|Fourth Marines Band: "Last China Band"|
CHAPTER FOUR - In The Camp
|EDITOR’S NOTE: Some of the following descriptive material about Niigata is from Dr. Kenneth Cambon 's fine book “Guest of Hirohito” (PW Press, Vancouver, B.C.) Dr. Cambon, a Canadian, graciously offered the use of this material to help George recall those terrible days. He and George were close friends in the camp and have maintained contact over the years.|
The camp - No. 5-B - was located several miles from
the city of Niigata. It was a two story building with a small yard. That was
it. Later, I was to find out that it was considered the worst POW camp in
all of Japan. It didn’t take us long to find out how really bad life was
going to be.
There was one outdoor water
pump that we were to use for drinking and bathing. We were assigned about 30
men to a long narrow room and each of us had just enough space to lie down,
There was no stove there, but there was a stove in a small building adjacent
where the cooking would be done.
It must be the American spirit because, strangely, we
took some pride in unloading the coal better than the Japanese who thought
they were the world champions.
As winter came on with the cold winds whistling down from the north, we became even more miserable. When we were marched back to our quarters after working all day we were wet, covered with coal dust and had no way to dry off. The only source of water was a pump right next to the “benjo” - the outside toilet. Very rarely did any of us wash off in that cold water and the result was a bunch of really mangy creatures.
Most of us had diarrhea and stomach cramps so bad we could hardly function and some of my comrades just gave up. I was determined to keep going. It helped a lot that about that time I met a young Canadian who had been captured in Hong Kong.
This was Ken Cambon who I have identified earlier as the author of an excellent book “Guest of Hirohito” about our days in the camp. Ken later became a fine doctor and at that time, as an i8 or 19 year old private working in the Infirmary, he was responsible for saving many lives and certainly helping most of us endure the miserable camp life.
Ken was a fellow poet and somehow he had managed to
hold onto a book of poetry that we spent long hours reading and discussing.
I tried my best to keep a positive attitude and certainly my love of music
and literature contributed. We would have given anything— ‘course, we didn’t
have anything to give—for any kind of reading material. But Ken’s book of
poetry was well thumbed and lifted our spirits considerably whenever we got
the chance to read it. I do remember there were some verses from Omar Khyam
and I memorized every word of them. It helped when I was shoving those coal
cars around to recite them under my breath.
Doc Stewart Arrives
We were lucky that a British doctor, Major Bill Stewart, had been transferred to our camp. He was a terrific person, not a bit stuffy as you might expect from a British officer. Strangely, he had been captured while trying to escape from Hong Kong, His boat was sunk by Germans and unfortunately he had been dropped off in Japan.
He was a great philosopher as well as a darn good doctor and he, Ken and I had many deep discussions about life in general as well as talking about poetry and music.
Major Stewart talked
the Japanese commander into holding a Sick Call every evening. He had no
medicine and was told that the men were there to work, not be sick. But,
still he was able to get some prisoners weak from dysentery or pneumonia
excused from work. Sometimes, that wasn’t a great blessing as those on “sick
leave” had their rations almost cut in half,
There was a sergeant major we called “Cyclone Pete”
because he would dash through the camp
brandishing his samurai sword threatening to chop off the head of any
unlucky prisoner who got
in his way.
For some reason, Cyclone decided I would be in charge of a small farm the Japanese had established near the camp. This meant I wouldn’t have to go to the docks every day. Instead, I was the caretaker of a flock of chickens, some young pigs, a few ducks and a couple of goats. Here I was, a city boy from the barrio, trying to make out like Farmer John.’
I didn’t do very well because the damn ducks died one after the other. Then, one day during a bombing raid one of the goats got sick and died mysteriously. Fortunately Major Stewart came to my defense when Cyclone was about ready to take off my head. “The goat died of a stomach problem,” he told the Japanese. The doc then sliced open the goat’s stomach and showed Cyclone a big wad of grass. “He actually died from a giant stomach ache.” Somehow, Cyclone accepted that answer and walked away grunting to himself. I made sure I stayed clear of that guy anyway. He was truly bad news.
It was a day or two before Christmas and we were moved
to a new camp that was ten times worse
than our “temporary” quarters. In the old camp we at least got food - such
as it was - usually
hot as the cooking area was right next to the barracks. In the new camp, the
food was cooked two
miles away and was ice cold when it finally arrived, Also, there was no
water in camp as it was brought to us in big barrels.
