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Joe in Washington, 1941 Niigata, Japan prision camp 5-B, 1943

Last Name: `
First Name Middle Initial:
Nick Name:
Street:  213 DONELSON HILLS DR City & State: NASHVILLE, TN E-Mail:  brendahill@netscape.net
Zip: 37214 Phone:  (615) 883-3864 Spouse: CLARENE H
Conflict: WWII Service Branch: Army Air Corp Unit: 803 ENG AVIATION
Theater: ETO Where Captured: BATAAN Date Captured: 04/09/42
Camps Held In: O'DONNELL CABANATUAN NIIGATA How Long Interned: 1246 days
liberated / repatriated: liberated Date Liberated: 09/06/45 Age at Capture: 22
Medals Received: BRONZE STAR, POW, American Defense w/ Bronze Star, Asiatic Pacific Theater w/ Bronze Star, Philippine Defense w/Battle Star, Victory, Good Conduct, Distinguished Service w/2 Bronze Clusters
Occupation after War:  INSTALLER & TESTER

Military Bio:

The story of a POW by Joe B. Hill.

My tour of duty in the military began when I was sworn in at Ft. Oglethorp, Georgia on May 28, 1941 at 21 years of age. I was then sent on to Ft. Belvoir, Virginia for combat engineer training. At the completion of my training on September 23rd I was assigned to the 803d Aviation Engineers, Company B after a 5-day train trip to San Francisco. We were then transferred to an inter-island boat bound for Ft. McDowell, also known as Angel Island. We left the States on October 4th under sealed orders and were told only to mark our bags Manilla, P.I.

On October 23rd, we arrived in Manilla and were taken to Ft. Slotzenburg. Four days later after our equipment arrived, we left to build what was supposed to become the largest bombing base in the Pacific near the small town of Del Carmen. We worked feverishly to complete our assignment, even using sugar cane juice to harden the airstrip pavements. By December, a number of three-mile long runways had been carved out of the cane fields in an area that lay just across from Clark Airfield.

At noon on December 7th, we learned the devastating news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. That same day our commander, Capt. Ingersol, told us to draw a rifle, 90 rounds of ammunition and a gas mask from supply. I was given an old WWI bolt action type of rifle and wore a WWI helmet.

Within a few short hours the bombs began to fall. We watched as they kept strafing our tank cars which were filled with cane juice. I guess the Japanese pilots thought they contained fuel. After the first attack, the Air Corp started dispersing the few planes that were remaining. Our guys were accustomed to flying P-40s and they had just acquired P-35s which were unfamiliar to them. The airstrip was dusty, there were no traffic controllers to monitor take-offs, and some of the fleeing aircraft literally collided on the ground. I was driving a crash truck when they moved the P-35s from Clark.

Soon after the attack began, only one aircraft remained. We suspected the Japanese were being helped as they seemed too adept at discerning the real bombers from the decoys. It was soon discovered that an American lieutenant was radioing information to the Japanese bombing squads. The traitor was shot on the spot; we were under siege and there was no time for due process. Meanwhile, all we had left were 1918 .30 caliber machine guns, which were of little use in shooting down bombers. As I was in a non-combat unit, I continued to deliver supplies, once abandoning my truck at DelCarmen Field just seconds before it was riddled with bullets.

By December 20th we were ordered to retreat to Bataan. It was believed that we could hold the Japanese off for six weeks, given the resources that we had remaining. We kept them at bay until April 9th. Three days before the surrender I was given a .30 caliber machine gun and put on the front line. By now we were hurling 1918 vintage hand grenades at anything that moved on the other side of the valley. The grenades were so slow they wouldn't explode when they hit. Sometimes the Japanese would have enough time to just lob them back at our troops.

On April 7th, my unit was ordered off the line and back to our bivouac area. For 3 months we had been moving south down the Bataan Peninsula, camping in the jungles, but by now we had nowhere to hide. Our half-rations were nearly depleted; some of us killed caribou and wild boars to survive. With little ammunition, gasoline or supplies, we ate the last of our rations and on the morning of April 9th Captain Ingersol, our unit commander, ordered us to throw what remained of our ammunition along with our rifles into a pile. We drained most of the oil from the 25-30 remaining vehicles and waited.

