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The Hayes Bolitho Japanese POW Story continues...

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The sight of that American Flag was the greatest moral builder that I experienced in those long years of captivity. Even to this day, more than fifty years later, when any of us get together, we speak of the incident and remember it with emotion. That flag was the official flag of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 3 and was the possession of Chief Regan, boatswain on the 41 Boat that brought General MacArthur from Corregidor to Mindanao. No one knows, but Regan, how he was able to keep it hidden during the shakedowns by the Japanese or how he managed to keep it a secret.
After Lt. Yuki lost his command, Capt. Hoesurne took charge of all American prisoners and most of us were assigned to working in the rice fields. American details to such places as the fruit orchard and vegetable gardens ceased. Guarding of prisoners became very strict and if anyone got out of line they were slapped, hit with rifle butts or kicked with the hob?nailed boots. There were cuts in our rations of rice and vegetables. The Red Cross packages received in late January was the only food that really kept us going. Shortly after we received those packages many of the men said that they always had milk and sugar with rice.
Well, the Red Cross packages had powdered milk and small packages of sugar. Upon getting their rice, those craving this, sprinkled on sugar and mixed up the milk and poured it over the rice. In about 5 seconds floating on top of the milk were hundreds of little weevils, about a quarter of an inch long, snow white in color with tiny black heads. Then we realized we'd been eating them for a long time but didn't know it. We continued to eat the nice but without the milkonit.
In early 1943, thanks to the Red Cross, we were finally permitted to write a card home. This was a three by five inch card with printed lead ins followed by various words we could underline. Example; My health is ????? excellent; good; fair; poor. I am ?????injured; sick in hospital; under treatment; not under treatment. There were also four additional lines similar to this and there were more lines where we could write fifteen words or less. We had to be careful what we wrote as the cards were censored by the Japanese interpreter. In two and one half years we were allowed to write five cards.
In mid February the Japanese Commander at Dapecol informed our Commanding Officer that 650 healthy prisoners were needed to work on an airstrip near the small village of Lasang, about ten miles to the southeast. Immediately our Commander objected to such I work because that would be aiding the Axis forces and was definitely not in accordance with the Geneva Convention Rules for Land Warfare. The Japanese again as much as said "So what!" Our Commander was ordered to choose 650 "able bodied" men for the detail. It seemed to take longer than usual to get this detail organized and when the names were first read, many developed excuses as to why they shouldn't be included.
Even though there were 1800 men at Dapecol, it was not easy to find 650 able bodied men. One small inducement did exist. With the recent Red Cross shipment, new GI shoes were available and would be issued to men going to Lasang. Because we had been going barefoot so long, it would take some adjusting to wear shoes again, but we were soon relieved of that problem. Before our departure the next morning, the Japs issued each of us two Red Cross food packages along with the shoes. When we marched out of The compound to board the trucks, the guards ordered us to return to the compound and take our shoes off and we left for the airfield barefooted.
When we arrived at the Lasang Compound we instinctively knew it was a bad situation. The four barracks were of crude construction. Two Latrines to the rear were later moved nearer our barracks since the Japanese didn't like the odor or the flies emanating that close to them. There was one open well to draw surface water from for bathing and laundry purposes. The kitchen facilities were inadequate and we soon found out the food was sub?standard even by prison standards.
Our American Camp Commander was Lt. Col. Rufus Rodgers, a soft?spoken, kindly, yet courageous Texan who had been in the Cavalry and had fought at Bataan. We had two chaplains, three doctors and one dentist, a decent complement of professional personnel for that size detail. The Japanese contingent at Lasang left a lot to be desired, but worst of all we had inherited Running Wadda, the mean spirited, hateful interpreter and sometimes self?appointed disciplinarian for whom everyone had developed a strong distaste with good reason. The Japanese leaders sensing a possible morale?problem because of the nature of the work included a larger than usual number of guards.
