Camp O’Donnell and Cabanatuan
The Japanese commander of Camp O’Donnell, Captain Yoshio Tsuneyoshi, had expected 20,000 to 30,000 prisoners. Instead, up to 60,000 – including 9,300 Americans – were imprisoned there. Tsuneyoshi greeted the prisoners, “We are enemies forever! Japan will fight and fight and fight if it takes a thousand years! If you try to escape you will be shot. I would like you all be killed. Only the benevolence of the Emperor permits you to live. You are guests of the Emperor.” Of those 9,300, approximately 2,300 would die in the three months they were at O’Donnell because of disease, starvation, and murder.
Sergeant Winston Shillito recalls first seeing burial details, from the Filipino part of the camp “…a constant stream of two-man crews, with poles and a blanket stretched between them, carrying the bodies – we’ll never know how many. And the Americans soon began to follow.” Sergeant Don Harris, “They died so fast that the bodies lay stacked like cordwood before we could bury them. At first, we tried digging individual graves, but that didn’t work, so we dug big pits. Then the rain began and the bodies would float. We’d try to weigh them down with dirt and they’d come up. And at night the dogs would scavenge.”
By 01 June, most prisoners at O’Donnell were being moved to Cabanatuan and a reunification with their Corregidor colleagues. For many, however, it would be short-lived. From Cabanatuan, thousands of men were sent out on work details throughout the Philippines or moved to Korea, Manchuria, and Japan to provide labor. Those left in the camp provided labor for a number of projects – such as the horrific Tayabas Road detail, where the men had to remove large tree stumps and rock, and the rebuilding of runways at Nichols Field, the worst work detail many of the men remember. Second Lieutenant LeMoyne Stiles wrote, “Two of my boys came in from the Nichols Field detail. They have been exceptionally rough on the Americans there. Have killed four men… Bayoneted two at the latrine because they were too weak from dysentery to make it back to their group.” Private First Class Lee Roach, “Boys would bury a piece of fish to rot, so they’d get sick when they ate it. Some let loaded carts run over their legs to break them – anything to get off that detail. A lot died.”
The numbers who died of starvation and disease on this one detail were exceedingly high – of 325 men put to work, only 99 survived and were eventually moved to the “hospital” at Bilibid Prison in Manila, where more would die. Private Amador Lovato described another work detail clearing tree trunks in Tayabas Province, “But we didn’t have any equipment, and those trees got a million roots. We couldn’t do nothing with just picks and shovels. Then the malaria started. Those mosquitos were so thick we couldn’t hardly see. Men were dying – of six hundred of us that went, only eighty survived.” Again, most survivors were then sent to Bilibid. Medicine was almost nonexistent in the camp, but could occasionally be found – often surreptitiously provided by the Japanese guards.
Claire Phillips, known as “High Pockets,” was an American night club performer before the war, traveling throughout the Pacific. In Manila, she met and married Manuel Fuentes and, though they had a daughter, the marriage didn’t last and she moved back to the US briefly, eventually returning to the Philippines prior to the war. Upon her return, she met and married Sergeant John Phillips, of the 31st Infantry Regiment (he would later be in a prison camp). Another 31st soldier, Corporal John Boone, urged her to stay and work for the resistance, so, using forged paperwork and changing her name, she opened up Club Tsubaki, with dancer Dorothy Clara Fuentes, in Manila. The club became an important meeting place during the war for high-ranking Japanese officers, with conversations being actively “overheard” by Phillips and her staff; information gained in this manner was then relayed to the resistance outside the city and even to American forces in the Pacific. She also worked with another American, Margaret Utinsky, and others to acquire medicines and food which were then smuggled to both the resistance and the prisoners of war in Cabantaun. Eventually, the Japanese secret police uncovered the spy ring and arrested Phillips. Many of her collaborators were beaten and executed – she was imprisoned in Bilibid Prison and interrogated, severely beaten and starved for six months. Her death sentence was commuted to twelve years of hard labor and she was eventually rescued when US forces reoccupied the Philippines. Phillips was awarded the Medal of Freedom in 1951, the same year her story was made into the movie I Was an American Spy.
The Red Cross prepared food packages to be sent to prisoners of the Japanese. Warehouses of these were found throughout Japan and its area of occupation after the war. Food and water were always short and the men took to eating everything they could find which might be edible, including ground-bone fertilizer sent for the farm fields they maintained for the Japanese. Dogs would occasionally show up in camp and went into the pot, as did cats, moneys, rats, snakes, locusts, other insects – anything not poisonous was consumed to provide the protein the men’s bodies were starved for. Red Cross packages containing food sometimes made it to the camp but – more often than not – were stolen and hoarded by the Japanese. In November 1942, a shipment of Red Cross supplies finally arrived, the result of diplomatic negotiations. The food and medicines which arrived made a tremendous impact, as men began to heal and find a sense of hope again, but would run out by March 1943. A three hundred acre farm employed thousands of prisoners and allowed the men the ability to sneak food back in the camp, at the risk of severe beatings.
When the Americans re-entered Manila at the end of the war, they found warehouses stacked “to the roof” with these Red Cross packages. Those on work details outside the camp often brought what foodstuffs they could plunder back and a robust “market” developed in the camp as men traded food for medicine and other supplies they needed.
In addition to lack of food, water, and medicine, the men were punished severely for the smallest infraction. Public executions were not unusual and the Japanese instituted a “Gang of 10” rule – where if one man from a group of ten escaped, the others faced immediate execution. To prevent many of their fellow soldiers, who were often sick and “crazed,” the Americans set up guards around the perimeter to keep others from trying to escape. Dorothy Cave writes, “One night, just as a perimeter guard urinated into a sewage ditch, three officers, trying to escape during a monsoon, passed under him. The sprayed officers yelled and several men, [Second Lieutenant John] Gamble among them, came running. ‘The American guard called ‘halt’ and Sergeant [Mario] Tonelli, a former Notre Dame All-American, made a flying tackle and brought one down. They pulled their rank and demanded to be released. The ruckus attracted the Nip guards, [who] beat up the officers and kept them tied up all night and the following day without food or water. At sundown they were led out and shot.’”
For not saluting properly, men were hung by the wrist with their arms extended behind them, dislocating the shoulders, nails were pulled out, bones broken, and men clubbed to unconsciousness – many men were simply beaten to death. In one instance, Corporal John Kedzie watched as a group was “slowly clubbed to death. Finally, the Japs cut them down, hung them on posts, and turned out the camp to watch while they gave them ‘honorable military executions’ – after they were already dead.”
Later in 1942, large groups of men were selected to be sent to work in Japan and its occupied territories, but as the American’s began to gain the upper hand in the summer of 1944, with increasing Japanese defeats, the decision was made to evacuate all POW’s, except for the most ill, out of the Philippines.
The men too sick to be evacuated – numbering about 500 – were left at Cabanatuan. They would be rescued on 28 January 1945 in a daring behind-the-lines raid by 250 US Army Rangers and Filipino Scouts.
This concludes the first of three articles on the Bataan Death March and Allied Prisoners of War in the Pacific Theater. The next articles in this series will be posted on our Facebook page and this website.