CAMP EDIBLES-RATS, CATS AND DOGS
Among the loot the Japanese had seized after the fall of Bataan were several hundred cases of canned milk. For the 50,000 men interned, the camp was allotted a few cans per day. These we gave to the men who suffered the most from malnutrition. If nothing else, it didn’t cure them but it helped keep them alive a bit longer.
Aside from nutrition for the dying, the milk cans had another great importance to our medical staff. The labels were carefully taken off, reversed, and used for keeping records. The Japanese did not issue paper of any sort for our medical staff to use.
The Japanese did allow one group of men in camp a special privilege. The electricians, the men in charge of the camp’s electrical system, were given permission to dig pits to trap wild dogs. We could tell when they were successful; we could hear the howls of the wild beasts after they had fallen into the traps. As a result the camp electricians were well-nourished from the protein from the dogs they ate. They were one group who didn’t suffer from any malnutrition diseases.
I had the honor of being invited one night to dine with them. I had helped them build a “quan” stove, and the meal they cooked and invited me to share with them was dog meatloaf. It was actually quite good.
I had helped build the quan stove as a project to keep busy. I believed that keeping myself constantly occupied would also go a long way toward keeping my mind busy, and keeping my mind busy might perhaps help me stay alive. I knew I could not dwell upon the suffering going on all around me. Building quan stoves was but sure way to keep busy. It also got me some free meals from time to time.
The stove got its name from the word “quan” we used in camp to refer to food of any description. Quan meant the morning meal, the evening meal, all kinds of food or anything related to food.
We made the stove out of adobe bricks and four 44-gallon gasoline drums. The fire box was exceptionally long. The stove had a grill made from a half drum to cover the top. The half sections of the drum which we didn’t use for the quan we used to sterilize mess kits. The other two drums became the ovens. A single fire roared under and over the gasoline drums and serviced the whole stove. We were able to heat water, grill, and bake simultaneously.
The Japanese permitted us to build our quan stoves and allowed us to cook anything we wanted, which meant anything we could find that was edible. Our menus consisted of rats, stray cats, wild dogs, snakes, cockroaches and pig weed. The meals were occasional. Whenever we could catch something, and whatever it happened to be, it was devoured with great pleasure. We eagerly gobbled up everything and anything.
Every time the subject of rats came up in Cabanatuan, my thoughts would revert to my home in North Beach, the Italian district in San Francisco. Our flat was only a few blocks from the waterfront where rats had a field day.
The downstairs in our flat was always heavily laden with the pungent smell of fermenting wine. A spooky alley led from a small yard in the rear of our flat to a parking street in the back. We had to pass dark, damp cellars to reach the street. Huge rats thrived in the farthest recesses of the cellars. Unafraid and defiant, they would scurry up and down the alley during the day, march boldly through the yard, and pass from one flat to another. They held an undisputed reign over the entire basement area, which was never challenged unless an adult descended the stairs to draw wine from a barrel.
Due to the dreaded fear we kids had for rats, we seldom used the alleyway, wine cellars or yard. Never, in a million years, would I have thought back then that I would one day enjoy “rat a la Cabanatuan” as the main course on my dinner table. What the urge to survive can do to one.