Fourth Marines Band: "Last China Band"

MIKADO NO KYAKU (Guest of the Emperor)

Chapter Two - Our New Home in Bongabon - Page 15-36
 
Mikado No Kyaku: (guest of the Emperor), the Recollections of Marine Corporal Donald L. Versaw as a Japanese Prisoner of War during World War II
Telegram Received by My Parents in May 1942 Five Months After Pearl Harbor
 
Chapter Two

Our New Home in Bongabon

The guards ordered us to go on - and we went, hurrying to catch up to our place in line. We all were crying a little inside because we did not know what was going to happen next. And as we went on into the hottest part of the day, we saw other men fallen at the side of the road, and each had a little flag and no guard beside him.

It began to cool later in the afternoon; we, who could still walk, stumbled on toward the mountains. A dirty, gray, Japanese army Nissan truck went by, then another, and then another. And there were the fallen and their little pink flags. This would not be Bataan! And we thanked God for that. Frequently we would encounter natives and would call, "How far, Joe?" Meaning, if they knew, how much further would we have to march to reach our destination. Each would put up his fingers to make a V. But whether he meant five kilometers or V for victory we never found out.

We could see many rows of barracks as if buildings in the distance spread over gentle hillsides. Our heavy hearts rose. We were dog weary ... and our hearts fell, flop! We marched right past the entrance of this huge place that had once been the home of the 91st Field Artillery of the Philippine Army. And on over a bridge. "There are two more camps ahead - a hell of a long way." Word was passed back to us like in the children's game, "Pass It On," I used to play in the parlor back home in Nebraska.

We passed the next camp, too. Now we were trudging on higher ground nearer the mountains and it seemed easier. Also, it was cooler.

On the dusky horizon we saw the third camp, long rows of low, yellow sided, single story barracks. Thick thatched roofs of bundled nipa palm, roofs that looked like loaves of bread laid out to bake in the hot tropical sun. Among them several larger buildings were arranged at odd angles to the smaller barrack buildings. These were the mess sheds, storerooms and administrative quarters. There were three similar groups of these buildings all on one side of the road on which we marched. A large group of smaller, irregularly shaped buildings were across the road. A sign over the entrance to these read, BONGABON STOCK FARM. The rolling hillocks around the camp were open and unimproved.

Strange looking cattle grazed in small groups upon them. Here and there we could see occasional patches of woods. We came to know this place as Cabanatuan Camp No. 3.

An escort guard walked up and down. "If you have guns, money, knives, or weapons," he announced softly but distinctly, "throw it away. You are going to be searched. Our officers will believe you took the money from our dead soldiers or one of our prisoners. I am taking a chance myself to warn you."

The hangar on Corregidor, the prison in Manila, the schoolyard at Cabanatuan, and now Bongabon Stock Farm, the agricultural experiment station. It did not seem as though we were to be slaughtered yet. But then, in war and surrender, you never know.

Music & the Marine Band...

It sure was a long way from the President's own - the Marine Band in Washington, D.C. - and the real reason I had joined the Marines. Or maybe I should explain. You see, when I was about 12, in the eighth grade of the Bloomington Nebraska Public School, and at a height of my small boy meanness, my father bought me a snare drum. Maybe to give me something to beat on other than the family dog or goat. I loved it. But later on in high school my music teacher told me bluntly I would never be a drummer. He issued me a horn instead, an E flat alto, a raincatcher. I loved that, too, and practiced day and night.

I do not know why my parents and my brother and sister did not go crazy. But they stood it. I finally learned to play "The Old Rugged Cross" and a few other hymns they could recognize. In high school I got to play in the band. At band meets, I played in some solo competitions and received quite favorable ratings.

By then I was playing an old relic of World War I, a French band instrument called a mellophone. With it I took second place in a state music contest. So I thought I was pretty good and it gave me an idea for the future. I wanted to be a musician. Maybe I could get into the U.S. Marine Band.

But our minister prevailed upon my parents on the idea of my going to college at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln. I had just turned 17 years of age. It was a great sacrifice on the part of my parents. Times were very bad but they gave me what little money they could; the rest I would have to earn cutting grass, fixing flats, shoveling snow and working in a kitchen. It was hard to find time to study, play in the band and do some of the things 17 year old kids, right off the farm, want to do. My grades suffered from it.

I tried earning enough money during the summer after my freshman year so that I could go back to school. I worked in Colorado wheat fields, but got an eye infection and had to return home with only a few silver dollars. When I was well again, I headed for Chicago to look for a fall job; going back to college was out of the question. There weren't any jobs. Then I saw the street car card advertisement - a picture of a Marine bandsman! It was Armistice Day, 1939 when I went into the recruiting office on State Street. Thirteen of us were tested. Three passed. I was one of the three. They said they would take me although I was one-quarter inch short and I ought to grow that much en-route to recruit camp. I did not, but I survived boot camp and was assigned to the San Diego Marine Base Band.

