FOOD RELIEF THAT NEVER CAME
Filipino agencies repeatedly attempted to bring food to our camp but were unsuccessful. We frequently saw trucks loaded with supplies turned away from our gates. No Red Cross or international representatives were allowed to enter the camp. We figured the Japanese did not want to be embarrassed by their inability to account for the condition of the prisoners and the many thousands of people who had died of disease and starvation. This attitude continued until shortly before Christmas, 1943, when they allowed the first Red Cross food packages into camp.
This was our first sign of hope. One cannot adequately describe the impact it had on our lives. The boxes contained cans of corned beef and cheese, bars of chocolate, packages of dried fruits, packs of vitamins• everything we needed so badly and which we had been without for so long. We didn’t immediately tear everything open as one might suspect, but instead we held the items in our hands, turning them over and over, tears streaming down our cheeks.
Aside from food and vitamins, some boxes contained much needed hospital and medical supplies. Packed in Red Cross boxes were Atabrine, quinine and sulfa drugs. We now had the tools to help fight tropical diseases. Within a few weeks we could see the difference; the death toll was reduced dramatically, almost overnight.
We carefully rationed the food and placed a supply of drugs on shelves in each building. One morning we found three men lying unconscious on the ground outside their barracks. They had taken a drug overdose. For three days they were left to lay there, and almost everyone in camp filed by to take a look. The drugs were quickly removed from the buildings and placed in the hospital ward under guard.
A few months after the arrival of the Red Cross packages we received our first packages from home. Prisoners cried openly as they opened boxes addressed to them. Our first thoughts were that our families must have known all along that we were still alive. Most of us tried to find places where we could be alone with our boxes, knowing that they had been packed by members of our family or by our girlfriends.
For those few brief moments it were as though our families and loved ones were with us. I found a secluded spot and slowly opened my box. I had to smile, for obviously my family wanted me to be the best dressed man in camp. They hadn’t realized that my greatest need was for food. Inside the box, neatly folded, was a pair of pants, a shirt, some underwear, a tooth brush, a tube of toothpaste and a container of vitamins, but no food.
Naturally, men who worked in the kitchen had more access to food, so I asked for and got a job on the breakfast shift. Our crew had to get up at two o’clock in the morning to start the fires and boil the rice. We stirred the rice with large paddles until it became a soupy mixture which we called lugao, the Filipino name for porridge. It was moldy in taste and loaded with weevils and grubs. After the lugao was served early each morning, I usually went back to the barracks and tried to get some sleep.
Sometimes instead of sleeping I tried to picture Shelter Cove. The best thoughts were of those summers with the old gang in which we had such fun. I relived those moments over and over.
Many stockholders in the San Francisco International Fish company sent their sons to help with the fishing during the summer. The Italians were well represented, and like the permanent staff at the cove I could remember every one of their names laying in my bunk-Peter Tarantino, Frank and Peter Alioto, Tom and Frank Balestrieri, Andrew Machi, and my brother Babe. All us were about the same age. As the summer wore on, we developed a playful competition between us boys and the adults. The adults were just as mischievous as the boys, if not worse. They slipped garter snakes into our beds, and we threw eggs at them and put burlap sacks in their chimneys to make them smoke. It was all in good fun with each trying to outdo the other’s pranks. The furthest thought from our minds was war in the Pacific.
At the end of that season, as we were getting ready to go back to school, a crowd gathered on the dock to say farewell to us. We felt so proud as we began to board the boat, and then the eggs started to fly. The crew who were still on shore had decided to give us an egg bath as we boarded. Not to be outdone, the captain ran into the galley and gathered up all his eggs and began flinging them at the crew on shore. The battle didn’t stop until the boat pulled away from the dock.
I remembered how sad it was when the season came to an end. Departing fishing boats each gave three blasts of their whistles, meaning “Good-bye,” “Good Luck” and “God Bless You.” What happy memories: days of growing up, working, and enjoying the company good friends. I longed for those days again; I longed for Shelter Cove; I felt that no other place in the world could provide as beautiful a setting and atmosphere for a group of city boys as Shelter Cove. Certainly Cabanatuan could not. Such wonderful thoughts were all I needed.
I was having these pleasant thoughts one morning when I went to my bunk after finishing kitchen duty and laid down. I don’t remember the exact day it was, but I do remember the month and the year. Until my dying day I shall never forget that moment.