Fourth Marines Band: "Last China Band"

MIKADO NO KYAKU (Guest of the Emperor)

Epilogue - Page 117-130

It was always at the most critical times that my thoughts went back to my family at home. I thought of my mom, Lucy Mae and dad, Don L. Versaw. Sister Helen and brother Harold had families of their own living in Illinois. I was sure they all would be very concerned about me. They had not learned that I had become a prisoner of wa r- not until 1943 when the International Red Cross listed my name. The War Department had notified that I was Missing in Action (MIA) and might possibly have been captured. Silver stars denoting my status of MIA (Missing in Action) were still posted in living room window of our home in Nebraska and on my photo with the Class of 1938 in the Bloomington school house.

I now know how devastated they were. I've always thought it was far worse for them than for me. I always knew where I was and what was happening to me. The folks never did really know for sure. Mother never gave me up at any time but my father had all but written me off after the fall of Corregidor. But the hours they spent praying for my safety added to those of our relatives and friends would have been more than enough to build a ship to come and get me. The strain on mom was apparent and she only lived three years following my repatriation while my dad grieved for her great loss for twenty more years.

Her joy is demonstrated in a note she wrote that reads:

On your 22nd Birthday June 23rd 1943 I am buying this Fifty Dollar Bond knowing that in the near future you will come to cash it and attend Wesleyan College Lincoln Nebraska again. (Signed) Mother Versaw

The note is typed, probably by the person who sold her the bond, but she had signed it. I found it with the bond when I came home more than two and a half years later. It speaks loudly of her faith that I would come home.

The folks learned of my recovery by telegram from General A. A. Vandergrift, the Commandant of the Marine Corps stating that I had arrived at Guam on the 29th September 1945. The remaining troops at Futase city were evacuated by Japanese Army trucks to the railway station at (Shin lizuka) on the 21st of September. The Japanese commandant accompanied us. We had marched that distance a year earlier. A steam powered train, its black engine draped with colored cloth and several men clinging to it with one hand and waving hand fashioned American British and Canadian flags with the other arrived shortly after. A few of the men were wearing an article or two of their old, prewar uniforms, but most were dressed in American army uniform clothing that had been air dropped from airplanes many days before. Some of us had acquired parts of new Japanese uniform garments apparently made for issue to POW's. After the surrender they mysteriously appeared from camp storage as did an abundance of medical supplies never seen or issued before.

The cars on the train were old but serviceable passenger coaches. Some of the features on them seemed strange like cuspidors mounted flush with the floors. They were not air cooled of course, but the windows worked and we opened them as wide as they would go. There were no guards. No one in particular was in charge. We just sat in the chairs and enjoyed the beautiful countryside as we happily passed it by. That is until we reached the mountains outside Nagasaki. There we encountered some tunnels and the coaches quickly filled with coal smoke. With soot and cinders hurting our eyes we just as quickly shut the windows. Luckily the tunnels were short and although we got a snoot full, we arrived in devastated Nagasaki, passing by acres and acres of what were once shops and factories, and then detrained at a still partially intact dockside warehouse. It has always been a wonder to me how this facility escaped complete destruction from the atomic bomb that exploded there some six weeks before.

Delousing & a Hot Shower...

Our greeting was memorable in many ways. Among them were American Red Cross ladies and others who offered us milk shakes and ice cream. We saw American soldiers and sailors in spanking clean uniforms who had set up a processing procedure which included delousing dust (most likely DDT) and a hot shower bath. I don't recall in which order. All the clothing we were wearing or carrying were taken from us and new underwear and army utility uniforms were issued. We were allowed to keep some souvenirs. I had 'liberated' a Japanese rifle bayonet that I carried around Futase and Shin lizuka for protection. I needn't have. The citizens either warmly accepted me or ignored me. No one had been hostile. Also I brought home my wooden work attendance card with my prison number 508 in both Arabic and Japanese writing on it and a few other things in my wooden lunch box. About everything else I left behind. Then, by some unknown sorting out process, groups of us were taken to various ships that were either docked or anchored in the harbor. Several of us from our Futase City camp managed to stay together and walked aboard a Destroyer Escort, The USS Coffer. We were given a tour of the ship and then taken to the galley for dinner of T bone steaks, mashed potatoes and gravy, American grown fruit and home made apple pie a la mode. The first square meal any of us had sat down to eat since we left Shanghai, China in November of 1941. It was a feast beyond description. I didn't even try to tell my folks about it in the first letter I wrote to them.