 
Mikado No Kyaku: (guest of the Emperor), the Recollections of Marine Corporal Donald L. Versaw as a Japanese Prisoner of War during World War II
55th Platoon U.S.M.C. San Diego December 1939
(Don is in 1st Row, Far Left)
Mikado No Kyaku: (guest of the Emperor), the Recollections of Marine Corporal Donald L. Versaw as a Japanese Prisoner of War during World War II
Private Don Versaw
Shanghai China 1941
Mikado No Kyaku: (guest of the Emperor), the Recollections of Marine Corporal Donald L. Versaw as a Japanese Prisoner of War during World War II
 
How I got that assignment is still not clear. I had asked for the assignment but was never auditioned for it or even interviewed. I was just sent there. That happened a lot in the Corps and I had been trained to do what I was told, without question. Years later, I found correspondence in my mother's effects that indicated she might have had something to do with it. She had presented my credentials to the Base Chaplain, I think, and found that he had come from near our Nebraska home. My guess is that Chaplain Kirkpatrick steered my orders since I was in a casual company with no place else to go at the time. I have always wondered if that had anything to do with the strange reception I received when I checked into the Band in its bright new quarters in building No. 27. For no reason other than just being a new boot member, no one paid me much mind. After about a week I went to see then Bandmaster Master Technical Sergeant Eric Issacson about getting a horn so that I could join the band and play like the rest of the guys. I think he was even surprised to know that I hadn't been. He was cordial and nothing like the rough and gruff Staff NCO's I had come to know around boot camp. He promptly got me a horn to play and told me to check in with Staff Sergeant Joe Parenti, the First Chair Horn player. Since I had only dreamed of holding a real double French Horn in my hands, I was beside myself and hurried to convert myself from a right-handed E flat peck horn tooter to a great mass of silver plated plumbing called a Schmit-Weimar double French horn. I had to work hard to catch up and I was out there every day in the sun blowing my head off, getting encouragement from just about nobody except Lou Curtis. By the time May 1940 came around I was playing, apparently successfully well. It was a full fledged Marine Base band at San Diego, California. Still a long way from the U.S. Marine Band (where I learned that, to be considered, you had to double on three wind instruments, fiddle, and, maybe, play the ocarina.)

Thirty days later the First Sergeant demanded, "Do you want to volunteer to go to China - or shall I send you?" And right after that I, the Marine bandsman, was on my way to Shanghai to replace the third chair horn player in the 4th Marines Band. Had I known that at the time, I would not have been so eager to go, but 10 ton chains would not have held me back then. After 19 months of making music in and about Shanghai, orders came to evacuate. We thought we were headed home that November 1941. But our transport, the USS President Harrison, took us to Olongapo in the Philippines' Subic Bay, instead. I never saw my beautiful, double Conn instrument after that. In a matter of a few days the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and later the same day, struck us at Olongapo. Because of the international date line, it was already December 8th in the Philippines. "This is war - A Fighting Marine first - anything else afterwards," we were always told.

We went to defend Corregidor. We thought we would be in Tokyo within a few weeks. Yes, I was even further than just a long way from the President's Own ...
 
Mikado No Kyaku: (guest of the Emperor), the Recollections of Marine Corporal Donald L. Versaw as a Japanese Prisoner of War during World War II
4th Marines Band - Shanghai, China 1941
 
Military Prison Camp No. 3

Perhaps we should have named it Camp Odious then and there, as a sailor and a marine dropped dead from exhaustion at its gates after that 21 kilometer march. But I guess we survivors were too glad to see it that first day of June 1942, to call it anything. Originally it had been a camp, built next to the agriculture experimental station, for the 92nd Field Artillery division of the new Philippine Army that General MacArthur had been organizing. Now it was called Military Prison Camp No. 3.

Names and numbers of camps vary in the records and in the minds of the survivors. A regulation Philippine army barracks was a long wooden frame building open at both ends, a wooden runway about a yard wide connecting each. On each side of the runway were two tiers of sleeping bays. The bottom bay was raised about two feet above the floor of the runway. The top bay was about four feet above the first. Several short ladders gave access to the upper tier. The building was sided with a split yellow cane-like fiber material woven into large panels. The barracks looked like huge woven baskets with grass covers. Smaller window-like panels, hinged at the top, could be swung out and propped open to allow ventilation. The tiers were floored with split bamboo slats nailed across two by four grids. On these we sat or slept as the spirit moved us and our host permitted. There was nothing pleasant or cozy about them, except for an occasionally refreshing tropical breeze blowing through the window openings after a hot wood cutting detail.

