Nichijo: The Testimony of John Provoo 

Chapter Eight

The College of Hard knocks

          In the middle of August, the remaining prisoners on Corregidor were taken down to the North Mine docks and loaded aboard tugs and taken to Manila. We were disembarked at the foot of Dewey Boulevard and marched through the city's streets. Starved, sick, ragged and emaciated, we made such a pathetic sight that we were not taken by the shortest route, but several extra miles, so that we would pass through the most crowded parts of the city. This was to give our degradation the maximum exposure before the Filipino population.

        Manila was a much different place than it was when I was here six months before. There had been some aerial bombings, even though the city had been declared open and militarily abandoned. For the most part, it was physically intact. The Japanese occupying forces with trucks and tanks and artillery moved through the city. Japanese troops fresh from their bloody victories marched in columns. Japanese propaganda operatives drove through the streets with loudspeakers on the tops of their vehicles. "Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere", was the primary vision. The idea being that Japan was liberating Asians from their American and European colonial masters. Their slogan, "Asia for the Asians" blared from every possible public address system was being force-fed to the populace. The people were not accepting this clumsy facade by any means. The Filipinos lining the way of our route encouraged us with smiles and furtive "V" victory signs with their fingers.

        We passed through the walls of the old city and finally reached the ancient Spanish prison, Bilibid Prison. The prison had been used as a staging area and distribution point for prisoners coming from Corregidor. They had been kept there a short while and then moved out to other locations. Many thousands had been paraded through Manila before our group. There remained at Bilibid over 2000 prisoners.

        My reputation had preceded me, but fortunately, the first person I met had some insight into my situation. The American who had been placed in charge of POW's at Bilibid was Naval Warrant Officer Goodman; he spoke to me first: "I've heard a lot of things about you, some of them very good and some very bad. I like to form my own opinions, so we'll just take it from here." It soon became clear why Mr. Goodman was so understanding. He could speak Japanese pretty well and he had been thrust into a role similar role to mine, and suffered some of the same suspicions, though not as extreme.

        I watched as Goodman went through his paces. Approaching the guard commander, he bowed deeply and began to converse with him in polite and amicable tones. Soon he turned to the group of new arrivals, carrying out the guard's instructions. He assigned the new arrivals to low, temporary wooden structures within the high-walled compound. As I watched him carry out the duties of his situation with the same constraints and cultural sensibilities that I had, I could see clearly how westerners would misconstrue it. He really had no choice if he were to serve the needs of his fellow prisoners. Of course, of course, he had to act that way. And so had I. This time someone else had that thankless job.

        Bilibid prison is right in the midst of Manila's city streets. Its high walls and the open ground around them made it necessary for Filipinos to expose themselves dangerously to help us. They would risk their lives daily to throw hard-boiled eggs and fruit over the walls with the guards shooting at them. Still, it was not enough. What I most remember about Bilibid was hunger and literal starvation, and these brave and desperate attempts by the Filipinos to keep us alive.

        The dirt floor of the open-air compound had been used as a graveyard for the many who had died there, and were still dying there. When the rains came and the compound flooded, decayed limbs of the dead reached up from beneath the ground. The hells I have witnessed on this earth.

        There at Bilibid prison, again I met Captain Wallace Ince. Ince had spent most of the six months of war in the Navy tunnel section of the Malinta Tunnel complex on Corregidor. I did not see him during this time, but we could hear him, of course, on the radio. The Navy Tunnel was the location of the large short wave radio transmitters used for military communications as well as news and entertainment programs for the Allied troops in the field. Ince, having been a top civilian announcer in Manila, was put in charge of the news and music program, "The Voice of Freedom."

        When Corregidor was captured, Ince was of special interest to the Japanese; they wanted to use him for propaganda purposes, if possible. He had been held for interrogation and kept under close confinement for months, and questioned at great length. He had fallen under the suspicion of his fellow prisoners, as any who seemed to be of particular value to the captors and had often been quartered separate from the others. He sat alone when I arrived, shunned by the rest.

