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MacArthur | Article

Japan and Liberation

It wasn't long before the Japanese, desperate for labor, began shipping prisoners from the Philippines to work camps throughout Asia, but particularly to their own home islands. This movement was accelerated in late 1944 as MacArthur neared, and by the time he returned roughly two-thirds of the POWs were gone. As terrible as the conditions were in the Philippines and would be again in the labor camps, perhaps the worst part of the entire war for these men was the sea journey itself. Thousands died on the "hell ships," as they became known, victims of suffocation, starvation, disease -- even Allied air and submarine attacks.

The following two men, each of whom appears in the program, describe the struggle in their own words. Read their bio below.

Interviewer: And then they shipped you to Japan?

Richard Gordon: I became ill in that camp [Cabanatuan], and so a doctor ...said, "I suggest you volunteer for a work detail to go to Japan." "Because," he said, "I have no medication for you. Plus, you will not only change possibilities of getting medication, you change climate and it will be better for you in that regard." So I volunteered for that first work detail that went to Japan. And our ship left Manila on the 7th of November, 1942. On a ship called the Nagato Maru. And it took us about 23 days and 13 American lives before we got to Japan. And the conditions on that ship were something beyond description.

Interviewer: Crowded?

Gordon: They jammed us into the holds of the ship, no lights. [They] let us up on deck for the first couple of nights out and then, after that, wouldn't let us because American submarines were in the area. They had given us life jackets when we first went aboard that ship. And then when the submarines came near us, they took the life jackets off us and put them on the cases of their dead that they had, [that] they were taking back to Japan. The ashes. And they protected the ashes with our life jackets. So fortunately this submarine didn't hit us that time. But it hit enough other ships after that. But there was no toilet facilities down in those holds. Pitch black. They had one bucket that you used for urinal and defecation and what have you. And the boat would rock and spill it all over and men were lying in it. It's unbelievable to attempt to describe that. It can't be done because it gets too close to home when I start thinking about some of those conditions. But that's what we lived with for twenty-some-odd days. Yet later ships took forty days to get to Japan. So the conditions became even worse for those people. Ultimately, 5,000 Americans went to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean as a result of those sub attacks and those plane attacks that took place.

Interviewer: Were the guards better? 

Gordon: The very first five months of Mitsoshima was probably the worst five months of my life. Worse than anything in the Philippines. Because, number one, we had come out of the Philippines with no clothing, other than what we had on our backs. Which was trousers cut off at the knees because they wore out, shirts cut off at the elbows because they had worn out. No socks and no shoes.

The cold that first winter in Japan was incredible. We had no clothing, as I say. They gave us British clothing they had captured in Singapore. Which they wouldn't let the Japanese people see us in. So they put a Japanese cloth clothing over us, which they made it so thin you could see through it, but it covered up the uniforms that the Japanese had taken in Singapore...So we would sleep in our clothing and even then, we'd freeze because [of] sub-freezing temperatures. And at the bottom of the bay where we slept was a pit. They gave us charcoal to burn. And then at nine o'clock at night, we had to put it out for fear of fires. There was no heat in those barracks all night long. So men slept huddled together for body warmth. And used all sorts of blankets just to wrap each other up in. And if you became ill, as I did, and you had the chills as I did from malaria, it just was that much colder on you because you shivered yourself all night long. 

That first winter the guards were a Japanese army guard. They were not civilians yet. They still were active duty soldiers. Young. Japan had-- everything they touched at that point in time had turned to gold. They had won everywhere. And the Japanese felt very filled with the spirit of winning. And they were acting out. They mistreated every prisoner they ever laid their hands on. They would make-- take any pretext to beat on you, to make life miserable for you. If they caught you leaving the barracks at night to go to the latrine, because you had to make a lot of trips to the latrine, to the bathroom, if they caught you not completely dressed, they'd beat you. That first winter, we lost something like 48 men, Americans and British. And mainly from the cold and the fact that we were without food and were sick when we went into that camp. Men died.


When MacArthur's forces landed at Leyte in October of 1944, it sent a thrill through those in the rest of the Philippines as well, redoubling their determination to hold on. In each phase of MacArthur's Philippines campaign, guerrillas provided invaluable help, not only harassing the Japanese from behind their lines, but supplying much needed intelligence and guidance to the returning American armies.

Edwin Ramsey: When I heard that he [MacArthur] had returned, I finally had the feeling that I might have a chance of living through the war. At the time that he landed in Leyte, I was going through a pretty bad time, because I was ill and my morale was pretty low. But once they landed in Leyte, I knew it was only a question of hanging on for a few more months and I would be able to live through it. I still lost a lot of men, during that time, but I was able to keep up the morale and we were all completely exhilirated when General MacArthur landed in Leyte, and we knew that he was on the way back up to us.

