Fourth Marines Band: "Last China Band"

MIKADO NO KYAKU (Guest of the Emperor)

Chapter Seven - Where the Birds Don't Sing and Flowers Don't Smell - Page 82-97
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
The City of Fukuoka, Japan is on the southern island of Kyushu
(Prisoner of War Camp 10 is Located Under the Letter "F" in Fukuoka, Kyushu)
Chapter Seven

Where the Birds Don't Sing and Flowers Don't Smell

All afternoon we sat, we lay around, in the auditorium trying to talk to Japanese guards, those who could and would speak a little English. One was a rather gnarled, swarthy, older man that we quickly named "Hawaiian Joe". His English was amazingly fluent with hardly an accent. He claimed to have lived many years in Hawaii but had returned to his homeland for retirement. At his government's insistence, he had to work, so he had taken on a job of guarding POW's. He wore the uniform of the Nitetsu-Futase Tonko Kaisha coal mining company and carried a wooden replica of an issue rifle tipped with a sharpened metal bayonet.

"Joe" informed us that our group was going to a nice place where there was plenty of good food and many cigarettes. He was right about the nouns but, as we were to discover, wrong about his adjectives.

There was plenty of room in the large auditorium not like the cramped space in the ship. We spread out so we could sit or lie without touching anyone near. After being pressed against someone else's body for 17 days it was just sheer joy to have a little room. Some guys joked about it now, "Hey move a little closer, you seem so far away." Comic relief often follows great stress and pressure.

The great relief of being off the ship began to wear off; apprehensions of what lie ahead for us invaded our thoughts. Of course, it could hardly be worse than the Hell Ship Nissyo but, if the place we were going to really was worse, then surviving longer would be unlikely. A few men in our group were finding it difficult just to walk and one or two could not at all. We thought it was the dehydration.

In the dead of the night, we half-dead, sleepy, groggy POW"s were hustled off to a nearby railway and loaded onto a passenger train. The car I went in was smaller than an American railway car. The seats were smaller and the windows were smaller. Cuspidors were countersunk flush with the floor.

Most of us quickly dozed off or went soundly to sleep not even noticing when the car lurched and the train moved. Those who were still awake got no look at our surroundings or the countryside.

"Do not raise blinds!" was the order. I hope it stemmed from a Japanese desire not to have seen their homeland wrecked by our Yank planes.

When we reached the train's destination we debarked onto the platform of a fairly large city. Later, we were to learn this was Shin Izuka in Fukuoka province. It was early morning and all the shops and places of business were still closed and shuttered. Many appeared to be boarded up permanently. Most of the people in the streets were either older males wearing the peaked caps like the military or school children carrying backpacks. The young boys were all dressed in little uniforms with military-style caps, too. The few women who were about were dressed in light pantaloons and wrapped with a light kimono tied with a sash. Not much attractive about any of them. It had been many months since we had seen any women at that close range.

Take a Hike...

From the rather modern-looking railway station we were ordered to hike - silly word. Some lagged, some limped because of ill-fitting shoes. Some slogged along the cinder-coated streets barefooted. Those that could not walk at all were carried off and loaded onto trucks with strange looking contraptions affixed to them for cooking charcoal to make engine fuel.

It was not far from Shin Izuka to the smaller, coal mining town of Futase City - three or four miles maybe, but the long days in the Hell Ship had done us in. It seemed as long as the Great Wall of China. We finally came to an unpainted, 10-foot tall, wooden fence atop a small hill. The fence was topped with sharpened spikes of bamboo. Two, large double gates, large enough to admit trucks, opened and we were marched in. The gates closed behind us. Welcome to Futase, Camp 10.

We were lined up and "bangoed", the word for counting off. Around us were a number of armed soldiers led by a senior sergeant. Looking us over was a young and rather handsome Japanese officer, a long saber dangling from a belt. His olive-green uniform had a richer, cleaner quality about it and he wore a clean looking white shirt. His peaked cap matched his trousers and was slightly decorated with several blue threads sewn around it from front to back. He took no part in the "welcome" procedure. Several older men wearing gray uniforms the color of dirty putty did. Each was decorated with sewn-on patches of 5 gold stars, each one slightly smaller than the other. We learned eventually that the insignia denoted they were members of the Japanese Propaganda Corps. They may have had a better name for themselves but that is what we called them. There were about six men in that group, two of them had arms missing, one a right and another a left. We guessed they were disability retired soldiers now pressed into service to handle POW's.

