Skip to main content

Heroes and Sons: Coming to Terms


ISSUE:  Autumn 1990

What did you do in the war, Daddy? It’s a question sons are said to ask their fathers; fathers, that is, who have been in a war, and sons who are old enough to realize it. I never asked my father directly, but I must have been about four years old when I understood that my father had served in World War II and learned, also, that he had been an American prisoner of war in Japan. That was another question entirely, and the answer was wrapped in secrecy as carefully as my father’s Navy uniform was packed in mothballs in a government issue footlocker that I rarely saw open.

My father spoke about his war years only from time to time when I was young. When he did, my brother, sister, and I used to hang on to his every word—harrowing tales that held out the same promise of adventure as one of Conrad’s yarns—how he had battled malaria, weathered typhoons, been forced to skin and eat a cat (“gamey as hell,” he said) in dire need of food. But every once in a while, as I grew older, I glimpsed another side of those stories—from official war photographs showing him with his fellow POWs, news clippings listing him as MIA, and his strangely stoical attitude toward death.

Though various histories, studies, and memoirs of the American POW experience in the Pacific have been published over the past 45 years, it is an experience that remains shrouded in silence. The American press capitalized on isolated instances of Japanese brutality against Allied POWs in 1943, but the fate of American prisoners in general was little known until Jan. 28, 1944, when Roosevelt authorized the release of information based on accounts of escapees of the Bataan Death March of April 1942, during which thousands of Americans and Filipinos perished. This may have opened the floodgates, as John Dower remarked in War Without Mercy, for “a torrent of Japanese atrocity stories that continued unabated into the months and even years that followed Japan’s surrender.” But if actions speak louder than words, the official attitude of the United States toward the Pacific POWs was more tellingly revealed not through screaming headlines or yellow journalism but by its inept prosecution of Japanese war criminals. The drama of the Tokyo War Crimes Trials aside, the fact is that the “overwhelming number” of Japanese war criminals, as Arnold Brackman affirmed in The Other Nuremberg, were never indicted by the International Military Tribunal of the Far East, appointed by the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers in Japan, General Douglas MacArthur. And for those who were sentenced to prison, the longest term lasted no more than 13 years. Indeed, it recently emerged that the U.S., in its attempt to prevent the Soviets from obtaining top-secret information regarding Japan’s atomic bomb project, also suppressed evidence at the IMTFE of Japan’s bacteriological warfare experiments on human subjects, including American POWs. In exchange for this data—of extreme interest to America’s own biological warfare program—designated war criminals were granted immunity from prosecution. Others suspected of Class A war crimes, including Yoshio Kodama, a kingpin in the Japanese underworld, or yakuza, walked away scot-free for providing U.S. intelligence—obsessed with Communist spy plots—with information on China and the Japanese left. As if history weren’t conspiring against them as it was, many POWs were—and still are—loath to talk about their internment anyway.

Yet the Pacific POW, as E. Bartlett Kerr pointed out in Surrender and Survival, “underwent an experience unlike that of his millions of fellow veterans.” My father’s account is neither the most gruesome nor the most tragic, but it is nonetheless unique: as that of a survivor who bore witness, and as that of a young doctor who tended the sick, the wounded, the dying. Some of it can be corroborated by the recollections of two other American doctors who shared the ordeal with him—Fred Berley and John Bookman—and substantiated by an invaluable cache of diaries, notes, and letters that miraculously survived extensive Japanese and American bombings and numerous relocations. But some of it had to be pieced together from supposition, while other parts are still missing.

It is a story that was told neither to a journalist nor to an historian but to his son. It has taken me 30 years to learn the details of my father’s three-and-a-half year captivity: in part, due to his reluctance to talk about his experience; in part, due to my fear of asking. Could I, too young to have been drafted for Vietnam, and politically opposed to it at the time, have endured such a struggle? Would I, in other words, be able to measure up to my image of my father? My fear of knowing was overcome by intimations of my father’s own mortality. It was not knowing, I realized, that I feared most.

II

For the 25,000 U. S. soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines captured by the Japanese at the surrender of the Philippines, “the war,” wrote the historian Ronald Spector, “was an unrelieved nightmare.” My father’s began on May 6, 1942 with the fall of Corregidor, the largest single military defeat in American history.

A young Navy doctor, lieutenant (j. g.), he had been stationed at the Cavite Navy Yard dispensary, on the south shore of Manila Bay. When Cavite, home of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet, was bombed into inoperability by a Japanese air raid just three days after Pearl Harbor, my father was ordered with a group of corpsmen to the Mariveles Naval Station in Bataan.

Situated in the West Luzon province between Manila Bay and the South China Sea, Bataan put a brake on the Japanese drive for conquest. For four grueling months the U.S.-Filipino Army held out, despite a lack of air and naval support, and in the face of starvation and disease. My father set up in a field aid station in the Cabulog river valley, where he tended casualties from the bombing of Mariveles, near the peninsula’s tip. Food and medical supplies were perilously low; malaria, scurvy, beri-beri, and dysentery were rampant. As the bombing in his area got too hot for comfort, he was driven to treating his patients in foxholes. In one instance, he assisted with an amputation in a ditch.

