Fourth Marines Band: "Last China Band"

MIKADO NO KYAKU (Guest of the Emperor)

Chapter Five - Cabanatuan "Revisited" 1944 - Page 59-66
Chapter Five

Cabanatuan "Revisited" 1944

Late in the month of April 1944, I was shipped from Bilibid prison in Manila with 98 other prisoners, deemed fit for farm work, back to Cabanatuan prison Camp 1. We went by rail in much the same manner as I had traveled almost two years before. This time, however, it was not so crowded and we got a better break on rest stops and the guards allowed the big sliding doors to remain open. We were also less fearful and more familiar with what we faced.

Camp 1, like Bilibid, had undergone a change for the better in the time I had been gone. There were gardens and papaya trees growing all over among the many nipa palm covered barracks. The old hospital, where so many men had died in the early months of our captivity, had been eliminated. In the same general area were new barracks where the Japanese troops guarding us lived. Patients were being cared for in the lower division of the camp, while the inactive dysentery group lived by themselves at the opposite end of the camp.

They all looked fairly good; some looked better than the well ones.The dysentery bugs were just lying there asleep, either to stay that way or suddenly to wake up and become violently active again.

It was swell to see old friends. Captain Robert B. Moore, our old regimental adjutant, was in charge of the barracks to which I was assigned. I found our bandmaster, Master Technical Sergeant Levis Giffin, holding down a gate mans's job.

The rolling hills around Camp 1 reminded me of Nebraska. I shut my eyes and could see our little white house with its green trim. But when I opened my eyes, there would be the foreign mountain backdrop and I'd know I was on the other side of the world.

Before we saw or heard much of anything, we were put in ranks according to our branch of service, and counted. Already I had been counted more times than I could count and there would be many more counts in the months to come. Then the Japanese adjutant, a fatherly old bird, made a very eloquent speech on behalf of the commandant, reminding us once again that we were guests of the Emperor and tellIng us how to behave as prisoners of war in this camp. We had more than two years of experience behind us, we didn't need more advice on the subject.

Our ears dropped as he warbled on and on about working hard and keeping busy and not disturbing those who were very happy in the camp, meaning the Japanese soldiers.

Then, as we were called by name, we marched through the big gate, saluting the adjutant as we passed, we were escorted to different barracks. The adjutant and his three aides returned the salutes. We from Clark Field, camp 10C were not used to "highballing" (saluting) Japanese soldiers, although we had a slight taste of it at Bilibid where, if you were without a cap, you had to, at least, bow low from the waist to every Japanese officer. We were to learn later in Japan that this gesture is called Sie (sigh) Kari (carry) and there we Sie Karied just about anything Japanese that moved.

The Camp was Crawling...

That night we found one thing at old camp 1, that had grown worse, was the bedbugs. They were terrific. Everything possible had been done to lessen their numbers. Nevertheless, the place was crawling.

"The only thing we can do is burn down the joint," Someone suggested. "A good idea," came the answer, everybody laughed. Camp conditions were generally greatly improved. Sanitationwise the ingenious engineers had devised a septic system that disposed of human waste with little mess or odor. This controlled the old fly problem and those diseases that were such a devastation at the start. A lot had been done cosmetically around the barracks, which made existence much more pleasant. The water system had been improved so that prisoners could keep cleaner and wash their few remaining clothes.

Most of us became farmers the next day. We were divided into two large details, shoe and noshoe.

The Cabanatuan farm had been started early in 1943, to provide food for its own prisoners and to augment the supply for the patients at Bilibid. As food became scarcer all over the islands, the Japanese tried to encourage civilians to cultivate more truck gardens. The campaign was not too successful.

Our farm was laid out in plots of about 100 acres each. The work was terrible for the men who broke the land. The ground had never before been farmed and was largely covered with a tall and tough, tan grass. We called it kogan grass.

"Vitamin Sticks"...

Now the work was easier, but the Japanese supervisors were very mean. To keep everybody working steadily they used clubs which we prisoners called "vitamin sticks". Individuals who were observed by them to be shirking or laying back were given large, long and painful doses of 'Vitamin S.' It was a very hated medicine.

Three thousand men were being used each day to plant and cultivate 700 acres of sweet potatoes (comotes), corn, squash, cucumbers, okra, onions and also cassava, whose roots supply tapioca. We wondered and dearly hoped we would not have to remain prisoners long enough to harvest the latter vegetable which has a long growing season. Some said it took 18 months for cassava to mature; it is a beautiful plant to watch grow. It has big, broad, green leaves something like tobacco or the philodendron.

