Learning to Survive
As the months passed, we learned ways to improve our diet. For instance, we began getting carabao soup once a week. We were rationed one carabao for the camp, for 50,000 men. We learned, however, that when the animal was slaughtered, the blood was discarded. What a waste! We then come up with the bright idea that the blood could be used. The next time a carabao was slaughtered, we collected the blood in our trusty five-gallon cans and then boiled it on the quan until it coagulated. We had no spices, nothing to mix with it, but we found when we spread it over our rice, it helped kill the sickening mildew flavor. And there’s no doubt, it had to be somewhat nourishing. After that first experiment, not one drop of the carabao blood was wasted.
Another important breakthrough for us was the development of hominy from corn. The little corn that we received for our labor was of such poor quality, and so hard to digest, that it usually gave us the runs. One prisoner from Alabama remembered his mother making hominy. He did his best to recall how she did it. The results weren’t the best southern hominy grits in the world, but it did improve the taste. And after we learned to make hominy, our diet improved tremendously. We no longer minded that the Japanese took the better grade of corn. Food value wise it made no difference.
They say that necessity is the mother of invention. Nowhere did it apply better than in prison camp. We threw nothing away, not even the corncobs after we removed the corn. The Japanese allowance of three or four squares of toilet paper per week was far from adequate, especially for a man suffering from dysentery. The corncobs, although rough and uncomfortable, supplemented the rationed toilet paper.
There was a secret black market operating in camp between prisoners with money and Japanese guards. Money was exchanged mainly for rice and other foodstuffs. One man I knew had made a deal with a Japanese guard who periodically dumped a sack of rice over the fence. The man then hid the rice in a container concealed within a table with a false bottom. The table at a glance appeared to be like all the other rustic tables around camp. It was an ingenuous contraption that took much skill to construct. The top was hinged and when it was raised there was the rice, sometimes a couple of kilos. So cleverly was it fashioned that the Japanese inspection parties that walked past noticed nothing unusual. The risk this man took was considerable but the rice he obtained-which was the same rice the Japanese kept for themselves-was clean, free of grubs and far superior to the rice they gave us.
Those who had money could purchase a canteen cup of rice from the owner. Most of the money went back to the Japanese supplier.
In time we also discovered that making rice flour was a simple matter. We soaked the rice in the water and then dried it in the sun. Once rice is dry, it becomes soft, and we could then roll it with a bottle to make flour. By mixing rice flour again with water, we could make hotcake batter which we cooked on the quan stove. No Log Cabin syrup, of course.
Sometime in 1943, the Japanese command began paying us for working on the farm. Our salary was about six centavos a month. After we began receiving pay for our work, the Japanese allowed a truck every now and then to enter the camp loaded with coconuts and bananas, and a little tobacco. Most of us could only afford to purchase a coconut or a banana or two but the opportunity to buy something extra was perhaps more psychologically beneficial than the little nourishment we received from whatever we bought.
Among prisoners’ most valuable possessions were empty sterile bandage cans. We called them our “butt cans,” and in these small containers each of us stored every shred of discarded cigarettes that we could find. Generally, every cigarette was totally smoked, down to the last grain of tobacco, making it almost impossible to find butts anywhere on the ground. But occasionally someone did toss away some remnants of a butt, especially passing Japanese officers, and these we searched for constantly. We walked around with our eyes glued to the ground. To get the most from the tobacco I found, I made a rough looking pipe from local hardwood. I smoked it occasionally, very occasionally, for tobacco was scarce and expensive to buy, even from friends.
Then came my sensational discovery!
It happened that the Japanese decided to let our officers play softball once a week in an adjoining field not used by the prisoners. One day, while talking to some friends and watching the softball game out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that several ball players were smoking as they played. I immediately thought about the butts. I gradually moved away from my friends, and at the same time continued to watch the game. A batter took a swing and sent the ball flying to the outfield where an outfielder, seeing it coming, flipped his almost whole cigarette to the ground and ran to catch the ball. I couldn’t believe it! I had discovered an area untouched by cigarette butt hunters.
The next day I did not work on the farm, and when the chance came, I casually strolled over to the playing field, by myself, and conducted a thorough search. There were no cigarette butts at home plate since the batter and catcher had been too busy to smoke, but behind the plate there were several butts. I went to check each base in the infield, and sure enough there were a few butts at each base. But it was the outfield that proved to be a bonanza. There were cigarette butts scattered everywhere.
