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