At the highest point of the ground a reservoir had been dug and irrigation ditches were run to the various plots. Rice paddies lay close to the irrigation ditches. Central Luzon has a monsoon climate. Rains usually come in seasonal, violent storms when multi-megatons of water drench the land. They can arrive most anytime but those I experienced came in summer. Although now, as summer was just beginning, it was dry with no sight of rain, and so irrigation was part of the work. Rice paddies lay close to the irrigation ditches. I remember seeing bronzedbacked prisoners handling water buffalo while plowing in the flooded fields. Spanish speaking soldiers were selected for handling the beasts because they did not respond well to English commands. However, only very little work was done with animals; most was performed by the bent backs of very thin prisoners, using heavy English hoes.

I did rice planting one or two days and I can say without reservation that it is the worst of farm labor. You stand in liquid nearly up to your knees. It is not entirely water for many kinds of fertilizer were induced into the morass: animal and human wastes along with fermented and rotted grass. Each little rice plant had to be set out along the length of a string with knots tied at intervals to mark the spacing. In spite of the back breaking hard work, the little paddies were nice to look at when finished, but only then.

The shoe detail worked where they didn't have to walk on growing plants. The barefooted ones, including me, did most of the planting, cultivating and harvesting. It was very painful for me during the first days, but the Lord takes care of such things; in a remarkably short time, my feet hardened so that I barely noticed the stones and rocks under my feet.

One project was the excavation of what could have been an airfield although on the camp records it was listed as just part of the "farm". Apparently not enough effort or man power was expended on this project to finish whatever it was to be. Accounts of the liberation of Cabanatuan in early 1945 by the Rangers do not mention aircraft being there.

Some of the men on special detail, or deemed too old or unfit for work on the farm, found time for hobbies. With handmade tools, they fashioned beautiful smoking pipes out of fine, native hardwoods. The big blue horns of the water buffalo were turned into cribbage boards. Colored handles of wornout toothbrushes were made into pegs and used for red, blue and yellow inlays. The tips of the buffalo horn were cut off and made into beautifully carved rings polished with ashes from the rice pits.

A small herd of Brahma cows, carabao and carabella was maintained in a corral on the farm. I supposed they came from the experimental farm there. Some of these animals were used to operate a carabao convoy from Cabanatuan City to the camp.

Not much escaped the scrutiny of our captors, but for many months considerable contraband was exchanged with friendly folks on the outside. The heaviest "freight" was in the form of mail and money. It took them a long time to catch up with this underground railroad. A train of carabao was driven each day to the market at Cabanatuan and at night they would return carrying not only the ordered supplies but Philippine money, Japanese invasion money, food, clothing and mail from friends and relatives.

A secret bank branched out from Cabanatuan's market into other villages and the mountains; with the help of guerrilla leaders, even some Japanese soldiers were compromised with exceptionally good pay for their treachery.

When the Japanese busted the system, hundreds were arrested. Officers of all ranks were questioned and tortured for weeks in one of the distant guard houses. I hated to see the men tied up with their hands behind their backs and then strung up with them to a bar above and behind them. Hundreds of natives were also arrested outside, as we learned later. In Manila, Americans and other nationals were put into the ancient and cruel old Fort Santiago dungeon. There are many stories about this whole fiasco, but I was only witness to that which occurred at Camp 1. It was severe enough there.

Naturally, since we were right at the source of supply, the food was pretty good, certainly better than at Bilibid and, at first, more of it. The amount of meat fell off but there were fresh vegetables every day.

Breakfast was usually rice gruel we called Jugao, and orange pekoe tea, a high quality variety from Java. The Japanese seemed not to care for it preferring their own green tea from home. Supper included a fried patty of corn, rice, vegetables and, sometimes, a dark, brown cookie made of rice flour and raw sugar.

Once in a while we would get a little brown, odd shaped thing that tasted like a biscuit; it turned out to be banana that had been fried in deep fat. Not too bad a diversion from the usual stuff as I remember it. I am not sure if it was a variety of banana, like plantain, that must be cooked to make it edible. All bananas I ever saw in the Philippines were very small. Old timers stationed there called them "monkey bananas'. Fruit of any kind was rarely ever issued to prisoners of war, so was more than just a delightful treat no matter what.

We knew little about it, but the tides of the war had swung widely back toward the Philippines from the South Pacific. The Japanese were making obvious preparations for when the Allied forces would begin attacks and make an effort to retake the Islands given up in 1942. Those of us who had survived thus far were now even more confident that General MacArthur would make good his promise to return.

Rations were cut to "save" food. Nobody was to get more than 300 grams of vegetables per day. As a result, a lot of produce rotted in the field where it was grown, while we, in the midst of plenty, grew hungrier.

"That's Entertainment"...

There wasn't much entertainment but the old timers there were still drooling over entertainment's past. During the period I was gone to Clark Field, a group of actors, singers, dancers and a fine dance band had been organized directed by marine Lieutenant Alan S. Manning, who wrote some good plays, comic parodies on prewar plays, and musicals. Assisting greatly in the entertainment project were Corporal Franklin Boyer, an extremely talented marine bandsman, along with Private First Class Kenneth Marshall. Both of these skilled musicians were formerly with our 4th Marines Band that I had served with in Shanghai, China and then, as infantrymen, in the battle for Bataan and Corregidor. Their efforts certainly did for prisoners of war, wherever they were, what Bob Hope and the USO shows have done for so many years and in so many places.