I went back to the barracks with my butt can overflowing and one pocket almost filled. I made up my mind to keep my discovery a secret. For reasons no one could understand, I suddenly became vitally interested in ball games, nor could anyone understand why my butt can was never empty. I now had plenty of pipe tobacco.
Cabanatuan was located in the middle of a plain. The land was flat and extended as far as the eye could see. During the rainy season, violent storms struck our area with wind velocities of well over sixty miles per hour. As storms approached, we could look out across the plain and see a solid black wall of rain clouds rapidly advancing toward us.
If we were outside, we barely had enough time to snatch our belongings and make it to the barracks. The barracks were open on both ends and without doors or windows. An open space under our sleeping areas created an ideal wind tunnel. Gusts of wind accompanied by heavy rain tore through the building from end to end leaving everything soaked in its path. Lightning flashed and the thunder boomed like cannons. There is nothing that will equal a thunder storm in the tropics.
One night during such a violent storm, a prisoner got up and went to the doorway to view the lightning. I could see him standing there, the flashes of lightening silhouetting him in the door frame. Suddenly a bolt of lightning struck the doorway, and the man was electrocuted as he stood there. The next morning everyone went to silently examine the charred and burned doorway. Even Mother Nature was working against us.
We had a special area set aside in Cabanatuan that was really deplorable, but at the same time necessary. It was for unstable and insecure soldiers, those who might become violent or take their own lives. These men were stripped of all their clothes and kept in a guarded enclosed area in full view of everyone. Three or four times a day they were led to the latrines, tied together-with ropes around their waists, like dogs on a leash. Their antics were often abnormal and there was always the fear that they might commit suicide.
On one occasion, a man came to me and blurted out that he didn’t see why anyone should have to live under these conditions. As he spoke, he placed his forearm before my eyes and I observed a cut exposing an artery on his wrist. He was at the end of his line. To save his life I had no choice other than to recommend that he be put with the others. Another man in my barracks frequently fell into spells of laughter for no reason. He too had to be led away to join the unstable group.
One prisoner in my barracks had a Latin sounding name and when I questioned him about it, he told me he was Italian. He had been on Corregidor during the siege, and one day, after I befriended him, he waved me into a corner, and looking around suspiciously, said, ”You must swear you will tell no one.” Not knowing what else to say, I agreed. He then told me a tale that sent shivers up my spine.
It appeared that just before the surrender, an officer had commanded him to help bury a burlap sack, which, in due course, he discovered contained two heavy bars of gold. He surmised that the officer was killed and only he knew where the gold was buried. After the war he was going to be a very rich man. I had no idea why he was telling me this, unless he wished me to have the gold if something happened to him. Whatever it was, he was very disturbed and as a result had trouble sleeping at night. Day and night he planned how he would recover the gold. He never left the barracks; he just sat there and brooded about his secret.
One day when I returned from the farm my Italian friend was gone. I inquired what had happened to him, only to learn that he had been taken away. My first thought was that the Japanese had somehow discovered his secret. I then learned he had been relocated; he had been placed with the other misfits. He had never been on Corregidor as he claimed.
I had gained some experience in the physiotherapy clinic during my short stay at Sternberg General Hospital while in Manila. Based on this brief experience, I was now assigned to cover the wards and manipulate the arms and legs of patients who were bedridden. I walked around with a bottle of mineral oil from one bed to another. This work, the physical contact, the helping of others, the exercise, had much to do with my own well-being and perhaps even my own survival.
Through my work in the hospital I met endless people, each with his own problem. Some had strange things happen to them. There was a Navy chief who had contracted syphilis just before the surrender. The disease was in an advanced stage and had paralyzed his legs and affected his vocal chords. We had no medicine and there was nothing we could do for him, except comfort him. He spoke only two words, and these he used vociferously whenever he became frustrated or angry. They were “goddam” and “sonofabitch.”
The chief was a real career Navy man, with tattoos all over his body. Across his back was tattooed a dragon that extended from his shoulders to his waist. On his chest was a big cross with clouds in the background. His arms and legs were marked with various signs and figures.
When we first started to work with the chief, he was bed ridden and could only move his arms. With our help, he improved rapidly and soon we had him in a sitting position. His attitude was good and he had a great deal of courage. He made desperate attempts to walk, but he always fell over, and when he did the whole ward heard him as he called out, “Goddam, sonofabitch.” .
Through his persistence we had him walking within a few weeks, but he could not manipulate his left leg. He stepped with his right and dragged his left. We made a cane for him and he was doing very well. I lost track of him not long after that. It was so strange, how someone could be around one minute and the next they were gone, and you never knew what happened to them.