They quickly established the impression among us that they had plenty of authority. They acted mean and angry from the first and remained that way until the very end.

Additionally there were more of the older men like Hawaiian Joe, all carrying stick rifles with fixed (real) bayonets. All wore the same civilian garb: light striped shirts, thin cotton trousers in a gray pattern and the familiar Japanese army peaked cap with small crescent bills and laced in the back to provide adjustments for "one size fits all". A distinguishing feature, however, was the enameled pin fixed in place of the army gold star on the crest of each cap. A large Arabic letter S was framed in a field of white enamel bordered by red and brass decorations. These were employees of the Nitetsu-Futase Tonko Kaisha hired to guard and handle prisoners of war. All of them seemed to be last in the pecking order and rarely hassled or gave us much trouble.

Just inside the gate was a guard house the whole front of which was the door. Inside was a table and a couple chairs for the watch on duty. It overlooked the small assembly area, the size of a couple tennis courts. A small, wooden platform with several wooden steps leading up to it was placed in front of the first low, long building that housed the Japanese Camp Commander's office and living quarters. Beyond that, bordering the same side of the square was a larger, one story, barrackslike building that housed the Japanese army detachment of about a dozen soldiers.

The gap between the two buildings led to a large, two story building in the shape of the letter U. It could have been a school or even a barracks in prior years; now it housed some 200 prisoners of war taken in the Dutch East Indies, Java, Sumatra, places like that.

None of the present inmates came forth to greet us with the exception of one Hollander who was speaking what seemed to be fluent Japanese and acted as both a camp official and an interpreter. The comments being made by the Japanese, we learned later, were such things as: "These prisoners are unfit for anything"; "little work they can do"; and "the smell hurts the nose." He became known only as Lieutenant Braber.

After the Japanese were satisfied all were present and accounted for we were led back in to the camp where the building seemed to receive less care. We passed the Aso, the punishment cell. A tiny box of hideous proportions and design. Then, on by the bath house which housed a large concrete soaking tub about twice the size of a farm stock tank. We proceeded under tiled, covered walk-ways to a long, narrow building that perhaps had been a warehouse. This was to be our home for the next 13 months.
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
"Speech on Arrival to Futase Camp 10 by the Camp Commander" Drawing by my Dutch POW Friend, Nict Parys
The building had recently been remodeled to accommodate the expected arrival of more POW's. Three rooms to house about 40 men had been parceled off a hall leading to the back. Each room had two platforms built off the floor on each side of a center aisle, one above the other. The platforms were covered with the straw mats common to most Japanese households called tatami mats. A single shelf lined the back wall of each platform. At the end of the aisle was a small, casement window. Except for air entering the rooms from the hall, it was the only ventilation. The first of these rooms was to be my home for the coming year.

The office and examination room was located between our sleeping rooms and the infirmary. A Japanese doctor, "Ishi" we called him, (the Japanese word for doctor is pronounced eesha) was in charge there. His name was Yoshiwaka Suinaga. His hard-fisted medical assistant was the ever terrorizing Sugi Horibumu. Next and beyond that was a larger room with platforms on either side for the sick. It was called the "Nushisu" or sick room. At the end across the back of the building was the latrine.

I found myself housed with some members of the original 4th Marines Band (E 2 4) with whom I had played in Shanghai a few years before. My room leader was Technical Sergeant Jackson P. Rauhof, the drum major and leader of my platoon on Corregidor. Others in my room were Platoon Sergeant Felix McCool, Staff Sergeant. E. D. Smith, and PFC Edward "Eddie" Howe. Next door were others from the band; PFC Cedric Stephens and PFC Monford P. Charleton. A few of the recently arrived American contingent were housed among the Dutchmen in the big building. Among them was Corporal Franklin Boyer, another bandsman.