Feathers In My Cap
by Kenneth Cambon, MD (Reprinted from CANADIAN DOCTOR / March 1975)
|A chicken in the sterilizer isn’t worth a cap behind the guardhouse.|
One of the disadvantages of having been a mere private
in the last war is that no publisher is
interested in your memoirs. General Eisenhower had no difficulty in turning
a dull, poorly
ghosted book into a best-seller. Bradley, Montgomery and other rear-echelon
brass also did well,
each documenting for posterity his own faultless management and military
wisdom. The reader is
left in no doubt that had the author’s advice been followed exclusively, not only would the war have ended much sooner, but the world would have been free of all its postwar confrontations and problems. Russia and China would have evolved into models of Swedish equanimity and Utopia would be here.
Such misleading information has contributed to the belief of many people that the decisive battle in the Pacific was at Okinawa. Others labor under the delusion that the war ended with the dropping of The Bomb.
Perhaps it is fitting that the truth finally comes to light on the pages of CANADIAN DOCTOR. Much of our medical practice is based on observation of cause and effect. If one accepts this empirical approach, then it is evident to this observer that the ultimate and crucial blow of the war fell in POW Camp B-5 in Japan.
Camp B-5 was a hodgepodge of prisoners from all the allied forces in the Far East. Canadians were there from Hong Kong, Americans from the Philippines, ‘a sprinkling of White Russians from Shanghai and the odd Englishman and Australian from Singapore. Only the Dutch stayed together as a closely knit group. They were the crew of a submarine that had been sunk off Java and they had been dumped in camp with scarcely any clothes on their backs. In three months they cornered many of the best jobs, controlled the kitchen and were the aristocrats of the camp.
The rest of us lacked such national cohesiveness and instead, almost every prisoner had one, two or perhaps even three buddies, with whom everything was shared and to whom loyalty was unswerving. Except for this very close relationship, life in prison camp was largely dog-eat-dog.
My buddy, an American marine corporal, named George, was an ex-trumpet player from Los Angeles. After only a year in Peking he had been sent to the Philippines and arrived just in time to welcome the Japanese army.
He was captured in Bataan and later taken to Japan.
Despite the near starvation diet, George maintained an
incredible drive and unfailing optimism, even in the face of the most
depressing facts. When given weevil-laden rice, others would complain about
worms in the food, but George would instead elaborate on its high-protein
content. The war, for him, was always about to end next week.
Our camp-commandant was unusually tall and big-boned for a Japanese. He wore thick, black horn-rimmed spectacles, and was known by all as “Four-eyes.” His vile temper and sadistic bent earned him the rueful respect of the prisoners and of the guards, to whom he was equally unpleasant. On one occasion, he personally beheaded a psychotic young Mormon G.I. who had climbed the fence while having hallucinations that the Americans had arrived.
Four-eyes took special pride in six chickens kept in an enclosure behind his quarters. Almost every morning he would begin his day by going into the chicken-house, collecting the eggs and speaking affectionately to his brood. They were probably the only creatures he had ever actually loved.
To fully comprehend what follows, it is necessary to understand a characteristic common to most prisoners. Each of us had a fixation about what he would do on that distant day when freedom came. Perhaps this was a defense mechanism to keep body and soul together, to make meaningful the meaningless.
My own ambition was, more practical, prosaic and immediate. I wanted one of the commandant’s chickens, and I made the mistake of telling George.
“No problem,” he said. “Like taking candy from a baby.”
I didn’t share his optimism, but over a period of weeks the project became an obsession. We talked about it, tossed it around and weighed the risk, which was fearsomely real, against the chance to eat our first chicken in almost four years. I did not have the courage of my lack of conviction and we decided to go for broke.
There were always at least two guards on outside duty. Sometimes they would stand by the gate and make small talk. At other times they would walk around the perimeter of the compound, meeting under the wooden watchtower at the corner of the camp, opposite the gate. In the tower was a bell, presumably for the guards to ring in case of alarm. (This was most unusual; bells were uncommon in Japan.)