My First Letter Home...

The following, in part, is what I had written in my first letter home and posted aboard the ship:

USS Caffer

At Sea near Okinawa September 23, 1945

Dear Folks,

Now that I am free to write all about anything I desire I find that I am at a loss for a beginning. Indeed I will do my level best to write something that you will be glad to know.

The first thing we did after the war was over was to thank God for our glorious armed forces for our freedom. We knew it had to come and never for a moment lost the faith.

The Air Force sure did a great job bringing supplies by B29 and flying over all the Nip (Nipponese) islands. We received more than we could possibly eat after years of waiting, but all intact. Eyes plenty good and my appetite too - a little light weight - but, well, the food may be too rich for not being used to it.

The ship we are on is small but has every convenience and something like a large pleasure craft. Sailing with us is a small aircraft carrier loaded with Dutch and British POW.

All of us are still in a state of high jubilance. You can imagine the high state of our feelings. The only regrets are about those we left behind. Who for many months awaited this happy day in vain...

In addition to the regular evening meal on the Destroyer Escort Coffer, large cans of peanut butter and grape jelly were opened and put on the mess tables in the galley. Along with it was real creamery butter and an apparently inexhaustible supply of home style, white bread fresh baked on the ship. The ships crews seemed to be mostly older navy reservists and the exchange of information between ourselves and them flowed in a steady stream. We were as interested in them as they were in us. They were curious about how we had fared as POW's and what that was like and we listened to their stories of the naval battles they had participated in. It was like we had come from different planets, all speaking the same language but completely ignorant of the world of each other. Among themselves the crew members talked mostly of how many points they had accumulated so they could rotate home and how lucky we were to be going then. After darkness a movie was shown on the afterdeck but after all the food and excitement of leaving Japan I crawled in my assigned bunk and slept smothered in gratitude.

We reached Okinawa in the company of a heavy rain so no bands were out playing for us but in spite of the dismal weather it was wonderful. The place was teeming with troops and airplanes on the ground. An ocean of B29 rudders flooded miles-long hard stands like they had been planted from seed. There were paved, all weather roads, all over the place with vehicles of all kinds going at high rates of speed all over the island. I could see evidence of the planned invasion of Kyushu. It was beautiful to see but spoke reams about the resolve to defeat Japan had it not surrendered. I know that now. I expect I felt it then, but I dread to think of what would have happened to we POW coal miners in that event. It would have become a mighty bloody island.

Meal Ticket for Okinowa...

Living conditions on Okinawa were in wall tents and messing was in long lines. The food was still fantastic as far as I was concerned. The troops stationed there complained that it was not outstanding. I wasted no words on them to compare it to the thin soup and little bowls of rice or what ever we got, if blessed and just a little luck. To get food one had to have a meal ticket. I still have it in case I ever go back to Okinawa. The necessity of having it was impressed on me by an Army Air Force trooper that much. While I liked the food I hated the mud and wanted to get off that island and on the way home as quickly as possible. By the 28th of September the weather lightened up and word spread to our tent that a C-47 was about to leave with room for a few passengers. Monford Charleton of Donorah PA along with Andy Miller of Lincoln NE and several others dashed to the hard stand and got aboard. I don't think we checked out with any one. No accounting of our presence was made up to this time. We were all still just casual stragglers. We felt so lucky to get a flight out. The weather was still unsettled and forecasts were not good. It was monsoon time in Okinawa.