Our captors decided that two weeks rest would be enough to restore us before we would be put to work in the coal mines. Many, however, would not recover enough to do so, but some who were fearful of working in coal mines would manage to stay "unwell" enough to avoid it for the whole of our stay.

For two weeks we did not go to work. We exercised in the sun on a field just outside the camp. We were taught certain Japanese words peculiar to coal mining which would be our occupation. We learned a little close order drill using Japanese commands for: forward march, right face, to the rear which our captors believed would build up our strength so that we could work. We were even allowed to play a couple of strange ball games. We did it with little enthusiasm although most of us knew that what we were doing would help get our strength back. It was the purpose they intended to put it to that had us worried. And they gave us food which, by previous standards, we could consider ample.

At the end of two weeks, Captain Roscoe Price, our senior American officer persuaded the Japanese to give us more time. He must have been surprised at the success of that, for the Japs were not easily dealt with.

Unlike camp life in the Philippines where we pretty much governed by ourselves with a minimum of supervision by our captors, this camp was run very closely by the JPC's (disabled ex-soldiers) and civilian employees of the mining company and the military. The soldiers were by far the most brutal, along with Sugi, the medic, who took a sadistic joy in tormenting anybody, particularly sick Americans. His usual weapon was a samurai saber, scabbard and all.

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
Prisoner of War Camp Futase Camp 10 - Fukuoka, Kyushu, Japan 1945 
Most of the guards and troop handlers were laid back and didn't bother or interfere with us much. There were a few that were just down right mean and meddlesome all the time. A few more were sadistic. "Right Arm" and "Left Arm" were the two most notorious prisoner beaters. Because they only had one arm each it seemed to please them that they had us where we could not retaliate from the sticks they carried to flail us with. Sometimes they would just sock us with their remaining bare fists. They were the most hated of the JPC's. "Smiley" was one who wore a deceiving grin most of the time, and was generally a mild driver. I was to discover later that he had a pretty good left hook. Whatever his disability was, it did not lessen the power of his punch.

The camp routine was very rigid, of course. There was a time to do everything and many times when doing almost any other thing was forbidden. We ate, smoked, slept and went to the toilet at the sound of a bell. Anyone caught doing the wrong thing between bells was punished on the spot; slapped, punched and kicked if he did not get up quick enough. The fastest response back to a position of a soldier at attention was always the quickest way to halt the attack. It was hard to learn. Otherwise, the punishment was brutal and complete.

One of the more serious offenses was smoking after the bell rang to stop; it was worse yet to begin before the starting bell. It was usually a 15-minute period, long enough if you didn't have to wait to share a part of the cigarette or wait to get your butt lighted. Since no matches or lighters were allowed, someone had to run to the kitchen located clear across the compound and bring back an ember or something. The result was that some fellows did not get theirs lighted until almost time for the bell to ring. Because the guards couldn't be everywhere at once, the period could be over run. Not without some risk and the penalty was severe.

My bunk mate, Eddie Howe and I were caught in this "crime" one noon. The last dying rings of the bell had not even faded away when the Japanese First Sergeant, still limping from his China war wound, I suppose, came bursting in the door. And here we were taking just one last puff. With a raised right and left he knocked us both to the floor. I jumped back to my feet before he could kick me, preferring to take another blow I could roll with to being kicked. Eddie may have been struck harder and didn't get up. He was kicked with a series of blows and beaten again with a stick the size of a riding crop. It took some heat off me, but I stood there with fists clenched wishing I could help him up. Defending him would have sealed my fate and his too, I expect. There is nothing so easily riled to uncontrollable anger as a wounded Japanese First Sergeant. It was not our first beating nor would it be the last, but we boys from the Philippines may have been able to take it better than the Japanese home boys knew. Things like this created a tension which always persisted in the camp.

The day came when we were turned into coal miners on the night shift. I remembered what Professor Clark, my geology teacher had said about the brown, coal mines of Japan. She had hoped I could visit them one day.

And here I was! I'm sure it was not under these conditions that she had in mind. We had been issued a gauze-thin blouse, light cotton shorts, sandals made of rice straw and a black miner's cap made of rubberized cotton with an Indian red, fiber bracket to hold a lamp.