The Japanese Imperial Army was met with silence when they came to take command of their prisoners. They had captured about three times the number of prisoners they were prepared for and assumed that we had enough provisions for our own survival. We were quickly relieved of most of our personal belongings or anything else they found of use. One Japanese soldier took my boots in exchange for his older ones. However, he failed to confiscate a small bottle of iodine (which I later used to purify the water I received from caribou wallows and scum-covered ponds). We were placed in groups of ten, which were part of larger units of 700 to 1,000 men. If one of a group of ten should try to escape, the remaining nine were ordered to dig their own graves before being shot.

On April 10th we began the infamous Death March into the interior of Bataan, trudging for 70 miles in intense heat. There was total confusion. From early morning until late at night we would be ordered to walk three to five miles in one direction, only to turn around and trudge back the way we came. Our path was littered with the wounded, dead and dying, but we couldn't break line to help for fear of losing our own life. We were given no food and little water, even as we were marched past artesian wells. One desperate night, some of us escaped and went deeper into the jungle to find water. We rejoined the others before our absence was discovered. We knew we couldn't make it on our own and our chance of survival was actually better with our captors. At night they would cram about 1,000 men into a barbed wire bullpen designed for 200. We slept on the ground, saturated with blood, urine and feces.

The troops were exhausted from fighting, sick and starving from lack of adequate supplies, and struggling just to stay on their feet. Our captors found the idea of surrender so abhorrent that they considered it a reasonable justification for the brutal treatment of their prisoners. Many were beaten mercilessly or even bayoneted if they couldn't continue the trek. Those of us who still had the strength would half carry, half drag our comrades in an effort to keep them on their feet to avoid certain death at the hands of the Japanese.

On the first day of the march there had been 75,000 men, among which were 12,000 Americans and about 50,000 Filipinos. At the end of the March there were only 54,000 living. I was on the March for nine days - seven days of which were without food.

We marched to San Fernando where they loaded us into box cars - 100 men per car. With the doors sealed, temperatures rose in excess of 100 degrees. We reached Tarlac and proceeded to walk another 6 miles to Camp O'Donnell, arriving on April 20th. I was weak and dehydrated. When I saw only one water spigot in the camp for thousands of men, I volunteered for what was supposed to be bridge building detail. In truth, it was to carry supply packs for the Japanese army - everything from dried fish to ammunition and small arms - through the North Luzon Mountains.

This detail was almost as grueling as the Death March. The main exception was that we were supplied with rice and water. Bathing occurred possibly once a week and we had no change of clothing.

Six weeks later we were dispatched to a nearby sawmill where about 20 of us set up living quarters in a former hospital at an abandoned gold mine. About ten Japanese guards had their rifles stacked in the front room and they warmed themselves by a cook stove located in the rear of the building. We planned to use clubs to overcome our guards (whom we out-numbered), after dousing the lights and then slip into the jungle to meet the guerillas. For reasons unknown by me, Captain Reynolds ordered us to cancel those plans.

In August we were sent to the northwestern camp of Cabanatuan to work on a 500-acre farm using primitive picks and shovels. We grew vegetables, none of which we ever received to eat, but rather lived on a diet of dry rice or barley mix. In the morning we ate a rice gruel called ‘lugow' and on rare occasion we were given sweet potato leaves or bean leaves. A few times we had horse meat. The Japanese ate ‘dikons', a pickled bean curd, and rice. Once a GI took a tomato from the field. He was ordered to extend his arm and they broke it. Others lost their life for similar infractions so I suppose he was lucky. The Japanese guards appeared to relish any opportunity to beat a prisoner.

