DOWN ON THE FARM
As time passed, we managed to organize our camp much better than it was when we first arrived. The Japanese high command decided to allow us to farm some land near camp. For our labor we would get a small portion of what we grew. A little something was better than nothing.
Each morning a large group of physically able men lined up for roll call and then marched to the farm, always closely guarded by soldiers carrying rifles with fixed bayonets.
We spent our days hoeing, planting, moving dirt, and fertilizing the plants with human excrements from the latrines. In time we grew and harvested okra, camote, corn, cabbage, rice and cassava. Almost all the produce went to feed the Japanese army. We actually were allowed to keep very little of what we grew.
Pig weed had taken over the farm and we were kept busy trying to get rid of it. The weed is a nuisance and grows wild in the Philippines, and it has little or no food value. However, if guards were agreeable, we carried armloads of the stuff in to the camp where we boiled it in tin cans at the quan stove. We ate until we were bloated.
Contrary to what one might think, the farm was not a pleasant place to work. We were constantly surrounded by stern guards, one of whom was always the overseer. Overseers were picked for their meanness. Farm guards were exceptionally cruel and gave orders which were always accompanied by kicks and blows from pickax handles. Without except, when they shouted out an order, a kick followed. It was expected.
It didn’t take long for us to choose appropriate names for each guard. Donald Duck was a neurotic with a bad temper, just like the cartoon character when things didn’t go his way. He would rave and rant at us in Japanese and vent his frustrations by running up and down our line striking mercilessly whoever was nearest with a shovel or anything that was within reach. He even sounded just like Donald Duck.
Then there was Charlie Chaplin. His behavior toward us was similar to Donald Duck’s except that his actions were not accompanied by raving or ranting. Charlie’s beatings were given in silence, just as Chaplin had performed in the silent movies. Except Chaplin’s antics were funny; his were not.
One of the Seven Dwarfs from Snow White was also represented. He was Smiley. He appeared to be in good-humored all the time, with a happy, pleasant smile on his face. Only it wasn’t a smile! It was his natural expression that served to cover up his mean disposition. His favorite way of venting his frustrations was to find any excuse he could to beat someone with a pickax handle. He loved to beat up prisoners for the fun of it. There were many instances when we had to carry men back to the barracks on stretchers after he had worked them over. His superiors did nothing to stop him. They thought it was humorous.
One afternoon I was caught haplessly in Donald Duck’s wrath. We were planting cabbages under his supervision and as we were bent over, putting the small plants into the ground, Donald came running toward me yelling and screaming at the top of his lungs. I knew for some unknown reason I was in trouble and quickly came to attention. Lucky for me there were no farm tools within his reach. He came up and struck me with both his fists, knocking me to the ground. I bounced up, and again he knocked me to the ground. Somehow, with all the effort I could muster, I continued to get back on my feet after every blow. He must have been hurting himself for he finally gave up in disgust and walked away. It was then I noticed a guard had been standing by with a fixed bayonet, waiting for me to do something. Fortunately I hadn’t. That night I had a difficult time sleeping with my bruised and battered body.
One man who knew Japanese better than most of us came up to me that night as I lay in pain and explained that Donald Duck had complained that I was planting the cabbages one inch too deep in the holes. “Be more careful next time,” he said. His words weren’t much of a comfort.
Fertilizing the fields on the farm was not very popular among the men, for obvious reasons. We were ordered to dip the human excreta out of the latrines and load it into fifty-gallon gas drums. Each drum was then suspended on two poles which four men carried out to the farm where the contents were scattered over the fields. Most of us had no shoes so it was necessary to walk barefoot over the newly fertilized ground. The smell from the fields was abominable. As the result of fertilizing with human waste, everything grown on the farm had to be cooked before it could be eaten. No farm worker ever dared eat raw vegetables.
When we first came to the prison camp at Cabanatuan, water had been scarce. As storage was increased, our water supply became more and more adequate and we could even shower regularly. However, not all the men bathed for various reasons. Some were too weak to even attempt it, while others had lost their spirit and didn’t care whether they were clean or not. Dirt and filth didn’t seem to bother them.
Some of us were proud possessors of five-gallon cans which we cherished dearly. We warmed our bath water by filling our cans in the morning and putting them where they would be exposed to the hot sun all day. By late afternoon, when we came back from the farm, the water was warm and soothing to our dirty bodies. We learned to organize our baths efficiently to make the best use of the warm water. It became a precise ritual. Using a canteen cup as a dipper, a bather would slowly pour the first cup over his head and let the water run down his body. The next cup he would pour over the left shoulder with the left arm stiffened against the body. The third cup was poured over the right shoulder with the right arm stiff against the body. There was a cup of water for the chest, one for the back, and then one for the right and one for the left hip. Once we were wet, we rubbed our body vigorously. Then we rinsed off our bodies with the same procedure, starting with the head, ending with the hips. We did all this without soap. The vigorous rubbing got much of the dirt from our bodies. And it certainly made us feel much better. We looked forward to our evening baths.