There was still space in the small, two engine Douglas C-47 (Dakota) when we entered. The hammock-like seats along the bulkhead were mostly filled with troops but not all were returning POW's. It apparently was a regular courier run carrying dispatch traffic and casual and injured troops traveling under orders. We POW's were not yet back in the Marine Corps. I felt as though someone had said. "The war is over for you guys. Go on home now and we will talk about it later". Perhaps there was a better handle on us then I thought. We had been interviewed by a repatriation team in Futase City camp mess hall, but we never knew who those GI fellows were wearing strange uniforms with huge pockets all over them and carrying little, sawed off looking rifles. They looked a little like those new guns that came out just before the war we never had called M1's. I wasn't asked what my serial number was and if I had been I wouldn't have known what it was. In the old Marine Corps before the war, my handle was Private First Class Versaw and the only number I was forced to learn was my rifle number. But, we also heard of new things about our Corps. We would have to get used to black guys being a part of it and get ready to accept the WRs - Women Reserve Marines! Most agreed that would take some effort and now that the food problems were being taken care of the prospect of sharing a fox hole with a girl had some interesting possibilities. All that and learning what had happened during our forced absence was like old Rip Van Winkle's consternation upon waking up from his long sleep.

No Smoking...

The cabin of the army transport plane was fitted with an extra large tank of aviation gas. It might have held a couple hundred gallons of fuel and it filled most of the space in the cabin. The crew chief, a sergeant, passed out some sandwiches and cookies in a bag along with that smoking would not be allowed during the non-stop flight, hopefully, to Guam. It was a very long, boring flight during which time we could see nothing but each other and the huge, yellow and very ominous looking tank of gas. I couldn't help thinking what a terrible thing it would be to have survived 1242 days of captivity and be cremated in a flash, five miles over the Pacific ocean, with nothing left of us but ashes floating on a heaving, blue sea five. I had plenty of time to think about the men and boys who had flown this same route in bombers to attack Japan. For them it would have been a trip twice as long unless they hadn't been so lucky as I and went down somewhere along the way. The flight alone would have been enough to give the bravest an anxiety attack, but to have to make bomb runs, suffer enemy fighters and flak would be more than I thought I could ever stand. Had it not been for their efforts I would not have been making my happy trip home. Being in a fragile aircraft, five or six miles above an ocean that is five or six miles deep, with its wings full of gas and another tank full almost in your lap is surely a time to pray. I am sure I did a lot of it on the ride. I had some thanking to do and I knew it: "Lord, please, not like this. It would kill my mother if she is still living. Just a little longer if you can and I will be even more thankful for my blessed deliverance." Something like that is probably what I pleaded to a God that had already been more than generous to me.

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
USS Chaumont (AP-5)
Arriving at Shanghai China in 1937
We arrived at Guam a little ahead of the storm if it was the same angry one that struck us at Okinawa. All of us on the plane were taken in a bus over a highway that had been a pristine jungle when I had made liberty from the Navy transport USS Chaumont a little more than five years, before going to join the 4th Marines in Shanghai, China. Now the place was no different than the faster streets of San Diego. There were a steady flow of motor vehicles zipping along at high rates of speed. The quaint, old two wheeled carts with wooden wheels were now gone. Since then the place had been invaded by the Japanese and occupied for years. Then by the goodness of God and many thousands of American Marines, soldiers and sailors had been rested from their grasp again. It surely did not look the same and that was sad for me to consider because natural beauty is too often spoiled by the works of men.

The hospital was run by the U.S. Army Air Force and it was large. Most of the wards were full of sick and wounded in row after row of single story buildings. Each had two wards separated by a galley (kitchen) and nurses stations. There refrigerated water coolers - each with bowls of vitamin pills, filled like candy dishes with party mix. Instructions were posted suggesting a dose at least once a day. Already some prisoners of war were there and more came in from time to time. It was here that I got back in to the Marine Corps and informed that I was now a member of Casual Company, Headquarters United States Marine Corps, Washington DC and my rank had been converted to Corporal during the whole period of my incarceration. I was pretty proud of that and the new, forest green uniform I was issued: trousers with khaki shirt, green skivies, blouse (jacket), hat, shoes and all the trimmings. Among the issues was a card with my name on it, a mess pass the USAAF called a meal ticket and five hundred dollars of my back pay. I was told I could have the rest later, but since no one knew exactly how much I had coming five hundred would have to do me for the time being. I felt rich in my some what loose fitting uniform.

