CHANGING THE GUARD
Life continued, but barely, in Camp Cabanatuan. It would be difficult to say if things got better or worse; we only knew that to preserve life we had to learn to tolerate conditions as they were. We did the best we could with what we had, and we waited. Even time lost its meaning. A week was the same as a month. Months became years. They all blended into one impression.
We learned from necessity to make what clothing we needed. We fashioned wooden shoes from 2x4s and leather straps. We had no razors so shaving was impossible; but we did have barbers and everyone kept his hair short and trimmed. Our skin from the tropical sun had turned dark, the color of mahogany.
The Japanese command did permit us to have our own entertainment once a week. We organized a band. I have no idea where the musical instruments for our band came from, but we did somehow manage to put together a five-piece band that we considered outstanding. We were very proud of our band.
Aside from band music we acted out short skits. Some of these theatrical performances depicted various situations in camp that were intended to be funny, and others depicted personalities. We could at least laugh at ourselves. Some skits portrayed life back in the States.
There was a black man who brought down the house one night. He was from an artillery outfit, and the only black prisoner of war I had seen in camp. That might he danced what he called “Beriberi Shuffle” and imitated the men who had sore feet. His imitation was so close to reality that we laughed until we were almost sick.
Occasionally the Japanese had their own special brand of entertainment for their soldiers which we would watch from a distance. They like to hold contests, both group and individual contests. Some of their games were more funny than our skits, although it wasn’t intended to be that way. We were highly amused as we watched them play the kids’ game “Drop the Handkerchief.” We used to play the same game in primary grades. This always brought snickers from the prisoners and it was all we could do to keep from bursting out laughing. Here was our enemy, running around in circles dropping handkerchiefs. But we dared not laugh aloud. The Japanese took their games very seriously.
Early in 1943, the Japanese command decided to replace the Cabanatuan guards with new Japanese recruits from Formosa. We guessed the move was to provide more troops for the battle fields. Perhaps the war was going badly for the Japanese, but it was only a guess.
Camp Cabanatuan by this time had been divided into two areas, one designated as the hospital and other as the duty or farm area. Between these two areas was a grassy open field which the Japanese used to train these new recruits. The training sessions often reminded me of the Mack Sennett comedies, popular during the twenties. The poor recruits, their biggest difficulty was mastering the Japanese rifle. The Japanese rifle was of very poor quality and the bolt often stuck. It was amusing to watch as the sergeant-in-charge shouted the command for the recruits to slide open the bolts, followed by an immediate command to snap them shut. Almost without fail, at least one or two soldiers would be left struggling to snap the bolts shut, without success. This failure to close the bolts always angered the sergeant-in-charge. He would then walk up to the recruit, slap him across the face and sometimes kick him at the same time. The recruit would hastily try to correct his error. If he was unable to shut the bolt, amid more blows and screams, the sergeant would snatch the rifle away and attempt to demonstrate the correct procedure for handling a rifle inspection. But sometimes the sergeant-in-charge couldn’t close the bolt either, and if he too failed, he would go in to a rage. We were always amused by these maneuvers and we were hardly able to contain our laughter, at least until we got back to the barracks. Then we would crack up. We knew what the consequences would be if we laughed at Japanese soldiers in their presence.
Another time Japanese recruits were going through a training exercise that involved simulating an attack on a machine gun position, which, in this case, was located on an anthill at the top of the training field. The sergeant-in-charge wielded a big club as he ran about shouting out orders. There were about forty men in this group, lying on the ground pretending to fire their guns at the imaginary enemy. The sergeant gave the order for the left flank to advance about fifty paces. He then ordered the right flank to move up, and finally the men in the center. The maneuver was repeated several times until the sergeant seemed satisfied. They were now ready to make the final charge at the anthill on top the hill. The sergeant’s command rang out to fix bayonets, whereby his men reached around to their scabbards, withdrew their bayonets and locked them in place on their rifles. All except one man. This poor unfortunate fellow’s bayonet would not snap into place. The sergeant-in-charge saw that the soldier was having trouble and went charging at him across the field, waving his club over his head as he ran.
At this moment someone gave the order to charge. The whole group, including the man in trouble, began charging toward the anthill, shouting “banzai!” As they ran up the hill, it was apparent the unfortunate recruit knew the sergeant with the club was close behind him. Wild-eyed, he put on a burst of speed and disappeared over the top of the anthill, still struggling with his bayonet. We could only guess at what happened when the sergeant met up with the recruit on the other side of the mound.