By March 1942, rations had been reduced to 1,000 calories a day, “barely sufficient,” General Wainwright informed MacArthur, “to sustain life without physical activity.” Three-quarters of the troops, including my father, had malaria. On April 9 resistance gave way, and the Japanese overran Bataan. Naval personnel were ordered to Corregidor, an island fortress just two miles away, still in American hands. My father and Lieutenant (j.g.) John Bookman, a fellow medical officer stationed at Mariveles, left on one of the last boats out, missing the fall of Bataan and the infamous Death March by just hours.

It was an apocalyptic end, a hideous spectacle of nightmarish beauty. A brilliant full moon illuminated the sky, while below, the Americans demolished their tunnel network, munitions, and supplies to prevent them from being seized by the Japanese. My father watched from the stern of a supply boat slowly threading its way through American minefields en route to “The Rock,” as Corregidor was known. His eyewitness account was later incorporated in the diary of Commander Thomas H. Hayes, the senior Naval medical officer on Corregidor to whom he was to report:

Four tunnels were blown by extremely heavy charges of dynamite, destroying the whole mountainside. The din was terrific . . . . When (Dr. Glusman) had reached mid-channel . . . number four tunnel was blown. There was gasoline storage in this tunnel which added to the explosions and intensified the blast which hurled large rocks, boulders and . . .human fragments all over the area into the sea, sinking small boats in the harbor, injuring occupants. . . . Days later an unidentified human head was found where it had landed in a small boat after having been hurled at an almost unbelievable distance through the air.

Only Corregidor and its satellite islands now stood between the Japanese and victory in the Philippines, and the Japanese lost no time in their final assault.

For three weeks the Japanese bombarded the small tadpole-shaped island from the high cliffs of southern Bataan. The shelling usually began at dawn and, except for an early afternoon lull, lasted until midnight. Those who didn’t have to be elsewhere were in Malinta tunnel, an underground complex dug into a hillside that housed a hospital, communications center, and storage area. Centrally located, it was also MacArthur’s headquarters before MacArthur, on orders from Roosevelt, evacuated Corregidor for Australia in March 1942. My father, like John Bookman and Lieutenant Fred Berley, USN, a medical officer he had known since Cavite, was stationed in the field.

Assigned temporarily to the First Battalion, Fourth Marines, he hooked up with Lieutenant George Ferguson’s outfit. “Fergy,” as he was called, was Battalion Surgeon and with his men had dug a shallow tunnel into a rocky cliff to accommodate a dozen patients, medical personnel and equipment. My father arrived there at night, and in the morning Fergy greeted him with a bar of chocolate. “Thanks pal,” my father said, “when’s breakfast?” “That’s it,” Fergy replied, “and dinner is after dark because the Nips spend all day trying to blow out our galley.” Pounded by Japanese bombers, ringed by 80 to 150 batteries up to 240 mm. in size, life on “The Rock,” as one witness saw it, was “like living in the center of a bull’s eye.”

My father was soon transferred to the 4th Tactical Battalion, Fourth Marines, a ragtag group of Marine, Army, Navy officers and noncoms, led by Major Francis Williams. John Bookman was already acting as battalion surgeon, so my father moved over to the nearby Headquarters & Service Company, the first reserves sent into any emergency situation requiring reinforcements, headed by Major Max Schaeffer. As battalion surgeon for H&S, he administered emergency medical care and accompanied the seriously wounded back to Malinta tunnel, a difficult and hazardous task given the increasing intensity of the Japanese bombardment. In some sectors shells rained down at the rate of 3,500 to 4,000 per hour.

By May 4, the shelling reached incredible heights. In the course of 24 hours, 16,000 shells exploded on Corregidor, crippling its beach defenses, huge sea-coast guns, and anti-aircraft batteries. John Bookman was out by Battery Geary treating the wounded when its magazine took a direct hit. “I thought,” my father said, “the whole damn island was going to explode.” Fragments of concrete “as big as your living room,” Fred Berley recalled, spiraled down through the air; other pieces of “The Rock” were entirely obscured by fire, dust, and smoke. The noise was so overwhelming that individual reports were lost in the din of a continuous explosion. Parts of the island were blown into the sea, while on other parts, “not a stick was left standing,” according to one account. Men reeled from shell shock and fatigue, and the prospect of defeat threatened military comportment.

The Headquarters & Service Company and the 4th Tactical Battalion were now held in reserve in Malinta tunnel. The tunnel itself was crowded to overflowing with American and Filipino officers, technicians, the sick and wounded, and packed with ammunition, supplies, and machinery. Ventilation and lights often failed during air raids; food and water were scarce; vermin and black flies were everywhere. Communications between command posts on the inside and the men out in the field were sporadic, at best.

