Nichijo: The Testimony of John Provoo 

Chapter Seven

The Hard Place

          Any idea that the Geneva Convention would protect the 3000 held there outside the tunnel was a dangerous delusion. Those of us who were foolish enough to complain about our treatment, were answered by the blow of a rifle butt or worse. We were finally allowed to stand up and move around a little and relieve ourselves. Japanese soldiers went among us grabbing wristwatches, fountain pens and taking eyeglasses that looked like they had gold rims. They approached people at random and hit them in the face; they doubled up their fists and hit them as hard as they could on the side of the face. One had no choice but to take it. In many ways this is harder to deal with than combat, and over a period of time, the psychological effects of being helpless in the face of captors unrestrained in their whimsical cruelty are excruciating.

        A month before, the captive surrendered forces on Bataan had begun their infamous Death March. Sick, starving and wounded prisoners were marched 65 miles to the north, away from the battlefront, in the hot sun, without food, water, medical help or sanitation. Those who could not keep up the pace, for whatever reason, were bayoneted where they fell. Rotting corpses lined the route, and in the end 10,000 had died along the way. The fate of a prisoner of war is perhaps the most terrible of humanity. In the hands of their victorious enemy, far from the sight of "civilized" authorities, and most often forgotten by their own government, the idea that they can respond to everything with "name, rank and serial number" is totally unrealistic.

        American MP's had been pressed into service to help the Japanese control some of the movements of our surrendered troops. Several were stationed at the mouth of the tunnel. A Japanese officer came out of the tunnel, and conferred with one of them. The MP turned toward the captives down below. "Sergeant Provoo, you're wanted inside." Word was passed along through the captives and finally reached me. I was struck with a new sense of dread. The last thing one would want in such a situation was to attract any individual attention. Up until this point, I was just one of the mass of captives; now, to be singled out and called by name, could only mean trouble. I walked up the hill in the hot morning air and back into the gloom and stench where I had lived for the previous month.

        I was led to a lateral where two Japanese officers were questioning two American officers. I was asked to interpret. One of the Japanese was the air commander, and one was the artillery commander. They were trying to illicit from our officers an opinion; which had been more decisive in the battle for Corregidor; the bombing or the shelling? The American officers were trying to be tactfully non-committal and I did my best to offer an ambiguous translation along the same lines. The Japanese grew bored with this after a few minutes and to my relief, sent me away. I hoped that was all there would be to it and started walking back toward the tunnel entrance, praying silently that I would be able to get back to the others outside, but I didn't make it.

        Instead, I was taken by officers of the Kempeitai (the Japanese version on the Gestapo) and placed in a small lateral under close guard with a number of other prisoners. Most of the others were headquarters personnel, and at least one was a signal corps officer. They were being taken out, one at a time, some were being returned and some, ominously, were not. Outside we had become aware that there were a number of executions taking place, and now, from the reports of those being returned to the lateral, it was apparent that this place we were being held was the threshold of that fate. It was while I was being held in this lateral that a meeting between General Wainwright and Colonel Nakayama along with several aides took place within earshot. I became aware of the General's predicament and indeed the predicament of all the captives. The captors' tone was cruel and demanding, and had not Wainwright complied totally, I am certain everyone would have been massacred.

        Finally, it was my turn and I was taken to another lateral where I found myself standing before three Japanese officers who were holding interrogations, a military court of sorts. There were guards present and another man who was their interpreter. One of the officers spoke: "We know you, you are Provoo, you were in Japan less than one year ago, you are a spy!" The dossier that had been created by the Tokyo police had caught up with me. I was certain that I was doomed. I replied truthfully that I had been in Japan to study Buddhism and that I had been a novice priest at Minobu. One of the officers grunted to the guard..."KOROSU!"...Kill him. The officer in the middle intervened saying that maybe I could be telling the truth. They should hold me until my story was checked out. I was returned to the lateral where I was being held before.

        It was hard to tell how long I was held after that. Within the gloomy tunnel, one could not tell day from night and in my state of mind, it could have been minutes or hours. I was taken out, my story had been checked; I would not be executed. I was led to a guard post and given an armband that said "interpreter", in Japanese characters, so that guards would know they were being understood. Then I was taken outside to rejoin the others.