        I, of course, was not impressed by the suspicions of others. Ince was glad to have someone to talk to and had something special to relate to me. He was going on a secret mission, he said, to Tokyo. He wouldn't say anything more about it or why he had told me. I had no reason to think it would involve me. Captain Ince was soon gone from Bilibid, and I didn't think about it much more. In about October 1942, about a month later, Wallace Ince and young Norman Reyes arrived in Tokyo to begin this "secret mission".

        Norman Reyes was a Philippine national on Ince's staff, doing some of the broadcasting. It was Reyes who had the sad duty to broadcast the news that Bataan had fallen to the enemy. Reyes was barely nineteen, fifteen years younger than Ince and excited to be getting this valuable experience in broadcast. It was a rare opportunity for a Philippine teenager.

        When Ince and Reyes fell into the hands of the Japanese, they had already been viewed as having unique wartime skills as propaganda broadcasters, and the Japanese were eager to bend these skills to their own war effort. Ince and Reyes were taken to Manila as soon as they were identified and placed in the dungeon at Fort Santiago, the Old Spanish fortress. They were exhaustively interrogated as to their potential. Young Reyes could be forced to cooperate, and when it was discovered that Ince had a Philippine wife and two small children, the Japanese knew that it would not be difficult to gain his compliance also. It was arranged that Ince and Reyes would be taken to Tokyo at the earliest possible opportunity.

        Early in September, I was taken out of Bilibid with most of the other prisoners and paraded again through the streets of Manila to the docks and loaded aboard ships. They were troop transport ships, and below decks had been arranged into wooden platforms about four feet apart. Prisoners were jammed in far beyond capacity and the hatch covers were put in place and battened down. It may have been days that the ships lay there at dockside and it got hotter and hotter inside the holds. The air was foul and putrid and the bilge sloshed with their sewage. We were nearly suffocating and men were dying and there was no way to get the bodies out. Many lost their minds in there. That's another of the hells I have endured on this Earth.

        At last we could hear the engines start up and we felt ourselves moving away from the dock. After several hours, the hatches were opened. Prisoners were ordered up on deck. We were outside of Manila Bay but still within the sight of land. The fresh air revived the survivors and our dead were thrown overboard. It was a clear day and the Philippines were disappearing in the distance to the south. We were in a convoy of several other troop ships and freighters and some destroyer escorts. The convoy moved in an erratic course apparently to avoid Allied submarines. We were being taken to Taiwan 500 miles North of Manila.

        The convoy arrived at Takao, a small harbor on the southwest coast of Taiwan, and surviving prisoners were herded off the many cramped troop ships and onto the docks. Scarcely had we disembarked when a squadron of American planes appeared overhead and swooped in for a strafing attack not knowing who we were, below on this Japanese naval base. We dove for whatever cover we could find. I found myself on a wooden catwalk just below the heavy planking of the dock. Many of us huddled there until the strafing was over and the Japanese ordered us back onto the dock.

        All prisoners were sprayed with a strong smelling disinfectant under our armpits and around our genitals. A medical team inserted a glass rod in the rectum of each man and prepared a culture to check for various ailments and parasites, particularly amoebic dysentery.

        Then we were marched through the streets of Takao to the train station. The inhabitants' reaction was much different than in Manila. The Japanese had ruled the island since 1895, and most descendants of the aborigines and Chinese immigrants had grown up under the Japanese administration, and had no particular affinity for the American captives. This fact, made the possibility of escape rather remote since there would be no anti-Japanese underground to assist and hide escapees as in the Philippines.

        We arrived at the train station, were put on board passenger cars, crowded but not terribly so, and blindfolded so that we would not be able to survey military installations along our route to Karenko, on the Eastern Coast of the Island of Taiwan.