Security was quite light because there was no friendly place to go if one did escape. The chicken house, being behind Four-eyes’ quarters and beside the guardhouse, gave the chickens the assurance of being better guarded than the prisoners.
|Let George do it|
It was a warm, humid and cloudy August night. There
had been a noisy party in the commandant’s quarters, so we could count on
him and a good part of the guard detachment to be somewhat less than alert.
No lights were allowed because B-29 raids had been pounding Japan for some
months. Our plan was for me to distract the guards’ attention, while George
weaseled in to steal the chicken.
Waiting until everybody was sleeping soundly, we stole out of the quiet hut. I ducked behind the kitchen, being careful not to arouse the Dutch cook, who was understandably paranoid about unusual noises. This brought me to within 30 feet of the guard tower. I reached in my pocket for a slingshot and some small, smooth pebbles. From my position I could see that one guard stood at the gate and the other was walking down the opposite fence toward the tower. I aimed for the bell. The first try was way off. I tried again - a little closer. The guard was close to the corner I was getting shaky. My third try was a complete flop. I had one last shot.
Bong!! It sounded like Notre Dame! Both guards broke into a run toward the tower. I ducked into the latrine, which was hygienically situated next to the kitchen, and then ran back to the chicken house, just in time to see George emerge with a chicken struggling under his arm. The die was cast!
We were both breathing heavily as we sneaked into a
room used as a first aid dispensary, crude certainly, but it did contain an
electric sterilizer. Silence was vital because the room was inconveniently
adjacent to the commandant’s quarters.
George finally nodded judiciously and we attacked our
prize. It was delicious. Nothing has ever tasted as good as that hen. We ate
the whole bird, sucking the bones dry. It was ecstasy.
Dawn was breaking as we belched our satisfaction. We cleaned up the last traces of our mess and started toward the barracks, filled with chicken and pride. Just outside the door, George suddenly stopped and looked at me.
“Where’s your hat?” he asked.
I don’t remember my answer, but in those days it would not have been fit to print. I had left the hat underneath the guardhouse window. It had my number, 124, stenciled on it, an invitation to disaster.
The first gray streaks of dawn were filtering through the clouds. I had to get that hat back, or I would be missing more than a hat. Clearly, this was no time to be chicken.
We looked around the corner of the dispensary and my heart fell when I saw that both guards were chatting by the gate in full view of the burial site.
George whispered, “Hold on for two minutes, I’ll move their butts.”
He broke off in a jog and shortly afterwards I heard
him whistling in the square. The guards stopped their gossip and one of them
waved him to return to barracks. George didn’t move; so one of them yelled
In the summer of 1944 things began to improve
considerably. The weather was almost balmy and we now had some soap, water
and TOILET PAPER! You have no idea what a difference that can make in your
life. We had a new commander—2nd Lt. Nemeto. He was quite an improvement
over Yoshida. He tried to keep the guards from beating us without reason and
did take more interest in the running of the camp.
We also began getting some Red Cross parcels and I got my first letter from my Mother. It was a great relief to know that she had been told I was alive.
Our officers had received some pay but had no way to spend it. So, when Lt. Nemeto, who surprisingly had a strong feeling for American jazz, offered them the opportunity to buy musical instruments, they readily chipped in.
As I had talked a lot about being the top trumpet player in the Fourth Marines Band, I was told to go into Niigata and buy some instruments. I asked Ken Cambon to go with me and so he and I, accompanied by two somewhat friendly guards, took a two-wheeled cart into the city. We were surprised to find a music store that had a large assortment of instruments.
I bought a clarinet for a P-40 pilot who was a nice guy but probably the worst clarinet player I’d ever heard. There were some guitar players from Texas who were pretty good, so I picked up a couple of guitars and got myself a trumpet. There were a bass drum and a field snare that looked in good shape, so I bought them also. We loaded all of the instruments into the cart and headed the five miles back to camp.
The Canadians ingeniously made a really good trap set out of the two drums we had bought. We did a few rehearsals and the music wasn’t half bad.
Lt. Nemeto said we could play a concert one afternoon every two weeks. The men really enjoyed the concerts and Ken said he thought they did more for morale than anything else. Ken particularly liked my rendition of “Star Dust” so I played it a lot.
One night our whole band was rousted out of bed and
told to report to the guards’ staff building where they were having a big
sake party. The Japanese really like their sake and they could get really
high on a couple of drinks. By the time we arrived most of them were just
about out of it.
