Nichijo: The Testimony of John Provoo 

Chapter Five

White, Yellow, Orange and Red

      I was just a young man of 24, and naive of course in many ways, but this attack came as little surprise to me. As anticipated by a broad range of Asia experts, military planners and journalists, the Japanese would attempt to extend their Pacific empire to include the oil-rich Dutch East Indies. Ernest Hemingway, arriving in Manila from China in the spring of 1941 had made exactly this assessment and also the prediction that the Japanese forces would attack the Philippines before the American garrison there was made so strong that it would be impossible. My own slapdash mustering had been a part of a hurried buildup of U.S. forces that was both preparing for and bringing on the attack.

    Capture of the Philippines was the Japanese immediate objective in beginning the war with the U.S. The attack on Pearl Harbor was a pre-emptive strike on the American naval capability, and an attempt to get the Americans to first consider defenses closer to home.

    To the public in the U.S., and even to the majority of the enlisted men in the Philippines, this inevitable confrontation was portrayed as unlikely, since Japan was such a small, poor country, it would never undertake attacking the greatest military power on earth. When it did come, that attack was described as a totally unexpected and baffling act of Japanese treachery.

    To professional military planners, the attack had been a contingency anticipated at least since 1926, when students at the Philippine War College were first offered details of the Orange Plan. "Orange" was a code word for Japan. It was assumed that the Japanese would make an amphibious invasion in the Lingayen Gulf to the Northwest of Luzon and advance on Manila from the North...which they did. The Orange Plan called for the withdrawal of American Forces and the Philippine Scouts to the Bataan Peninsula and the fortified islands of Manila Bay...which they did. Those forces were expected to be able to hold out until the U.S. Navy arrived ...which they did not. The Japanese, aware of the details of the Orange Plan, had crippled the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, 5,000 miles away, and the planned rescue would never come, leaving the defenders of Bataan and Corregidor to fight with what little we had.

    And I had another perspective from which to anticipate the war. I had been in Japan just six months before and had gotten a full dose of the government's efforts to prepare their civilian population for war with the West. The attitude of the average citizen had become one of open hostility ...they were being backed into a corner, being literally starved, and their economy strangled. Everywhere there had been posters of foreigners depicted as barbaric monsters, and Uncle Sam as an evil menacing giant. I had attempted to get this across to my superiors at counter intelligence, but my reports to this effect were not welcomed. More than a decade later, I would discover that these reports were not being received as military intelligence, but as indications of my own potential disloyalty.

    The Philippine Department was overstaffed with older, higher ranking officers for whom it had been a rather cushy station. Many were approaching retirement age and spending their last years enjoying the comfortable quarters and the numerous golf courses. They could even escape the tropical heat among the pines at Little Baguio and Lake Taal. It was as if their mission were to staff a South Pacific country club.

    As for experienced combat troops, or even trained troops, we were woefully understaffed. Many, like me, had never had a day's basic training. We had been drafted, packed aboard ships and sent off as part of a frantic effort to "reinforce" the Philippine Department. Efforts had been made to train the Philippine Army, and it must be said, to their credit, that the Philippine Scouts were well trained, unquestionably loyal, and a great asset to the American Forces. Much had been done in the area of planning but little in the area of implementation. As far as military hardware, ammunition, supply and the preparedness of their combat personnel, the situation was pitiful in the face of the formidable onslaught of the Japanese war machine that was coming.

    December 8, the planes appeared in the skies approaching Manila. It wasn't until the bombs started exploding we realized they were not our own. The city went into an immediate blackout, sentries were posted everywhere, and American Forces went into the initial stages of Orange Plan; the withdrawal to the Bataan Peninsula across the bay from Manila and to the fortified islands in the bay's entrance, the largest of which is Corregidor. The plan was to spare the civilian population of Manila by declaring it an open city and removing all military targets. Munitions were moved by every means to stockpiles on Corregidor and Mariveles, just across the north channel of the bay's entrance on the tip of the Bataan Peninsula.

    By now, I was a corporal, and my duties on the Adjutant General's staff were to hurriedly burn records, pack field desks and gather equipment needed to set up headquarters in the field.

    It was quite apparent that the Japanese were going follow their air assault with a land invasion somewhere in the Philippine Islands and they did arrive as anticipated, 100 miles north of Manila on the Lingayen Gulf, in order to sweep down the Pampangas Plain and attack Manila and Bataan by land.

    My unit began our evacuation of Fort Santiago and boarded a tug to be taken across the bay. When we first landed on the island of Corregidor, there hadn't been any destruction. It was very beautiful and covered with trees. It had many, many beautiful buildings, comfortable quarters and well kept parade grounds.