        Outwardly, Karenko was a beautiful place. On the coast only a few miles from the base of almost sheer mountains rising to 10,000 feet. The grounds had a neat, well-maintained appearance and at first glance it seemed that the prisoners' lot would be better here. It was in some respects and it wasn't in others.

        Captain Imamura, the camp's insipid commander, greeted the new arrivals as he had the Generals, including Wainwright, Beebe, Moore and others, several weeks before. We were called to attention, required to bow to the commander, and bow in the direction of the Imperial Palace, just as we would each morning for our entire stay there. Then Captain Imamura read his standard speech, made just barely intelligible by the camp's interpreter. The speech extolled the virtues of the "Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere, the courage and sacrifice of the peace-loving Japanese people, and the wisdom and compassion of the Emperor, to whose mercy they owed their lives".

        Following this preamble, the camp commander made four very strong points:
We would follow the orders of the guards, and our lives would be in danger if we did not.
We would be required to work, and we were not to complain about anything.
Our captors would not "tolerate any attitude of white man's superiority over yellow people".
We were required to bow as the commander left the field.

        The guards ordered us to strip to our underwear, and we were issued undersized Japanese uniforms, which barely reached to our elbows and knees, but sadly, due to our prolonged malnutrition, could easily be closed at the waist. Most of us had had no shoes since Corregidor and we were issued awkward wooden clogs. We were assigned to barracks and issued our first meal; a handful of insect infected rice, and some very watery "soup". Three times a day for the next eight months, this was our basic ration, clearly not enough to live on.

        Combined with inadequate medical care, this was a diet on which to waste away and die. It took a definite act of will, a commitment to survival to stay alive. Those of us who let ourselves slide into despair died in a short time, and even many of the strong-willed, through a compounding of disease and malnutrition could not sustain themselves.

        What it took to survive was an indefatigable will to resist our tormentors and find ways to supplement our diet. It took the willingness to eat snails and grasshoppers, to regard the worms and weevils in our rice as a palatable source of additional protein, to value an occasional papaya leaf as a source of vitamins and enzymes when added to our soup, to experiment with eating the bark of trees to find some small measure of added nutrients. Food is the constant preoccupation of those hovering near starvation; it fills the thoughts of every waking moment and haunts their dreams. Prisoners' diaries characteristically contain elaborate recipes, imaginary feasts, recollections of great restaurants and orgiastic banquets of their pasts. Any day that brought an additional morsel of food was recorded as a memorable occasion.

        Still, we watched ourselves and each other literally waste away; watched our skin sag and our skeletons protrude. Hunger made us extremely irritable, often toward each other. Hunger made us sensitive to the smallest discrepancy in the portioning out of our daily "meals". Hunger made many among us give in to despair and thereby fall victim to the myriad of diseases that we all hosted to varying degrees.

        I was never one to let my spirit be beaten. It tore at me and disgusted me to see so many of my fellows quit. I recognized the psychological and physical danger of this inner surrender. I recognized the imperative to stay involved in something positive, anything that could occupy the intellect and keep up the morale of one's self and those around him.

        The great paradox of life as a prisoner of war on Taiwan was that it offered what can be described as a truly pure academic life for those willing to grasp it. There were a number of very high ranking British and Dutch officers as well as high civilian officials from Hong Kong and Singapore that were being held at Karenko and some had managed to bring along complete sets of volumes of British history. There was even a Victrola and a collection of classical records. British officers formed informal lectures on military history, strategy and tactics. Anyone who had any great knowledge in a particular field would make himself available for the enlightenment of others. I did what I could to coach those interested in Japanese language, a most useful tool in our present circumstances.

        Everyone, of course, quickly became aware of the meaning of a small number of Japanese commands. Each morning the prisoners were assembled on the parade ground and called to attention; "Kioski!" We were ordered to bow toward the Imperial Palace; "Kirei!" and to count off; "Bango!" We had all learned to count in Japanese. Then we were sent off to our various work details. All prisoners of whatever rank were put to work; maintaining the grounds, working in the small garden, cleaning the guards' cooking pots, and even General Wainwright was put to work herding goats.

