People & Events: The Bataan POWs
For the most part, the Bataan prisoners came from small-town America. Those who survived the prison camps, the hell ships, and slave labor camps returned to live in small towns as well. Farmers, small entrepreneurs, local politicians, even a clown for the Shriners -- these men aren't easily pinned to what they do, more to how they do it. Honest, loyal, can-do men. For the POWs, these qualities enabled them to survive in the camp.
For the most part, the prisoners came from Depression-era backgrounds. They grew up hungry, poor and rural. The Army provided three square meals a day and a steady income; that was more economic security than most had ever known. But the Depression gave them more than just a desire to join up: it prepared them for the realities of life in the camp.
In the Depression, people knew how to do things: fix cars, fix radios, repair shoes, farm, make bread from scratch. Impoverished America was not a consumer society. Instead, people fixed what they had -- and if they didn't have, they improvised or built what they needed. In the prison camp the men built what they needed and did what they could do. The men built gardens, fixed shoes, trapped rats, made drugs, smuggled anything and everything, bartered incessantly, stole x-ray film to take secret photographs, built secret radios, and even built a hospital and performed surgeries.
Playing and Praying
On the lighter side they formed a band, listened to records, staged shows, drew the constellations, recalled recipes, learned foreign languages, studied math, wrote letters, prayed, whittled, etched, and generally kept themselves occupied. Prisoners with the will, strength and faith to stay physically and mentally busy better survived the camp's rampant diseases and hardships.
To keep their sanity, men resorted to some strange pastimes. James Hildebrand, a POW in Cabanatuan, recalled:
"You'd be talking to a friend and a louse would come on his collar and you'd pick it up and you'd snap it, or he'd pick one off of you and snap it... then you'd get a glass jar and put the louse in there and we'd put a bed bug in there, and... this was our entertainment. We'd see which one killed the other one. Sometimes the bedbug would win, sometimes the louse would win... then we got the red ants and the red ants won every time."
Lots of Teasing
John Cook, another POW, kept a photo of a woman named Helen. He would talk to her every night -- and was teased incessantly. He recalled:
"When the guys found out I had Helen's picture, they'd all kid me and say, 'Hey can I kiss Helen goodnight tonight?' and ' Let me see the sweet thing.' There was one Polish fellow and he would always 'smack' the picture and tease me about her -- and, oh, I guess it kept us going. It was something different. And, it was all in fun, there was nothing bad."
And then, of course, the malnourished prisoners dreamed of food. Some men fixated on one type of food -- a ham sandwich or cheese, for example. Others concocted strange recipes. Albert Chestnut recorded his food fantasies in his diary. He wrote:
"What I Want to Eat on First Days Home
1st Full Day:
1) Orange juice, small dish of oatmeal with sweetened condensed milk, 5 large thick pancakes smothered with jam, cocoa, and marshmallows;
2) cold cuts and rye bread, tomatoes, pineapple ice, milk;
3) shrimp cocktail, small steak and french-fried potatoes, mushrooms, peas and corn, garden salad, pickled peaches, sliced fruit with lots of apple, iced tea;
4) black cow, peanut cake, caramel from tinned milk."
One Day at a Time
Along with fantasizing, coping was the order of the day. According to former POW Bob Body:
"Some of the guys would sit around and dream about when they got home, big steaks and all that but... I kept thinking about, if you're going to survive today... that was the biggest thing. I think that probably really the hardest thing is the suspense, the stress -- are we going to make it till tomorrow, you know. Get through today, just make it."
An Organized World
Life in the camp was survival. Men were keen to survive; they did what they could do to live and make the best of it. They organized their world to be like home. They built libraries, chapels, and latrines. They laid out the camp using familiar names -- Times Square, Broadway, Fifth Avenue. They kept their military structure and rules, with a commander and work details... including burial detail.
Life in the camp was horrible: the guards were brutal, the food scarce and disease rampant. The men were literally starving and physically deteriorating. Today, many retain physical scars dating to their internment -- from debilitating malarial attacks to blindness, bone disease and other painful ailments, daily reminders all of their time in the camp.
Back in the States
The survivors bear psychological scars as well. As they age, many have come to terms with their experience, some by giving back. John Cook spearheaded a campaign to remember and honor the Rangers, Alamo Scouts and Filipino guerrillas who rescued the POWs at Cabanatuan. Bob Body was a clown for the Shriners. Ben Steele memorialized his memories in his art. Others served as mentors and politicians; many wrote books. Still others kept those times locked away.
return to people & events | next