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The American Experience
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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.

Interviewer: And then they shipped you to Japan?

Richard Gordon 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.

The Siege of Bataan
Capture and Death March
The Guerrilla War
Prison Camps
next... Liberation
The Filipino Veterans Movement