Col. Rodgers called a meeting with three men from each barracks and instructed them that under the circumstances we would go out to the airstrip as directed, but definitely do no work. These men were to pass the word to everyone. The following morning at 6:00 a.m. we were placed into work groups of 50 men and in columns of four with each group under heavy guard. Some of the men were on a road detail fixing potholes, some were trucked to the coral area and the remainder of us was marched to the airstrip.
Surfaced with coral and estimated to be 1600 feet in length, the runway had six Japanese transport planes, ten zeros and six bombers parked on the ramps adjacent to the runway. It was definitely involved with the war. We were angry and more resolved than ever that we would do no work. Obviously the runway needed ditching along it's edges to drain the surface and prevent the pooling of water following the frequent rains. A Japanese civilian contractor outlined the work for each detail, but we all dug in our heels. They couldn't expect us to work to improve an airstrip being used in combat against out allies',
The first day we did nothing but lean on our shovels. Lt. Hoshida, the Japanese officer in charge of the detail came out to inspect our work. The officer accompanying him was Lt. Hashimoto, who was psychotic and proud of it, and had hounded us for months with his terrible temper and saber rattling. Seeing we had done nothing they called us together and through the interpreter gave us a pep talk about working. It fell on deaf ears. This went on for days. The Jap civilian supervisors had greatly reduced the amount of work required in a day, but we stayed firm and did nothing. This brought on serious cuts in food rations. Col. Rodgers request that we be sent back to Dapecol was ignored so we were at a standoff. The Colonel was in an extremely difficult position. The Japanese officers didn't punish him, but being the leader of starving troops while trying to avoid helping the Axis in their war effort, posed big problems. Out of absolute necessity he suggested another approach that he thought best for us, one that we would not feel our country would I judge us wrongly. Beginning the next day he ordered us to work on the runway with the understanding that we would do a minimum amount of work and be back in the compound around noon.
The main work required was to provide ditches on either side of the runway and then add more coral rock to improve the runway surface. Trucks were provided to haul in the coral rock, some groups were assigned to break it up and load it by hand. Leveling the runway was done by shoveling dirt onto a thick mat, approximately four by six feet that had ropes coming from the four corners to a loop through which a bamboo pole was placed. A man on each end of the pole would carry the dirt to a waste location. Each day our leaders would argue over how much work had to be done before we returned to the compound. Hence progress was very slow.
A routine for our existence was developed: leave compound at 6:00 a.m., march to the airstrip, negotiate a contract for the day, complete the work and return to the compound. We were usually back by noon. But as little as we worked, hate was in our hearts for our guards, their officers and the Japanese interpreter. I'm sure they shared mutual contempt for us, but they had the guns.
One of my first details had to do with filling potholes and performing general repair work on the parking ramp. It was pick and shovel work and any dirt that had to be moved was transported in large baskets. Sometimes the heavy loads had to be carried a considerable distance. It was demeaning work.
We did as little as possible and worked as slowly as possible. Work on the ramps had its advantages, though, especially after a rain when they were soft and spotted with potholes. We availed ourselves of every opportunity to commit sabotage. I'm not sure it was any great deterrent on the Japanese war effort, but it definitely made us feel good. Our first experience at this tactic came one morning when a group of us was told to push a couple of Zeros out of the soft ground at the edge of the ramp. We could have easily pushed the planes to solid ground in a matter of seconds, but rather than do that we only pretended to push. In the meantime we poked holes in the fabric and at the same time bending and kinking the cable wires to the tail assembly hoping to weaken or damage them enough so they eventually might break in flight.
On another occasion, a two?motor transport plane had brought an inspecting general down from Luzon and had parked on the ramp. It had rained during the night and one wheel in particular had sunk down considerably. At about 9:00 a.m. the pilot came to warm up the plane prior to takeoff. Seeing the predicament he was in asked the guard to have POWs push the plane and free the wheel. Again we did all we could to be counterproductive. We were holding back while pretending to push, tramping around in the mud hole causing the wheel to sink even deeper and in no way giving assistance.
