Excerpts from “My Experiences as a Japanese Prisoner of War during World War II From May 7, 1942 until September 17, 1945”
I joined the Navy in July, 1940. I went through boot camp at the Naval Training Center in San Diego, California. After the boot camp, I was assigned to the USS Boise, a light cruiser. In February, 1941, I was transferred to the Asiatic Fleet headquarters in Manila, Philippines, and assigned a billet on the USS Oahu, a river gunboat stationed at Shanghai, China.
We were ordered to the Philippines in November, 1941…We arrived in Manila two days before the Japs bombed Pearl Harbor… Bataan fell on April 9, 1942…Corregidor was surrendered on May 7, 1942.
Then began my time as a Prisoner of War of the Japanese. They practiced harsh treatment of POWs from day one to the end of the war…
In October the Japs began sending POWs to Japan. We were loaded onto Japanese merchant ships (they became known as Hell Ships) in Manila Bay. The one I was on was the Nagato Maru. We were so overcrowded that at night, when trying to sleep, the deck was like wall to wall bodies… (20 POWs died during the voyage.)
We reached Osaka, Japan on Thanksgiving Day in 1942. My group of about 480 POWs was sent to “Umeda Bunsho” a converted three story former factory building. The rooms were divided into bays with an upper and a lower sleeping deck. The decks were covered with straw mats, each about three and a half feet wide by about seven feet long, laid side by side, which was our individual sleeping space. Each bay had decks on two opposite sides with about a ten foot space between with a table as our mess hall. Each bay housed about forty men.
We were assigned to work in the freight yards in and around the city of Osaka. Umeda was the largest and closest, and about forty men were assigned to work there. They walked to and from work. The other details walked to the train station, and rode public transportation to their work station.
Our work consisted of loading and unloading box cars. The freight was varied: mostly heavy machinery, scrap metal, coal, lumber, logs, roll of paper, bales of cotton and yarn, and sometimes foodstuff such as rice, sugar, soy beans, potatoes, dried sweet potatoes, and once in a blue moon canned goods (best of all sweetened condensed milk). We carried the items to be loaded or unloaded on our shoulders, to be stacked on the dock or in the box car. Two or three men would lift the item onto the shoulder of another man. Items such as lumber or heavy boxed stuff dug painfully into the shoulder…
In the first week of work, at one freight yard, the detail unloaded a box
car of sugar. Some sugar had seeped out of some of the bags and stuck to
the walls of the box car. Three POWs were caught picking this off the wall
and eating it. They were reported to the Commander of the Bunsho at the
end of the work day. The Commander punished them by making them stand all
night in a small sentry shack with their wrists tied together and hung on
a nail in the wall above their heads so they couldn’t fall. The next
morning when they were cut down to be sent to work on their regular
detail, one man fell over dead, a second man walked a few steps before he
fell over dead, and the third man (Williams A. Parks) was able to go to
work and wound up surviving the war. In short order we all became more
adept at stealing (we called it strafing.)
The toilets (benjos) were cement lined holes in the ground with wooden covers with a slit to squat over. The benjos were emptied about once a month by the sewer company (honey dippers) and hauled away to be used as much on their farms. Most of us had diarrhea or dysentery as a chronic condition, and sometimes it was hard to make it to the banjo in time. As a result feces in and around the benjos was a constant health hazard. We weren’t given the facilities to properly clean up after ourselves.
Cold was a constant companion during the winter months. Inadequate food and in poor health with all its debilitating diseases, and fighting off feelings of depression for being forced to live under such conditions, took its toll…
In about March 1945 the U.S. was bombing mainland Japan on a regular basis. In Osaka the Japs had torn down rows of houses to make fire lanes. This did little good against napalm bombs.
We were moved from Osaka to Tsuruga, a city of about 30,000 population on their west coast across the China Sea from Korea. We were housed in an old three story former school house. We did the same kind of work, loading and unloading box cars. Tsuruga is a port city. We also loaded and unleaded cargo ships.
Some time in July or August the U.S. bombed Tsuruga with napalm bombs. The bomb runs being made reminded us of the way a farmer plows his fields. Starting at the edge of the city, they flew back and forth, dropping bombs until the whole city had been set on fire. Our school house barracks was hit and as we ran seeking cover, it was like running through a hail storm the bombs were so thick…
Since it was the Americans bombing and machine gunning the docks the Japs didn’t want us to take shelter, but when they ran so did we. Once after a raid when we had been assembled and counted, the Japs decided to punish us. One guard, carrying a wooden sword make of oak with a blade about an inch thick and about two inches wide, picked the biggest POW (C. J. Pryatel) to work over. He was standing next to me. The Jap said, “Me small, me strong”, and he swung the club as hard as he could and hit the POW on the head. It knocked him to his knees and when the guard drew back for another swing, the POW whispered to me, “Grab my arm, don’t let me fall, don’t let me fall” and so I did. After the second blow the air raid sirens went off and the Japs ran for shelter which saved the POW from a more sever beating.
After our school house barracks had been burned to the ground, we were moved into one of the warehouse at dockside. A few days later it was bombed and burned. We were then moved to an old brick factory outside the city to Tsuruga…
Work details were sent out to dig a tunnel into a nearby hillside to be used as our housing quarters. After one day of work on the tunnel the Japs announced, “No more work. The Americans have a bomb that makes it unsafe even underground.” The war was over.
We moved into what had been a Jap army barracks and marked the roof as a POW camp. American planes dropped food and clothing packages to us. Things were looking up...
When I became a POW I weighed 168 lbs. My average weight as a POW was 120 lbs. My lowest weight was 110 lbs, during my longest and most severe case of dysentery. I firmly believe that if it hadn’t for the little bit of food we were able to steal once in a while, that I and a majority of the other POWs would not have survived to the end of the war. The resultant debilities from the long term starvation and physical hardship, led me to believe that I would not live to be forty years old. But here I am, in the year 2005, eighty five years old and still kicking. Within a couple of years, after the end of the war, several of the EX-POWs I stayed in contact with, died from tuberculosis. In my case, the skin test for TB is always positive and x-rays show lung scar tissue, which indicates that I probably did have TB at one time and survived it.
I think my experiences as a POW gave me a deeper appreciation of the small perks in life and a more profound understanding of the expression, “FREEDOM AIN’T FREE.”
(posted on Sep 15, 2012)
Kazuharu Kawase, Mayor of Tsuruga
* Mr. Northam will participate in the third Japanese/American POW Friendship Program in October of 2012. This will be his very first visit to Japan since 1945.