In the early morning hours of May 6, Hayes, who had never made it out of Malinta, ordered my father to the Radio Intercept Tunnel at Monkey Point on the eastern end of the island. Fighting was fierce, Hayes had heard, and casualties were mounting hourly. Unbeknownst to Hayes, the Japanese had dug in there, were cutting off the tail of the tadpole, and advancing west toward Malinta tunnel. As a last ditch effort, Schaeffer’s reserves—who had no experience as infantrymen—and Williams’ Fourth Battalion—500 sailors armed only with rifles—were called into action and decimated. Schaeffer himself was temporarily blinded by the fallout from a grenade blast and returned to Malinta, where he was examined by my father. Access to Monkey Point, he warned, was impossible. My father then appealed to the Army colonel who had given Hayes his orders, and was told: “Wait until the “All Clear” sounds.” There won’t be an “All Clear,” my father thought, fearing the worst. “I’ll go when the shelling has stopped,” he replied. The end came sooner than expected, for Schaeffer and Williams’ report helped convince Wainwright that fighting further was pointless.

“Help is on the way,” MacArthur had promised. “What crap,” John Bookman scribbled on the inside of a diary he made out of a ledger book sawn in half. Since April 9, between 600 and 800 men had been killed on Corregidor and 1,000 more were wounded. Those who escaped injury were in poor physical condition. Supplies were running out, resistance was broken, a Japanese victory inevitable. At 10 A.M. on May 6, General Wainwright, commander of all U.S. forces in the Philippines, chose to spare the survivors by surrendering. “With broken heart and head bowed in sadness but not in shame,” he told President Roosevelt, “I report. . .that today I must arrange terms for the surrender of the fortified islands of Manila Bay . . . . With profound regret and with continued pride in my gallant troops, I go to meet the Japanese commander.”

III

My aunt was the only one home when she accepted a Postal Telegraph addressed to her parents. From Rear Admiral Randall Jacobs, Chief of the Bureau of Navigation, it read: “THE NAVY DEPARTMENT EXCEEDINGLY REGRETS TO ADVISE YOU THAT ACCORDING TO THE RECORDS OF THIS DEPARTMENT YOUR SON LIEUTENANT JUNIOR GRADE MURRAY GLUSMAN UNITED STATES NAVAL RESERVE WAS PERFORMING HIS DUTY IN THE SERVICE OF HIS COUNTRY IN THE MANILA BAY AREA WHEN THAT STATION CAPITULATED X HE WILL BE CARRIED ON THE RECORDS OF THE NAVY DEPARTMENT AS MISSING PENDING FURTHER INFORMATION X NO REPORT OF HIS DEATH OR INJURY HAS BEEN RECEIVED AND HE MAY BE A PRISONER OF WAR. . . .” There had been no direct word from my father since December 1941. No mail had been delivered to American forces in the Philippines, and little had been received back home. Now he was one among 8,500 officers and men listed as dead, wounded, or missing as of June 1, 1942.

The press couldn’t pass up an opportunity to pander to sentiment and patriotism. “The hope that sustains the families of Navy men reported missing in today’s casualty list,” began an article in the New York Daily News, “is symbolized by a parting gift cherished by Mr. and Mrs. Glusman. . . .” Before boarding his train for San Francisco en route to the Philippines, my father, “in a light-hearted gesture,” had given his parents a bottle of bourbon. “We’ll open it when we hear he is safe,” my grandfather is quoted as saying. My aunt’s recollection is not quite so optimistic. Life stopped, she said, for the family.

My grandfather, a Russian-Jewish emigre who fled his own country to escape conscription in another war with Japan— the Russo-Japanese war—sat up alone at nights in a darkened room. Friends from the neighborhood of Ridge and Attorney streets in Manhattan’s lower East Side dropped by his pharmacy to see if, perhaps, there was any news of his son. The New York Post staged a photograph of the concerned family for a maudlin article that began: “They died or are missing, these New York boys, in the line of duty,” while the New York Herald Tribune ran my father’s picture with a caption that read, simply: “Lt. Murray Glusman: Missing.”

Through the papers, my grandparents contacted the families of other MIAs, including John Bookman’s. Any information was anxiously awaited and eagerly exchanged; news of one MIA’s whereabouts meant hope for another. But the Japanese found it hard to believe that American POWs— shamed as they must be by their surrender—wanted their names reported to their government so families and friends could be informed that they were alive. It was almost a year before my father’s parents heard again from the Navy Department, informing them, based on official Japanese sources via Geneva, that their son was alive, a prisoner of war, and somewhere in the Philippine Islands. It would be nearly two-and-a-half years before they had any communication— even indirect—from him.

IV

“We had it far, far better than our buddies who were prisoners of the Japs,” said one former American POW of Nazi Germany. For until the Second World War, the notion of surrender was largely a foreign one to the Japanese. Death was seen as the ultimate victory, a triumph of spirit over matter. To die in the service of the Emperor, as the kamikazes did on their suicide missions, was a sign of valor. To die, even if by one’s own hand, was preferable to being taken prisoner, as Premier Hideki Tojo made clear in his infamous “frontline code of honor” promulgated in 1941. Surrender, Ruth Benedict observed in her pioneering study, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, was a disgrace, a fate worse than death. Indeed, to be captured while still able to resist was a criminal offense under Japanese law, punishable by the death penalty. If Japan were forced into an unconditional surrender, it was believed, the last Japanese general would commit hara-kiri. To the consternation of the IMTFE, many of Japan’s highest ranking officials subsequently did.