A soldier named Kratz led a band that consisted of two trumpets, a trombone, a clarinet (Marshall), saxophone, guitar and a banjo. Where they got all those instruments I don't know, nor do I know what they sounded like because upon my second term in Cabanatuan, they were history. They must have been great, at least greatly appreciated, because the prisoners there who heard them remembered them well and were still talking about them as though they might have been Les Brown's Band of Reknown or something.

A number of us were kept working in the old hospital compound where so many prisoners of war spent their last days. So many buildings were repaired a rumor spread that the Japanese were preparing for the arrival of 1000 more POW's. A first guess was that many work details on islands in the south of the archipelago were being drawn back as the Americans moved up the chain. One large camp on the southern end of Mindanao at Davao penal colony, would be a first target for recovering prisoners if the plan was to take the Philippines from the bottom up. Another idea passed around was that Bilibid in Manila would be closed and all the people brought out to the "country" at Cabanatuan.

Then one evening we saw a long column marching across the road at the far end of the compound. They were too far away to recognize.

For several days we just wondered. Then a few days later some of them managed to reach us to exchange news. The first rumor had it they had indeed came from Davao, crowded in the airless holds of a stinking ship. Some of the men preferred death in the water to suffocation above it. They'd gone overboard. That just made matters worse. The captors kept the others in covered holds. By the time they reached Manila, so many were ill they were taken to Bilibid. The rest were brought to Camp 1.

We jumped to the happy conclusion that these POWs had been moved from Mindanao because the Japanese expected an invasion there. This was probably true in the minds of officials charged with prisoner custody. It followed that if American forces would soon liberate Mindanao, then it would not be long after when they would certainly return to Luzon where we were. And if the Japanese didn't want us to be recaptured, they would relocate us to Formosa or even Japan. We assumed to be right on that one.

None of us wanted to go to Japan because we wanted to be at the first place of liberation. We didn't know they had plans and orders to kill us all rather than let us be repatriated. If they took us to Japan that would probably mean the Yanks and Tanks would invade there last and prolong our captivity.

"Physical Examination for Japan"...

There wasn't much entertainment. The physical examination for Japan began. At first, it was said that men with dysentery would not be taken to the Japanese homeland, so all those afflicted were excluded from the list. This, of course, was to prevent the spread of infections among their people.

That's how I escaped an early draft of 1000 men. Then the Japanese must have decided they could accept inactive dysentery patients. That's how I happened to be on the second list.

"It won't be so bad in Japan," consoled a man who had lived there for nine prewar years. "At least the food will be better." Despite his experience, he didn't know what he was talking about. Some of the men talked to guards who would have been happy to go back to their country and envied our opportunity.

Now I went around saying good-bye first to Captain Moore, one of the fine and intelligent officers for whom I had a lot of respect. Then I paid a visit to Master Technical Sergeant Levis Giffin, our bandmaster, and Lieutenant Colonel Herman "Red" Anderson, my old battalion commander. Because he was a red headed person like myself we had just that little bit in common, but he managed to learn three languages fairly well during his imprisonment. I also went to Lieutenant H. R. Trump, the Navy chaplain of the 4th Marines, and we had a heartwarming, farewell chat. Chaplain Trump led Sunday church services in Shanghai's Grand Theater for which the band regularly furnished the music and concerts afterwards. Trump was from Columbus, Ohio and we promised each other we would contact each other's family when we returned to the states. Sadly, all these fine men were killed later in the year on "hell-ships" taking them to Japan. The enemy did not mark the ships carrying prisoners of war and so were attacked and sunk by American ships and planes. My trip took place in July 1944 and the others were on ships in October, except Bandmaster Giffin, who lost his life the following December. The war was moving back to the Philippines now in rapid order. I have never been able to erase the tragedy of the hell ships from my mind.

The day before we left, we were issued new dark blue denims and army shoes sent in by the Red Cross.

We were trembling way down deep inside, each and every man jack of us trying not to let the next guy know how we felt. On that hot July day in 1944, we were taken by truck to Bilibid. Destination, Japan. We looked pretty neat in all our new clothes. In our trim quan bags of many bright colors were stored all our worldly goods, a few souvenirs and some had a lucky, emergency can of sardines. We stayed at Bilibid only one night. None of us slept much. We didn't talk much, either. We were routed out at dawn. Imagine our amazement and disgust when a host of guards came around, gathered up all our new denims and tossed us yellowish-brown Japanese army uniforms. "They think we won't be needing them anymore," one guy commented. He meant to be funny, nobody laughed. After an exceedingly light breakfast we fell in and were marched to the Manila docks. A large group of men from the Port Area work camp was waiting on us. There were roughly 1500 of us in all.

Next: Chapter 6 - 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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