        The captives now numbered over 10,000 and they had been taken to an area on the beach where a concentration camp had been established. It was the 92nd garage area, which had formerly been a ramp for amphibious planes and maintenance facilities. There stood the remains of a large hanger with a shredded metal roof. Tattered pieces fell on the people when the wind blew. Most people were out on the beach with no cover at all. We had not yet been allowed to dig any latrines, or to even move about and so everyone had to relieve himself where he was. It was very, very hot and the air swarmed with millions and millions of large flies. We had no food, no water; and hundreds lay dying from dysentery, malnutrition, malaria, pellagra and dehydration. Hundreds more would follow. Some became crazed with dehydration and rushed into the sea, where they were killed. Signs posted along the water's edge said: "Anyone going into the water will be shot severely."

        There were quite a number of incidents of violence usually due to the fact that the captives did not understand the guards' orders, or did not understand the rules they were required to follow, or were blind to everything that was happening around them, or insisted on being treated in accordance with the provisions of the Geneva Convention. No one was allowed even to get up off the ground after dark. If they did, they were beaten at least, and many were killed, just for that infraction.

        So the task fell naturally to me to intercede whenever violence threatened. When events began to get out of hand someone would call out, "Get Sergeant Provoo, he can tell us what this guy's yelling about." I would come rushing over and then my unenviable duty was to translate the guard's harsh words and often cruel and arbitrary rules, and in so doing, would appear to be an instrument of our captor's brutality. Many times I was able to smooth things over and neutralize the hostility by a number of devices.

        I had a unique status in this situation, in that nearly all the real communication between captor and captive had to pass through me. Often I used the simplest of ploys with success: I would ask the guard politely if he had any children, and almost invariably they would bring out snapshots of his little pink-faced kids back home and he would be diverted for the moment. Thus interrupted, the guard, finally returning to his duties would say "Now you tell this one that the rule is that you can't do this or go there"...or whatever the incident had arisen over, and that would be the end of it. I undoubtedly saved numerous lives in this manner, and as word spread I would be called upon almost constantly during the day, and many times every night.

        Perhaps this was the destiny that all my extracurricular interests had been preparing me for, and my value as a bridge between East and West would be realized, in this most unexpected way. Now, I thought, my religious convictions and my loyalty to my fellow soldiers could be merged into one duty. Throughout the days and nights in the concentration area, potentially lethal conflicts would arise and someone would call out "Get Sergeant Provoo, quick" and I would rush to intervene. I was under intense pressure and it was having its effect on me: Perhaps it was my finest hour, or perhaps, I had to consider, I was cracking up. I had no time to contemplate which, nor an option to act differently.

        Suspicion is an insidious thing. It builds on itself, silently, away from the light. Once given a premise, all events, great and small, can be bent toward the conclusion, each proven by all the misunderstanding that has come before; each new rumor adding weight to the larger narrative. Suspicion reinforced once, twice, and even evidence contrary to the premise can be given a status that it is a diversionary tactic of the suspect, and thus, further proof. In much of my childhood, I had enjoyed standing out, being different, following my own ways. Many memories of walking or spending time with my Japanese friends in San Francisco area, recalled the hostile stares, the occasional insults shouted from a passing car, slogans painted on the walls near Golden Gate Park and Japantown. I had learned to largely ignore these incidents. In Tokyo, I had railed against the mirror image mindset, in the bars of Manila, I had found myself breaking up fight after fight. And that's just the thing, when you try to be a friend to all, adversaries may see you as in league with their enemies. For the captives here on this filthy beach, the stakes had gotten very high, and in the midst of this horror, I was a ubiquitous participant in every alarming event.

        Scapegoating is a major pastime of a population preoccupied with its own misery. In a prison or a POW camp situation any individual who is removed from the general population for any length of time has gained the suspicion of all who have been left behind to speculate. In such a situation as this, where so many privations and assaults had no apparent motive or logic, how easy it would be to focus on a scapegoat to make order of it all.