The Japanese became more and more irritated because a flight of three fighter planes that had gone out on patrol earlier that morning were due back any moment. The nose of the stuck transport protruded out dangerously close to the path of the incoming planes, so there was cause for much anxiety among the Japanese. Finally the three fighters returned. Recognizing they had a hazard with which to contend, with they circled the field a couple of times looking things over. When the first one came in, he managed to give a wide birth to the stalled transport, in so doing ended up off the left side of the runway. By this time it was easy to see the two remaining pilots were getting quite concerned about fuel as they waggled their wings quite extensively.
The second one came in straight but much too hot, and went off the runway and into the jungle at the far end. Seeing this the third one came in ten or twelve yards short. This would have been all right except the runway dropped off sharply by several feet as it had been built up to provide a more solid base. Unfortunately for the pilot the wheels slammed into this sharp incline a foot or so below the crest causing the plane to bounce upward about twenty feet or so in a sort of spiraling motion. It came to rest with a loud crash across the field from us killing the pilot and burning. That was one less Nip and one less plane to shoot at Americans. Our guards hurriedly marched us back to the compound.
For me, the hardest and most disagreeable work at Lasang was the coral detail. Most of the coral that was used to surface the runway came from a small bill of almost solid coral located a few miles away from the camp. Our job was to hack it out of this hill with pickaxes and then break it into small bits and pieces to be shoveled into the truck and brought to the runway. The coral was stark white so it reflected the sunlight back at us with severe intensity. Standing in the hot sun, with the temperature usually over 100 degrees, wearing nothing but a G?string, no shoes and the guards screaming "Speedo ?Speedo", the sun bouncing off the white rock as we worked with a pickaxe or a maul, was about as taxing as anything could be. At least in the rice paddy, part of the body is either in mud or water. In the coral pit, the only water was the perspiration running off our bodies, and to make it even more disagreeable, dust got in our eyes, caked our bodies and stuck in our nostrils.
Adding to our misery were the sharp jagged edges of the coral cutting our feet. Once the coral was shoveled out of the truck onto the runway it then had to be tamped in. This was done by using a primitive crusher consisting of a two?inch thick circular piece of iron, four feet high and four feet in diameter. It was filled with concrete in which four-curved bamboo poles were imbedded. Four men would each grab a pole and in cadence count 1?2?3 ? lift ? drop. It was imperative that the crusher be lifted straight up and dropped straight down to avoid crushing our bare feet. Back breaking work!
Toward the end of May we steadily lost weight and our health and vigor declined because the Red Cross food packages and vitamins were used up and our food ration barely kept us alive. The lack of vitamins and nutritious food brought some of us down with beriberi, pellagra, amoebic dysentery, malaria and scurvy and affected the sight of many. Despite our weakened condition the Japs feared us more, our tempers were short and we cussed them more than we ever had before. Of course they disliked this profanity.
One night, during an assembly, the Japanese asked us to stop swearing because their own guards were complaining and getting difficult to control. Our answer "tough'
By now we were receiving about half the food promised us. Frequently we went without salt, which was so necessary when working in the heat of the tropical sun. (Lasang was located seven degrees above the equator.) The food got more monotonous and tasteless and there were times when we received nothing but boiled blue camotes. The Japanese knew we were irritable, angry and wanted to escape, and they doubled the number of guards and revised the guard system to prevent any kind of mutiny. So our men and the guards were anything but compatible and any excuse for them to work us over physically was welcome. For example, coming in from the airstrip, Lt. Fleming found a piece of sugar cane. Lt. Hoshimoto, never one to allow anyone to enjoy anything, slipped up and jerked it out of his hand. The young officer grabbed it back. This set off the psychotic officer and he started saber whipping Lt. Fleming, beating him unmercifully. He did not use the edge of the saber, but he knocked him down and continued to beat him on the ground. It was a sickening spectacle to watch, but with about ten guards with bayonets and loaded rifles there was nothing we could do.
