Music and the Marine Band
To be a Marine Musician serving China before World War II was an honor and a privilege. While there was great tension it was our job to put America's best foot forward and be an example of strength, excellence and respect. These things served to support our national interests and instill confidence among our citizens and friends conducting business there. Hopefully, our military presences though small expressed America's determination and resolve to maintain freedom and fair trade.
Enlisting in the Marine Corps
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 streetcar card advertisement - A picture of a Marine bandsman! It was Armistice Day, 1939, when I went into the recruiting office on the 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 but I ought to grow that much en-route to recruit training. I did not, but I survived boot camp and was assigned to the San Diego Marine Base Band.
After just a few months I was selected to go the Fourth Marines Band at Shanghai to replace a Marine who desired to go into a battalion for a faster promotion. I was proud to go but the troop transport took almost two months to finally reach China. I felt lucky to be there and enjoyed playing in the band for almost 20 months.
Marines had been stationed in the International Settlement for 14 years but in late November of 1941, as the threat of an armed conflict with Japan escalated (in the several years prior to the advent of World War II), the United States finally ordered the withdrawal of all its armed forces from China. It was reluctant to do so, perhaps because the Marines, one cruiser, a few over age destroyers and some river patrol boats were about the last bit of protection for Americans and U.S. interests there.
It was a sad day in the famed International Settlement when the last of the 4th Marines left Shanghai on November 28th, 1941. Leading the Marines down East Nanking Road to the muddy Whangpoo River, where ships lay at anchor to evacuate them was the last China Band.
The ship bringing the band to the Philippines landed us at Naval Station, Subic Bay. Temporary quarters were still being set up there for us and not yet completed when the war began. We never saw our instruments again and the band was immediately transferred to company of infantry. After spending most of December 1941 there we were trucked down through Bataan and eventually to Corregidor Island. The Fourth Marines then was reorganized with troops already stationed in the Philippines into a beach defense force for the island fortress. The battle for Corregidor began immediately with our arrival. It was mostly an aerial and artillery siege that lasted until May 6 when the all of the Philippines were given over to the enemy.
Following that most of the American prisoners of war were assembled at Philippine army camps in central Luzon.
Cabanatuan Camp 3
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 birth day. Neither did they ever mention theirs...
Malaria and dysentery increased so sharply that an isolation ward had to be set up across the road. Except for a little rice that had a little bit of meat, there was little difference on either side...Then there was a 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 old 'Ski'," murmured one of our bandsmen. 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 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 our commanding officer, Colonel Dewitt Peck, USMC. What a pitiful sight to see Staff Sergeant Konesky laid in his shallow grave and covered with only grass and a few wildflowers we had gathered nearby. I have no explanation for why the scene remains so clearly in my mind after these many years....
Burial Details at the Military Camp No. 1.
The rumor was that our camp would be moved. Finally, it was officially
announced that our Camp 3 would be combined with Camp1. So we gathered
together our few belongings and waited for the fateful day to start on the
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 point, 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 had the bodies of almost 2,000 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 uncovered over the very rough trail for about a mile. Guards hurried us along. There were only 16 bodies on this detail. The veteran Camp 1 prisoners said that this was only a few. Previously regular details carried 80 or more men to their grave every day. All the graves were but three feet deep and meant to contain several bodies. A regular digging detail prepared mass graves in advance of need. The under-ground water table was very high in the cemetery and at such a shallow depth; there was at least a foot of water at the bottom.
We lay the first corpse in the water, one on top of the other and one
on top of that. Then 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 navy dentist.
On July 17, 1944, the big gates of the old prison opened and we marched out into the nearly deserted city street. I was surprised how near it seemed we were from the Manila docks, for we were soon there, standing in ranks. There were many among us that had no idea of what we faced in the mottled, rusty-red transport tied to the dock in front of us: the Japanese ship Nissyo Maru. It looked as though it could accommodate no more than half of us....
Nearly 700 men had already entered the hold before me. Behind was another 800 more to come. Our captors kept shaking us down, like the garbage in a bag to make room for more. That's what we were to them -- garbage. I was pushed back away from the opening of the hold. My eyes became accustomed to the half light; under the covered part of the compartment, I could see wooden tiers for sleeping. They stood one above the other, five or six feet high, with an 18 inch clearance for each, like cages for animals in a pet shop. I wedged myself into one of the slots. It was very close even for a small person, like me. I found I couldn't raise up on my elbow and, with more and more men crowding in, no way to back out. I was trapped. Apparently the guards intended each box in the array to hold five or more prisoners while intended for only one.
On July 26th, we were under attack by a U.S. submarine. I had no watch but I learned years later it was nearly 2:11AM. We heard, "Boom!" Another big explosive flash shot across the sky. Already the ship's siren was sounding, and guards were rushing about the deck above us, hurrying to cover the hatch in case we all tried to evacuate the hold. Escorting destroyers in our convoy began to discharge depth bombs, some close, some far. A nearby ship had been struck and, my first thought was that it was an oil tanker. Nothing else could have made such a blast.
As I rewrite the lines of an original draft of this account, written almost 50 years ago, I can hardly believe how we suffered. I am repelled by the memory of the hideous voyage of the Nissyo Maru. I can scarcely believe it really happened anymore. It is almost impossible to recall that among us were those who hoped our misery would end quickly by a torpedo that might mercifully explode into us with a flood of cooling, cleansing water, washing away the terror and the incredible filth and the noise of our teeming mass. It was chilling as it may seem now, true and I can hardly expect anyone who was not there to understand or really believe it.