        Thousands were in this situation, and outside of a few headquarters personnel and scattered individuals, numbering perhaps 50, if that many, no one knew me personally, knew my character. I was a nobody: a desk clerk. Here I was then, within 72 hours of capture, speaking fluent Japanese, appearing at each event of rising hostility, bowing politely to the guards, wearing an armband with Japanese characters, seeming to have such exceptional rapport with them that I could actually hold small talk and compliment them on their families, while an unfortunate captive's fate hung in the balance. And when I was successful in ending the danger, the suspicious could make note of the influence I seemed to have with their otherwise intransigent and cruel captors.

        Worse, and perhaps most damning of all of the accusations that would be one day hurled at me, was that I would chant a Buddhist chant in Japanese over the bodies of the dead; which I did, of course. "Heathen chants" they would be called, and evidence of something despicable: In the ten years that followed those horrible and chaotic days, rumor and suspicion would be nurtured and embellished, so that by the time these tales were told, vague rumor would become vivid testimony, and dark suspicion would become glaring accusation.

        Little by little the captives were allowed more freedom of movement. We were allowed to go to the periphery of the concentration camp area to relieve our bowels, and finally allowed to dig some slit trenches for latrines. The Japanese began to bring in scant supplies and some water, barely enough to sustain life. Many people were comatose and beyond saving. Some of the medical personnel got together an area that they called a sick bay, but there was little that could be done without supplies or even drinking water.

        I found my commanding officer, Colonel Menzies, where he lay in a coma on the beach, and I had to do something about it. Up until this point I had dealt only with what situations had been thrust upon me, but the sight of my dying Colonel moved me to take a more assertive step. I went over to the remains of the hangar where the guards had set up a temporary shelter. When I got there, I could see that many of the Japanese soldiers were lying on the ground in various stages of delirium from the malaria they had contacted on Bataan. They had no quinine to treat it.

        The guard commander was drunk, and I was able to talk him into allowing us to take ten of the worst cases among the captives up to the hospital in Malinta Tunnel. He gave me a written pass that allowed us to take a stretcher party bearing ten each day. Picking ten out of the 200 or so critical cases was done by taking the first ten we came to. In the first stretcher party, we carried Colonel Menzies. He did survive, and survived the war, and lived to speak in my defense years later.

        I accompanied the stretcher party each day up to the hospital and returning we would carry whatever hospital supplies could be spared back down to the concentration camp area. Captives were being organized into work details. Bodies of the dead, Japanese, American and Filipino, littered the slopes and many work parties were required to carry them to a central location for cremation. Bodies of Japanese were taken first, gathered in handcarts, brought in, carefully stacked in piles and ceremoniously burned. Their ashes were swept up into individual boxes, boxes like those I had seen unloaded from the ships in Yokohama harbor just one year before. Only after all the Japanese bodies had been cremated, were the work details ordered to bring in the corpses of the defenders, which by then, a week after they had fallen, were bloated, blackened and rotting in the tropical sun. They were burnt in great piles and their ashes left to scatter in the wind.

        Some work details were put to work restoring some of the least destroyed buildings, others were used to offload supplies being brought in from Manila, some were carrying and loading what spoils of war the Japanese were able to salvage from Corregidor. Some, like me, would be assigned to do KP work for the various guard details around the island. Refusal to participate in any of these work details meant death on the spot.

        One day, when the stretcher party and I were about to return to the concentration camp area, the guard commander at the tunnel ordered me to remain behind. I was put into a small lateral tunnel directly behind the guard post with some other captives. We had been chosen to build the guards' cooking fires and wash their pots and pans and do whatever chores and errands asked of them.

        This was occurring a week after our capture, and things were unpredictable from hour to hour. In terms of the formal surrender proceedings which were conducted in Manila, during this period those of us held on Corregidor were hostages, and would remain so until all Allied Forces in the Philippines laid down their weapons and joined the surrender; only then would they be considered prisoners of war. That day was not to arrive until June 9.

        As battlefield captives we were subject to the orders of any Japanese soldier, of whatever rank; we were subject to interrogation and torture; in fact we were all subject to summary execution for any real or imagined offense, or attempt to escape, or for offering any resistance at all. Many were killed for simply not realizing the position we were in, and displaying the smallest amount of antagonism. The Japanese were extremely angry and nervous about their own position, and remained hostile about the horrendous battles they had had to fight to capture Bataan and Corregidor.