Once, upon returning to the compound, we found ourselves covered with locusts. We quickly got our mosquito nets and gathered and caught scads of them. One of our chaplains stated casually, "scriptural speaking, John the Baptist lived on locusts and wild honey". We only had half of John's menu but we began to formulate plans to eat some of those locusts. We popped their heads off and the inners came with it, pulled off the legs and wings and we ready to cook. All of us had accumulated ways of cooking any moving thing we captured on work details. In the last Red Cross packages we had received shaving cream, Barbasal and Mennon. Fried in the mess kit with Barbasal; surprisingly the locust was not too bad. Some of the men tried Mennon but that wasn't compatible, it was too highly scented. For a change we all went to bed with a full stomach.
Another unique fact about Lasang was the abundance of rats that lived beneath our bunks. At night we would have to be careful to keep our bare feet under the mosquito net because the rats would eat the calluses while we slept. If a sudden sharp pain awakened you, you knew a rat had started eating on the bottom of your foot.
One day we were told that all officers, including Lt. Col. Rodgers, his staff and one?half of the kitchen detail, were to work on the airfield. Once again we were breaking coral rock into small pieces and spreading it on the runway. The Japanese began camouflaging buildings and putting planes into revetments or trying to hide them under trees in case there was a bombing attack. Every day we would see fighter planes take off with extra fuel tanks and with bombs attached. We felt increased tension among the Japanese officers and guards who appeared to have packed their equipment ready to leave anytime.
Our dentist made a trip to see the one-hundred? man detail located on an airstrip outside of Davao and brought back some interesting information. He reported that transport planes were arriving every day loaded with wounded Japanese soldiers. Also heavy bombers were taking off from the field with bays full of bombs.
In only a matter of days our field began to have air raid alerts. At night we could see searchlights scan the sky looking for enemy planes. During these alerts a Moro gong in the guard tower would be struck several times and the guards would rush into the compound with fixed bayonets and surround the barracks ready to stick anyone who came out. One night a man, who had been soundly asleep during an alert, woke up and dashed for the latrine. As he stepped out the door a guard stuck him between the ribs with a bayonet. By now the Japanese were frightened and they meant business if we got out of line in any way. Because we were doing just enough work to keep out of trouble time dragged on until around August 1, 1944. The food that we got was minimal and terrible. One day, out on the airstrip, the Japanese officers urged us to do a little more work than usual and if we did we would have some caribou meat for the evening meal. We didn't do any more work, but we did get the taste of meat. When we got to the compound someone asked the cook about the caribou "Well we might have gotten enough to grease the mess kits but not very much, just the regular NRA.
The airstrip was bombed one night, all the bombs falling at the far end of the runway. We shouted with joy. The guards came rushing into the compound and surrounded each barracks. All their shouting indicated they were scared to death.
On August 4th all work was discontinued on the airfield. It appeared that final preparations were being made for our departure from Lasang. The very next day we received our last Red Cross box and our shoes were returned. For five months we had bee waiting to receive this box and now we really needed it. Our morale immediately went up with the feel of good leather shoes on our feet. Still we were kept in the compound. The next day we were told to turn in our shoes and our rations were cut to two meals a day. By now a few men who had squandered their food or traded it for cigarettes hung around the garbage pit to find a few scraps of any kind or find some weeds to boil up for soup.
We waited day after day for the order to move out. On August 19"' we were told to get ready to depart Lasang the next day. Also we were informed that our shoes would be returned to us once we boarded a ship. Mosquito nets were turned into the Japanese, along with our kitchen equipment. That night Lt. Hoshida called an assembly and told us we were being taken to a safer place. He said if we created any disturbance during the trip that we would be shot. It was obvious now that the Japanese were very much on the defensive.
To be continued in the next edition of The Gazette

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