We were also grateful for the watertight roofs of thick bundles of Nipa leaves tied to the rafters with rattan, a thick, fibrous material much like heavy wire. The rainy season was approaching, dreaded tropical monsoons that blew rain water horizontally in fierce, gusting sheets. Only the thought of being able to wash our bodies and little clothing without waiting in long lines to get enough water made it any kind of pleasant possibility. How the flimsy looking barracks would stand against the frantic winds and rain when they came was the question. We were to find out in a rather short time.

The first few days were mostly confusing. Some of the men were assigned to barracks according to the work they could do. I went to building No. Two that was reserved for typists, bookkeepers and office workers. Not that I was any of these. As a plain ordinary marine infantryman - in spite of the army uniform parts I'd retrieved and been wearing for months - I was classed as a laborer. But by the time the Japanese got to me, the barracks for laborers were overcrowded. So I went to building No. Two. I shared an upper bay with Private First Class Lyman L. Lane and Private First Class Lou Curtis, my friend since San Diego "woodshed" music practice on the shore of San Diego Bay. Somewhere on a lower bay was Sergeant Major Charles R. Jackson, one of the old characters of the Corps.

We were counted off again for work details. There were wood cutters and wood gatherers, wood movers and carpenters, a ration and kitchen detail, barbers, cobblers, clerks, messengers, camp cleaners, head (latrine) orderlies, etc. The camp was set up like a city. Everyone - marines, army, navy and even a few civilians - who weren't too weak to work had a job to do. The camp was organized and managed by our own officers. The commandant was Lieutenant-Colonel S. Mori, reported to have been a Manila bicycle shop operator just before the war and a Japanese army reserve officer. Three American Lieutenant-Colonels commanded three 2000 man groups separated by category: Army and Navy personnel. Other subordinate American officers were in charge of maintenance, food, sanitation and other necessary details.

The wood and fuel details were the largest. Men in these groups walked two miles dally to a subtropical forest of Philippine hardwoods. The cutters, each having a quota of trees to fell each day, worked pretty much on their own. They were the strongest, healthiest men.

After the trees were down, men would cut the logs in to 1-meter lengths. Then the wood gatherers, some chosen from the common herd, others who just volunteered in order to get outside the camp and stay busy. Private First Class Kenneth Marshall, the premier clarinet player in our band, was a wood cutter as was Major Reginald Ridgely, the regimental paymaster. They were both in fairly good health and were among those who went to gather the wood in the forest. This association was to become an important turning point in my life many years later.

Two details of 300 men would do this each day, making three trips each morning, with the wood on their shoulders and three trips each afternoon. They would get only a few minutes rest between each trip. They really worked hard. Then, there was another detail to carry wood as far as the Cabanatuan road, where it was loaded onto trucks and taken to Military Prison Camp No.1 which had no source of fuel near by. The rest of the wood came to our camp and to the Japanese garrison. Some of it was stored against the forthcoming rainy season when it would be too wet to go after it. The rest was cut into sizes for the fire pits.

A small amount was used for general lumber purposes. Like every city there was always a certain amount of razing, as well as construction, going on. About four kilometers away, Camp No. 2 was being torn down and the material from its buildings was being delivered to Camps 1 and 3. Something was always going up or coming down.

In time, Camp 3 became rather pretty. It had a few trees and cool dells. We hauled rocks to trim the paths and roads, and we brought plants and flowers from the riverside to plant around the buildings. I tried not to let sight of the big, swift Pampanga River make me homesick - but it was like the Republican River that wound past land my Dad farmed in Nebraska. Whenever I felt a lump in my throat looking at the Pampanga, I'd try to remember that the Republican wasn't so wonderful after all, especially in flood time. I'd remember seeing it change in just 30 minutes from a lovely stream to a mile-wide monster as big as the Mississippi. The Pampanga would never be like that I told myself. But it was when the rains came. Once we endured severe a typhoon and the Pampanga became a raging torrent. But what I remember most about the typhoon was its powerful winds. Across the ravine behind our rows of barracks were small, swali sided (a kind of rattan panel) outhouses. The wind picked one of them up and blew it away, leaving its user sitting there, exposed, unhurt with his pants down.

We considered most lucky those prisoners of war who worked on the Japanese guard barracks. First, they were fed better food, generously at noon. Second, they could contact natives from whom they could purchase extra food, although this was an offense against Japanese camp rules (Article 62, (3) 1.) forbidding dealing with the natives under penalty of death.

Next most popular was the ration detail. These workers drew the food each day from our conqueror's stores. But the remainder of them had to clean vegetables so even though they were eating all they wished - they griped. Nobody wants to be on permanent KP.

Life in the Camp...

As it turned out we all became a part of the sanitation detail, for there were billions of flies: big, blue blowflies. The conqueror's way of managing latrines and flies was to close one hole and open another just about the time the fly-babies were ready to emerge from their larvae. Then, because the flies - no respector of conqueror's - were causing sickness among the Japanese themselves, our captors sponsored an anti-fly campaign. Their idea was a swat project on a reward basis. Each man who brought in 1,000 flies, (a condensed milk can full) would be awarded a few cigarettes, a couple of biscuits, or a few eggs and a banana.