All prisoners, regardless who we were, officer or enlisted man, were required to either salute or bow as we passed a Japanese soldier in camp. Nor were we permitted to keep our hands in our pockets. We learned to live with this ritual, although, as prisoners of war, we had become pretty informal about differences within our own ranks. The Japanese, on the other hand, considered it military courtesy and demanded respect, even among themselves.
There was one guard post on the main road that led through the middle of camp where we had to be especially careful. We used this road only occasionally, but when we passed the post, we made sure that we came to attention and either bowed or saluted the guards.
I was standing near the post one day when I saw a prisoner coming down the road. He walked past the post without bowing or saluting. Although there was nothing in his appearance that distinguished him from any other prisoner, I recognized him at once as one of our chaplains.
I knew he was in for serious trouble. A guard immediately jumped down, ran up to the chaplain and slapped him in the face. He didn’t stop there. He delivered a dozen more blows, finally knocking the chaplain down and began kicking him. While the chaplain lay in the dust in agony, the guard returned to his station.
I talked to the chaplain after the incident. I explained that Japanese military courtesy required that a prisoner regardless of whom he might be must turn toward the guard post and salute, and that he must not have a hand in his pocket. The chaplain had been guilty of these two infractions of their rules. He didn’t admit it but I had the feeling that as a chaplain he felt he was beyond such regulations. The Japanese thought differently.
That night after the incident, as I lay on the floor in the barracks trying to fall asleep, I thought how easily it would have been for the guard to bayonet or even shoot the chaplain. He could easily have done so.
Maybe it was the thought of the guard using his gun that prompted my mind to wander to another incident involving a gun. I was a young boy in San Francisco.
In my mind I could see so clearly the three flats in our building, each crowded with people, and each containing a Machi family. In our family, counting our grandfather Nonna and grandmother Nonna, my mother and father and all my brothers and sisters, there were twelve of us who lived on the lower floor. Then Aunt Mary, Uncle Tom and their six children lived in the middle flat. On the top floor lived Aunt Rose and Uncle Mike and their four children. Years may have passed but I could see them all so clearly, twenty-six Machis in our three families. I could even count them-two grandparents, six parents, and eighteen children!
Squabbles among the children and among the adult members were a daily occurrence, due, no doubt, to our crowded conditions. But as serious as arguments may have seemed at the time were quickly forgotten. The one that stuck out most vividly in my mind, however, nearly had serious consequences.
It happened one day when I was returning home from school. I came around the corner and was surprised to see a small crowd gathered in front of our house. I edged my way through the crowd to where I could see what was happening. At first it appeared to be just another family squabble. Hanging out the windows upstairs were Mama, Aunt Mary, Aunt Rose and some older children. They were jabbering and shouting all at once, waving their arms and pointing fingers in all directions. It was difficult to tell what was happening, but it was obvious that the spectators on the sidewalk had already chosen sides. Some were shouting back while others encouraged them on.
Suddenly Uncle Mike burst out of his flat and appeared on the landing in front, waving a six-shooter. Spectators instantly ducked for cover and windows slammed shut. I couldn’t for the world imagine who Uncle Mike was going to shoot, but I did know this was really serious.
Now it was the women’s turn to act. Mama, Aunt Mary and Aunt Rose appeared in the next instant and struggled with Uncle Mike on the staircase until they took the gun away from him. They led him upstairs, spectators came out of hiding and peace reigned again on our street. It was just another day in the Machi family.
Besides working on the farm I was assigned to assist in the medical laboratory when needed. Amoebic dysentery was playing havoc with the prisoners, and also affecting the Japanese. Our American doctors convinced the Japanese authorities that we had to isolate those with amoebic dysentery. The doctors were granted their request that a separate area be set aside for such prisoners. We established a makeshift laboratory for the purpose of collecting and studying our stool specimens. As long as the dysentery bug was dormant, it did not create a problem. It was during its active stages that it became dangerous, and it was better to place the men in isolation than to take chances on the disease spreading.
Being close to the disease, we who worked in the lab had to be periodically checked, and one morning I discovered my stool was contaminated. I was ordered to pack my belongings and move to the amoebic dysentery area. My isolation, however, did not exclude me from working on the farm. I was in the farm crew lineup every morning.