Imprisonment in Japan was a far different experience than the previous two and half years in the Philippines. While it was good to be off the filthy and unspeakable confinement of the prison ship when taken the tiny town of Futase near Izuka, Kyushu I wondered if I hadn't jumped into the fire from the frying pan. The regimentation was very strict and there was closeness to our captors, the civilian guards and the miner honchos in the mines. We weren't immediately taken to work but given a time to recover from the terrible conditions in the Nissyo Maru. The treatment we received was severe and punishments for even the slightest infractions or indignities resulted in slapping and beatings. We drilled like recruits in the military only in Japanese language and taught the vernacular of the mines. The work was hard and the hours long. Some of my comrades would injure themselves such as breaking their own arms to avoid having to go work in the mines. For a while the food was good rice with a bit of vegetables and occasionally a piece of fish. Over time it became less and less and even more limited. A few Red Cross food packages were distributed which helped a great deal. I only had to endure one winter and it was not severe in this latitude but standing around in bare feet even a little snow is miserable. After the first pair of woven grass tabi's wore out the first night in the mine I had no shoes until some were dropped from friendly aircraft after the cease fire a year later.
I have lived so happy years after my prisoner of war experience and think I was a very fortunate to do so. After coming to Japan my chances to survive were much better. There was less loss of life among us then and conditions were improved greatly in many respects. During the first many months in the Philippine I might have been summarily punished for no reasons or just as little as glaring at a soldier at the cost of my life. . I think I had more narrow escapes than a baby turtle trying to reach the sea from its birth in the sand.
Through out the whole experience I was able just to live one day at a time only glancing ahead in a positive way to the day ahead when the war would end and I could return to my country and my family. I've always believed that a greater power was looking down on me and guiding my foot steps. The gratitude I have and the debt I owe for my own survival extends beyond my comprehensions. Among them were people even among the enemy, I didn't know and never would that in some small way or another helped me to survive. I must remember to be grateful to all for that, always.
* Mr. Versaw went back to Futase in 2010 at the invitation by the Japanese government.
From a retired Japanese college professor
The Significance of "The Meaning of Living"
Beloved Donald Versaw,As I have continued to question the war damage responsibility of Japan towards Asia, I found your testimony of war experiences most interesting. Donald, from start to finish, you speak of facts as fact. Because of that alone, each and every one of your experiences pierces me to the heart. You first went to China as a Marine musician at the age of nineteen, and then you were sent to the Philippines where you became a prisoner of war of the Japanese Army. Yet, in spite of being taken to Japan and forced into harsh labor, you lived to return home after tumultuous years you spent as a POW. My thoughts were flooded with emotion as I read your story. The names and descriptions of places in Central Luzon come out in your testimony, places I am quite familiar with, and I felt as if I were there once again.
Though I was born into a Christian home in 1934, at the outbreak of the war in 1941 I entered a National School where they hammered into us imperialistic training and militaristic ideology in which the emperor was a "living god." To put it frankly, they were training us to "fight and die for the Emperor." The reason I came to be so concerned about war is mainly due to these experiences I had during the War.
Then in 1951, my 16th summer, I met a young Filipino who told me about the atrocities which the Japanese military committed in the Philippines. I was deeply shocked. With tears, he related to me how a great many Philippine people, including his own father and younger brother, became victims of the Japanese Army. His family, all as civilians, experienced the "Death March."
It was later in 1985 that I, who had been teaching at a university for
some time, set foot for the first time on Philippine soil. It was there
that I confirmed that the war was not really over. The hearts of the people
were still deeply scarred by the war. Added to that was the visible reality
of over 70% of the citizens languishing in poverty. It was a fearful experience
that made me question the very basis of my existence -- "Who am I?
How shall I live?"
We have continued the Exposure Trips sixteen times since 1988, with over one hundred participants involved. Every year, in order to etch the War into our hearts, we visit with and listen to the stories of war veterans, and along with these living witnesses trace the steps of the "Death March" from Mariveles through San Fernando and on to Tarlac. You could call our three weeks from beginning to end a journey of "apology, forgiveness and reconciliation."
What a great many things we were able to learn from the Philippine people! Their simple yet honest words, their unostentatious way of life that stirs the soul, completely upset our whole sense of values. Through this kind of sharing, the students in their hearts made the decision: "Let us live among these poor Philippine people."
In 1995, on the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, the students collected their own thoughts together in a "Statement of Peace and Reconciliation" and announced which places in the Philippines they would visit in the future. You could not imagine what immense reaction and high praise they received. Through these experiences the students learned a valuable lesson -- "Without a clear apology for past war responsibility, true friendship between Japan and the Philippines cannot be possible."
Donald, you wrote that when you were in the Philippines you had more narrow escapes than a baby turtle trying to reach the sea from its birth in the sand. Even though you experienced such cruelty, I did not sense the least bit of bitterness or resentment in what you wrote. On the contrary, in looking back on the past, you were grateful for a life of happiness. I cannot but feel what depth of spirit the person has who accepts everything as it is and overcomes the past.
All in all your story is truly impressive, for I feel you have recorded everything here so intensively, your secret of returning home alive after narrowly escaping death, as well as the kind of character you have. No matter what happened, you never lost your hope in the future, or your faith in God. And in the end, in an expression of unlimited gratitude, you acknowledge that you owe your survival to others, including your enemies. I must say, as I distinctly read that you have already forgiven those who sinned against you, I am able to finish reading your testimony with a feeling that I myself have been saved. Donald, your testimony is indeed your confession of faith.
With heart-felt respect and appreciation,
Mr. Versaw in a recent photo
* Mr. Versaw passed away on June 21, 2014.