    Corregidor is about three miles long with one fat end about a mile across, narrowing down to a point at the other end, shaped rather like a comma, or a pollywog, the fat end toward the mouth of the bay and the South China Sea. At its crest was Topside Barracks, known as the longest concrete barracks in the world; nearby was the Middleside Barracks, somewhat smaller. Further down the island about in the middle of its length is a bulge, Malinta Hill, which contains a huge tunnel complex called Malinta Tunnel. The tunnels were designed to accommodate and maintain the enormous railway-track-mounted naval guns that were for the purpose of defending Manila Bay from attack by sea, which was unfortunate since they could not be brought to bear on the Japanese who would eventually reach it coming from overland, down the Bataan Peninsula. The biggest guns were virtually useless.

    We set up the Adjutant General's office in the Middleside Barracks in what formerly had been a day room. They had filing cabinets and desks, and we had brought our typewriters and there still were some pool tables. We were well established by Christmas, and they were able to get together a real Christmas dinner, with a turkey from the States and all the trimmings. For the moment, we were able to forget the bloody confrontation that was bearing down on us; we were even able to believe for the moment that Corregidor was an impregnable fortress and that the Japanese wouldn't even dare fly over. That illusion lasted until December 29 when the Japanese not only flew over it, but they bombed nearly every building and gun emplacement on the island. The railway on which the big guns were moved never operated again. War became a reality for me that day.

    I was in the day room taking dictation from Col. Menzies when I heard the clanging. Someone had begun banging on some empty brass shell casings to indicate that an air raid was coming. Bombs began to explode and the Colonel and I made a dash for the small kitchen that was used for the Colonel's quarters. We hit the doorway at the same time and for a second, neither of us could get through. The colonel dived onto his cot and the I dived under it. Bombs exploded outside, nearby and all around. Bombs crashed into Middlesides Barracks, doing considerable damage. As the bombing let up briefly, we ran outside to find better shelter. I remember this as my company's initiation to war; and in the frenzied search for shelter, we freshmen ran every which way, as organized as ants on a burning log.

    Colonel Menzies and I ran up the hill toward Topsides Barracks, crouching low in the ravines. We stopped at several anti-aircraft positions on the way, some of them not being operated yet. The anti-aircraft equipment that was there was pitiful relative to the situation. The nose cones of the anti-aircraft shells had to be set by hand by turning some dials so that they would go off at a given altitude ...which was ludicrous in the face of these very rapidly flying bombers diving straight at us. At one of the gun emplacements, the man who was supposedly to operate the range finder was not in place yet, if he was still alive, and I found myself doing the job, something I had previously known nothing about whatsoever. In that chaotic day the Colonel and I moved our locations four times.

    During our next move, the planes began diving and we ran into a low culvert that ran under a road. It was crammed full of people. Someone said, "Do you know what we're laying in?" An officer in front of me said, "Yes, shit!" We squished down lower in the flow of sewage that ran beneath us as more bombs burst and the ground shook.

    The bombing let up and again we were out on open ground and running. This time we ran into a short tunnel where there had been some excavating to build garages for some officers' homes. They had not been completed and they were shored up with heavy timbers. Many people were lined up against either side. The bombs were falling very close. One bomb came down a small residence just across the road where some Filipino workmen had taken refuge. It was blown completely apart and shrapnel rang through the entrance of the tunnel where we were hiding and many people on the other side of the tunnel were hit.

    Everywhere there was the overwhelming smell of the burnt explosives, so thick that we could hardly catch our breaths. It seemed so intense an air raid that at times we felt like no one could be left alive except us.

    Of course many, many were killed that day, but many survived as well. Finally it was over. It grew quiet and hundreds of us crept from whatever shelter that had been found in a terrified moment. Hundreds of bodies were being lined up near the entrance to Malinta Tunnel, and hundreds more wounded were being carried in, in basket-like stretchers.

    Everyone joined in the sorting out the unconscious and the wounded from the dead. I found myself carrying bodies to a central location, and saying a short Buddhist prayer over each one.

    Two days later, our unit was packing to move headquarters to the Bataan Peninsula. We put our field desks and file cabinets, as well as our personal things and barracks bags, on barges for the move. We had planned to leave very early the next morning to land at Cabcaben, but by the time the tug pulled away from the dock it was ten o'clock in the morning and the Japanese subjected our flotilla to intermittent strafing. In the confusion with me diving between the desks and filing cabinets for cover, my barracks bag was lost over the side and with it my Buddhist robes.

    The 4000-foot volcanic peaks of the Mariveles Mountains run down through the center of the Bataan Peninsula dividing it into an East and West sector. Over 100,000 people were on the Bataan Peninsula; 20,000 American soldiers, 10,000 Philippine Army, and 30,000 civilians who had taken this dubious refuge. Bearing down on them from the north was General Homma's 14th Army; 43,000 well supplied, battle hardened Japanese soldiers. The U.S. military airplanes had been all but eliminated on December 8th, but the Japanese had at least 100 bombers and many more fighters, and were constantly being resupplied throughout the campaign.