Lt. Nemeto was there and, although well into his cups, seemed to be in a sentimental mood. He asked me if I could play Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire music. I said, “Of course, although I wasn’t sure just what the hell kind of music he expected to hear. Well, we all were jam musicians so someone picked out a few notes of “Flying Down to Rio” and we managed to get together on that and several other songs that could have been in Astaire/Rogers films.
The Japanese clapped and stamped their feet. They kept shouting for more and the booze was flowing faster than at any beer bust I had ever seen in a Marine “Slop Chute” ( Enlisted Men’s Drinking Place).
We soon realized they didn’t know what we were playing so, when one of the guys said, “let’s play the Marine Corps Hymn”, we did and followed with “Anchors Away”, the Canadian National Anthem and every other patriotic song we could think of.
We knew the music could be heard all through the camp and we could imagine the reaction of our fellow prisoners hearing music that brought back good memories of another life.
Just about when we were ready to quit, the air raid sirens went off. The camp commander said rather matter of factly, “B-29s”. We grabbed our instruments and headed immediately for the slit trenches. No bombs hit the camp and when we finally got to our sacks, we all enjoyed the best sleeps ever, knowing we had really suckered the great Imperial Japanese Army.
|“On My Hill”|
Taking care of those goats gave me an unexpected
treat. I had permission to take them up on the hill almost any time to
graze. As only one was left, none of the guards hassled me whenever I chose
to take her up the hill. The air raids were becoming more and more frequent,
and I would perch up there with a clear view of the harbor. I would watch as
the Japanese ships would stop outside the harbor waiting until they thought
it safe to enter. I guess they figured they were less of a target out to
But, several times I saw a big coal hauler tie up at the dock only to explode in a giant fireball. I found out later that the American pilots had dropped Limpet mines into the harbor that would attach themselves to the steel hulls and eventually explode.
I would about explode with glee. It finally was pay back time and I knew the war was almost over.
We also were hearing heartening news about the war in Europe. Ken Gabon had managed to pick up quite a bit of news from Japanese newspapers the guards left lying around. He had a fair grasp of Japanese and was able to read enough to tell us the Allies seemed to be winning over there.
|Good News / Bad News|
This took the form of good news/bad news. The bad news
was that one day the guards made us dig a big pit right outside of the camp.
The scuttlebutt was that if the Americans invaded Japan as expected all of
the POWs would be shot. We guessed that the pit was to be out last resting
Cambon and I had been saving bits of food and were planning to break out if we thought things were going bad. Fortunately, we didn’t have to try to escape. One day someone at the work site said he had heard something about a really big explosion some miles south of us. We found out later that it was the atomic bomb which struck Hiroshima.
For us it was the beginning of the end. Over the next few days we received a large number of visitors who supposedly spoke English. We guessed their mission was to check out the camp and make sure we POWs were being treated as well as possible.
By this time most of us were able to speak a fair amount of Japanese. And, this almost got me in serious trouble. We had some slogans we would use among ourselves. One of the them was, “no food, no work.” It seems harmless now but it almost cost me my head.
On August 15 all of us prisoners were brought to the center of the camp and lined up single file. For a moment we thought it was to be our execution day, but the camp commander soon appeared carrying a small radio which he attached and turned up the volume full blast. The Japanese all bowed as the voice boomed from the radio in what seemed like an ominous announcement.
|“The War Is Over”|
I couldn’t understand the words but Art Rance, whose
mother was reportedly Japanese, translated for us. He whispered to me, “that
was the Emperor and he said they were surrendering. The war is over.”
Later we were standing around the makeshift hospital building laughing and telling each other those little Japanese slogans. I guess I was louder than most but was surprised when one of the interpreters told me that the Sergeant Major wanted to see me. I didn’t want to face Cyclone alone as I thought he might still hold a grudge about that damn goat and ducks. Instead, he was angry because he had overheard my laughing and said I was making fun of him and all Japanese. He was really steamed up and I was frightened when he said he was going to kill me. Here I had made it through months and months of misery and hardship, only to have it end because of a crazy Japanese sergeant. But he finally waved me out of his office and I lost no time in leaving.
I had no sooner gone back to my buddies in the middle of the camp when the same interpreter told me that the sergeant wanted to see me again. Luckily the senior POW officer, a Major Frances Fellows, saw my look of concern and said he was coming with me. When we returned to the office, Cyclone had his sword out and was running his finger down the blade as though to test its sharpness. A chill ran down my back and this time I was sure that I had had it.