Other than the repatriation process I don't believe we did anything else but eat, and go to the movies in Guam. Those with health complaints and obvious injuries were being taken care of by the doctors, nurses and medical corpsmen. I have no recollections of having ever been seen by a doctor. I don't believe I would have been able to escape a vital sign screening - just to check on the ticker. Most of the time there is a blank in my memory bank. I think we were waiting for flight assignments to the states, but the weather turned extremely bad and aircraft was grounded. Troops were then loaded on to a huge troop transport ship, one of those APA's with names of big Generals on them. It was big and fast. Hundreds of us - maybe thousands mostly war wounded and POW's went aboard. The great ship had everything and plenty of it. The ship was such a contrast to the old pre-war Navy transports that I can only remember it was a pleasant voyage in spite of the storm. The big vessel just plowed through all those big waves much like they weren't even there. A print shop aboard published a daily paper. There was plenty of water - even fresh water showers with soap that made suds. The food was marvelous. Sometimes there were fresh baked cinnamon rolls almost like homemade. It was hard on the heart to see the plight of the returning war wounded with missing arms and legs. I couldn't understand how the most of them were in such a good frame of mind. Going home is powerful medicine for wounded warriors. They know better how much worse it might have been for them and I knew how very fortunate I was not to have suffered as much as a broken bone. There was little else to do but sit around and swap war stories and smoke while waiting for the ship to reach the shores of the good old USA.

Unforgettable Sight...

The one absolutely unforgettable moment on that wonderful ship bringing me home was the sight of the Golden Gate Bridge and sailing directly under it. I could understand the joy of an immigrant seeing and doing that. I had seen it fade away in the fog years before. Now, after almost a quarter of my life had passed, I was watching a dream, live and in color happen before my eyes. There was some yelling and shouting as others vented their true feeling in sound and motion. That's not my style of expressing joy, but I was joyful beyond any means I knew how to express. When we tied up to a dock in San Francisco, we were greeted by a navy band in dress uniform playing, "California Here I come." and "Happy Days Are Here Again." and popular tunes of the day we had never heard before. There was no family to meet me there. I hadn't expected any one to be. The folks had already received official notice that I had arrived at Guam but were not advised of subsequent travel orders. So they waited until they got my telegrams as I moved along, slowly toward home. Again, GI buses moved me to Oak Knoll Naval Hospital and a ward with darling nurses who dished out more vitamin pills, wonderful hospitality - helping us make home made fudge in the ward galley and furnished advice on where to get uniforms altered, chevron's sewn on and other personal services available. It was rumored that we had all been advanced one rank, but I had no evidence of it. My copy of a promotion to Private First Class had been handed to me so I was sure of holding that rank. I thought the stripes on my jacket looked great, but other's said I should have had corporal or sergeant chevrons sewn on. I preferred to wait for the paper work and as a result never wore corporal chevrons although I had officially been promoted years before hand. The warrant for promotion to sergeant didn't come through until late in November.

I got a liberty card and with some of my buddies went out on the town - San Francisco - and spent some of the pay received in Guam. Everybody was anxious to take in the Balalaika Cabaret. There was a rumor going around about its owner having been the operator of a cabaret in Shanghai and that it was hosting former China Marines free. I guess it was, but I was one of the ten percent that missed it. I was not anxious to resume hanging out in bars, but did well enough getting my share of booze. Again I was very lucky not to have become addicted to it.

Oak Knoll Navy Hospital was a fine place, but unless there was a complaint of something there were no examinations or treatments or anything like that. We were just making another little stop along the way. It was here that we all got a chance to choose another hospital closer to to our homes, for a rehabilitation examination. I chose Great Lakes Naval Training Center Hospital. It was close to my sister's home at near by Waukegan, IL By the time I was given space on a navy transport aircraft to Glenview NAS it was now well into October. At the hospital there I was examined, interviewed and processed for a promised 90 day leave of absence before I could proceed on toward home. Great Lakes was a better choice for me because rail and bus lines were more direct east to west and I could visit a whole long string of relatives along the way home.