        I was beginning to realize that my unique role could be expanded and to believe that the responsibility for the well being of my comrades was in my hands. My efforts were working, and I had saved many from the bayonet and saber. I had even been able, if time and circumstances allowed, to let the guard know that I was a Buddhist priest, and to risk a mild reproach of the guard's brutality. That had worked, too. If only I could make that facet more obvious to the Japanese, my effectiveness would be greatly enhanced. I found in one of the tunnel laterals a sort of hospital garment that I could wear in a way reminiscent of a priest's robe, and I began to make more overt displays of worship. I set up a makeshift shrine in the tunnel lateral where I was kept, and I would chant regularly each morning and evening; and especially loudly if there were some high-ranking Japanese officers inside the tunnel complex. I had little reason to expect that I would survive the war, let alone to imagine that I would have to answer to my own government for this bizarre behavior.

        I was quartered in a lateral near the interior entrance to the hospital tunnel, and I was often called in to interpret for the medical staff. Those who had been inside of the hospital since the capture were not as aware of their precarious status as were those who had been in the beach concentration camp. Those who were aware, like myself, were terribly concerned that the nurses might be raped, as they had been in Hong Kong and Singapore. An American woman had been raped after the fall of Bataan, just two miles away. Often, incidents had arisen when soldiers not on authorized patrol entered the hospital, looting and terrorizing the nurses. In my position near the hospital entrance these events would unfold right around the corner from me.

        Colonel Cooper, the officer in charge of the hospital asked if I could intercede. It was extremely awkward to be making any request of the Japanese but I was emboldened by my success in creating the stretcher parties, appealed to the guard commander to stop the soldiers' intrusions. This was successful and the Japanese officer did put up a sign on a folding screen to the effect that the hospital was off limits to soldiers not on guard duty. I was feeling increasingly responsible for the welfare of all the captives. No one, I felt, was in a better position to improve conditions and prevent disaster. They were at all times in danger of massacre. Thankfully, none were raped on Corregidor.

        One day the Japanese allowed the doctors and nurses out of the hospital tunnel and into another part of the tunnel complex in order to pick out some fresh clothes from the remaining supplies. As the medical personnel moved along the tunnel among the Japanese guards, they were talking and laughing and the nurses were acting flirtatiously toward the doctors. I knew how casual this was in our former context, I had been no prude in my own experience, believe me, but I also knew the standards of the Japanese culture. Fearing that the Japanese soldiers would interpret this light-hearted banter and posing as looseness and arouse them to consider rape. I had to make it clear to them that they had better tone down their behavior in front of the soldiers; and while I was on the subject, I told them not to go out the tunnel entrance for their romantic tete-a-tetes because they were in full view of many soldiers there as well. The medical personnel went along with my chaperoning begrudgingly, not realizing the danger they were in. There still was life going on inside the tunnels, social life even. Outside, conditions continued to be desperate.

        In time, the captives became more aware of what was expected of them, of what were the limits of their freedom and most important, how to assess the mood of an individual guard confronting them. Failure on this last point could easily prove fatal. I had some advantage in this, as I had known many, many Japanese people in my childhood, had studied their history and culture, and so had many insights into their general psychology.

        Part of the trouble we were having was that to the Japanese soldier, surrender was despicable; the Japanese soldier was expected to fight to the death no matter what, and if he could no longer fight, he was expected to commit suicide before allowing himself to fall into the hands of an enemy. Thus, as surrendered forces, we were beneath any respect and had no claim to human dignity or any right to compassion.

        I was at the same time becoming increasingly aware of the light in which my fellow captives were seeing me. The few who knew me well, when we happened to come in contact would tell me, "John, do you know what they're saying about you?" My small circle of friends, of course, knew the rumors couldn't be true, but they were a miniscule percentage of the thousands of captives. I became aware of the stories, but there was no way I could counter them. I began to feel the hateful glares of those who saw me. There was no way I could acquit myself.

        From time to time, in the weeks after its capture, Corregidor was visited by some higher ranking Japanese officers, who would come for a short while, look around and then leave. On one occasion, it became clear that someone very important was coming. The Japanese were in a heightened state of anticipation, and special preparations were being made. They had rigged up a canvas canopy part way up Malinta Hill and had placed a number of tables and chairs under it. I was ordered to take a tray of glasses filled with ice water up to this canopy but before I could get there, the dignitary had already arrived. He was Field Marshal Terauchi, a count in the Japanese nobility, an imposing figure, very tall for a Japanese and wearing white gloves. By the actions of the other Japanese around him, he obviously outranked them all. He was there to survey the captured territories and would report directly to the emperor.