The inventive Americans went to work.

Some went into the tall grasses with hand nets much like those used to catch butterflies. They caught the bigger flies and filled their cans quicker. Others made traps. The latrines became museums for some of the oddest fly traps that the mind could conceive and the hand could fashion. So successful were the fly catching prisoners of war that they just about depleted the larder of cigarettes, bananas, biscuits and eggs. The Japanese upped the amount for reward. Posters were made and distributed to promote the plan and the campaign continued.

To say it was effective is too minimal a compliment. It was sensational. Each day the Japanese sergeant of the guard burned 15 five-gallon cans of flies in the kitchen fires. Each can held five million flies. So that meant that every day 6,000 men caught 75 million flies and the dysentery rate dropped immediately and dramatically. The fly campaign and a similar one for personal and general cleanliness were the two greatest movements I witnessed in any camp. They saved more lives, at least for a time, than anything else except Red Cross supplies.
 
Mikado No Kyaku: (guest of the Emperor), the Recollections of Marine Corporal Donald L. Versaw as a Japanese Prisoner of War during World War II
"Lords of the Flies" Military Style
 
The matter of keeping clean in Camp 3 was never an insurmountable problem, In the early days there were several shower buildings, but only officers and those who had doctor's chits affirming skin problems could use them. The rest were supposed to march to the big, swift, Pampanga River about half a mile away. In time, most of the shower buildings were converted into small supply and tool sheds, toilets, barber shops, cobbler shops and sick call stations. Then more of us washed in the river.

Willingly? Heck, we were ORDERED to go - 800 a day in two shifts.

At first, it was a good thing. Later when many of us became sick, our doctors tried to put a stop to river bathing. But the Japanese had their orders from higher-ups that we all swim - and orders are orders.

Then the rains came and our clothes, what we had of them, got clean. We'd soap up clothes at night and set them out to be rinsed in the morning showers. Some of the men made eaves troughs. A bamboo pole split in half produced a large stream of water from the barracks roof and those who had containers - and many did - washed their clothes in a more conventional manner.

Water, pumped from wells and drawn through spigots at various places throughout the camp, was provided for drinking. Our hosts were forever cautioning us not to use this well water for anything but drinking, and they posted guards at each place to see that we guests carried only bottles, canteens or drinking cups.

Frequently, one POW would borrow a number of canteens, get enough water for several dozen drinkers, lug it back to the barracks, and give himself a sort of shower bath.

Then we got to storing water against the days when the spigots might be turned off for punishment. One never knew when some prisoner might do something crazy that would bring punishment down on the whole camp.

After a short time, the groups were reorganized. The army men formed one group; another was made up of army and American civilians who had been seized on the Rock and on Bataan; and a third were the navy, marines, and foreign nationals.

The third, my group, went to the last barracks in the back corner of the camp. It was cleaner than the first one I'd been in, so I had no regrets.

We might have been somewhat more interested in camp sports had we been stronger. The Japanese dearly loved baseball. They liked volley ball and basketball too, but found them somewhat confusing.

They had 200 and 300 POW's build a large baseball diamond outside the camp fence. They even had us build a small lane to it so none would have trouble getting there.

We who were weak in health had to refuse to play. Since the Japanese never had 18 men off duty at anyone time they couldn't field two teams to play each other. Finally weeds took over. Necessarily we exhibited the same lack of cooperation in basketball and volleyball; so those courts met the same fate.

Some of us played cards and chess, mostly for amusement, but some had money with which to gamble. And they did.

All of us were soon book-starved, for books were very scarce. The Japanese contributed none. We had only what the men had brought from Corregidor, mostly Bibles and New Testaments. The few we had were read and re-read. I read the New Testament three times. Hebrews was my favorite because it dealt with God's promise of help to prisoners.

If a man owned a book he could swap it with others who had books and in that manner soon read most of the books in the camp. Not having a book to exchange with others was a problem. You needed one to exchange. One of the black guys who owned a few books established a library of sorts. By donating a book to him you could borrow any book in his collection, or, if you had a little money, any kind, you could read the two or three dozen he accumulated. He made a nice profit.

Religion gives hope and great comfort and maybe these were the reasons there was a record attendance at every one of Chaplain Brown's lectures on the Bible. No Catholic boy that I ever knew missed Sunday Mass or any other service conducted by his Chaplain if he could help it. My parents would have approved highly of this part of our life in camp. My father had been a Methodist Sunday school teacher for most of his life and I grew up in a strong religious environment: grace was said at mealtimes. Mother had me learning Bible verses almost before I knew my ABC's. Church activity figured greatly in growing up; singing and playing instrumental music, showing lantern slides for lectures and other musical programs were part of it. Somehow my interest in religion had waned since joining the marines. Now that the war had brought me closer to the edge and I could see how fragile life on earth really was, I began to feel the need to be closer to my great creator. It gave me strength and bolstered my faith in survival. My God was my life preserver. I was in his hands but I knew I would survive. I still held the persistent belief that the Yanks and tanks - the thousands of men and hundreds of planes would come eventually.