        For a short while, we were subjected to only occasional slappings by the guards. But in early October word reached the camp that the Japanese civilians who were repatriated from Australia and the U.S. had been mistreated and their property confiscated. The guards were determined to retaliate by mistreating those at hand. Slappings turned into ugly indiscriminate beatings, some quite brutal and severe. Any slightest infraction of the camp's rules would bring a blow from the flat of a bayonet or rifle butt. Many required hospitalization including General Wainwright who was beaten until he dropped for exiting the latrine through the wrong door and once was gashed on the wrist by a bayonet during a beating.

        Most of the prisoners had dysentery and diarrhea, which meant having to get up and go out to the latrine at least once during the night. There was always a POW monitor at the door of the barracks to mark off the time and the name of the prisoner going out and coming back in. Stepping from the porch we would always encounter a guard, either standing in sight, or behind a large bush there. When he hid behind the bush, one could choose to bow or not bow, it made little difference. If there was no bow he would jump out and hit the you for not bowing; if you bowed when he was hidden, the guard would jump out and hit you for bowing to the bush. This became so routine that we expected to be hit when we got up in the night and you learned to roll with the punch, so that it hardly got you awake.

        My status at this camp was just one of the lower ranking POW's amongst many, which I much preferred to the spotlight of suspicion I had been placed in on Corregidor. The situation was stable compared to the horrible uncertainty of our captive state just after surrender. We weren't in as close contact with the guards and we knew more or less what to expect. Though I was occasionally assigned as squad leader on a rotating basis, I was usually a face in the crowd, which I much preferred. I wasn't called upon to intercede in violent confrontations or to interpret the guards' orders and thus I was free from being the focus of rumors that I had been.

        Even when a most suspicious incident occurred, my fellows were able to see it for what it was. At Karenko, POW's were not constantly under close watch by the guards, but when anyone in military uniform entered the compound, the first of us to see him was required to call the others to attention and all bow deeply. One day I was standing near the barracks at the time of the changing of the guard, and a new group of guards came across the compound and, of course, everyone bowed. As I stood back up straight from my bow I was shocked to see one of the Japanese soldiers leave the group and come rushing toward me. The guard, instead of hitting me, grabbed me, hugged me and began talking excitedly in English. This was Robert Yamanaka; he had been a friend of mine at Commerce High School in San Francisco, we had even attended the same Buddhist Temple. Robert had moved to Japan long before the war.

        We were able to have many conversations during the course of my time at Karenko, and we even debated the outcome of the war, a topic that would have normally been disastrous between guard and prisoner. Still, we were each loyal to opposing sides and finally my insistence that the Americans would win ended such discussions. We were able, in small ways, to ameliorate conditions for some of the worst medical cases. Later on, when the entire camp was moved to Shirakawa, another location on Taiwan, Robert was made camp interpreter and as such was present at some interrogations in which some British officers were given rather severe beatings. At Shirakawa, our relationship was quite distant.

        One day while still at Karenko, it was announced that a Red Cross team was coming and a POW delegation was appointed to greet them, with the admonition from the Japanese "Remember, we'll be here after they are gone." A "store" was hastily constructed but it was more like a Hollywood set. They had a number of bottles of sweet syrup and soy sauce and even some oranges and tangerines that were supposedly for sale. The "store" and its inventory lasted only a few days beyond the Red Cross visit. The Red Cross representatives were Axis Italians and of little benefit to the prisoners of war, and after taking pictures of us making our play-acted purchases, they left.

        The POW officers were given a monthly allowance in yen, and since there was nothing to buy with it, the Japanese officers talked them into putting up the money to buy and raise some pigs. Quite a few pigs were raised but only a few were actually eaten by the POW's, these on occasional days when a Japanese inspecting officer came by to check on conditions. Sometimes we were able to save a pig's blood from the slaughtering, for a little extra nutrition, but for the most part the pig enterprise only allowed us to supplement our diets with what pig food we were able to steal.

