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Bolitho POW #4

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Bolitho POW  #4

The hardest detail was at Mactan. After tenko 500 to 600 men would march to the little train and at the "OK7 by the guards, dash to the 20 flat cars to get to sit down. Most of the mornings going though the jungle were beautiful. Mactan and the rice field operation was the largest and most important crop of any in Dapecal and cultivating it was by far the hardest, dirtiest and most disagreeable work of any in the Colony. We were involved in all phases of the operation. Plowing and harrowing were done with caribou, the local beasts of burden. They were in the water buffalo family and are among the most ornery animals in the world. Other types of work at Mactan were planting, weeding and harvesting the rice. The natives knew how to plant but the guards were not happy with the way we did it so we had a man on each side of the paddy with a rope. We planted along this rope which gave us pretty straight rows. We were in filthy, muddy water halfway between our knees and our hips. Each man was given a small bundle of seedlings to plant his part of the row. The second operation was the weeding that was done after the seedlings were well started. Seldom did the Japanese foreman have sufficient water in the paddy to make weeding easy. If the water was regulated properly we could push the weeds under, but usually the paddy was too dry and we had to scratch the weeds out with our fingers. A guard watched each paddy we could not get by without cleaning out the weeds thoroughly. At a later date came the harvesting - now the paddies needed to be dry, but our captors apparently didn't understand this either. The paddies were often wet which made the rice heads have high moisture content. We carried a curved serrated knife to cut the heads and then loaded them into baskets. Carrying the large heavy basket (4 ft. in diameter and 2 ft. deep) on slick footing was not only hard by dangerous. With a guard urging you on with a fixed bayonet we kept going. The loaded baskets were taken to a large open building where a separator would process the rice heads. As Christmas of 1942 approached I had an attack of malaria. I checked into the hospital and in about a week my temperature dropped and I reported back to my barracks and work details. Those men who "goldbricked" or for other reasons dodged details wound up in the Zero Ward and did not last too long. The food rations for those who didn't work were inadequate for one to exist on. While on a work detail you not only received a larger ration, but also had the opportunity to steal more. Christmas morning I was awakened by Christmas carols being sung by a group of POW's led by Major Larry Pritchard, who had been a glee club director at West Point. These singers became known as the Dapecal Glee Club. What a lift they gave us Christmas morning.

In January 1943 we received our first shipment of Red Cross packages. We were given two packages of food per man, plus some medical supplies. In the evening we could now supplement our meager camp ration with Red Cross goodies. Four of us pooled our packages - we would open one and split it four ways making the packages-last longer.

Within a day or two, a system of barter developed out of a need to exchange items according to the individual likes or desires - cigarettes for food, food for cigarettes, Spam for jam and jam for Spam. Cigarettes became the standard value used in consummating deals. It went something like this - Spam and corn beef went for 5 packs of cigarettes per can; butter and jelly went for 3 packs per tin and so forth. Red Cross packages had come at the right time to help sustain us as we labored in the rice paddies and on other work details. Moral was high, spirits were up and deaths were down. But, as so often happens, we created problems for ourselves by asking for details to go out without guards. Permission was granted for work in the vegetable gardens and fruit orchards. But one evening, on our return to the compound, another Japanese officer of higher rank than the one who had given permission to go out without guards demanded a shakedown at the gate. Fruit and vegetables came from everywhere. The assortment as well as the quantity was amazing. We had all become thieves. Hence the shakedown became routine and only food "eaten on the job" was permitted.

Another work detail was in the Ramie fields. Ramie is a fibrous plant in the nettle family that grows to a height of nearly five feet and is seeded so that the individual plants are only a few inches apart. It is used in making a very nice fabric for clothing. A field of ramie is a beautiful sight of tall, even, sturdy stalks that are almost impenetrable, at least visually. Harvesting is done with hand held sickles similar to the ones used to harvest the rice. After it is cut the Ramie is laid in bundles or sheaves that are picked up later for further processing.

One hot day working in the Ramie field the Japanese didn't give us much time to look around - it was "speedo, speedo". Suddenly there was a shout that was part scream. One of the POWs who had been a medical corpsman ran full blast to the man, who had shouted, forced him to the ground and began working feverishly over him. A six-foot cobra had bitten the man. The corpsman, acting quickly, had property sliced the wound
crosswise and sucked out the poison. The man suffered some shock, had a sore leg for a while, but he lived to tell about it.

Cobras are too plentiful in that part of the world and are often from four to six feet long. They don't rattle or give any warning. When they strike they have only one-third of their length on the ground, thereby using two-thirds of their body length to reach out and strike their victim. They are lightning quick in their moves. It was not the first or the last cobra strike in the Ramie fields, nor in the rice fields. We never lost a man to cobra bites but the cobras lost to their potential victims. Dead snakes provided more than one good meal to those who had a chance to smuggle some in.Working on the Davao road detail often entailed hauling gravel in buckets, suspended from poles, carried on our shoulders. It was grueling work. We had to be especially watchful going back and forth into the jungle to get gravel from streambeds. Pythons, lying on branches overhead, might be waiting to seize some prey. Possibly the largest snake in the world, they kill their prey by squeezing it to death. One time a python started to cross the road just as our truck approached. Unable to stop, the truck rolled over it just as the tail was emerging from the jungle on one side and the head was entering on the other - a distance of close to twenty feet. It was about seven inches in diameter. We debated if we should go after it or not, but all we had for weapons were squared off, dull shovels and we realized the odds were in favor of the snake. What a meal it would have made.