The major looked old Cyclone in the eye and said if he was going to kill me, he would have to kill him too. Cyclone didn’t like that one bit and immediately backed down, but not without giving me a look I’ll remember always. The major and I walked away with as much dignity as we could muster and I never saw Cyclone again. Thank God!
I heard later that Cyclone had been convicted of war crimes and had been executed. It couldn’t have happened to a more deserving guy.
That night we celebrated the best we could mostly by
overeating. We couldn’t believe that the war was finally over and that we
would soon be heading home. I reflected on my four years as a POW. Had I
changed much? Was I any smarter? How about my love for music and literature?
Of that I was sure. I had a much deeper appreciation of the beauty of poetry
and my ear hadn’t lost its sensitivity toward fine music. The band had
helped me on that score. Of course, our brand of music wasn’t exactly the
Philharmonic but it did make me think in terms of melody, beat and measures.
And, while I had never consciously prayed in camp, I remembered that almost
psychic experience in the Philippines. I was sure there was a God and I was
sure that he had listened to me. That’s why I had been able to maintain a
reasonably optimistic view of things. When others complained about the boll
weevils or worms, I liked to think I was eating protein. And now I actually
was about to get back to my home and perhaps get into serious study of
The next morning we were startled to see a flight of airplanes diving toward the camp. We thought at first they might be Kamikazes determined to take us with them to Nirvana or whatever they called heaven. But they turned out to be American fighters and, after doing a few barrel rolls, they dropped packages of magazines, candy and cigarettes. I was touched by the scrawled message in one of the packages. It read in part, “U.S.S. Lexington to Former American Prisoners of War. Hearty success in your approaching liberation which will occur tomorrow in conjunction with the landing of airborne troops of the U.S. Army near Tokyo. The Marines and Navy will follow shortly, so it looks like there’ll be a hot time on the Ginza any minute now. We hope that the contents of this package will aid in making your last few hours behind walls more pleasant.”
One night later, a couple of Marine buddies, Ken Cambon and I, sneaked out of camp and walked into Niigata. Outside of getting some rather angry stares—by this time the news of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had spread throughout Japan and there was no love lost for Americans—we were left to ourselves. As we had no money, only a sack full of cigarettes, we went into a bar and really got loaded on beer and sake. I had the king of all headaches the next day but it was worth it.
We went back to
Niigata several times while we were waiting for word on when we would be
leaving Japan. I visited the lady I never did know her name—in the Music
Shop who had been so nice to me. Ken and I took pictures of each other with
George and the Lady from the Music Shop in Niigata
|Liberated Prisoners of War, Camp 5-B, Niigata, Japan 1945|
|Air View of POW Camp 5-B, Niigata, Japan 1945|
On August 27, 1945, heavy torpedo bombers flying from the deck of
the U.S.S. Lexington (The Blue Ghost) dropped a message to the
prisoners gathered in the yard of 5-B Niigata, Japan.
Addressed to former prisoners of war, it read:
“Hearty success in your approaching liberation which will occur tomorrow in conjunction with the landing of airborne troops of the U.S. Army near Tokyo. The Marines and Navy will follow shortly into Tokyo Bay so it looks like there’ll be a hot time along the Ginza any minute now. We hope that the contents of this package will aid in making your last few hours behind the walls more pleasant. Some of us here on the ships and islands like to tell ourselves that it’s been a tough war and we really had it rugged, but we know that you are the ones who have made the sacrifices, and we humbly doff our white caps in admiration and respect. Accept our deep gratitude for the deeds you have performed and the suffering you have endured in hastening this day of final complete victory.”
|"Kill the fatted calf I am coming home." Telegram, September 12, 1945|
|Full Text of THE EDGE||Please Click Below for:|
|CHAPTER ONE - "The Edge"||Page 13|
|CHAPTER TWO - First Duty Stations||Page 19|
|CHAPTER THREE - We Were Captured||Page 39|
|CHAPTER FOUR - In The Camp||Page 59|
|CHAPTER FIVE - Return to Niigata||Page 80|
|From the Diary
Poems and Short Stories
"Marines in Review"
|Return to THE EDGE Introduction Page|
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