When I arrived, the men in Cabanatuan were dying at the rate of 50-60 per day. That rate was reduced somewhat when we began to receive a few first aid supplies from the Red Cross. For a time we had our own little underground supply system: One American POW had been assigned to the wood detail. Each day he had to cut wood and, as he knew the language, he would often trade with the Filipinos for goods. I'd meet him at the barb wire fence, and he'd heave whatever he could over the top. If we had been caught, neither of us would have lived to tell the story. One day, he confiscated 12 quarts of Geneva gin, which I tucked inside a tow sack. Then I moved back and forth between the barracks, delivering the gin. I had to change clothes when I reached our barracks to alter my appearance and not arouse suspicion . That was the happiest bunch of GI's I'd ever seen!

On September 13, 1943 I was sent to Japan with 800 American POWs aboard a freighter to northern Japan. The long journey was even more perilous as U.S. planes were now a threat to Pacific waters and more than once mistakenly sank shiploads of American prisoners. Arriving at Camp 5-B in Niigata, about 200 miles northwest of Tokyo, the captive soldiers became acutely aware of the sudden drop in temperature. The coast of Niigata had harsh, prolonged winters, with weeks of sub-zero weather.

Known as the worst horror camp in Japan, conditions at Camp 5-B were atrocious. The Americans and Canadians who were already in the camp when we arrived were infested with body lice which quickly spread to the Americans. We finally got that infestation under control, only to be plagued with fleas. Barracks were constructed like barns with window flaps and totally devoid of heat. We each had five horse blankets and a straw mat and GI's would bunk up with each other for warmth. Winter temperatures plummeted to 20 degrees below 0. Ice would freeze on my eyebrows, lashes and nostrils. At night, ice clung to my socks. Pneumonia ravaged the men who found some medical assistance through an Irish physician, Dr. Bill Stewart, who had more compassion than supplies.

We were sent to 5-B to slave in steel mills, foundries, coal yards and on the docks. My work detail involved loading and unloading ships, barges, and railroad cars with coal for 12-14 hours a day, 7 days a week. I would shovel the black fuel into one-ton rail cars and then push them along a narrow gauge railroad track 20 feet above the ground.

Japanese civilians managed most of the work sites and regularly beat the POWs with long hickory sticks. Our operation was managed by a Japanese civilian named Kojima, an older man with a long, dark beard, who was known as Whiskers by the POWs. He spoke English, but was harsh, and uncompromising and was the cause of many deaths. Probably the most infamous Japanese official was the camp commandant, Lt. Masato Yoshida - a small, smartly dressed man with thick horned rimmed glasses and two or three steel-capped front teeth. He was later tried and hung for his war crimes.

Those of us who survived just kept on concentrating on the future and staying alive. While in Cabanatuan, a close friend of mine was one who gave up and crawled under a building to die. You had to at least appear submissive and be obedient as punishment would be swift. Once in the winter, a guard forced a soldier to stand in the snow until his feet froze as a result of some infraction. He later died. In the summer they would place a prisoner in a 10' x 10' building which had only one small vent hole and let him bake in the sun. But you just couldn't give up. It was a simple rule of survival to focus on the future, to look to the return of our freedom.

Emperor Hirohito announced a formal surrender on August 16, 1945 and liberation was finally at hand for Camp 5-B. The gates of the prison were opened and we were free to await our rescuers. The sick and dying were airlifted out from Tokyo. B-29 bombers were sent over to drop crates of food into the camp. Ironically, there were some who died from overeating and even a few who were killed when the crates landed on them. Years later we learned that a third bomb had been designated to drop, but due to heavy cloud cover the bomb site couldn't be clearly viewed. That bomb was destined for Niigata. They didn't know that Americans were imprisoned there.

On October 18, 1945, more than four years since I had joined the military as a healthy, 145 lb. 21-year old, I returned home. I had endured malaria, beri-beri, lice and flea infestation, the wrath of the Japanese guards, sweltering heat, bitter cold, and subsisted on little more than 24 oz. of rice a day. At times I weighed no more than 95 lbs. I had worked on burial detail, carrying comrades on my shoulders to lie in open mass graves. I was among the survivors who had watched the weaker of our friends die from the same adversities we all had battled. I was to be one of those who had the sorrowful task of telling mothers and fathers of their son's final days on this earth; but I could never tell them the harsh truth of how their son had really died.

My Message to Future Generations:

Message to come..

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