INMATES TO THE LAST
The rainy season posed a serious problem for burying our dead. The drainage was very poor and some bodies became exposed each time it rained. It was difficult, if not impossible, to cover them when the earth had turned into mud. Often we could hear dogs howling at night, and some of us were convinced that these wild animals were eating our dead.
A new patient came to the ward one day with an unusually large amount of clothing. He had several pairs of Khaki pants, a few shirts, three pairs of shoes and other bits and pieces. We didn’t know how he had acquired it all, but in a week’s time, everything he owned had disappeared. It was stolen during the night as he lay asleep.
During the man’s short stay in the ward, he developed a close friendship with another man who slept beside him. As I walked up and down the aisle, I noticed that they often rested with their heads on each other’s arms. They had apparently found solace in each other’s company. After just a few days in the ward, the man who had so much clothing died of unknown symptoms. His friend followed him two days later.
Homosexuality was not common in the camp. There were a few gay soldiers, but the weakened condition of the men held any sexual activity to a minimum. Nevertheless, it did exist. I remembered one incident involving a gay sergeant and a Japanese soldier. My barracks was next to a Japanese post and we had to bow or salute the guards as we walked past. This gay sergeant always make a bow that appeared to be curtsy and the Japanese soldiers were impressed with his manner. One day, as I happened to be in the barracks with a bout of malaria, I noticed the sergeant resting on the floor when a Japanese soldier entered and flashed some bills in front him. The sergeant and the Japanese left, and we suspected that was the start or their relationship.
Thievery was common and wide spread in the prison camp. There was no place to hide anything. Even as a man lay dying, whatever clothing he was wearing would disappear during the night. In the morning, the dead man would be naked, ready for the graveyard in the same condition he came into the world.
Scurvy, caused by the lack of vitamins, was a serious threat to everyone. We all suffered greatly from the disease. At times my tongue was so swollen I could hardly swallow. My gums bled and my teeth became loose and came near to falling out. Many men did lose their teeth.
The worst threat was diphtheria, and when it suddenly made its appearance in camp, we were really scared. We immediately erected a huge tent that could house a hundred men at a time. Here we isolated patients with the dreaded disease. It seemed to do little good. In no time at all the tent was filled with ailing men. We had no antitoxin or medication to fight the disease. As the number of dead began to mount, each man waited in fear that he would be the next to go.
Sleeping as close together as we had to in such confined quarters in the barracks, it was impossible not to ignore the man next to you. If you didn’t like your neighbor, you could move away providing you could find space somewhere else to lie down. You always moved if you thought the person next to you had a contagious disease. But moving from one place to another was no assurance you were better off.
I had one neighbor, a Dutchman, I came to like very much. We used to lie awake at night and talk about the future. He was very much interested in the delicatessen business, and so he spent much time telling me how he prepared different kinds of sausages and jars of pickles. Our talking about the future seemed to keep him, and me, from facing reality in Cabanatuan.
We had to sleep so close together that we often breathed in each other’s face during the night. One afternoon when I returned from the ward he was missing. I asked where he had gone, and was told he had contracted diphtheria and had been taken to the isolation tent.
I visited him a few days later. From a distance I tried to talk to him. He was unable to eat, and he motioned to me that he was having a hard time swallowing and breathing. We decided that if he were to survive he needed some kind of tube or straw to breathe through. A friend in surgery gave me a pipette, a glass tube used in a laboratory. I was so pleased that I could help my friend that I rushed back to the tent to give it to him. I was too late. I found him dead. I felt myself grow weak and I broke into a sweat. I knew I had been exposed to the same bug that caused his death. Yet somehow I was spared.