Moving to Another Camp
We had occasional inspections by Japanese officers. They strode through camp with surgical masks on their faces to protect them from the foul air and contagious diseases. Other than their quick walk through the camp, they did very little to improve conditions. We were averaging sixty deaths each day. Across the road, Filipino prisoners were interned under similar conditions. According to reports, Filipinos had little resistance to disease and, as a result, as many as several hundred soldiers were dying every day.
Saint Peter’s Ward was the name given-to the ward set aside for men who were goners, prisoners with no hope for recovery. The men in this ward lay dying and naked, stripped of their clothing which had become saturated with their own excreta. They lay on the hard floor with their heads to the wall. A five gallon can was placed in the middle of the room to be used as a latrine. The can was unnecessary, The men did not have the strength to reach it. There was little or no water to clean the floors and the stench was indescribable. The only part of their bodies that seemed to be alive were their eyes. They were fixed, mostly, on the five gallon can.
Saint Peter’s held over thirty patents, and every morning we had to take at least ten, sometimes twenty, who had died in the night, to the graveyard. They were victims not only of tropical diseases, mainly dysentery and malaria, but of malnutrition as well. Starvation was becoming a critical concern. We felt the Japanese intended to let us all die, and thus settle of the problem of caring for their prisoners-of-war. They had to account to no one. They could beat us to death, or starve us to death, and it didn’t matter, even to their superior and high ranking officers.
On June 2, 1942, Japanese soldiers suddenly charged through camp, kicking and butting everyone with rifles, yelling and shouting, ordering us to break camp. We didn’t know at first if we were to be moved to a new location or exterminated once and for all.
The guards then force marched us to the railroad junction, where we were herded and jammed into freight cars. The train moved slowly, and through openings in the bars we saw Filipinos in the barrios, lining the track, heads bowed, their hand cupped in prayers. We had to stop often, and when we did, Filipinos did their best to toss food to us. The guards’ rifle butts stopped us from reaching out. Little food got to us but I will never lose my love and admiration for the Filipino people for how hard they tried to help us. Their loyalty to the American soldiers and the United States never faltered.
The rumor spread that we were going to a camp in Cabanatuan farther to the north. Any camp had to be better than Camp O’Donnell. As I sat jammed in the freight car, pushed far to the rear with my back against the wall, I thought about another move I had once made-when I was a small boy.
I could see it all so clearly. Mama announced one day that we were moving. It was that simple, we were moving. She shooed us out into the street, all seven of us, excluding the baby. The van arrived and the movers began carrying out our furniture and belongings packed in boxes.
Our old home was located on Powell Street in the North Beach District of San Francisco. In a frenzy of excitement, we children stood in the street screaming, hopping up and down, pushing one another with excitement. Attracted by our antics, all the boys and girls on the block had swarmed around to witness our departure.
Suddenly a Model T Ford zoomed around the corner, bounced along the cobblestones, and came to rest at the curb. And who could it be to step out but Papa. As I sat in the dark in that frightfully crowded freight car, rumbling through Filipino countryside to an uncertain destination, I could clearly visualize Papa that day as he had opened the door and stepped out like a conquering hero. The ovation we gave him would have pleased Caesar entering the Coliseum in his chariot.
It almost seemed that I was there and that it was happening all over again. Mama and the baby took seats in the front seat of the Model T while the other seven kids and I crammed into the back. Papa drove us past the marina and through the Presidio to avoid traffic. As we rumbled down the streets of San Francisco, people topped to stare; some shook their heads; others waved gleefully. We left the Presidio, tore down the Arguello Street Hill and, as we neared the bottom, a sharp report rang out and the Ford began to shake violently. Papa didn’t slow down. He informed us it was only a flat tire and it was useless to stop and change it since we had only a few blocks to go to our new home.
Clanking loudly and bouncing up and down, the Model T and its jolly passengers limped up to its destination. Papa opened the doors and we scrambled out onto the sidewalk. Looking up and down the street, I was amazed to see the houses were jammed together-rowhouses they were-and that all the roofs were sharply pointed. Before us stood a large two-story home. What happy memories the very thought of that old house brought to my mind! Unbeknown to us, Papa had built our living quarters in the basement, with bedrooms above.
The heat in the freight car became unbearable. San Francisco was never this hot, I thought. I remembered now, how during the holidays, Nonno and Nonna, our grandfather and grandmother, would spend a few days with us. Nonno was eighty years old at the time. He had a bushy blond mustache and blue eyes. As a young man he had fished in the Mediterranean Sea and served in the Italian army. When he and Papa arrived in San Francisco, they fished the waters of the bay. One year they went to Alaska and spent the season fishing for salmon, where Nonna’s catch for that particular season was the highest ever caught. His first name was Gaetano and as he was the first man from his community in Sicily to come to America. He was called Gaetano-Americana. At eighty years of age, he loved to fence with me. I was then about six years old. Brandishing yardsticks, we would cross swords and Nonno would have his hands full as I darted in and out between his legs.
Nonno was also a wonderful storyteller. I remember so well those stories. Every evening we would sit around the stove. With a twinkle in his eye and a twist of his moustache, he’d tell a story in his fine Italian. Two of his favorites were “The Count of Monte Cristo” and “AliBaba and the Forty Thieves.” He also related many humorous stories that would hold us spellbound at first and then send us into hysterics.
Memories, how they can keep us alive. Our life in the basement had been a happy one, and it was these pleasant thoughts that came back to me aboard the prison train. Throughout the time in prison my greatest force of resistance was my mother’s image, which always appeared to me when I was ill with fever or near death. She had been born in Italy and had not had one day of schooling. She could not speak English; we learned to converse in Italian. She died when I was seventeen. She had a simple childlike faith and a great love for her family.
Beautiful thoughts came interrupted with reality. A prisoner began pounding his head against the side of the rail car, shouting as he did, demanding to know when the war would end. We had no news, no word from the outside world. All we had were rumors, and more rumors. In one month we had left over 1,500 dead at Camp O’Donnell.