If surrender, to the Japanese, was ignoble, the sick and wounded were considered “damaged goods.” The Japanese Army had no place for them and lacked adequate medical rescue teams, first-aid stations, and supplies. “Kill or be killed” and “No quarter, no surrender,” were the orders of the day. Those “damaged” were often killed, or they killed themselves first.

The Japanese attitude toward surrender applied also to the treatment of prisoners of war. While Japan signed the 1929 Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, the government never ratified it. It did, however, sign and later ratify the Geneva Red Cross Convention. But unlike Germany, which generally adhered to the Geneva Convention in its treatment of American POWs, Japan violated it countless times. One set of directives prepared by a detachment of the kempeitai—the Japanese secret police—ordered that “When prisoners are taken, those who are not worth utilizing shall be disposed of immediately . . . . Surrenderors found to be malicious after the interrogations performed on them . . .will be immediately killed in secret and will be disposed of so as not to excite public feeling.” In fact, the mortality rate for Anglo-American POWs of Japan was nearly seven times that of American and British POWs reported captured by Germany and Italy during World War II. Bushido, which in the samurai code extends benevolence to the conquered and respects the honor of a brave enemy, died on the battlefields of World War II at the hands of the Japanese militarists. As Tojo, who admitted ultimate responsibility for the treatment of prisoners of war, said in a classic understatement of the Tokyo War Crimes Trials: “The Japanese idea about prisoners is different from that in Europe and America.”

It was under such conditions that my father became a prisoner of war.

V

His first reaction to the surrender was one of relief, relief that the Americans had been spared a blood bath, relief that the shelling, after almost five months, had finally ceased. But by May 7, the day after the Fall of Corregidor, the Japanese were already mobilizing their newly captured in the 92nd Garage Area, the former motor pool for the 92nd Coast Artillery, near Malinta hill. There some 12,000 prisoners were gathered, roughly 8,700 of whom were Americans, exposed to a blazing tropical sun, a lack of sanitation facilities, and subsisting on a can or two of rations a day.

Work parties were organized to restore power and communications on the island and to empty Malinta tunnel of its medical supplies and machinery, which were shipped back to mainland Japan. On one foray into the tunnel, my father and John Bookman uncovered a cache of food, and on their way out, they ran into Fred Berley, who eyed their loot with interest, if not appetite. “Y’know,” he drawled, “I’m a pretty good cook.” My father paused, looked at John Bookman, then back at Fred Berley: “Okay,” he agreed. “You’re in.” Fergy was also cut in on the deal, and they decided that henceforth, any food that was found was to be divided equally between them. That understood, the group evolved into a family with a “one for all, all for one” ethos; they even had an “adopted father,” Cary Smith, whom my father had known as chief of surgery at the Army hospital in Bataan.

For several nights thereafter, they stole into Malinta, bringing back food stuffed into pillow cases, and occasionally running into Hayes, who frowned at them disapprovingly. “It was as if, being officers and gentlemen,” my father explained, “we were supposed to starve genteelly.” Had they run into any of the Japanese guards at the lateral tunnel entrances, they would have been shot on the spot.

While other prisoners were transported to Manila, my father was assigned to remain on Corregidor for seven months, tending, with an Army doctor, a salvage work party of some 300 Army personnel. His requests to Japanese authorities for increased quantities of rice for the sick and wounded were met, and, remarkably, not one man was lost during that period.

On Dec. 10, 1942, he was transferred to Bilibid, a prison in Manila designed for common criminals, but converted into a POW hospital and camp. Operated by Navy personnel, Bilibid was an improvement over the 92nd Garage; it had running water and crude, though working, toilets. Prisoners slept on a concrete floor and were fed a diet of rice, vegetables, a little meat, bread, coconut oil, and salt. The meat was sometimes replaced by fish or omitted entirely; the vegetables were leafy greens, and the rice was cooked dry or as gruel.

American POWs had access to food and often vital medical supplies through the Japanese prison and Filipino black markets, but many new arrivals were suffering from severe weight loss, dysentery, pellagra, night blindness, and a condition that reached epidemic proportions in camps throughout the Philippines, “Burning Feet.” Characterized by severe burning pains in the toes and soles of the feet, “Nutritional Melalgia,” as my father named the syndrome, was one of the more bizarre effects of malnutrition. Some relief finally came toward the end of 1942 when the first Red Cross food parcels arrived. Their contents of sweet chocolate, powdered orange juice, prunes, and coffee were delicacies to some; but their portions of evaporated milk, corned beef, sardines, and vitamin-enriched foods were lifesavers for others.