Entertainment in the camp seemed to develop rather than just be allowed. First we gathered only to sing together, so long as our captors didn't recognize it as a patriotic rally. Then men with talent - singers, dancers, musicians, actors, comedians - began to break into their specialties. The Japanese were amused. They said we could have amateur contests. Talented men came out of the masses; Tom Melody, the hilarious comic and MASTER OF CEREMONIES, Franklin Boyer, Kenneth Marshall, our bandsman found instruments and performed in shows. Out of this came one group show and one camp show a month. The shows had to be squeezed in after daylight working hours and before night fell. Our hosts were leery about gatherings in darkness and they would allow no lights.

There was no electric power. The theaters were typical of camp shows in the Pacific and elsewhere, weather permitting, wherever American GIs were stationed. The sky for a roof, the good earth for floor and seats, a raised platform for a stage, the backdrop a swali- sided barracks. Shakespeare never had less.

Occasionally the Japanese commandant would mount the rostrum and babble in his native tongue which I foolishly determined not to learn a bit of lest it show the slightest tendency collaboration on my part. Translated, his warnings were eloquent.

"You are the guests of the Emperor. You are working here so that you will live to return home after the war," he said.

He warned us not to try to escape and then told us his "good news" how the Japanese were sinking and destroying America's war material as fast as it was produced, how the Japanese were succeeding in the Solomon Islands and on the Coral Sea.

Could we have but known! Even before we reached this place the Japanese had suffered great and serious losses which they would never be able to replace. America's losses were tragic and grievous. They included: thousands of soldiers, sailors and marines, but the ships, planes and equipment were, in time, replaced. The sweeping advance of the Japanese juggernaught stopped here. But this we did not know.

After the commandant had finished, Tom Melody, our favorite master of ceremonies, would take over. Our hosts, always in the front row, were usually the butt of his really funny jokes. But they couldn't understand American English, or at least not Tom's brand. They'd laugh. We'd roar. Not to be outdone by mere Occidentals they'd "split a gut". It was quite a show getting the Japanese to out-laugh us.

Tom loved it. Then our little band would play; guitar, a banjo, a clarinet and a horn would whang out the old familiar tunes. We'd feel better and begin to think that the Japanese commandant was lying about the Solomon Islands and the Coral sea; and the Yanks and tanks were even then retaking Mindanao; or that on the other side of the world, Germany was being defeated and that every ally was now racing our way to help us.

Melody and the band had a way of putting us to bed just a little more cheerful than we'd been throughout the day.

I woke up one morning with the feeling that this day was something special. It was June 23, 1942 - my 21st birthday. At home Dad would probably have given me a watch or something and Mother would have baked a cake and asked me what kind of meat I wanted for supper. I didn't say anything to the guys about its being my 21st birthday. Neither did they ever mention theirs.

There was a dreadfully grim side to Camp 3. As structural improvement went up, the state of health went down ... down ... down.

Most of our shoes including mine wore out. We didn't get any more.

I was a mess attendant; barefooted, I helped carry and serve food for my barracks.

Trying to Control Camp Diseases...

The food was terrible and the deficiency diseases swept in. A square five gallon can only partially filled with cooked rice; a watery thin gruel in the morning - steamed dry in the evening; and another five gallon, not fully filled, can of even more watery soup each meal. In spite of how awful it really was, there was never enough and pellagra set in, caused by a lack of meat and fresh vegetables. It came as sunburn does, inflaming the skin and getting worse with the sun's rays. Only a good diet with fresh food could cure it.

The American doctors suggested to our conquerors that the disease might be controlled by a yeast made of sugar combined with starch that could be skimmed off the rice pots. This concoction undoubtedly saved some lives. But the batches of yeast were inconsistently made and not always as effective as good stuff from home might have been.

Many a pellagra victim's stomach was affected. He couldn't digest his food and the fermented carbohydrates would pass off as water and gas then the tissues would starve.

A victim in this state would be removed to a section of Camp No.1 designated as a hospital. It became known as the "Zero Ward". Few men ever returned from there. They just went on to what we called Group 4 - the cemetery. That group grew at an ever increasing rate.