        I was perhaps the only one in that camp that was given a real chance to escape from this scene of starvation and brutality. There arrived at the camp one day two Japanese civilians and they called a few prisoners to be interviewed. I was one of those to be called. Apparently when my story about being a Buddhist priest was checked out through Tokyo, the Buddhist authorities of the Nichirenshu at Minobu had discovered I was a prisoner of war. Since that time they had been doing what they could to intercede. The Japanese civilians offered me the opportunity to return to Minobu and continue my training for the priesthood. I could return to Minobu, the misty and serene culmination of my childhood dreams. It was a chance to escape this life of cruel oppression and to return to the life that was of my own choosing. I would be fed, clothed and nurtured again in an atmosphere of wisdom and compassion.

        There was no real choice in my mind. I didn't hesitate to say no. My place was with my fellow prisoners, I couldn't leave them and abandon my oath of allegiance to the Army. In spite of what my military service had been, I loved the Army. The many fine officers I had met at Karenko inspired me. I admired their devotion to duty in the face of the most humiliating and debasing circumstances. It was my opportunity to demonstrate to myself that I was worthy of being in their company and receiving their tutelage. I had to say no. I was now a sergeant in the U.S. Army, and my loyalties were to my fellow enlisted men, my commanding officers and my country.

        Minobu would still be there if I survived the war. Minobu would shimmer in my dreams and the face of my Lord Abbot, my master, would beckon, but awake I felt more strongly about Colonel Menzies and General Wainwright and the many friends I had found amidst starvation and brutality. It was a decision I never regretted during the final years of the war. It wasn't until my own government turned against me after liberation, that I would ever even doubt that I had done the right thing. Even so, it was the right thing.

        It might have been different had we not found ways to deal with our torment. We found ways to strengthen our morale; to continue resisting the Japanese in whatever small ways we could; ways to occupy ourselves and entertain each other; to help the sick; to educate each other; to remain civilized while being treated worse than animals.

        The Japanese did not allow us to listen to the radio or to read newspapers, but we did find ways to monitor the progress of the war. On rare occasions we were able to get a forbidden copy of a Japanese newspaper and translate its pronouncements into English and then read between the lines. I was able to add to this intelligence by engaging my old school chum, Robert Yamanaka, in debate about the outcome of the war; invariably, Robert would brag about victory after victory, and how the Imperial Navy had sunk the American fleet again. It was obvious that each time the Japanese had one of their "victories" that the location was considerably closer to the Japanese homeland.

        We learned to maintain our dignity and self-esteem while being beaten, abused and humiliated; we learned not to show the pain being inflicted. We would gather together to sing or listen to record concerts. As Christmas of 1942 approached we made crude gifts for each other and even managed to put together a Christmas variety show: Christmas carols, comedy skits, a magic act, and General Wainwright appropriately reciting "General Gas 'n Oil", a comic ballad of an old horse cavalry officer confronting the new modern "cavalry"...mechanized tanks.

        We did find ways to survive, physically and psychologically, but as winter came on, our health problems were magnified. The air in our unheated barracks grew colder and colder. In our lightweight uniforms we became cold and we stayed cold for months. Our bodies had been acclimatized to the tropical heat. Now in our emaciated condition even the subtropical Taiwan winter seemed bone chilling.

        One day in January, the Japanese passed out questionnaires to all prisoners, which required us to list our hobbies, interests and occupations before the war. At that particular moment, it was my turn as squad leader. I asked my nearest superior officer, my good friend and mentor Colonel Enos how we should respond. Colonel Enos asked General Wainwright, and the answer passed back down the line was that there didn't seem to be any reason not to fill them out truthfully. The questionnaire seemed especially interested in musical and theatrical experience. There was speculation among the prisoners that the Japanese were forming a POW variety show to boost morale in the camps. They weren't. I filled the questionnaire out like the others, truthfully, but omitting anything of military significance. I wrote that I had had theatrical and radio experience in San Francisco before the war. This resume brought me a world of trouble. I should have put basket weaving. The questionnaires were turned in and forgotten.

