for all hands. I don’t remember my theme, but I do remember this unique experience.
Before reaching Leyte Gulf I wrote the following note to Rosie, on the small V-mail forms — tb be sent out when we reached our next port of call: “Dear Rosie: Since I have a chance to write-again before starting what we hope will be the last lap of our journey home, I thought I would take advantage of it. In spite of the fact that we have been delayed some, I still hope to make it for your birthday. I am well, except for some heat rash, which will clear up in the proper atmosphere. I’am still gaining weight, so I might be able to wear my uniforms when I get home. If not, I’ll have plenty of dough to get more. I’m sure you’re keeping Dyer (the district chaplain), and others informed.
I don’t know what the dope on communicating with you will be from here on out, but be assured, I’ll keep you informed. I’m having a hard time being patient, but, of course, we have to take one step at a time. Give the boys a slap on the back — from their Pop. Lovingly, Earl.”
We had been aboard the English ship almost a week when we anchored in Leyte Gulf, where we said goodbye to our British brethren. Here in this huge Gulf there were still a number of our ships. Subsequently, we were put aboard the Army transport, USS Puebla, for the last long leg of our journey home. During the several days we were in Leyte Gulf there is one particular incident which stands out in my mind. After we had boarded the Army transport I got a message from a Supply officer with whom I had served aboard the Holland, and now was aboard another ship a few hundred yards away. Somehow this former shipmate learned that I was in the vicinity, and invited me to come over to his ship for supper that evening. I answered in the affirmative, and went over at the appointed time in a small boat from my friend’s ship. We had a nice dinner and visit in the ship’s wardroom, after which we went out on deck and enjoyed a movie, plus a little more visiting. By this time it was no longer early, and when one of the ship’s boats brought me back to the transport, the gang plank had already been hoisted up. The only way to get back aboard was by means of a jacob’s ladder, which was hanging over the side. This device is a narrow rope ladder, probably eighteen inches wide, with rungs a foot or SO apart.. I never was too good a climber, but in spite of the fact that I was not back to my normal strength, I had no choice. Perhaps this incident wouldn’t be worth telling except for another item that went into the picture. My friend had given me, a gift of a box of cigars which I didn’t want to throw away; after three years of deprivation we were very reluctant to throw anything away, and to this day it hurts me to see food wasted. I’m afraid we Americans are not blameless here. Well, here I was — with that box of cigars instinctively tucked up under my left arm, climbing that jacob’s ladder at midnight: I must have been quite a sight, but I made it! It was quite serious business then, even though it is one of those rather inexplicable, amusing, and even ridiculous things, the like of which most of us are involved in at times.
Now I was back aboard our last ship, which was to be our home for the next twenty-five days. After three or four more days sitting there in this huge gulf, where heavy fighting had occurred, it was westward, hoi We had been surprised by the number of our ships still to be seen in the area, and could hardly believe our eyes when we saw some of the new “contraptions”, such as the ducks and other amphibious craft. I didn’t hesitate to remind (good naturedly, of course) some of ray regular Navy friends that this bore out my contention that maybe ships could be built a lot faster than had been the case. They were good sports, and were glad to acknowledge that perhaps I had something there. We could see that our fellow Americans had really been busy, and had bent every effort to win’this war as soon as possible.
This Army transport was a conglomerate — the personnel aboard represented about all branches of the service, plus the merchant marine and civilians. A really mixed group! An Army chaplain was assigned to the ship, and I spent some time with him, helping with divine services the three Sundays we were aboard. Here we heard all the latest news — some of it not fit to print, and some of it bum scuttlebutt! One of the things we heard, which we could hardly believe, was that now there were women in the service — even in the Navy, of all things! To hear some of our old salts take off on the ______ ______“petticoat Navy” was really something! This was not only not fit to print, but was not repeatable. From the way some of these old boys talked you might have thought the Navy was sunk, and that they would have to come back and straighten things out. Things had really gotten out of hand in our absence!
Before we left Leyte Gulf I wrote the following letter (dated March 6) to Rosie: “This is the second ship we have been aboard since I last wrote you and we are hoping it will be the last, although we are expecting a couple of stops along the way. We won’t make it by your birthday, and maybe not even by Easter — but maybe ten days or so after your birthday. It is pretty tedious: being so near and yet so far, but I’m trying to be patient. Certainly we shouldn’t kick now — after all this time.
We’re not supposed to know where we’re going to land, but I think I can give you a hint or two. I don’t know how long I’ll have to stay at our port of debarkation. I’ll stay no longer than I have to, but if we’re there any length of time at all I want you there; I’ll phone as soon as possible.
I wonder if you could send me some clothes — so that I’ll have something besides khakis to wear home. I won’t need shoes, but would like to have both suits of blues, shirts and cap. (I had thrown my old, beaten-up cap away). You could send them to McPheeter’s church, together with a note to him, and I could pick them up there. Maybe you could send them in a suitcase. Sorry to bother you so much, but this looks like the practical thing to try to do. This seems to be .as far as I can go at the present time. I am feeling fine — hope to look quite normal when you see me. Love, Earl.”