There were some that cropped up that our doctors and medics claimed were the result of Vitamin A deficiency. It is one the body seems to store up enough for quite a longer period but, after a while the lack of it causes a number of problems, particularly night vision problems. Vitamin C deficiency diseases were rampant, caused by a lack of fresh fruit and vegetables. Problems like dermatitis, scurvy, sore mouths and throats were prevalent. All we needed was a few limes or bananas but, there were none regularly on our menu of rice, sometimes a variety with reddish flecks and greens we called pipe stems. The dark leaves resembled the sweet potato plant connected in long strings by hollow stems. The thin, unsalted liquid was most unsavory even to the hungriest among us but we consumed all we could get. At times there was a bit of coconut oil floating on what looked like a canteen cup half filled with warm pond water.

Then we had an epidemic of yellow jaundice. What caused it was not explained, but I've since come to believe it was just the general unsanitary conditions that prevailed in the camp. The first sign of it was voiding red colored urine. Later, a loss of appetite and the deep yellow skin and the whites of the eyes turning to deep saffron would confirm the condition. I noticed becoming sensitized to smoke as the sickness developed in me. I was not able to be near the kitchen or close to someone trying to smoke some substance or another. The American doctors were able to arrange for purchase of some sugar and a little candy from the local markets. A few doughnuts and biscuits were made and distributed by the doctors to all the yellowish people.

Malaria and dysentery increased so sharply that an isolation ward had to be set up across the road. Except for a little better diet, one that had a little bit of meat, there was little difference on either side. Medical care was at its lowest ebb. At first, the Japanese distributed no medicines at all. We prisoners had to contribute what medicines we had carried in with us. Those who were fortunate to have it were not always willing to give it up. They very well could be giving up something that might later be needed to save their own live. Then our American medical department began to buy from the natives and on the black market. The Japanese eventually loosened up and they sent in quinine, sulfa drugs, bismuth and paregoric. But it was usually too little - and for many, too late.

Dressings were so scarce, the used ones had to be washed, sterilized, and re-used; dressings were changed only when extremely necessary; salves and ointments were compounded from oleomargarine requisitioned from the kitchens that had it, wounds and fractures were not given any special care. Those so afflicted were given permission to remain in bed and were excused from work.

The American doctor held supreme authority to decide if one was fit to work; if one was too weak, no one forced him, not in this camp. When more doctors and nurses were asked for, the Japanese usually explained, 'They've been shipped back to American." I don't know why they told us that lie.

Living & Death...

Since most of the sickest went to Zero Ward, the number of deaths in Camp 3 was proportionately small. Yet, when we marched out of the closed camp 160 days later, we left 8o buried across the ravine at the back of the camp: 76 from disease and the four former Fort Drum soldiers who lay in the graves they dug for themselves just before they were shot by a Japanese firing squad. Services for our departed comrades were held in the little cemetery with a pretty view of the Pampanga River winding out of the magnificent Sierra Madre mountains northeast of the camp. There was usually only a single guard escort and most of us were surprised to see our conqueror's representative show of respect for dead soldiers, considering how badly they often treated their own living and dying soldiers. Catholic chaplains conducted services for the dead of their faith and there were a number of Protestant chaplains to care for their flocks. There was no chaplain of the Jewish faith among us. Major Max Clark of the Marines officiated with great dignity and impressive capability at the several services I attended in those hot months of 1942 at Cabanatuan camp No.3.

I remember well the funeral of Chief Torpedoman "cabaret foot" Ginsberg, a fleet reservist, who had died of what I believed to be a broken will to live. He had been a very successful American citizen operating a gold mining business in the Philippines before being recalled to active duty. A man of great dignity and personality, who had been an excellent dancer during his younger days, could not cope with the privations of being a prisoner of war. His depression combined with his illnesses were too much for his body and soul to bear. Many said he just, gave up. While some men dug a grave the rest of us and the Japanese guard gathered wildflowers in the nearby fields. These we made into a grass wreath for Ginsberg. Then there was the time Staff Sergeant Leon Konesky, assistant bandmaster of the 4th Marines was buried. The words of Chaplain, Commander H. R. Trump were few but stirring; a quartet sang and from somewhere a bugler played taps. "Gee, I'm glad we could do that much for ole 'Ski'," murmured one of our bandsman. Leon had died of dysentery. He was devastated by its effects on him: my last words with him revealed that he had no hopes of surviving or no wish to suffer living the life of a POW. He had not suffered long which was some consolation - some were doomed to suffer interminably before death came.

It was sad to see how this once proud and talented person had been thrown down. Some months before, in Shanghai he had received special recognition for a military march he composed and dedicated to the commanding officer, Colonel Dewitt Peck, USMC. It was a pitiful sight for me to see Staff Sergeant Koneski laid in his shallow grave and covered with grass and a few wildflowers we had gathered near by. I have no explanation for why the scene remains so clearly in my mind after these many years. As the summer changed into fall with barely a noticeable difference, the food at Camp 3 was increased in quantity and quality. It could hardly do otherwise but animals from the nearby stock farm were "issued" and meat began showing up in the rations; a httle more each day. The "pipe stem" stew had been augmented with yams (comotes) and when cooked with a little meat helped to make a meal something everyone looked forward to with increasing enthusiasm. Even the rice ration was increased to where it was more than some of us could consume in one meal. "Want some extra rice, pal?" became a strange sounding comment after meals. Somehow it was a friendlier message than, "... Anybody can't eat all their rice, I'll pay $5, after the war, for what you got left today." had been the usual pitch around the barracks at chow time.