        There are two types of beri-beri and by the end of February 1943 nearly everybody had one or the other. The disease is caused by malnutrition and particularly the deficiency of Vitamin B. One of its effects is the loss of control over the muscles of the toes, which gives one a characteristic "slapfoot" walk. General Wainwright had the less severe dry form marked by flaking skin on the shins and massive "dandruff". Wet beri-beri makes the lower extremities and testicles swell up to grotesque proportions. The disease can be prevented or cured by eating rice or grains with the shells still on the kernels; unmilled grains contain Vitamin B. The only food provided was polished rice. What little Vitamin B we got, if any, was in the stolen pig food.

        At the end of February Colonel Bunker's body had swollen to twice its normal size from wet beri-beri. Near his death he could not recognize his oldest friends, not even General Wainwright, when they came to pay their respects. Funerals had been a regular event at Karenko as they were at all POW camps, but now their number was increasing. Everyone had a complex of diseases and dietary deficiencies that could make them the next. Each of us made out our wills, not in despair, but in realistically confronting our condition. Just one series of misfortunes or a simple cold could put one over the edge beyond recovery. I awoke one morning to find that the man in the bunk next to me, my good friend Sergeant Cavenaugh, had died during the night. Nearly starved like the rest of us, he contracted strep throat for two days and the drain on his vital forces had been too great.

        I had the wet form of beri-beri. My legs and ankles were swollen and covered with running sores that would not heal. My teeth were painfully abscessed and rotting and I had to borrow pliers from the man who made our wooden clogs and pulled them myself. I did survive.

        In April 1943, some of the highest-ranking officers including General Wainwright were moved to another camp on Taiwan as a prelude to being taken to Manchuria for the duration. American successes in the Pacific made it necessary to move POW's from the coastline. In May, the rest of the camp was moved to another camp at Shirakawa, on the other side of the island high on the vast westward sloping alluvial plain.

        I stayed at this camp for about five months. Everything was better here: the weather warmer, the indiscriminate and severe beatings had eased up after Christmas, and now it was mainly occasional slappings or a prod with bayonet or rifle butt, when working too slowly in the fields. Prisoners of war throughout the Far East were put into work gangs: as longshoremen on the Yokohama docks, as yardmen in the Osaka Railway station, as machinists in Kobe factories, as miners in the coal pits at Kyushu, as expendable slaves in the construction of a jungle railway across Thailand to Burma. Here at Shirakawa it was spring, and POW's were set to work planting vast fields of sweet potatoes and peanuts. Our rations weren't improved but we could easily supplement our diets by surreptitiously eating what we were planting. We were put on a regular routine of work, our health improved and we began to believe we might see the end of our ordeal and survive the war after all. We would pass a reservoir each day on the way back from the fields and if the guards were in a good mood, we were allowed a brief swim. First, however, we had to beat the water with sticks to drive the poisonous snakes up to one end where they stayed just long enough for us to take a quick dip.

        The days and months rolled on, they merged into one memory; of days in the fields, of nights among my friends, of scholarly lectures, of philosophical debates, the ignorant brutality of guards demonstrating inferiority while asserting their insecure superiority, the hunger, the never ending effort to find one more morsel of nutrition, the caring shown by hungry men bringing what little food we could find back to those too weak and sick to forage for themselves.

        Life in prison camp is a voluminous history of small heroisms; risks taken for the smallest victory, whether it be a few extra morsels of burnt rice scraped from guards' cooking pots while doing their kitchen chores and smuggling it back as an extra ration for the older and sicker, or the passing of forbidden news of the war; a forbidden newspaper obtained, translated and its between the lines message deciphered and passed among the ragged soldiers, or a beating taken unflinchingly; or interceding in the beating of another knowing that likely the torment would be redirected to the rescuer; of using whatever special talents or insights one had arrived with to benefit the well-being and morale of his fellows.