        This day, I pushed my luck to the extreme, in many ways and made a gamble that I shouldn't have survived. As I approached the canopied area, it was indicated that I should put the ice water down on a table very near to where the Field Marshal was standing. As I did, I picked up one glass and bowing deeply, handed it to Terauchi. At this, perhaps suspecting poison, or at least a serious breach of etiquette, the Japanese aides bristled and moved to stop me. Instead Terauchi stopped them. Looking me directly in the eye, he took the glass and drank it. Bowing deeply again, I began to speak, in the classic dialect of an educated Japanese, in extremely polite yet reproachful tones, "I cannot believe it is justifiable." and pointing down to the concentration camp, "that there is practically no food and no water, does the emperor know of this?" One Japanese officer began to withdraw his sword. Count Terauchi gestured to him, without looking, to put it back, he turned to another aide and said, "See to it!" I bowed and hurried down the hill.

        The next day, after Marshal Terauchi had gone, the Japanese brought several barrels of water, and some sacks of rice to the concentration camp, and although the drums had formerly contained oil and the water was oily, it was desperately needed much appreciated. Those at the concentration camp of course, had no way of knowing that I had risked my life for it, literally stuck out my neck for it; to the contrary, from what could be seen by those on the beach, there was that Sergeant Provoo bootlicking and kowtowing before the Japanese dignitary, and new damning rumors were spread among them.

        It was in this atmosphere that a most tragic event occurred. I was sent one day by the guard commander into the hospital mess to simply get some water glasses. The mess officer was veterinary Captain Burton C. Thomson. When I asked for the glasses, the captain responded angrily that they were short of everything and that he couldn't spare anything for the Japs, and ordered me to get out. I didn't know what to do. I realized the danger to Captain Thomson, though he did not. Instead of returning to the guard commander, I went back to the chore I had been doing before. Soon, however, the guard commander came over to me and demanded to know where the glasses were. I said that he could not get them. The guard commander said "Why not?" and I replied, "The officer in charge will not let them leave the hospital." Two guards were sent into the hospital to get Captain Thomson, and soon returned with him. The guard commander asked Captain Thomson in English for the items he wanted, to which the captain replied that he needed all the supplies that were in the hospital. The Guard commander flew into a rage..."No one can disobey the order of a Japanese officer. Everything here belongs to the Emperor, your lives belong to the Emperor!" He told the guards to take the Captain below to the concentration camp area. That was the last we saw of him and though there were rumors, we never knew what had happened to him until after the war. According to court testimony given ten years later, Captain Thomson was taken to a small metal building near the concentration camp and interrogated for about forty-five minutes. From there he was taken to Monkey Point, tied to a bush and executed.

        Rumors of all kinds run rampant through a prison camp, but when rumors reached me that Captain Thomson had been executed at Monkey Point, I felt an intense dread that it might be true. I went to the guard commander and asked what had become of Captain Thomson. He told me to shut up and not ask about it again, which tended to confirm my worst fear. I began to suffer terribly, and could not get it out of my mind. With all that I had been able to accomplish with my intercessions, I had not been able to save Captain Thomson. My conscience offered me a hundred ways I could have handled the situation differently; what I could have said, or should have said, but I knew it was too late ...Captain Thomson was dead; and I would certainly be damned for it.

        After this, suspicions became established fact in the minds of many of the captive population, and the hostility toward me more overt. Colonel Cooper ordered me not to come into the hospital area again, but not long after that I was called into Col. Cooper's office. There were a number of members of the hospital staff, Col. Cooper and a Japanese medical officer who spoke English. When I entered the room, Col. Cooper looked at the floor, the others looked away and the Japanese officer glowered at me and began to pull out his sword. Col. Cooper said, "Oh no, no. Not here. This is a hospital." I was sent back out. Apparently those in the room had used the incident of the nurses' flirtatiousness to convince the Japanese officer that I had been overbearing and claiming some authority in telling them to subdue their behavior.