I had a fine time at Great Lakes making liberties in Chicago and Milwaukee and spending time with my sister and her family and with my loving cousin Irene Wimble and her family at Wadsworth. Then I headed West by bus stopping at Sheffield to visit the most wonderful Aunt and Uncle, Herman and Nellie Gingrich. Herman's father was my great grandfather who had come to American in 1854. They and his family did their best to fatten me up. They said, "You can't go home skinny like that Donald, they will think we starved you here."

"Well they know I didn't get a heck of lot to eat in prison camp." I replied. Then they asked, "What did they feed you?" I told them I would cook them a prison camp meal and serve it to their whole family if they really wanted to know. There were no better sports in the world than my Sheffield relatives, so they let me make them a big batch of rice and some thin soup made from radish tops. I served it to them on a table service of old tin cans, broken spoons and bent forks - even some home crafted chop sticks. All but the little boys ate some of it heartily. One of my cousins, Cecil, said, "I don't think this is so bad, what do they mean when they said the Japanese starved you guys?" and I replied, "Well, we didn't get all this every day. I just did the Sunday menu."

Putting on Weight...

It's hard to get away from my relatives. They are so loving and accustomed to putting up with company, their hospitality never ends - but it had been a long time since the war was over. I still wanted to go home. There were still others to see on the way, though; my brother and his family in Lincoln, Nebraska and lots more wonderful cousins. They all had lists of friends and people they wanted me to see. Everywhere I went I just had to see so and so, or they would be hurt. Everybody had to feed me. At my cousins Polly and Larry Versaw's place, I must have gained two pounds a day just on Brownies. I went on, beginning to waddle a little.

Public transportation to my home town ends thirty five miles out. One of the old, home town dough boys, a veteran of World War II drove his car to come and pick me up. I think he had some extra gas coupons. Office of Price Administration (OPA) was still controlling gasoline sales then. Of course my parents came with him along with my aged grandmother, Maggie Harris, who was beside herself with joy that her grandson had come home. Another, Captain Russell Harris USAAF had already come back from thirty five harrowing missions in Europe so my recovery was particularly joyous for her. They were surprised to see me looking so fit, It was useless to try and explain that I had eaten chow to fatten a herd of steers since August when food fell from the sky on us in Japan.

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
At Home with My Folks 1945
The folks were living in my grandmothers old home. My birthplace next door to it, had been burned to the ground and my dog, Wimpy had died. Dad found it hard to tell me those things and that some of my stuff was gone. It seemed my parents had aged more than they should have in the five and half years I was gone. Grandmother Harris hadn't appeared to change. She was a grand old woman from my earliest recollection and never seemed to change. My parents were forty years older than I. They had lost a child five years before me. Then, 20 years later they suffered through the possibilities of having lost another. For them it would have been more than less strong willed people could bear. They both believed in the power of prayer. My returning to them bolstered their faith many times over.

During my ninety days leave I tried to find a social niche. Things had changed too much. I saw some old girl friends and had a torrid affair with a married woman that was a serious mistake on both our parts. My dad and I discussed my future. The incentives to stay in the Marine Corps were persuasive with advancements, bonuses, and health care being the strong points. I went back to visit my old college. I felt out of place even though some returning GI's were registering. I didn't think I wanted to go back. The time I had invested toward military retirement would be wasted. Adding up all the positive points for re-enlisting tipped the scales. Uncle Herman's calculations of retirement benefits were particularly interesting.."Donald, you would have to have $40,000 dollars out at interest of 4% to get that much per month." he said, figuring it all out in his head. If he were living today he would be astounded how much more it came to be than what he estimated. I've drawn retirement benefits for more than thirty nine years.

