One year and two months after I had enlisted in the United States Army, and twenty days after our surrender to the Japanese, we arrived at the rail junction at San Fernando. From here many prisoners were taken by rail to Capas and then marched the final eight miles to our destination, Camp O’Donnell. There was not room on the train for everyone and some of us walked the whole distance. We had marched fifty-five miles on foot, for twenty days, and we left some 10,000 men behind, rotting by the roadside under a tropical sun. For every mile we walked, nearly 180 men lost their lives. Often on the march I wondered if my family had any idea what was happening to us? Did they know I was alive?
Camp O’Donnell wasn’t the haven we had hoped for. The place turned out to be a group of dismal, unfinished army buildings. As the men struggled in from the march, the living dead, they collapsed in heaps and lay huddled together on the wooden floors. Some crawled under the buildings and lay on the ground. The Japanese made no attempt to relieve our suffering or to organize the camp. Japanese soldiers, except the guards, stayed away from our area, fearful of contracting dysentery and other diseases from their infected prisoners of war. We were given no food or water until the next day.
We began to organize ourselves, the only way we could survive. We put together makeshift kitchens. The Japanese allowed two servings a day consisting of a small portion of boiled rice in the morning and another equally small portion of steamed rice in the evening. A faucet in I he middle of camp provided our water supply. Even our water supply was inadequate. Long lines formed to fill canteens.
During the night, the moans and cries for help were dreadful. Each morning we collected the dead from in and under the buildings. Bodies in twisted forms were placed on litters; it took four men to carry each litter on their shoulders to the graveyard. The dead were dumped in a hole dug the night before. Funeral processions were simple, maybe a few words, and usually took place in the morning.
Camp O’Donnell was infested with hordes of ugly green blow flies. They swarmed by the hundreds on the fecal matter in our latrines, and over the bodies of our dead. They became our curse. We fought them constantly as they attacked our open wounds and our food. We were aware of the deadly germs they carried and did everything possible to keep them away. Often that was impossible. When we received our rice rations, it was already swarming with flies. It was difficult to avoid getting flies into our mouths when we ate. Every spoonful of rice held in my right hand on its way to my mouth had to be accompanied by the frantic waving of my left hand to keep the flies away.
The presence of the green blow flies, as bad as it was, did not compare with the serious threat posed by anopheles, the malaria mosquito. There were very few blankets or mosquito nets available. Those prisoners without nets had no protection from dive-bombing forays at night. Nor did we have quinine or Atabrine to be used for the prevention or treatment of the disease.
Many men became stricken with cerebral malaria, the worst kind, and lacking the necessary medical treatment, died a most horrible death. Constantly throughout the night low moans came from their parched throats and their bodies shook incessantly as they lay naked in pools of their own excreta. We spent endless time trying to force water down their throats. But without quinine or Atabrine, the infected men seldom lasted more than three or four days. They died with white froth on their lips and their arms folded across their chests.
In one of the officers’ buildings, I remember seeing a man stretched out on the floor dying. The odor emitted from his body, while he was still alive, was wretched. His flesh was a yellow ashen color. We watched him die, and within fifteen minutes after his death, the smell permeated the entire area. Everyone shouted for his immediate removal. We didn’t wait until morning; he was buried in a hurry.
I met one man who, after getting to know him, became a good friend. We had a lot in common and during the day we spent our idle time together talking about and comparing our lives back home. At night we all slept jammed together on the floor, and he always slept next to me. I enjoyed our talks, for I always fell asleep with pleasant thoughts of home on my mind. One morning I awoke to find my head resting on his shoulder. I tried to awaken him only to find that he had died silently and peacefully during the night. No more conversations, no more words. He was dead, gone. After that experience, I avoided sleeping in areas where the men were packed together on the floor.
I remember another night in particular. The monsoons had begun and it was raining heavily. Lightning flashed across the sky and thunder shook the buildings. Wanting to get away from the others, I crawled out on a porch that was partially roofed and squeezing myself against the wall, tried to sleep. I began imagining things. ne must wonder what a man’s thoughts are at a time like this. Sometimes a bit crazy. That time I pictured myself as a mongrel dog back home in San Francisco, with his I ail between his legs, sneaking around in the rain looking for a place to lie down.
I remember too when I had welcomed rain and bad weather back home. That was at Shelter Cove where I worked during the summer months. When the weather made fishing impossible and there was no tanbark to process, we roamed the Shelter Cove Ranch on horseback. Charles and Dorothy East, who operated the ranch for Dorothy’s father, William Notley, let us use their horses. We frequently had barnyard rodeos. These were exciting. We took turns trying to ride untamed yearling bulls, while the idle fishing crews and other bystanders enjoyed our attempts to stay on the young bull’s bucking backs.
But the monsoon rains were never welcome in prison camp. I had always thought that when men were caught in a life-and-death struggle such as this they would band together to help each other. I found that under the circumstances as they existed at Camp O’Donnell it was just the opposite. The men, to a great extent, became selfish and animalistic. For example, if a man had money, he could buy a little medicine, which might possibly save his life. On the other hand, if a dying man had no money, no matter how much he pleaded, the black marketeer with medicine would walk past him and pay no attention to his condition.
We came to recognize “blackouts” as a serious symptom of various deadly diseases that affected the camp. Many victims of these blackouts swayed back and forth on their feet, and sometimes bounced up and down like rubber balls. As their knees began to buckle, they would start to fall, but then before they hit the ground, they were somehow able to suddenly bounce up again. It was sad to see and yet almost comical to watch.
My first series of blackouts began one day after attacks of both malaria and dysentery had weakened me. I thought death was near and that I would follow the others who had died before me. If I did, I decided I would leave this world in a blaze of glory. I would spend the rest of my days providing all possible help to those who were worse off than I was. I spent all my time consoling the dying and making them more comfortable. Looking back on this time, I now know that the efforts I put forth for others sustained me throughout my interment as a prisoner of war. If I had lain down all day, like many had done, and felt sorry for myself, I would not have survived. Keeping busy and keeping my mind occupied on things other than dying was my secret.