        I was at my wit's end; isolated in my despair. The nervous energy that had kept me going these awful weeks now failed me and I came down with a serious case of dysentery. I was taken to the hospital, where I was anything but welcome. I had at least one friend in the hospital, Captain Heimbach, and that saved my life. It was an attempted murder. One medical officer had given me a lethal injection under the guise of treatment for dysentery, and Captain Heimbach, finding me with virtually no vital signs, was able to revive me with some kind of counteracting shot. Captain Heimbach survived the war, and testified in my defense years later.

        Beginning in the 1st week of May, captives from the concentration camp were taken down to the North Mine docks and crammed aboard ships and taken to Manila. On June 9 the Japanese accepted formally the surrender of Wainwright's command, the entire Philippines. The battle captives were now prisoners of war, which in reality meant no change in conditions. The prisoners were given numbers, which were painted on the backs of the shirts they were captured in, and also numbered in groups of ten. If any of one's group of ten tried to escape, all ten would be executed. General Wainwright's position was worse. If any of the thousands under his command escaped, he would be executed. Wainwright was quoted as saying "If any of you take a notion to escape, let me know, I'm going with you".

        Finally the day came when the hospital tunnels were evacuated, and all the patients and staff were taken off the island. As the island and the tunnels grew less and less inhabited, I grew increasingly afraid. At last I was removed from the tunnel and sent up to the remains of Topside barracks where I was housed with a larger group of prisoners, about 200. We were divided into work details, which were sent out each day to perform various tasks of cleaning up the island; gathering abandoned weapons, clearing unexploded ordnance, and removing the large chunks of concrete and other rubble that littered the roadways.

        The prisoners at Topside were allowed to establish our own mess, and those who worked daily at the North Mine docks unloading and loading the boats from Manila brought back whatever bags of red rice and fresh fruit the Filipino workers had been able to smuggle in.

        Things were slightly better here, there were fewer guards and I wasn't as closely watched. I was relieved to be among a larger group of prisoners. The most ugly and potentially lethal web of suspicion had left with the hospital staff. I was able to collect myself and regain some of my sanity.

        I was a kid through all this, most of us were. August 6, 1942 was my 25th birthday, and conditions actually allowed for a celebration of sorts. Adam Sabotka, the cook, was even able to get together the ingredients for a cake, frosted with shaving cream, which was scraped off, of course, before being eaten. It was a few days in which I could forget that ahead of us lay at least years of hunger and imprisonment before the war could be over. In such a situation, one does not realistically look into the future, so little of it is predictable or in one's control. One does his best to survive the ordeal of this day, and get something to eat. Both Adam Sabotka and I survived the war and met again, years later in Baltimore, Maryland, and recalled the day when a piece of birthday cake represented a miracle, and the best meal we would have in three years of captivity.

* * * * *

        Iva could not board her ship on December 2, 1941, because she had no passport. When the war began a few days later, Iva was stranded in an environment that was increasingly hostile to her. Agents of the domestic security police called at the home of her Aunt and Uncle, pressuring her to accept Japanese citizenship. She repeatedly refused. She tried to get herself repatriated through the Red Cross as did other Americans, but still her lack of a passport prevented her leaving.

        Her Aunt and Uncle were beginning to receive official and unofficial harassment for having an enemy alien under their roof, so she moved out to spare them further difficulty. She began to do odd jobs of English language typing at the culture school she had been attending and to give her teacher's children piano lessons.

        Finally in June 1942 she managed to get a job as a part time English language typist for the Domei News Agency, typing transcripts of English language radio broadcasts so that others on the staff could translate them into Japanese. The security police continued to pressure her into changing her citizenship, but she steadfastly refused.

        In August she was finally accepted for repatriation aboard a Red Cross ship, but by this time she no longer had the money for her passage. It was her last chance to get out.

        She began to make a life for herself there, and became fond of Felipe D'Aquino, a Portuguese/Japanese fellow employee of the Domei News Agency who also had foreign citizenship and was definitely pro-American. They eventually married in April 1945.

        In August of 1943, Iva got another job as an English language the studios of Radio Tokyo, not knowing that this was the threshold of the Japanese military's psychological warfare section.


Copyright © 2015, 2022 John Oliver