THE YOUNGEST PRISONER IN CAMP
In the camp Cabanatuan there was a young boy who was always cold, even when the sun was shining. He was no more than seventeen and had obviously falsified his age to get into the service.
When the boy first appeared in camp, he had very little clothing and he walked around in the nude. Someone felt sorry for him and gave him a heavy woolen army coat that hung to the ground. He wore it day and night, even when the sun was shinning its hottest. We called him Yardbird, and there wasn’t anyone who didn’t like him. But the poor kid lacked stamina, and the will to continue. We found Yardbird dead one morning, wrapped in his army coat. Even the doctors didn’t know why he had died. They say you can’t die of fear, and that home sickness doesn’t kill you, but I think they’re wrong. The boy must have missed his family. We sadly carried him out to the graveyard. Always when we buried our dead, we put them to rest without one stitch of clothing. We buried the boy in his overcoat, and it was the first time no one objected. I thought often about that boy throughout my stay in prison. Why did the Japanese have to take his life away from him? Why do the young have to die for someone else’s crimes?
Beriberi also took its toll. It was a common malnutrition disease caused when rice is a major portion of anyone’s diet. Beriberi results from a deficiency of thiamine and minerals and in extreme cases can lead to a gradual degeneration of the nerves and even heart failure. The symptoms are an overabundance of fluid in the tissues.
Before the 1800s almost half the sailors of the British and American navies were likely to develop beriberi and many died of it. It was the Japanese who found the cure for beriberi when in 1870 they began adding fish, meat and vegetables to their regular diet, but in spite of this knowledge they did nothing to alleviate beriberi among the prisoners at camp Cabanatuan.
One method we used to check to see if we had beriberi was to push the flesh in our leg inward with the thumb. If an indentation occurred and the flesh remained indented, fluids were present, and we knew we had a form of beriberi. There were many men with advanced cases of the disease scattered around camp. I stopped to talk to one man who sat on the edge of his sleeping pallet. His legs were swollen and his abdomen was so distended that it rested on his thighs. His scrotum was the size of a volleyball. He sat there naked, unable to avoid the filth around him or move or help himself. I wanted to help him but here was nothing I could do. A couple vitamin B capsules or a little meat would have cured him.
The pain caused by beriberi can be excruciating. It affects lower extremities. The men who suffered the most complained about the pain in their feet being unbearable. Some of them could barely walk, and others, who were unable to walk, sat holding their toes all day and most of the night. Sleep was almost impossible for them.
Every other type of tropical disease was found in some form or another in camp. Many men developed ulcers in their intestines; some developed ulcers in their eyes from lack of vitamin A.
Another common malady was ‘jungle rot.” It was dreadful. The inflicted had open sores, some the size of the palms of their hands, that would not heal. The few ointments we had were not effective since the underlying problem with jungle rot was not the lack of vitamins but Under The Rising Sun that of malnutrition, exposure and dysentery. The latter kept our bodies in extremely poor physical condition and susceptible to the rot.
Men with red hair and fair skin suffered the most. They were more vulnerable to skin disorders since they couldn’t stand the bright sun on their bodies. And there was no escaping the sun when prisoners had to go on work details.
Many men became victims of their own attitudes, which were reflected in their behavior. They didn’t seem to have the will to live, so they lay idly in their bunks day and night. After they had lain for a few weeks with no exercise and with their knees flexed, what muscle they had left became so stiff that they were unable to straighten their legs. They lost their appetites, refused to eat, and in a short time they became racks of bones and died.
We built latrines all around the camp. These were long, narrow, deep ditches covered with benchlike structures that had holes in the top similar to the old outhouses. The benches were not enclosed, but open to the weather. Some had six holes; others had twelve. They were constantly in use day and night. We also had thousands of little red ants that were a nuisance around the camp. They were extremely antagonistic and their bite was painful.
One night at the height of one of my many bouts with dysentery, severe cramps hit me and I rushed outside the barracks and headed for the latrine. The moon was full and I could see several men already sitting on one end of a twelve-holder. I saw little chance for privacy so I ran down to the hole that was farthest from the men already seated. No one was sitting there. Pulling down my shorts, I quickly sat down and let go.
Immediately I came out of the hole like a rocket headed for the moon. I must have leaped several feet in the air, screaming at the top of my lungs. I had sat on a swarm of little ants. They had immediately attacked my buttocks and genitals and were biting me severely. My
screams awoke the camp. Men came running out of their barracks to see me jumping around in circles in the moonlight, slapping at my bottom, like someone who had stepped on hot coals. At first they thought I must have flipped my lid, had gone mad. When they did learn what had happened, there was nothing anyone could do. It took me about ten minutes to pluck the ants from my body. I had to make several more trips to the latrine that night, but I didn’t mind giving up my privacy to avoid the red ants.
The Japanese never interfered with our religious worship. We had a devoted group of chaplains in camp and they did everything possible to help the men with their problems. Religious services were conducted daily and many prisoners who were able attended. Altars of the various denominations were placed around the camp. The Catholic altar was set up near one of the latrines, and as a result, I was able to attend mass sitting in the latrine. It was to say the least convenient. The location of the altar made it possible not only for me but for any prisoner with dysentery to attend the service. We had the choice of sitting with the group at the altar or on the nearby twelve-holer. Sacrilegious? Maybe, but we were all sure that the Lord was making allowances for our condition.
Often when I attended mass my thoughts wandered back in time to the weekends I spent at Shelter Cove. Sunday morning was always church day, but Saturday nights was the time we would howl. How crystal clear these memories were to me in Camp Cabanatuan. Sometimes I felt I was there in the cove.
We had everything in Shelter Cove we wanted; we didn’t have to make the long, bumpy ride to Garberville, the closest town to the cove. The road was very narrow, mountainous and dusty. Sal Russo, the company manager, imported the action to us from town.
Sal would crank the phone and invite everyone in town he could think of to come to our dances Saturday night. The International No. 3 sailed up from Frisco once a week, bringing groceries, meat, fruits, and usually a barrel of wine for our Saturday night parties. This was always a happy event and everyone went to the dock to meet and unload the drag boat.
Our dance orchestra consisted of Mac MacArthur on the violin, Sal Russo strumming the guitar, Salvatore Pizzimenti playing the mandolin and my brother, Tony, squeezing the accordion. We danced to “Over the Waves,” dozens of Italian waltzes and endless marches. What fun we had! The dancing lasted until at least two o’clock in the morning. There were many sore, thumping heads in church Sunday mornings.