Perhaps a couple of items in this letter need a little explanation. First, after the Holland determined that I would not be back aboard, everything in my stateroom was meticulously inventoried, crated and shipped to our home in Coronado. The shipment was from Melbourne, Australia, and reached home in the spring of 1943. This was the source from which Rosie was to get my uniforms. Second, at the time of the above letter I knew we would be landing in San Francisco. McPheeters was (and is) Dr. J. C. McPheeters, who was pastor of Glide Memorial church in downtown San Francisco. As will be indicated later, this proved to be a good point of contact, and no military secrets were revealed! At least, the letter passed our military censorship, for which I was thankful.
Aboard the USS Puebla they continued to feed us real good (I know I should say “well”), and we continued to gain weight (the ice cream and other dairy products were so good) and to become conditioned to the ways of normal living. While this type of ship, which was outfitted to carry large numbers of troops, could not offer us private accommodations, we did have comfortable bunks, hot water shower facilities, and freedom of the ship. The only regimentation we had to undergo was in the form of periodic general quarters drills, when we donned our life-jackets, and received instructions as to what to do — just in case of any enemy sub attack — or something. We did travel in convoy, and took an out of the way course, zig-zagging our way back home. We could not help but think of how ironical it would have been had some disaster befallen us after the experiences of the last three years. But, with the anticipation of returning home, I doubt that many of us lost much sleep thinking about such things. I spent considerable time lying in my bunk — just resting, napping and reading. I remember one of the books I read was “A Bell for Adano”, a paper-back, which I enjoyed.
I mentioned helping with divine services aboard; I even preached on one of the Sundays. I don’t remember my theme; I suppose it varied from some I had been using, but I trust that it was the same basic gospel, and that it was not inappropriate for that occasion. The ship’s chaplain seemed to be quite an unsettled fellow, but, after all, war does unsettle a lot of people — and things. So, the days passed, if slowly, until we reached our one stop before San Francisco, which was at Biak — an island, which I had never heard of, in the South Pacific. Here foT two or three days (while the ship took on water, fuel, etc.) we were able to get off the ship for short periods and stretch our legs on the docks; there was nowhere else to gb, and we were not interested in going any place but home!
Perhaps I should not fail to mention that there was quite a group of Army nurses left here at Biak, and were housed not far from the docks. Maybe this was one reason why our people had instructions not to wander away from the dock area! Another potential hazard lay in the possibility that there were unexploded land mines, and even snipers in the area. I doubt if very many of us felt adventuresome enough to stretch our luck unnecessarily at this point. About the most potentially dangerous thing some of us did here was to collect some more pay — which might have been the means of getting soAe of our people in trouble — in the wicked city of San Francisco, or elsewhere.
Another possible hazard for some, and maybe a bonanza for a few, lay in the fact that some “drawing lessons” would be giving and received aboard in the form of draw poker. Even though such things were not supposed to be allowed aboard Navy ships, evidently not too much attention was paid to such activity aboard this Army transport. Perhaps the unusual circumstances had something to do with this lack of vigilance. At any rate, the two thousand air corps (fly boys) who came aboard at Biak were really loaded with back pay, and it was a “natural”. I didn’t know much about what was going on … directly, but indirectly I heard that a considerable amount of the coin of .the realm was changing hands each night.
Perhaps this activity would not have come to my attention had I not been an acquaintance of one of the principal participants. This character was an old salt whom I had first known at Cabanatuan. Evidently, he became the “teacher” in this drawing class, since a couple of mutual friends told me that he undoubtedly pocketed at least five thousand dollars from these sessions duTing the couple of weeks while we were underway from Biak to the Golden Gate. These friends no doubt echoed our poker player’s rationalization when they explained that he didn’t hurt any of these fly boys, since his victims were numerous, which resulted in only comparatively small amounts from each. Besides, if he hadn’t taken it, no doubt most of it would have been squandered in San Francisco and way places — to the detriment, or even downfall, of these lads of such tender years! The only contact that I had
with the teacher during this period was when we met daily on deck, which seemed to happen with too much regularity to be purely accidental on his part. Gamblers are notoriously superstitious, you know, and he may have * felt that it was important to contact the chaplain each day. This did not seem to be for the purpose of confessing, nor did the professor engage in bragging, in fact, he would just pass the time of day — until or unless I asked him how he was doing fHe knew that I knew “what” he was doing), and then he would never say more than “just fair”. I hope that none of these fly boys suffered too much financially, and that our friend’s winnings did not mean his ruination. He could have given the proceeds to sweet charity.’
The only other major happening during this zig-zag cruise of a couple of weeks had to do with the weather. I have mentioned that our schedule called for reaching San Francisco by April first, which would have been Easter Sunday. However, after about ten days out from Biak we ,encountered one of those “peaceful” Pacific storms, which changed our plans. The result was that we were delayed a couple of days. Man is sometimes reminded that he, with all his technology, cannot always do everything that he proposes. As I am writing this our courageous astronauts have just landed on the moon, but also, about the same time, hurricane Camille hit a part of our southern coast with unprecedented force, causing untold damage; man, in spite of all his accomplishments, was helpless to prevent this devastation to life and property.