Cabanatuan, New Hell Camp
On June 2, 1942, we arrived at Camp Cabanatuan, a prison of war camp for both Filipinos and Americans. What we hoped for the better turned out for the worse. Although it was much larger and had more buildings than Camp O’Donnell, it lacked even the basic essentials. There were no kitchens nor even latrines. And it was completely disorganized. The Japanese simply dumped us inside the gates and turned away. Even their guards failed to provide proper security.
A few men took advantage of the weak security. They had the nerve to sneak out of the camp at night and buy food from the Filipinos. They did this not once but several times. One night, however, Japanese guards caught them sneaking back into the camp. They were taken to headquarters, tied to posts, and beaten intermittently over the next few days. Finally, one morning we were all called out and told to line up. Soon a squad of Japanese soldiers appeared, leading the men. The prisoners with their hands tied behind their backs were lined up before us. A firing squad took its position. An officer gave the order and a volley of shots tore through their bodies. The officer then fired his pistol into each body to make sure every man was dead.
After this incident, Japanese headquarters announced that all prisoners of war would be organized into groups of ten. Every man was assigned to one of these groups. If one man of the group escaped, the other nine would be shot. If a group of ten escaped, nine other groups would face death. There were very few who tried to escape, knowing that they would endanger the lives of other men.
During the first days at Cabanatuan, the food served us was wretched. It came out of poorly equipped makeshift kitchens, was badly prepared and barely provided enough calories to keep us alive. Occasionally we did have a half canteen of greens, but very little meat. Once a week we each had a ladle of carabao soup, served from five gallon cans. If we were lucky, we might get a piece of meat the size of our fingernail with our soup. If the server had a friend in the line and served him from the bottom of the can, his friend would get several pieces of meat. Such favoritism led to arguments and always ended with bad feelings among the prisoners.
Rice that had a strong moldy taste was our main dish, and often our only dish. We had boiled rice in the morning and steamed rice in the evening. It came mixed with bits of rocks, sand, weevils, grubs and rat filth. It was so unclean it was hard to distinguish between a grain of rice and a grub. Most of us felt that it was useless to try to separate the rice from the grubs. We often kidded each other that the weevils and grubs were loaded with protein.
I think we wanted to believe that.
One man in my building was a chronic complainer about the food. He took issue with the moldy taste of the rice, the grubs and the weevils. According to him, the food was not fit for pigs. We all agreed with him, but what could we do? Complaining wouldn’t help. We encouraged the man who complained to eat his food, just to survive. He refused to listen to our pleas. Eventually he lost his appetite, contracted dysentery, and was moved to another building.
About a month later, I was sent to the same building to help with the sick. There on a nearby bunk was the complainer, the man who wouldn’t eat. His eyes were sunken deep in their sockets and his face was distorted. He was lying on his side with his legs bent at the knees in a fixed position, and his back curved outward. He had lain in that position for so long that his back and his knees had become stiff. It was impossible to get him into a flat position. We gently tried to straighten his legs and back, but the pain was so great we discontinued our efforts. In a few days he was dead. He was nothing but a rack of bones covered with skin. This was one of the worst cases of malnutrition that I encountered during my stay in camp.
Another man, whose name was Wolfe, we called the Human Sump. At chow time he would wander around looking for men who were too sick to eat. The grubs, weevils, rat filth, the moldy taste in the rice, all this had no effect on his appetite. He would plead with sick men to give him their ration of rice. This man was well known and recognized by everyone as he made his daily appearance around the camp. His stomach was swollen, partly from all the garbage he ate, and partly from malnutrition. He too eventually died.
As time went by, we organized our prison life more efficiently. We set aside a hospital area of thirty-three large army barracks capable of holding approximately 100 men per building. These barracks were numbered 0 to 32. Ward 0 was the death ward. We segregated the other buildings according to the different malnutrition-related diseases.
The buildings were similar in size, shape and even appearance to Pullman cars. They were long with a walkway down the middle. The areas on each side of the walkway were constructed of bamboo slats. You could see the ground through the openings where the slats didn’t come together. Ladders led to an upper deck with a floor also made of bamboo slats. There were no separate rooms and the men slept close together, an equal number on each deck.