Trading surplus with natives was a forbidden and dangerous practice but the temptation to bargain for fresh eggs and fruit was thought by some to be worth the risk.

Camp to be Moved...

The rumor was that our camp would be moved. Finally, it was officially announced that our Camp 3 would be combined with Camp 1. So we gathered together all our belongings and waited for the fateful day when we could start the road back.

I made the first echelon. Since I was one of those who could still walk - many went by truck - I marched without shoes over the nine kilometers of rocky road thinking about the little camp that grew smaller with the distance. Hell, it hadn't been so bad - better than the one that lay ahead. We knew that camp by reputation. "Maybe the food will be better," observed the guy next to me. Man and his eternal optimism.

The day was bright and sunny but it was like stepping into a thick, black cloud to enter Camp Number 1, a desolate, unclean place, where morale was lower than a flea's belly button and the heat was higher than we had ever experienced up nearer the mountains. No river, no trees, poor water.

Here young men had quickly grown old. Among them were the men from Bataan who survived Camp O'Donnell at Tarlac, 85 miles north of Manila, the destination of the death marchers. O'Donnell had been the worst camp of all. Five thousand Filipinos and over 2500 Americans had died there.

These were the lucky ones, the survivors. But they were blind and half blind men. Their deficiency diseases were worse and their guards, young Japanese from the Formosan Corps, were mean fellows and unsympathetic and discompassionate.

Physically, Military Prison Camp No.1, was much larger than Camp No.3. It was divided into three Groups and a hospital directly across the road from the main gate, the largest group. At one time, just before I arrived, it was filled with as many as 2500 patients. Beyond that, the second largest thing was the cemetery - hideous "Group 4". Already it held the bodies of almost 2000 men, the victims of the most terrible battle yet, a battle with untreated wounds, tropical diseases, malnutrition and starvation, neglect and Japanese brutality. The main activity of the Camp seemed to me to bury the dead.

We carried the shriveled, dysentery ridden, naked bodies - unboxed and unshrouded over the very rough trail for about a mile. Guards hurried us along. There were only 16 bodies on this detail. The veteran Camp 3 prisoners said that this was only a few. Previously this regular daily detail carried 80 or more men to their graves every day. All the graves were but three feet deep and meant to contain several bodies. A regular digging detail prepared the graves in advance of the need. The under-ground water table was very high in the cemetery and even at such a shallow depth, there was at least a foot of water at the bottom.

We lay the first corpse in the water, piled one on top of that, and one on top of that. Then the water would begin to run out over the top like it does in a kettle too filled with peeled white potatoes.

We placed all of the bodies into two of the graves. An officer I helped carry was buried separately, his stiff remains were covered with a sheet. Someone said they had known him. He had been a dentist.

A big wooden cross - the mark of Christianity - marked that unchristian area. We stood rigidly at attention while the chaplain hurried through a brief service. I was very much shaken by the horror of the thing. Even those who had been on the detail before seemed troubled by having to do it again. There is a more fitting memorial there now. It was erected in 1985 to mark the site of America's greatest loss of prisoners of war to die in an overseas prison camp. It was funded by private contributions. We didn't know then that it was to get worse, that parts of the bodies would not be completely covered and would protrude through the ground of these dreadful, improperly made graves. It was so insulting to them, so indecent!

By the end of that first day I half-heatedly wished I could join the men in the graves. My bare feet were cut and sore from the stones I had stepped on in the mud puddles along the cemetery trail. It was about the most depressing day I can remember but I knew that it would pass, that I had to endure and survive. Any thought of never being able to return home never took root, even here among the sad victims of their hardest battle of the war.

The detail had nearly undone me. I borrowed a bucket and took a bath. Such a one was called a whore's bath in the lingo of the Marines. But even after the bath I felt clammy, like the corpses I had helped carry. Fortunately for me, but not for the others next day I was put on a temporary work detail. That was because I was slated to go somewhere else with 199 other men on the coming November 7th, 1942, almost the 3rd anniversary of my joining the Marine Corps.

The horror of those graves stayed with me. I could hardly eat my meager ration. I had heard that Bilibid, the prison in Manila, had been designated a hospital under supervision of survivor medical personnel of the Navy. The staff included doctors and corpsmen from the hospital at Canacao and those that had been with us in Shanghai. It was said that men with eye diseases were being sent there for special treatment. As yet I had not developed any eye trouble but I had begun to have something terrible nevertheless. Since that terrible day on the burial detail my feet and ankles never seemed to stop hurting. At first I thought it was from the bruises and walking barefooted. It wasn't. I had begun to feel the first pangs of dry beriberi.