Life at Bilibid followed pretty much of a routine. In addition to tending patients, my father doubled as the #2 cook and dishwasher. To relieve their monotony, the men entertained themselves with a weekly vaudeville act and orchestra and soon saw American feature films twice a month, starting with The Marx Brothers Go West. News of the Allies’ progress in Europe was followed as best it could be through the scant information provided by the Filipino press. A favorite pastime was predicting when the war would end. “We’ll be free in ‘43, No more war in ‘44, Hardly a man alive in ‘45,” Cary Smith used to sing in the evenings. As if to dampen such patriotic sounding off, the Japanese began showing crudely made anti-U.S. propaganda films such as The Fall of Bataan and Corregidor, which were “very poorly done,” one viewer complained.

Spring signaled the beginning of the rainy season, which was a welcome relief—not so much from the heat, as from the dust—but it also resulted in a sharp decrease in the food supply. The men were already donating 10 percent of their pay to a food fund for patients, but, due to rationing, sugar was now almost nonexistent, as were meat, cigarettes, matches, and soap. By September, the daily diet consisted of soup made from the vine tops of the commote, or sweet potato, rice, and that was all. By September, it also looked as if the war wouldn’t be over until the summer of ‘45. “A long time,” John Bookman reflected in his diary.

VI

“To survive,” the late Bruno Bettelheim wrote, “one has to want to survive for a purpose,” and as a doctor at Bilibid, my father had a very distinct one: helping others. At Cabanatuan, which was operated by Army personnel and was the next stopover for American POWs after Bilibid, his help in that capacity was no longer officially needed.

Just 90 miles north of Manila, Cabanatuan was situated in flat, rice-growing country. Three camps were located in the immediate vicinity, and comprised the largest concentration of American POWs in the Far East. “Generally speaking,” John Bookman described it, “the place looked like a glorified hobo camp.” My father arrived by boxcar on Oct. 2, 1943. Of roughly 4,000 men, 700 were carriers of dysentery, 1,500 were hospitalized, and the rest were in working groups. Malaria was common; malnutrition was not as bad as it was to become.

The work at Cabanatuan ranged from farming, harvesting, cultivating, and planting, to carpentering, road-building, and grass-cutting. The tools and equipment were primitive, but the work got done, if in the old coolie fashion.

A knowledge of Japanese, my father quickly learned, could be useful. For a while, he served as an interpreter for the guards supervising a carpentry detail. But he was soon out in the fields with Fred Berley, John Bookman, and Fergy, farming the commote. The work itself was strenuous, and tilling the soil in preparation for planting could be deadly: giant ant-hills, which had to be cleared for cultivating, were frequently infested by cobras. One guard even kept a cobra leashed to a snake-stick to taunt prisoners.

Come harvest, the men toiled for days on end in the intense tropical heat, picking the long vines of the commote, which were then piled on to bamboo and canvas litters weighing up to 600 pounds, and carried miles back to the camp. The sweet potatoes were for the guards; the vines, again, for the prisoners.

The guards could be “meaner ‘n skunks,” Fred Berley recalled, and were never to be trusted. To cross them was to risk severe beatings or worse. They rarely spoke to the prisoners; they barked orders, the most common being “Kioshi!” (“Attention!”). As liability against escapes, the guards divided the prisoners into groups of ten for “shooting squads.” If even one man attempted escape, they threatened, nine others would be shot in retaliation. Some of the guards were soldiers too old to fight in the Emperor’s service; others may have been common criminal elements. The important thing was to remember one’s place.

Since days in Cabanatuan began at dawn, nights were devoted to taking one’s mind off the ordeal of the day. So the men played cards, checkers, or chess on hand-carved sets, wrote in their makeshift journals, dreamed about the future, or just smoked. The Japanese went so far as to replace the Old Golds they found in Red Cross parcels boasting “Freedom is Our Heritage,” with Chesterfields. When those ran out, tea was used instead of tobacco, surplus bandages for filters, and Bible pages as cigarette papers.

A very real concern for the young American doctors was how far behind they had fallen in their medical studies and how they could possibly catch up. Penicillin, effectively developed in 1941, was still a mystery to them. And I suppose my father must have wondered at times who would survive the war and who wouldn’t, reminded by several prisoners who had attempted escape and, instead of being shot, were simply hung up by their hands to die.

But there was no doubt in his mind as to who would win the war: it was just a matter of when. By the spring of 1943, the Japanese had begun to transport POWs—enlisted men and junior officers—to Japan. Many of the top brass did their best to remain where they were, believing that the Philippines would be liberated long before Japan surrendered to the United States. But if that were so, my father surmised, the Philippines would again be the scene of heavy fighting, and one had to question what the Japanese might do with their American prisoners. My father hoped that he and his buddies would be able to make the voyage sooner than later, though it wasn’t until Feb. 26, 1944 that Fred Berley, John Bookman, and he left Cabanatuan for Manila, en route to the mainland. Their timing was crucial. Fergy, who had amoebic dysentery, stayed behind until the exodus north began in the latter half of ‘44.