The benefits of that decision were far greater than just the money. I had a great military career serving with distinction in the photographic field. I met and married a wonderful woman, Amelda Gilmore, while serving a tour of independent duty in St. Louis, Missouri. Our union was blessed with a daughter, Judith Ann there. Our happy life was abruptly interrupted while serving with the First Marine Division at Camp Pendleton. I went with it when it was deployed to Korea to help stop communist aggression. Again, I got more than average breaks, barely missed becoming a prisoner of war again and came home after a year without any broken bones. Shortly afterwards I received a promotion to Master Sergeant, a rank I held for the next nine years. In 1952 I was ordered to New York for a tour of duty with the Marine Corps Information Office. Within that time we were blessed with a second daughter, Denise Kathleen and soon after returned to the West coast although it took some help from Major General Reginald Ridgely to arrange it. He had been a prisoner of war himself. We had very enjoyable duty again with the First Marine Division in garrison - my Twilight "cruise" - the last four years before retirement.

A New Career...

Most do not really 'retire' at age 38. It is a shifting of gears from one gainful endeavor to another. In our instance we returned to the Lakewood home that had been on hold for eight years. A place I had put my last ten bucks down on just before a pay day so that my family would have a place to live during the time I was in Korea. Within a few weeks I took a job at North American Aviation, and stayed with it until men walked on the moon in the space ship we made there. Afterwards my company decided my services were no longer needed and I was eliminated for what I believe were most distasteful reasons. My incredible luck still held out however and eventually I found work in the Federal government and helped the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers do it's fantastic flood control work and then, looking for greener grass, I accepted an offer to become a white collar type worker in a Detachment providing photographic support to Space Division of the United States Air Force at El Segundo. Once again I was back in the space business helping with stuff I was not allowed to know very much about. It was a great job with great people, and when I retired there it was with a heavy heart after 31 years of combined Federal Service. My Certificate of Service was signed by Lt.Gen Forrest McCartney.

I began writing this story so long ago. Winter came to Nebraska early in 1945. Before the end of October I was snowed in at my parents home with a rented typewriter trying to put an account of my personal experience on paper. Mother had always told me to keep a journal or a diary. I had lost the efforts to do that along the way and might well have done better at that. I didn't and so she insisted I write what I could remember before it faded from memory. I had little skill for writing composition but, over the years and many drafts, with a lot of help and encouragement of others this book may be the best that I can do. My POW comrade and fellow Futase City coal miner, Professor Preston Hubbard stated in his book, "Apocalypse Undone" (Vanderbilt University Press), that he had not been able to separate his personal life from his experience as a prisoner of war. The feeling he had was that it worked to isolated him from the other people he wanted to serve and cared so much for. I shared so many of his feelings that he expressed so well; how we were torn up inside, between a sense of the dread of war and love of country. It was not a novelty among prisoners of war who endured, saw and made to see some very terrible things, and reduced to living at the lowest level of human conditions imaginable, or not survive. Many of us did or try to do things he said he did: psyche himself into thinking the rotten food we got was his mother's home cooking. In the same way I convinced myself that burned rice scraps from cleaning the huge kitchen caldrons was chocolate ice cream. There were times something like that had to be done or it couldn't be gotten down.. Few people have ever been as hungry as we were and survived it. We don't think about it or like thinking about it much. I wonder who can believe what they are told it is like. Talking about it helps very little, so I avoid it a lot. But it comes up in the form of nightmares frequently and sometimes conjures ugly thoughts in conscience meditation. In this book I have not written much about the most horrible things seen, experienced or heard about, and avoided using language that I know would have offended my mother. If the reader feels that my story doesn't sound so bad - they should remember I was one of the lucky guys and we all see and recall events differently.

I've never been in a hurry to see this work published, but I knew all along that it needed to be written. For those who may, in the far future, wish to know that such things could have ever happened and make it through this is my story. I wish I had stories of grandfather Versaw's Civil War experiences. They would be greatly appreciated by most of his great progeny. Having been a prisoner of war of the Confederacy and survived, he would have suffered similarly. The knowledge of his experience would have been a great help to me before and a precious document for us today. I am part of a large family and many of them are waiting to see this book in print. I hope their expectations will not be a disappointment.

Mikado no Kyaku

Donald L. Versaw / 1998

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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