FROM CABANATUAN TO BILIBID PRISON
Manila’s Bilibid had been a civilian prison long before the Japanese invaded the islands. A high concrete wall surrounded the old prison, and the buildings inside were arranged around a square. A few of the buildings had been used as sleeping quarters for the guards, while others provided work places for the prisoners. There were windows but no glass remained; the openings had been nailed shut with boards.
In the middle of the prison was an outdoor courtyard. On one side was a two-story building that appeared to have been used for administration. Guards herded us into the courtyard and assigned us to our quarters. A few prisoners were assigned to individual bunks. I was a lucky one.
A number of U.S. Navy men had been interned in Bilibid since their capture three years before and were still there when we arrived. Many of these seamen were in the Philippines before the war and had experience in dealing with Asians. We called them old Asian hands. I met one chief petty officer who, I was told, knew the ropes and had outwitted many a Japanese soldier. He was a corpsman and he often treated men who had contracted venereal disease.
VD was not a real problem in the American army if treated properly. If a soldier contracted the disease, he was sent to the hospital where he received treatment and was then released. He was not necessarily chastised. By contrast, if a Japanese soldier was caught with the infection, he was beaten unmercifully before he was treated. As a result, Japanese soldiers at Bilibid tried to treat themselves before they were caught. Sulfathiazole was in great demand for the treatment of gonorrhea. The drug came in the form of pills with the letter “W” engraved on each tablet indicating that the manufacturer was the Winthrop Drug Company. The navy chief had become quite proficient in inscribing fake pills with whatever letters were desired. The fake VD pills were made from plaster of Paris and were inscribed with the letter “W”. These were sold to the Japanese who wanted to treat themselves rather than take a beating. The chief and his cronies developed a thriving business, trading their plaster of Paris for privileges and sacks of rice and sugar.
As we stood by waiting for a boat to transfer us to Japan, U.S. Air Force dive bombers pounded the waterfront day after day. From inside the prison we watched the air raids as planes flew above the city, and we could see the anti-aircraft barrages sent up by the Japanese. Frequently we caught glimpses of air battles between American and Japanese fighter planes.
I was working in the kitchen one day when a dogfight took place directly over our heads. We could see that one plane was hit; smoke poured from its fuselage as it began to spin and fall toward earth. We held our breaths. We couldn’t tell if it were American or Japanese. As it neared the ground, the insignia of the Rising Sun became visible to everyone, including the guards. They saw us looking at the falling plane and immediately began hitting us as if we were to blame for what happened. It was one beating we didn’t mind.
The day for our transfer to Japan finally came. A troop ship was brought in under the cover of darkness and waited in the harbor. Both Japanese and American administrative officers and men worked the night through compiling lists of those who would leave. Mostly officers were on the transfer roster, and that included just about every officer in our company. Some 250 men who were too weak to be moved were to be left behind with a skeleton crew of medics to take care of them. I was one of those chosen to remain behind. I was dumbfounded. Why me, I protested, but to no avail. I desperately wanted to go with the rest of the prisoners.
The next morning the officers and men lined up to leave, and I rushed among them, shaking the hands of my friends and wishing them good luck. They looked somber, knowing that American planes flew overhead daily. Many felt that they would never reach Japan. It was a premonition they had.
Just as the men were about to be marched out the gate, guards came down the line, recognized one of the prisoners and pulled him from the line. “He is Swiss,” I heard someone say. The Japanese were acknowledging that Swiss nationals were not involved in the war. It took them three years to find out.
I watched the prisoners leave, nearly 1,800 men, many who were my friends. We had come this far together and now they were gone. I then went back behind the walls to attend to the sick. I had to keep busy.
The next day the tragic news reached us in prison that the ship carrying our men had been sunk by American planes; there were few survivors. This we found hard to believe. We knew that according to international law, a ship carrying prisoners of war in a battle zone was to be clearly marked as a neutral ship. It was reported that the Japanese had failed to mark the vessel as a prisoner of war ship. The Japanese confirmed the fact a few days later. I was sick at heart at the loss of so many of my friends. They had survived more than three years of misery, starvation and torture only to die when victory was so close at hand.