The company we were consigned to operated two mines in this local. The first was a deep vertical shaft called Honko. A huge multiwheeled lift was built over it; all around the opening were buildings of many sizes housing power plants with huge tall, chimneys, offices, and coal sorting apparatus. Within this complex we called the "Fabrique" was the auditorium decorated with Japanese flags and company insignia. Before we were taken to work underneath we "stood up" for some kind of a formation designed to inspire hard work and safety.

As part of our training for coal mining we were taught a number of Japanese words: Abu nai, for danger; Shi go toe, for work; Ebu, for coal basket; Kakita, a short handled hoe for raking coal into the Ebu; and Ju Ji, for pickaxe. Little was said about Yasi mei for rest, or Shi go toe awari for stop work. Somehow we had learned those words before ever reaching Japan.

Down in the Mines...

The cars descended, a couple to each lift. It seemed that we were going slowly. The electric lamps connected to our caps bobbed around as the new American crew searched the walls of the pit trying to see where and what we were getting into. The change in air pressure bothered my ears; I had to swallow to restore equilibrium like coming down a mountain. Some said the foot of the shaft was a 1000 meters below the surface. More than likely it was for it took a long time before the lift stopped and the gates opened. We stood in a huge gallery or tunnel. The walls and overhead were cemented over and lined with many dim incandescent lights.

When all had reached the bottom, we assembled and later divided off into work parties, some large, some small. I was assigned to one of the latter. We were told what we were going to do but had not yet learned enough to understand. We marched out of the lighted area and through huge, double doors into a much smaller tunnel lighted now only by the lamps on our caps. We hiked along the tiny railway tracks laid in the center. Other tunnels branched off to the right and left of the one we were in.

Up ahead, the racket of an approaching Hako (box), an iron tub-like cart was heard. We all had to cling to either sides of the tunnel to let the car pass. Two bent-over bodies were pushing it; who they were we couldn't see but we supposed they were other slave creatures like ourselves.

Reaching our work area, a Ho rye, we found it was our job to help our work leader, an older Japanese civilian to install shoring along the walls and overhead of a tunnel being extended. We had a pneumatic drill, it's long hose connected to a pipe running along the main tunnel and found a car of pine posts already there to use as shoring. The drill was large and heavy with a hardened steel bit. It took two men to manage it, drilling inch-diameter holes in the rock and coal for setting dynamite charges.

Rich deposits of coal, when found, were blasted out and loaded into cars brought up from the main lateral by another crew. Large rocks were left in the mine to build pillars to help support the overhead.

The mine was humid and stuffy. The rugged Japanese miner (honcho) in charge had nothing but contempt at my weakness. I felt he couldn't make up his mind whether to cuff me or get on with the work. Before it was time to eat the little rice and sliced pickle radish we had brought to the mine for lunch, it was apparent to me that I couldn't last the shift no matter what he did. The light shirt and shorts I wore were soaked with sweat. My grass shoes had begun to disintegrate. It was slowing me up and I was already dead tired. I knew the miner would soon start swinging - at me.

Then fate stepped in. My electric lamp dimmed, its red glow was lessening. The batteries in the metal box hooked to my waistband were losing their charge. It wouldn't last long.

"Hey! my lamp is going!" I called attention to my captor. With a curse, he ordered me back to lift base to get a replacement. Batteries with lamps attached were drawn from a room topside (ko gai), but extra charged batteries were available at the lift.

I started along the mine track. One hundred yards and two curves away from my detail, the light went out completely. There I was, many meters deep in the bowels of Japan, still a couple of miles from a fresh battery. It was pitch black. Just being underground, thinking of caveins and Japan's notorious earthquakes was terrifying enough; to be without light in these conditions was very frightful. There was little sound, muffled blasts way off in the distance occasionally. The opposite direction of those was the way to go, feeling along the dank tunnel wall and stumbling over the ties and rails of the car track.

My head struck a low overhead beam.

The little stars were just fading when I heard the clatter of metal wheels. A string of cars was approaching!