        My special contributions were neither greater nor smaller than others. Everyone did what he could. What I brought was knowledge of the language, the customs and the psychology of our captors. I also had a unique connection with Robert Yamanaka, who was now the camp interpreter. Robert himself was in an awkward position. He was very much a loyal Japanese soldier, and had to participate in some rather ugly and brutal interrogations, but paradoxically, he was still my high school chum, a San Francisco boy who could not help but feel empathy for the imprisoned. He did what he could to alleviate conditions; to keep the seriously ill from going on work details, to let the prisoners know what was happening in a way the other guards could not. I was able to add to the general knowledge of the war situation by my debates with Robert, and to find out what was going to be tolerated and how harshly particular infractions were going to be dealt with.

        The POW's, it must be said, were used by the Japanese to further their war effort. We did plant many, many acres of sweet potatoes and peanuts and we were kept there through the entire growing season and brought in the harvest. While the food added to the Imperial Army's larder, it added to our own sustenance as well, though it had to be gleaned secretly and smuggled back to camp.

        When the harvest was in, it was me who brought the first news to the group via Robert Yamanaka, that the camp was going to be moved. The Japanese never gave the prisoners an overview of what was happening to us, but in retrospect, it was plain that our purpose at Shirakawa was to be farm hands. It was October now. The crop was in, and we were moving on to some other purpose for the winter.

        There came a day, probably in October of 1943, when a fairly large group of prisoners, with me among them, were loaded aboard trucks and driven to another POW camp, at Tamazato, on the Eastern coast South of Karenko. We were placed in a large wire enclosure about one-quarter mile from the train station with a large number of Allied prisoners whom we hadn't met before.

        It was apparently a time for a great shift in the locations of POW's in East Asia. The camp was being used as a staging ground for the sorting and transferring of prisoners from many locations in the Philippines and Southeast Asia. It was plain to the men from Shirakawa camp that ours had not been the worst lot suffered by Allied POW's. It had been our good fortune that we worked at an agricultural camp. Many prisoners from other camps were nearly mustard yellow and had the distended bellies and hollow eyes of the severely malnourished. The others had had more severe physical abuse and they spoke hauntedly of the fact that the routine murder of the weak or disobedient had never let up since those horrible days on Corregidor. Thousands had been literally worked to death. The fact that so many of us were being shipped north bespoke the fact of Allied military successes in the South, but there was little for us to rejoice in. We were the retreating army’s hostages; it renewed the horror of our predicament.

        Of my long years in prison camps, my days at Shirakawa were the least horrible. It even had its moments when my spirit and intellect could soar again, thanks to the truly fine caliber of my fellow prisoners. It was here, as I would often say in years to come, that I learned the true meaning of that military cliche, "Duty is a thing never done." It was here I gained an insight as to what it was to be a prisoner of war and still a soldier, to find ways to resist within while outwardly oppressed. It was the words of my mentors at Shirakawa that would grant me the perspective to deal with the ordeal that would soon confront me, to find ways to serve my country under close guard from the middle of the enemy camp.

        Being a prisoner of war is not the end of resistance; it is a great test of the human will. Being disarmed, caged, starved and beaten does not eliminate resistance; it drives it within. The worst has happened; one's mortal enemy has gained control of all outward physical circumstances; even life and death is at the whim of the captor. They have the guns, they have the food, they control one's movements through every hour of every day, but the man within still owns himself and can commit himself to a greater cause. If there is any lesson in my story for those who find themselves in the position of national leaders who order people into war to be maimed, killed or captured it is this; we remain engaged in the conflict; capture is not the end for us. We never stopped resisting.


Copyright © 2015, 2022 John Oliver