Early in the month of April, on a Sunday, Col. Ed Dyess, seven other officers and two enlisted men along with two Filipino convicts escaped from Dapecal. Neither the Japanese or anyone else in camp knew the men had left and the escapees already had a twelve hour start by tenko time. The guards went through the barracks to locate anyone hiding and to try and figure out how many were missing. A detail of guards was immediately sent out to recapture the escapees, but apparently ran into some guerrillas and several Japanese were killed.

While some were happy for those who had escaped, the remainder of us in camp had mixed feeling, even fear, about what would happen next. We had already been put in "death squads" of ten, but none of us knew who the other nine in their group were. If one in your group escaped the other nine would be executed. For several days all work details were stopped. Our meager rations were drastically reduced and salt was taken away and many privileges denied. Shakedowns of personal belongings took place and beatings increased in frequency and severity.

On Wednesday we were told by the Japanese that all men, living in the same barracks as the men who had escaped, were to be put into a disciplinary compound. An order was also put out from Japanese Headquarter that there would be no meetings of any kind. Four barracks out of a total of eight were involved in the discipline. We were lined up, counted and marched off to another somewhat isolated and less well-built compound a few kilometers away. This compound had a triple barbed wire fence around it; eight guard towers and a strong Iron Gate at the entrance. At first this seemed like a mice vacation from work. But we were slowly starving to death on the small amount of rice they were giving us.

For several weeks those of us under discipline did nothing but talk, read the few books that were available, played chess and bridge and just walked around the inside perimeter of our compound. Then one day the Japanese Commanding Officer, Major Maede and Lt. Yuki, in charge of American prisoners, called an assembly. The interpreter was Mr. Onada, an excitable little civilian who always seemed to be on the run that we called "Running Wada" (water). Major Maede made certain threats, and then told us Lt. Col. Nelson, our Commanding Officer, and all barrack leaders were relieved of their duties. After he left the compound with Running Wada, Lt. Yuki addressed us in his broken English. He said he had trusted us to go out on work details without guards, we had broken this trust but he would forgive us. He was sorry the escape had happened - made a few other remarks and left. I was flabbergasted! There was no bitterness in what he said, in fact he also remarked, "You have lived under difficult conditions and I understand." He said all this knowing we knew he had just lost his command. Finally we returned to the main compound. I had another attack of malaria but high temperature or not I didn't miss a meal. Food had improved - we were given a lot of dried fish with our rice. We would never think of eating it under normal circumstances but we were under anything but normal and we needed the protein.

The next couple of months were spent working on light details, one of which was the chicken farm. All that was required was to clean the cages, rake up old hay and replace it with fresh. Normally all the chickens would be out in a large fenced enclosure. One pen had a chicken enclosed with a note on the door in Japanese and English, "No feed - no lay eggs".

We were soon assigned to the rice detail to again plant the seedlings. At noon we received a health helping of rice, fish and two radishes. Things were looking up - then in the late afternoon the rains came. It was not a downpour but a steady cold rain with a slight cool breeze. Our only covering was a G-string and a woven hat and we were chilled almost immediately. We headed back to the assembly area in time to board the 5:00 p.m. train but it was late. Mechanical problems had developed and it was dark when the train arrived. Surprisingly there was no grumbling - we didn't have anything special to look forward to back at the compound. We were hungry but we had become used to that. The problem was with the guards who were trying to watch everyone. They were edgy and mean.

The return to the compound was a gradual uphill grade and because of the rain the wheels on the locomotive were slipping. Progress was practically nil so the guards began kicking us off the car to push. They were shouting and swearing at us, but we could have cared less. Walking barefooted on slippery wood railroad ties or alongside in the weeds and brush was miserable. We were no longer riding but certainly not pushing very much, so we weren't getting home very fast. It really became comical - the guards were screaming their heads off but beyond that they didn't know what to do. Over an hour passed and we were still at least two miles from camp. Someone started singing "God Bless America". It soon caught on and became louder and louder. It completely drowned out the screaming guards. The train was moving slowly, but with practically no help from us. By the time we were probably a mile from camp, men in their barracks could hear singing. Bear in mind that life in a prison camp was anything but boisterous. There were no radios, no record players, etc. so the sound of our "choir" was coming through loud and clear. As we finally approached the entrance gate all able-bodied men were standing and cheering wildly. The guards were horrified as we filed into the cheering group. Word quickly spread to gather near the assembly area. Completely hidden and surrounded by men, two of fellows were holding a rolled up GI blanket. As it suddenly unfolded there sewn to the blanket was our American Flag. There was dead silence, tears streamed down everyone cheeks and then in choked voices we softly sang "GOD BLESS AMERICA".
Part 5 of 6 in next Gazette.
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