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Prison Camps

Although statistics never tell the whole story, this one goes a long way in describing what life was like for POWs in the Philippines: two out of every three soldiers alive at the time of the surrender did not live to see the end of the war. Although it's impossible to find exact figures, roughly half of the 24,000 Americans and nearly three-quarters of the 64,000 Filipino troops died during the Japanese occupation. Most of them died while POWs in one of the many wretched prison camps spread throughout the Philippines and in labor camps in Japan.

Interviewer: What was life like at the camp?

Richard Gordon Richard Gordon: The camp [Camp O'Donnell, on Luzon] had two water lines for, in our case, 9300 men. Water became a very scarce commodity. And getting on a water line was quite a feat. They would shut it off after a certain length of time. So, many men went without water. Water was brought in from a creek nearby for cooking purposes. But the water itself in the camp, you were desperate for. You couldn't get it. You had some people would crash the line and fill up cans for their friends and ...for the patients in the hospital. And so those who just followed the order and lined up for the water, sometimes just didn't get any water, period. For days. Water was a scarce commodity in O'Donnell.

Interviewer: Why didn't the Japanese treat you better?

Gordon: Why didn't they treat us better? I wish I could answer for the Japanese. I think they were totally unprepared for what they had to handle.... Their outlook of a prisoner of war was that they held you in nothing but contempt. If you surrendered, you were dishonorable. So if you were dishonorable, why should we worry about you or take care of you? You don't deserve anything better than what we're giving you. And so the Japanese philosophy, we were never prisoners of war initially. We were captives. A big, fine distinction they drew there. You were a captive of the Japanese army. They could do with you what they want. They didn't have to abide by any rules because there were no rules.

There is a common misconception regarding the experiences of two different groups of American POWs. As described above, those captured with the bulk of the Luzon Force on Bataan -- already in terrible condition after the long siege -- were then subjected to the aptly named Death March, which ended at Camp O'Donnell. In early June, most of them were then transferred to the camp at Cabanatuan, where they were joined by the men from Corregidor, which had surrendered on May 7. Although hardly in great shape themselves, the men from Corregidor had enjoyed better rations and avoided the Death March, putting them in a better position to withstand the rigors of the camps. The relative survival rates of the two groups bear this out.

Richard Gordon: I was left behind at O'Donnell when they moved them, the main body of prisoners from there, on the 6th of June 1942, to another camp called Cabanatuan. And I was left behind on the burial detail. To bury those sick, those expected to die -- they knew wouldn't live. And in about a month's time, our job was finished up. And then on the 5th of July of 1942, I was taken to Cabanatuan as well. And that's when we would run into Corregidor prisoners for the very first time. This belief that's been sworn by some historians that Corregidor made the [Death] March [is] of course totally inaccurate. That's where I first met with Corregidor people. And they were in pretty good shape. They were not diseased when they were captured, they hadn't suffered the March, they hadn't suffered the starvation that Bataan had. So they were pretty good, health- wise, good condition in that regard. And that's where we met them, as I say.

Interviewer: Were the prison guards generally pretty good or were they awful?

Gordon: There are many, many stories could be told about the guards in both those camps, of being brutal and mistreating. If a prisoner escaped ...I can recall the second camp, Cabanatuan, uh, I thought it was a Filipino. It was an American Indian. They beheaded the individual. They put his head on a pole and they walked up and down the main road in the camp so we could all see what happened to an escaped prisoner. If you escaped in Cabanatuan, they took out nine men from your squad and shot all nine of them. And they did that. So as a result, we had people agreeing not to escape because it would mean the lives of other people. We had squads made up of ten people and I've got-- well, I remember people signing certificates they would not escape. And if they did, they'd be subject to court martial after the war. Because the Japanese would shoot the other nine. So your responsibility as a soldier to escape was cut off in a hurry unless you wanted to take the lives of somebody else with you.

Interviewer: What was life like in the prisoner of war camp?

Alfred X. Burgos Alfred X. Burgos: Well, like I said, it was awful because when we were placed there together first with the Americans, there was no food provided for any of us there. All the food seemed to come from civilians, who had smuggled it in, but after a while they got very tough with civilians who were trying to smuggle food to the prisoners of war, and many of them found themselves killed by trying to provide food. Then, after a while, the Japanese allowed the prisoners of war to go to the town to get food, which they confiscated from the civilians for the camp. And in my case, for example, when I got into the camp itself, I was fortunate enough to have known some friends before who were cooks, and they were assigned in the kitchens of the concentration camp. Well, I happened to be lucky to have been placed in one of the kitchens, and in fact, I was the one in charge of the guava detail, which were given the task of going to the town in Capas Tarlac to look for food for the prisoners of war....

If you're caught trying to escape, then you're a dead man. Like, for example, one of the places where people would try to escape is, they had burial detail every day, where dead prisoners were picked up by a burial detail and taken to a place in the concentration camp for the burial. And many of them, while they went there, at a certain time they had to stop because they had to come back the next day, there were no burials at night. But many of them tried to go that way and see if they could skip out among those who are burying so that at night they could escape. But, unfortunately, many of them didn't make it.

* * *

Gustavo Ingles Gustavo Ingles: Well, our ration [was] given on the cover of the meat can, so if you put rice there and then you use a piece of wood to keep it flat, that was our ration.... So, you can find worms together with the boiled rice. At first we were throwing that away until one of the American prisoners found out that we were throwing it away. He said, "Give it to us because we need it." At first we didn't mind, and he told us that, "We can't understand it, why you're throwing it away, that is protein." So, I told him, "Now that we know, we won't give it to you any more...." It was no more about the chemistry, about what to eat, which we didn't understand by that time. What we understand is only what entered the mouth, that's it's purely rice. Sometimes they put salt so that it would taste different.

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