    My unit had set up headquarters at the base of some enormous jungle trees at the foot of the mountains. With the help of faithful Filipinos, we dug out some elaborate bomb shelters, covered them over with large branches and camouflaged canvas, so that one could scarcely detect an entrance from ten feet away. The Japanese were flying a photographic mission over the peninsula mid morning each day, and in the early afternoon the bombers would come over and drop a token number of bombs in our general area before continuing on to more thoroughly bomb Corregidor.

    At night we were able to pick up radio broadcasts from Manila, and from "the Voice of Freedom" on Corregidor, staffed by Captain Wallace Ince, the radio announcer I had met in Manila, now a Captain in the Army. Some times we were able to pick up broadcasts from San Francisco wherein we received a great deal of praise and encouragement for holding our position. That was great for morale, giving us the impression that we were not, as we were, isolated and without hope of rescue. William Wintner, broadcasting from San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel, 5,000 miles away, dared the Japanese to attack Bataan and Corregidor. And you know, in those days everyone listened to the radio. It wasn’t our imaginations; challenges were often followed by heavier shelling.

    The Japanese, by that time had full control of the sea and air, and their ground troops were closing in. The Mariveles Mountains were considered an area through which the Japanese could not easily penetrate, but they did, even bringing down heavy artillery pieces through extremely difficult terrain. A vise was being tightened on both sectors.

    Very late one night our unit got word that the Japanese had landed a force of about 400 troops at Agaloma Point which lay behind us between the headquarters and the Bay proper, but the next report was that it was 4000 troops that had not only landed but were firmly entrenched. We had nothing to meet this with except some rear echelon troops and headquarters companies' personnel. We had no real front line battle experience. It was necessary to call down some very badly needed tank battalions from the main battle front and in the resulting battle they blasted away all the trees and foliage from the point and nearly all the Japanese. The last several hundred invading troops lept over the cliffs and down onto the rocks where they were killed in a suicidal fall. A small contingent of Japanese had taken refuge in a cave on the cliff's face and the engineers swung a large dynamite charge inside and detonated it. At the end of this battle, I saw to my further horror, the badly wounded and dying enemy troops having their teeth kicked out and their bodies looted for the various charms and souvenirs that they wore, by American and Filipino soldiers.

    American and Japanese forces were engaged at such close range that the wires of their field telephones even got crossed and I could hear the enemy talking back and forth when it was my turn to man the field switchboard. The lighted switchboard had been an extremely hazardous duty station at night and several operators had been killed by Japanese sniper fire. When my turn came, I memorized the panel so that I could operate it in the dark.

    It was shortly after the battle at Agoloma Point that I had one of my most terrifying experiences of the war. I had traded my .45 automatic for a pair of revolvers, which I was hoping not to have to use, but in the Army, you are required to be armed. I was lying in my little shelter at the root of a large tree, sort of half asleep and I opened my eyes and could see dimly through the mosquito net, the face of a Japanese soldier not more than six inches from my face. I could see clearly the star on the cap and expected to feel the thrust of his saber at any second. I grabbed one of my pistols and fired at the figure crouching near my bunk, and then, in the moonlight then I could see that it was a large ape rushing out of my shelter. Thankfully, I didn't hit it. The shot went through the roof of the colonel's tent just down the hill. Someone started clanging on the empty oil drum and aroused the whole camp. I didn't know it at the time, but I was in the initial stages of cerebral malaria. It was the only time I ever fired a gun at a living being; I was armed and delirious.

    The next day I was in a sorrier state with a high fever and was taken away to a field hospital, which was actually a series of crude beds outdoors, the only area that was covered was the surgical area. They had only a limited amount of quinine for the treatment of malaria and no Atabrine to reduce fever. Beside each bed a foxhole had been dug for use during air raids. One of the chief dangers in this location was the falling unexploded shells of our own antiquated anti-aircraft batteries from the Island of Corregidor. They would fire toward the Japanese bombers as they approached over the Bataan Peninsula. At one time while I was in the hospital, the patient next to me rolled out of bed and into his foxhole and one of these nose cones came directly through his back. I wasn't able to get out of my bed at the time but I wasn't touched.

    One day while I was still recuperating, I was recognized by a courier from my own headquarters company, who told me that our unit was going to move that day. I climbed on the back of the courier's motorcycle, still dressed in my hospital garb. I couldn't let myself become permanently separated from my company. It was fortunate that I did because as it turned out, we were moving back to Corregidor.

    We spent the day packing the equipment up and trucking it down to the now ruined town of Cabcaben beside the bay. There was only room for the equipment and the ranking staff aboard the available boats and barges, and I was left behind. As night fell it became obvious that there was no easy way back to Corregidor so I made my way across the mined and shark infested three-mile stretch of the North Channel on the trunk of a palm tree with two other soldiers. It took us all night to get there. As we approached North Mine dock in the darkness, a searchlight flickered on to see what was approaching. Bodies were floating here and there in the water and there were other people trying to get across. Many had been eaten by sharks. Looking back across the channel we could see the town of Cabcaben in flames and from the tracer bullets of the machine gun fire there, it was clear that the Japanese had completely overrun the peninsula.


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