I knew that others had it and compared my condition with some of them. At sick call I was told by a doctor that the burning and aching pains were the result of too little vitamin B in the diet. What those of us who were suffering with it should do, we were told, was try to obtain extra uncooked food like fruit and green vegetables in whatever way possible. The prescription was correct but it was almost like telling a shipwrecked person on a raft to be sure and drink lots of fresh water. There was little to be had unless you had connections. The onset of beriberi is slow and it reaches a point where severe pains keep shooting through the hands and feet as though they were connected by wires to an electric current. The slightest vibration or movement would most likely set off a wave of agonizing ripples of pain. Even a gentle cooling breeze otherwise so welcome in the heat of the tropics was a terrible thing to suffer.

Postcards Home...

The Japanese distributed postal cards that we could send home. Not many believed they would ever make it home but we wrote them anyway. Some typewriters were brought in and the messages we wrote were typed up on the cards. Only a few words were allowed but some messages were cleverly written in order to convey things the Japanese censors would not likely catch. For example: one of the men who had lost a brother in POW camp would write that, "John has gone to where Henry is now." Because the folks at home knew that Henry had been gone for years they would know that John was dead. Other messages were not so sad and tragic, such as: "Our food here in camp is terrific, like those biscuits sister Sue used to make." Everybody at home knew full well that Sue's biscuits were the world's worst so they would know we were being fed poorly.
 
Mikado No Kyaku: (guest of the Emperor), the Recollections of Marine Corporal Donald L. Versaw as a Japanese Prisoner of War during World War II
"Writing a few lines is difficult, I've had little practice lately.
I'm feeling good and living comfortably.
My spare time is not wasted, plenty to study and read.
Advise you to keep your spirits up and trust to God our care."
(Received December 15, 1943) 
Mikado No Kyaku: (guest of the Emperor), the Recollections of Marine Corporal Donald L. Versaw as a Japanese Prisoner of War during World War II
"Dear folks, Since it is the vincinity of my dear parents birthdays,
no better time could the privelge of writing to you be awarded.
My constant thoughts are of you and your other children and their families.
I am well, be confident and soon we shall be rejoined. Lovingly, D.L. Versaw"
(Received January 12, 1945) 
 
I didn't try to tell anyone at home that I wasn't doing too good. I didn't want to worry the folks. My mother had put up with an awful lot from me and I didn't want her to give her any more trouble. I just checked the health query box on the postal card as being "excellent". I didn't let the camp administration guys know that I was hurting either in order not to be scratched from the work detail on which I had been listed. I had to get out of this terrible camp anyway I could. It was just too depressing and I was fearful to stay there. I don't know which I dreaded more, the burial detail or working on the "farm", the big enterprise at the camp. It was known all over the Philippines for the sadistic guards who beat the prisoners so cruelly: madmen with names like: Mickey Mouse, Air Raid, Little Air Raid and Donald Duck. Most of those names delight the minds of little children at home, but at Camp 1 they were terrorists of the worst order. These men all carried big sticks, 'vitamin sticks,' we called them and they were backed up by guards with fixed bayonets who would beat the hell out of any poor soul within reach for even the slightest reason. I had to make that outgoing work detail no matter where it was going. And nobody seemed to know.

"Japan, maybe," someone suggested.

Things could not be so bad there; at least the citizens must be civil even if most of the soldiers were not. But the signs were not there to indicate a shipment of prisoners to Japan. Large movements of people like that were called drafts. Once listed on them there was no choice but to go. No shoes or special clothing were being issued. We had seen some large groups of men going to Japan being issued new looking blue denims. We got none of those, just an extra ball of gummy rice with our special early morning meal. It was still dark when we marched out of the main gates. It seemed very unusual that such a large group was taken out of the camp in early morning darkness. There were extra Japanese guards looking a little grim when you caught a look at their faces from the two lights there. No doubt they were a bit on edge because of the possibility of an escape attempt. My feet ached terribly. But I kept silent. I'd have endured twice that terrible pain to get away from the horrors of Camp 1. I hated it with a passion and I had only been there seven days.
 
Next: Chapter 3 - Full Text of MIKADO NO KYAKU (Guest of the Emperor) Please Click Below for:
1. Introduction to Slavery Page 1
2. Our New Home in Bongabon Page 15
3. To the Shade of Mount Penatubo Page 37
4. Bilibid Prison Again Page 55
5. Cabanatuan "Revisited" 1944 Page 59
6. The Nissyo Maru. A True Trip of Terror Page 67
7. Where the Birds Don't Sing and Flowers Don't Smell Page 82
8. The Setting of the Rising Sun Page 99
Epilogue Page 117
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