On March 7 they set sail aboard the Kiniwa Maru, a 5,000-ton Japanese freighter that was part of a larger, unmarked merchant vessel convoy. Life in the hold wasn’t bad, except the men had no idea of their ultimate destination. If only they were torpedoed, Fred Berley fantasized as they approached the straits of Formosa, they could swim to Taiwan! Fortunately their luck held out, and on March 15 they found themselves in Takow, where they managed to steal some sacks of brown sugar being loaded on board. On the 17th, they set sail for Morji: next stop Osaka. The weather turned bad, and for a couple of days the going was rough. Quite a few of the men suffered seasickness, and the cold only added to their discomfort.

On March 25, a month after they set out from Cabanatuan, they arrived on the mainland at Tsumori Prisoner of War Camp. It was “a dreary dirty depressing camp back up against a cement factory,” John Bookman noted in his diary. Winter had been hard on the prisoners there, and their health was poor, with many suffering from pneumonia and malnutrition. The Japanese greeted the new arrivals by confiscating their personal effects as well as their Red Cross goods and medicine and then subjecting them to Japanese military drill. The most immediate problem was the cold, which only a hot bath, Japanese style, seemed to relieve.

On April 8, John Bookman left the group for Wakayama, where he remained as Medical Officer until July 9, when he stopped off briefly at Itchioka, en route to the Kobe Prisoner of War Hospital. My father and Fred Berley had to endure what the Japanese called a hospital at Itchioka in the meantime.

Not far from Osaka, Itchioka was the site of a makeshift POW hospital, set up under the stands of a sports stadium. “It was a hell-hole,” my father recalled, “as if the Japs really wanted to tell their prisoners just what they thought of them.” Sanitation was abysmal, medical supplies were so low that a patient with a burst abdomen had to be sewn up with black cotton thread and vest buttons, and when Fred Berley complained that the guards were stealing food, not only he, but all of the POWs were beaten.

If the Japanese were guilty of running germ warfare tests elsewhere on American POWs, they were guilty of conducting surgical experiments at Itchioka. “Burning Feet,” as my father had learned, was treated simply by improving the diet. But one patient suffering from it was forced by a Japanese doctor to submit to an abdominal sympathectomy, a complicated and dangerous operation. As my father wrote in his notes at the time:

The value of these operations for this condition was highly questionable even on theoretical grounds. In effect, Lt. Nisura (the Japanese surgeon) was using these patients as guinea pigs. The operation on____, without consent, and over the objection of Dr. Jackson (the attending physician), which resulted directly in___’s death, constitutes even in its most favorable light—manslaughter.

Fred Berley informed Lieutenant Ohashi, director of the prisoner of war hospital in Kobe, of the extreme situation at Itchioka. Berley, who by then had contracted tuberculosis, was granted a transfer. As the senior American medical officer, he was also allowed two junior medical officers for assistance. He chose my father and John Bookman, and on July 10, they arrived in Kobe. At last, in Ohashi, they found a man who was a doctor first, and a Japanese officer second—a real gentleman. Ironically, the “friendly fire” of American bombers was to become their worst enemy at Kobe.

Across the bay from Osaka, Kobe had a prewar population of more than a million. It was one of Japan’s six most important industrial cities and its most important port. The hospital occupied a former mission school in a quiet, hillside location. Consisting of seven wooden structures, some single-storied, some two-storied, it had a capacity of 200 “beds”—specially made straw mats on wooden floors—and tended American, British, Dutch, and Australian POWs. It was a genuine working hospital, with medicine, supplies, a canteen, and recreational facilities, and, if not new, at least functional equipment.

But the shortage of food was taking its toll. The staples were now bread, rice, barley, and vegetables, with small amounts of fruit and sugar. The portions of fish and meat, John Bookman recalled in his testimony before the War Crimes Office, were “the size of the last joint of your little finger about every two weeks.” Kobe may have been the best prison hospital encountered thus far, but the average weight of its patients was 121 pounds, and their diets were being supplemented by food from the plates of the prison doctors. The Japanese tended to operate on the simple—and erroneous—assumption that a sick man needs less food than an active one.

Indeed, the moral code of the camp derived from the diminishing food supply. Cigarettes were coveted because they assuaged the appetite. But because nicotine has no nutritional value, the doctors forbade swapping one for the other. Some POWs who didn’t smoke still bartered their tobacco for rations, heedless of their buddies’ well-being.

Stealing food was a grave offense, a clear violation of the “one for all, all for one” ethos. One warrant officer by the name of Saki filched food boxes from the POW Red Cross supplies, but the men could do little about it except wait until Saki left the camp, when the stealing mysteriously stopped. But when Private Beauchamp, an American orderly who worked in Saki’s quarters was suspected of pocketing tinned beef from the Red Cross parcels of two psychiatric patients, justice was sought—and miscarried. In spite of Beauchamp’s plea of innocence, Fred Berley remained unconvinced, forced a stomach pump down him, and tendered up the incriminating evidence. Berley flew into a rage and had to be forcibly restrained by my father and John Bookman, who reproached him for conduct unbecoming an officer. To his chagrin, Berley was made to apologize to the shaken and remorseful Beauchamp and to account for his behavior to Ohashi.