The month of June came bringing the monsoons, and monsoons in the tropics mean rains. Rain fell in torrents, day and night, unrelentingly. They were accompanied by fierce flashes of lightning and loud peals of thunder. There was no glass in the windows and those near the openings got soaked during the night as they slept.
My first day as a medic assigned to Ward 1 was most disconcerting. It was pouring down rain in sheets, and as I approached the building to go on duty, a couple men were standing in the rain, naked and shivering violently. I found other men in the nude under the building. I asked them angrily what they were doing out in the rain. They told me that they had been thrown out of the building because they had an attack of dysentery and had messed up the bamboo slats and the walkway.
In a fury I entered the building. I quickly made it clear to all prisoners that no matter how bad a man had dysentery he was entitled to stay in his bunk when it was raining. Cleanup would be made regularly every morning, and between rain squalls when necessary. I was determined that they follow my rule.
Serious arguments that often turned into fist fights arose when a man with an uncontrollable case of dysentery sleeping on an upper deck sprayed the man sleeping below him with excrement. Again, there was little that could be done.
We held sick call routinely every morning. But the only medicine we had to hand out was a little sodium bicarbonate and a few ointments. There was absolutely nothing else available for anyone.
Scabies, those nasty little parasites that burrow into the skin, ran wild throughout the camp. Men continuously scratched, like monkeys. The scratching was worse at night. The only way we could eliminate the bug was to boil clothing, but that only helped for a short time. The itch always returned and we learned that scabies, the seven year itch as we called it, was something we simply had to live with. At least it didn’t kill.
The men in Ward 0 suffered from advanced stages of malaria, dysentery and various malnutrition-related diseases. Ward 1, to which I had been assigned, was next door to Ward 0 and I had frequent opportunity to observe what happened in the death ward. Unlike most of the structures, Ward 0 consisted of one large room with a solid wooden floor. As in St. Peter’s ward at Camp O’Donnell, the men were laid close together on the floor with their heads to the wall. As many as forty living skeletons lay naked in pools of excreta waiting to die. Nothing could be done for them. They were seriously ill and doomed to death. Without medicine, we were unable to help them. We couldn’t offer them blankets, or even a dry place to lie down.
Each morning we’d find that twenty-five or more of the forty men confined to Ward 0 had died of either the lack of medicine or from the cold the night before. When the ward personnel came to work, they would carry the bodies out and pile them on the gravel to await burial. Those who remained alive would then be carried outside by the arms and legs and placed on the ground, and not always gently. The attendants used squeegees to push the urine and fecal matter out the door, except for the filth that was stuck to the wood and couldn’t be moved. Our water supply was inadequate to get rid of all of the mess. Flies were everywhere, on the floors, the walls, and all over the bodies of the living as well as the dead who awaited burial.
I remember one man in Ward 0 who refused to give up. He was determined he wasn’t going to die. This man had more courage and fortitude than any one person I have ever known. One morning, on my way to work, I passed Ward 0, and as the living and the dead were being carried out of the building, a weak voice called to me. I turned in the direction of voice, and there I saw a sight so revolting that I gasped and fell back for a second. Before me was a human skeleton lying on the ground, looking up at me. His features were greatly distorted. His nose was pushed to one side; his eyes sunken; his skin like paste.
I could have been looking at Frankenstein’s monster. The poor fellow could not have weighed more than seventy pounds. Feebly he reached out a hand, and then in no more than a whisper he called, “Mario, Mario.”
I fell back farther. I studied the face. The eyes, something about the eyes. I remembered now. I had spoken to this man often at Camp O’Donnell.
“Help me, Mario, help me,” he called again, in a voice hardly audible.
I bent over him and put a hand under his shoulder for support. ”What is it?” I asked. What meaningless words to ask a dying man, for I had no medicine, no blankets, no food that I could give him. But he didn’t ask for any of these. He asked for salt. “Salt?” I asked in dismay. ”Yes, a little salt,” he repeated. He then explained, in words that did not come easy, that if he had a little salt, he might be able to eat some rice. I assured him that I would do everything possible to help him.