In utter ignorance of the width of the tunnel and the clearances of the cars and walls, I hugged the stone as the first car passed. Very closely.

I must have exhaled. The second car caught the battery case on my belt and jerked the connecting cord off my cap. My hand swung out wildly to catch the cap. Another car scraped my skin. I moved tighter against the wall. Each car took its token of me.

The rattle faded in the distance. I wiped the cold sweat from my face, groped about for hat and dead headlight and stumbled on through the darkness. Two hours more and a dozen, hard bumps later, I saw a dim glow. It was the lighted tunnel near the mine shaft.

I exchanged my dead battery for a good, hot, fresh one. It was made up of wet hydroxide cells. The caustic electrolyte could cause deep and painful wounds if it spilled out. The covers on some did not fit tight and prisoners would be burned. Later, some men learned to use the battery fluid to aggravate and sustain wounds and sores in order to render themselves unfit for work.

I set out to return to my work place. I don't know how I ever found it and perhaps would not have done so had it not been for some engineers or supervisors along the way who shuttled me off in the right directions. Their lamps had a red circle painted around the lens so they could be recognized. I yelled "Guan Jin" to each one, hoping they would not recognize me as a loose prisoner slave wandering around in alone in the mine. I was not stopped and questioned.

It was a very large mine and large numbers of Chinese prisoners and Korean laborers were worked within its many stopes galleries, and tunnels. Because of the limits of the lifts the work hours were staggered so that gangs would come and go and hardly see anything of one another.

When I reached my detail, the honcho was very much on edge and disgusted with his American miners. They had all eaten their rice and pickle but I was not given time to eat mine which remained tied up in a rag handkerchief still in the little wooden (bento) boxes; one larger, one small but neither containing very much food and looked even less in boxes that could have held more. I was famished but only managed to eat it on the hike back after work time had expired. It had been a long, tiring night.
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
"Entrance of Hell"
Another Drawing by My Dutch POW Friend, Nict Parys
The sky had begun to lighten slightly when we finally reached the surface after our first ten hours of coal mining. Thankfully, we were allowed to use the company bath to try and wash some of the grimy coal dust from our weary bodies. The bathhouse was a huge room almost entirely filled with a concrete tub, about four foot deep and nearly as large as a tennis court. At several places, pipes from overhead extended into the steaming water-filled pool, injected live steam to heat it. A foot-wide trough surrounded it and a stream of fresh water ran within. Scattered around on the floor and in the trough were dozens of little, wooden buckets bound with darker, wooden bands. The idea was to first wash well from the water in the trough and then, when clean, soak in the warm pool. There was no soap or towel so it was very difficult to get clean. Most of us used the cloth we had carried our bentos in as a combination wash cloth and towel. The bath was not segregated sex wise and we were mostly amused to see some women using the facility. The few I saw congregated in one corner and kept to themselves. They showed far less interest in us than we in them even though these women were not Las Vegas showgirls. Far from it, in our physical condition only food seemed to occupy our thoughts.

I worked the Honko mine only for a short while, perhaps an entire shift of ten days. I expect the honchos my crews worked for gave up on us in disgust, for I was soon transferred to work the other mine called "Shinko". It was an old, inclined shaft a couple miles further from Honko over the huge, ancient, slag heap mountain. Once closed as unproductive and having once been damaged by earthquakes, it was now opened again for Japan's war effort.

The Shinko shaft had a concrete entrance, nothing elaborate or anything; over the top of the arc, in English lettering the word S H I N KO had been cast into the structure. Nothing was written in chicken track style of Japanese lettering. The shaft inclined at about 30 degrees with rail tracks down the center and steps leading down along the left side. On the rise just above the opening was a building that housed the motors and winches that lowered empty Halm cars into the mine and pulled those loaded with coal out.

It was not considered safe to ride in the cars to the coal faces below and against the rules to do so. The cables only went so far. Then the cars were unclasped from the cable and handled by prisoners from that point. A Japanese civilian ran the track and cable system using a hooklike tool about a foot long to operate the cable clamps. It was a tiny bit like the cable-car system so famous in San Francisco. The cable Honcho was a wild creature - always in high gear shouting words and warnings that meant little to us those first, few weeks after starting work in the Shinko.