Since my father had lost his “black bag” during the bombing of Cavite along with most of his belongings, even the crude medical instruments at Kobe came in handy. One truly dramatic case involved a POW who had been blinded, but managed to get around by pulling a double-amputee on a makeshift mover’s dolly, who served as the eyes behind him. Interested in both neurology and psychiatry, my father examined the blind man through a 19th-century ophthalmoscope, and quickly realized that he was suffering not from organic but from hysterical blindness. After several sessions of hypnosis, which my father understood only from a rudimentary reading of Breuer and Freud, the blind man regained his sight and promptly abandoned his legless friend. To his amusement, my father was thereafter regarded by the awe-struck Japanese—and a few POWs as well—as something of a miracle-worker.

Because Kobe was a port, news of the outside world could be gleaned from the British cooks at the hospital, who dealt with the stevedores for foodstuffs and supplies; the two English-language newspapers published in Japan; or via the occasional short-wave radio, homemade and always carefully concealed. A few lucky POWs received their first mail in December 1942, when the Japanese began to release the names of American prisoners of war. But no word from my father reached home until late 1944.

In December 1943, Radio Tokyo launched Humanity Calls, a series of propaganda broadcasts allowing POWs to send messages to their families back home. “This is Humanity Calls,” it began after a little jingle, “bringing you messages from your missing men in Japanese prison camps.” The Japanese felt this was so successful in improving their world image, that it was soon followed, in early ‘44, by The Postman Calls. On Sept. 4, 1944, a message from my father was included on one of the broadcasts. A ham radio operator on the West Coast intercepted it, then relayed the text to the provost marshal general of the Army Service Forces, POW Division, who in turn contacted my father’s parents. Though the U.S. government denounced the transmissions as unreliable, most of them—like this one—proved to be genuine. “AM IN GOOD HEALTH,” it began. “WORKING AS A NEURO-PSY . . . HOSPITAL ESTABLISHED FOR OSAKA P.O.W. CAMP. PLEASANT SURROUNDINGS. RECEIVED YOUR PACKAGE AND SEVERAL LETTERS. LOVE TO ALL, MURRAY.” Mail began to arrive on a more regular basis, but by then, the Japanese restricted the text of incoming letters to 24 words each, perhaps so they could be easily translated and quickly cleared by the censor. “Hello Murray,” began one such letter, dated New Year’s Day, 1945. “Happiest possible Birthday. Received your message. We’re all well, hopeful. Regards from my wife and the four Ziffs. Spiritual handshake across the world. Charlie.”

Despite Radio Tokyo’s claims of Japan’s military preeminence in the Far East, her Imperial Army was buffeted in the Pacific with the onslaught of MacArthur and Admiral Nimitz. And as Japan suffered reverses, so did her prisoners. The situation at Kobe didn’t get bad, really, until early 1945. Then it turned into a disaster.

Having realized, reluctantly, that the precision bombings of industrial targets by B-29s would not yield Japan’s defeat, the U.S. Army Air Force adopted the radical strategy of high altitude incendiary bombing. High altitude bombing was not particularly accurate, but the incendiary raids were devastating, as evidenced by the firebombing of Tokyo, which did more material damage and killed more people than the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki. The hospital at Kobe was unmarked, but the War Department was fully aware of the existence of POWs there; in fact, a Delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross had visited it in August 1944, and his report was the basis of an article in the Prisoners of War Bulletin, appearing in November of that year. On Feb. 4, 1945, Kobe became the first of Japan’s six most important industrial cities to be the target of American firebombings. In slating Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, and Kobe for destruction, the U.S. Army Air Force was thus jeopardizing the lives of POWs held in those cities.

At first, the sight of American planes over Kobe was cause for cheer. It was the first sign of an American military presence for the POWs in three years, “and made us feel proud,” my father said, “and like we were not some poor, ragged, half-starved bastards the Japanese could spit on.” The POWs even made sport of it: bombing for yen. They’d bet on when the next bomb would fall, and the person closest in time, won.

But the first raid on Kobe was only a small test: 69 B-29s dropped 173 tons of incendiaries topped with frag, clusters from 24,000 to 27,000 feet. On March 16, 307 B-29s from Curtis LeMay’s Twentieth Bomber Command dumped 2,355 tons in the space of two hours and eight minutes. “We figured if we got hit,” my father rationalized, “it meant the Japanese were damned well getting theirs,” and they were. A fifth of the city was leveled; one-quarter of the population was left homeless. This was topped by June 5.

The morning of June 5 dawned bright and clear until a swarm of 473 B-29s flying in tight triad formations “with a terrible kind of majesty” littered the sky with 3,077 tons of bombs. Buildings collapsed on impact and burst instantaneously into flames. Fire leapt up from craters in the ground, and the smoke was so intense it blotted out the sun. The hospital received direct hits, and staff rushed to extricate bedridden patients trapped by fallen beams, and to attend burn victims and wounded, including Japanese civilians. The Japanese, meanwhile, had taken cover in their own shelters, allowing the Americans “to run our own show,” Fred Berley recalled. Amazingly, only five POWs were killed during the raid; three of them were patients, two were Americans. Kobe itself was in ruins; 51,399 buildings were destroyed, and its downtown was recognizable only by the confluence of streetcar tracks. Many of those who sought cover in bomb shelters were incinerated. The casualty rate was the highest of any Japanese city bombed by the U.S. during the war, except for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. June 5 eliminated Kobe as an incendiary target.