The 250 men left behind in Bilibid were starving and in very bad condition. As ill as they were, their survival depended upon finding whatever food they could to eat. They looked so pathetic scavenging for things to eat. A few men found the location where the kitchen staff threw~ out their garbage, and here they rummaged for scraps. These dreadfully sick men would sit in the middle of the garbage heap, garbage that stunk from rot and decay, and turn over every scrap, stuffing into their mouths everything and anything that appeared to be edible. We knew that much of the garbage was contaminated, but there was little we could do to get the men to stop eating it.
One man, because of the coloration of his skin stood out from all the others. He was very pale and ashen, ‘like a telephone book, and he would not listen to anyone who tried to discourage him from eating garbage. After a few days I saw them carry his body to the graveyard, a victim of food poisoning as well as malnutrition.
After the man’s death, a memorandum was sent to all ward surgeons and building leaders instructing them that patients had been seen eating garbage that had been designated for the pigs, and that the garbage could cause a fatal type of food poisoning. The memorandum further stated that all personnel were forbidden from handling as well as eating garbage at any time. What the memorandum didn’t say was that starving men don’t always hear. Many continued to sit on the garbage heap and eat poisoned food.
To discourage anyone from trying to escape from Bilibid, a high-powered electrical wire had been placed on the top of the high concrete wall that surrounded the prison. At one point the wall ran close to Japanese headquarters where some soldiers lived. Windows with steel bars faced the wall. One night we were awakened to a loud scream, and the next morning we learned the cause. Apparently during the night a Japanese soldier had to urinate and rather than go downstairs to the latrine he decided to relieve himself out the window. As his urine touched the wire, it conducted electricity to his body, killing him instantly. He never knew what hit him. He may have been our enemy but for once we couldn’t help feeling a strange sort of pity. What a way to die!
American planes continued to bomb the waterfront daily. We were thrilled and excited whenever our planes appeared. We spent hours in the open courtyard turning over rumors about how the war was going, and, of course, trying to figure out what the Japanese would eventually do with us. We even considered that the end might come when an American bomb landed in the prison.
One night we were awakened by the sound of trucks entering the compound. They did not sound like Japanese vehicles. We then heard loud voices and a much shouting. The voices were not all Japanese. We heard American voices, men’s voices, and then, unbelievably, we heard American women and the voices of children. These were the first voices of women and children we had heard in three years! We couldn’t sleep the rest of the night, wondering what was going on.
The next morning we learned the voices were those of civilian prisoners who had been brought in from a camp nearby and were now being housed in the two-story administration building. Then we saw them, women and children, standing on the steps. Although we were forbidden to go neat them, it didn’t take us long to get communications started.
One of our men found a piece of board and scribbled a message on it with a hunk of plaster. He held it up so that the new inmates could read it. Our communication system was crude but it worked. While messages were being exchanged, men were positioned around the prison to alert us if guards were in the vicinity. Information about loved ones who had not seen each other for three years was passed back and forth for several days.
During our stay at Cabanatuan, the Japanese had steadfastly refused our medical staff permission to perform autopsies on our dead soldiers.
At Bilibid, however, they finally relented. Shortly after permission was granted, I was assigned as the clean• up man in the autopsy room. Several autopsies involving amoebic dysentery were performed exposing perforated intestines. On one occasion, shortly after the body of a prisoner had been opened and examined, the remains were placed in a sack for burial. As the Japanese detail came to bury him, the soldier in charge, to my amazement, commanded the other soldiers to come to attention. They then saluted the dead man. I knew at that moment that something was up. This was totally out of character for Japanese soldiers. And I had been right. We learned that same day that the American army had landed at Lingayen Gulf and was on its way to Manila. Obviously, the Japanese soldier in charge of the burial detail was suddenly concerned about his own future. Not all Japanese soldiers were prepared to die for their emperor.
Rumors were flying everywhere and we were certain an invasion was imminent, but when, and where? We didn’t know what to expect. All we could do was listen to the rumors, and wait.
One evening just before dark, we were in the courtyard when we were startled by the roar of motor vehicles. A machine gun opened fire and guns from the street returned fire. Although we were protected by a high concrete wall, we still ran for cover. We were unable to determine what was what was going on, but the firing continued all night long.
We had very little sleep that night and everyone was up early the next morning, and greatly excited. We could see from the cracks between the boards in our windows that American tanks had surrounded the prison during the night and were continuing to press the battle that morning.