Walking down into the mine was tenuous and tedious. Crews were made up above ground and assigned to honchos who would escort their work gang of prisoner slaves down into the mine. At the lower end of the main shaft, lateral tubes cut off to the left and right. Each lateral was numbered: Migi Itchi, (right one), Hidoti Ni (left two), etc... We were told the system of mining was a kind of technique developed in Belgium. The Hollanders knew more about it than any of the rest of us and, some of them, the Caucasians particularly, were assigned to the mine engineer office above ground. The Indonesians were enslaved at 'unskilled' labor along with the rest of us.

Usually the laterals on either side of the mine shaft followed parallel courses about 100 feet apart. Within the geology of the earth below, deposits of coal sandwiched with rock and dirt ran between the two, usually at a gentle angle. The coal was blasted out in sections by the drilling and dynamite crew, after which we hoe and basket operators, would scoop up the loose coal and toss it into a conveyor carrying it to a waiting car in the lateral below.

As the process continued, coal was mined during one shift, called "production". The next shift, called "construction" would move all the machinery and extended the laterals, and lay more track. The overhead would slowly subside behind and along the coal faces as everything went forward. Loads of pine poles were brought down from the upper laterals and used to erect support of the immediate overhead. Big rocks were also used to build pillars of slag to help hold up the "roof." These were also used as toilets while under construction. The Japanese forbid it but there were no other places of sanitation. In the course of a few days the tremendous pressure of the earth above would crush the poles and smash the rock pillars (bota maki) to a space of just a few inches. Some spaces along the conveyor would not allow one to stand fully erect. Excavation was limited to just enough to get the coal out and move on. Only along the laterals could short men stand up. Tall men had to look for special places with head room.

Shinko being closer to the surface was cooler than Honko but there were hardly any facilities above ground, no heated assembly room, no bathhouse and no coal processing and sorting unit. The coal cars were fastened to other cable systems and transported over the slag heap mountain to the Honko system. A vertical shaft was located at the rear of the mine for ventilation. We called it an escape tunnel. If there was a ladder in it, I don't know, because I only saw it from topside and I never went close. It gave us a sense of security in case of a major cave-in, knowing there was another way out.

There were other small details performing general maintenance tasks in the laterals. Usually these were better jobs than with the big crews, but they could be worse depending on the Honcho or Japanese miner in charge.

I often worked for an older man we called the "Skunk" because he gave off such a strong smell. I expect we prisoners did not smell ever so sweet to him either, but he was a kindly old fellow and didn't complain about it. He was always in good humor and was never mean or nasty with his crews. It seemed to us that he had once been retired and compelled to work again in order to qualify for larger rations. Working for the Skunk meant starting to work later, longer rest and bento (lunch) breaks and an earlier quitting time. He often asked for "go hako hatchi" my prisoner number, 508. I was always pleased when he did, but never knew why. It was not that I was an eager beaver worker. I doubt that my work ethic impressed him. It may have been that I just talked to him. He taught me Japanese words and how to say them and seemed patient with a slow learner and what must have been a gawd-awful accent.

The Skunk's prize possession was a big, railroad-style, pocket watch.

He carried it in his pocket wrapped in about two yards by two inch wide felt cloth. It was his habit to declare a short rest period every night (he always worked nights) upon reaching the work site. Then he would take out his watch, slowly unwrap it, check the time, give the winder a couple twists and carefully wrap it back up in what once may have been an old yellow army legging.

During the course of the night I would sometimes ask, "Mo non ji desu ka" (what time is it?). Most often he would stop what he was doing and break out his watch, unwrap it slowly and then say, "Ema Ku ji han desu." (nine thirty or whatever it was). We got a little extra rest that way, but he never worked us hard. He usually took about three of us to his task. That was mainly repairing rotten or crushed overhead timbers in the main laterals. The old ones were removed and the rock and shale cleaned up around where they had been. If there was any coal found, it had to be loaded into his car, tagged with his metal ID tag, and new supports cut and put into place.
Next: Chapter 8 - 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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