Soon after MacArthur reached Luzon, Ramsey got in touch with his headquarters. An officer Ramsey knew got on the phone and expressed amazement when Ramsey told him who it was....

Ramsey: Anyway, Colonel Finley said on the phone, "It can't be, you're dead.... Get yourself up here." So I went upstairs to where he was, told him that MacArthur had sent for me ...Meanwhile, I looked like I'd been dragged through a bramble patch. So, he turned to one of the aides of General MacArthur, a young lieutenant. He says, "What size are your shoes, your boots?" And, [the lieutenant] said "Ah, eight and a half." And he turned to me, he said, "Will that fit you?" And, I said yes. So, he made the lieutenant take his boots off I didn't look quite so bad. And, then he announced to the General that I was there. And, I had a few minutes to wait, because they were having a meeting. So, he opened up the refrigerator and gave me three different kinds of ice cream that they had along, which was the first good ice cream that I'd had in three and a half years. 

Anyway, I went in. I reported to MacArthur. He asked me a lot of questions about the situation in Manila, about the collaborators or people who were suspected of being collaborators -- such as General Roxas, who later became the first President -- and I told him what I knew of it. Then he said, "Okay, now I want you to go over and brief General Krueger of the Sixth Army." I went over and I briefed General Krueger and, unfortunately, General Krueger was a very difficult man, as far as I'm concerned. And, he said, "How many Japanese are there down there still alive?" And I told him what my estimate was, because they had been passing right under my headquarters for some time. And I had people counting them. I told him how many there were and he says, "It can't be, there can't be that many of them." They later on counted that many bodies, as many bodies as I'd told him, after the Battle of Ipo Dam, where our our guerrilla troops and the First Cavalry Division had fought the units that were withdrawing up into the mountain provinces. So, I debriefed him and then I went back to my headquarters, which was in the outskirts of Manila.

POWs in Japanese forced labor camps also relished the defeat of Japan, but were uncertain of what it would mean for them.

Richard Gordon: But how was he going to get us out of Japan, that was a horse of a different color [compared with liberating the Philippines]. And of course the Japanese would have definitely put to death every prisoner of war they had, had there been an invasion of Japan. That was signed, sealed, and delivered. That was in their orders. So we sat around worrying more about how we were going to get out of there than how it was going to possibly end. Nobody had any conceivable idea how it could end. And lo and behold, along came a miracle in the form of an atom bomb. And it had to be a miracle, to end that war. Because the Japanese would not have taken it that lightly. An invasion would have been a bloodbath.

Interviewer: Did you see these orders?

Gordon: There's copies of those orders today. Especially in other [areas] where the Japanese had prisoners. They also have an order that they used in China to exterminate all prisoners of war. So the Japanese had a track record in exterminating prisoners of war. They had done it in China, they would have done it again. Because how would they have fed the case of an invasion? They had enemy troops behind their lines, so to speak, when they were trying to fight the Americans landing at the beaches. The prisoner population in Japan was huge. Over 100,000. That's a major problem to have in your back door when you're trying to defend the front door. And the prisoners that were in Japan, many of the pieces of equipment the Japanese were using for war production, were moved into that particular dam site that I was telling you about. Uh, they were going to fight the war from within the mountains. In Nagano for one part. That was what Nagano was primarily destined to become. A place of last resistance. And as equipment was loaded off the trains, unloaded, we would carry it across an open bridge, up the other side of the mountain, and store it. And we were throwing away parts of equipment as we were taking it across the bridge. So if they ever assembled the equipment, they may have found a few things missing.


Richard M. Gordon: Mr. Gordon enlisted as a Corporal in the 31st Infantry in 1940. Taken prisoner with the fall of Bataan, he, too, survived the Death March, then was held at Camp O'Donnell before being moved to Cabanatuan. In November of 1942, he was sent to Japan, where he worked in a labor camp in Nagano Prefecture until the war was over. Now a retired Major, Mr. Gordon organizes a group called The Battling of Bataan.

Edwin P. Ramsey: As an officer in the 26th Cavalry, Lieutenant Ramsey participated in the last mounted cavalry charge in U.S. military history, in January of 1942. After Bataan fell, Mr. Ramsey made his way into central Luzon, where he helped organize the Luzon Guerrilla Force under Colonel Claude Thorpe, and fought the Japanese until liberation nearly three years later. Mr. Ramsey left the army in 1946 with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. His book "Lieutenant Ramsey's War" chronicles his experience in the Philippines.

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