Patients and staff had already been suffering from a heatless winter and a practically meatless and fruitless low-protein diet. Now, the only medical supplies, food, and clothing they had left, were wiped out. They slept on the ground that night, some without blankets.

The next day my father helped evacuate 57 patients on an 8- to 10-mile trek, mostly uphill, to a camp called Maruyama. Fred Berley and John Bookman stayed at Kobe to tend those patients left behind, 39 of whom were stretcher cases. That evening, a typhoon hit Kobe, and, as preparations were being made for the night, ten Japanese soldiers arrived escorting another hundred POWs, with orders for a complete evacuation. Protests were of ho avail, so in the middle of the night, the remaining staff and patients, including advanced tuberculars and the half-starved and seriously ill, for whom there were only nine stretchers, began their journey to Maruyama in the driving rain.

Maruyama was the worst. Without sanitation, it was infested with flies, and it had no medicine, bandages, soap, or mess gear. Wounds swarmed with maggots, which proved to be unusually effective in cleansing them; old bandages had to be washed and reused. Those who could, slept on tables with the legs in bowls of water to deter jumping fleas. In a few weeks, the camp was made liveable, but badly needed medical supplies wouldn’t arrive for a month and a half. Japanese guards could be seen practicing sword-strokes, as if in preparation for Ketsu-go, the plan for an all-out defense of the homeland. They even asked some POWs—who could predict their fate under such circumstances—to practice with them.

By July 28, rations had reached their lowest. The daily diet, for patients and staff alike, consisted of seventy grams of millet grain, a small bun and a half, plus one small squash, or six eggplants to be divided among 100 men. At one point, a stray cat wandered into the camp. “You could see the same thought cross our faces at the same time,” John Bookman remembered, as my father, Fred Berley, and he quickly butchered and dressed the cat, boiled it with greens, and ate it, broth and all. Their intake, by then, was no more than 800 calories a day, and at that rate, they calculated, they wouldn’t make it through November 1945.

Two out of five American prisoners of war in Japan never did. It’s obvious that my father wouldn’t have, either, had the war with Japan not ended when and as it did. Nor would his patients at Maruyama have survived, had he and Fred Berley not risked their lives on a mission of mercy to Tokyo demanding that Japanese authorities—after the surrender but before MacArthur had arrived for the formal signing ceremony— send food, medicine, and supplies to Maruyama at once.

Yet there was no official homecoming for my father when he first landed, after more than four years, on American shores. Nor was there one for Fred Berley when he touched down at Midway airport in Chicago. Nor for John Bookman, when he arrived back at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. To his family and friends, though, my father was a local hero, and he surprised me when he told me he didn’t understand why. “After all,” he said, “we lost our part of the war.”

But he had survived, and done his duty under extreme circumstances, and I, having fought in no wars, equated his survival with heroism. “No,” he maintained, “heroism lies not merely in personal survival and in doing one’s duty under difficult conditions, but in helping others and saving lives.” His words reminded me of a postcard I had come across in his wartime correspondence. Addressed to his father in a plain hand, it read:

Dear Mr. Glusman—

The last time I saw Murray Glusman was in March ‘44 on a Nip tramp steamer. I told him that I’d write—Please let me know if he is okay—Because I’m almost sure the doctor saved my life.

Alway [sic] your friend, Sgt. (L. W.) Stevens

And then I realized what my father couldn’t admit: that he had been a hero on his own terms.

VII

There’s a photograph of my father in full Navy uniform shortly after he came home from the war, and while there’s clearly a resemblance between father and son, he looks older, wiser—somehow more like a father. He was almost 31 at the time, and as I turned that age I found myself wondering: Could I have survived as he did and have been a hero in his eyes? Could I have found meaning in such an experience and made use of it in my own life?

“Those who have not lived through the experience,” Elie Wiesel has said referring to the Nazi death camps, “will never know; those who have will never tell; not really, not completely.” Indeed, behind the stories my father has related over the years, and the few to this day he still tells me, lie other stories I might never hear. But one of them his friend John Bookman shared with me.

At nights in Cabanatuan, after a day of hard labor, my father, John, Fred, and Fergy used to play bridge “until it was too dark to see.” Their deck of face-worn cards was one of their most cherished possessions, which they kept hidden, wrapped up in a piece of torn sheet. On the night before their journey to mainland Japan, which would leave Fergy behind, they had a marathon game. The low scorer, they decided, would pay for a big blow-out in San Francisco, once they all got back from the war.

But Fergy went down in the Arisan Maru, one of the unmarked POW transport ships sunk by the Americans in the disastrous voyage north from the Philippines in the fall of ‘44. They never had that celebration.

I never knew my father played bridge.

0 Comments

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Recommended Reading