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Survivor’s luck: A World War II POW’s memoir

James Hargrove Special to
the Times
The Apalach Times

“What did you do in the war, Grandpa?”

When my niece, Elizabeth Harper, telephoned my uncle John Hanson and asked several questions for a grade school assignment, he was ready to answer. He had written a memoir about being with the 31st Infantry Regiment under General MacArthur in Manila before the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Here is what he wrote to Elizabeth to explain the battle and 41 months he survived in several prison camps.

How old were you when you went to fight, and what year was it?

I was 18 when I joined the army in March 1941, and I was 19 when World War II started for the United States on Dec. 7, 1941, and when I was taken prisoner in April 1942.

Why did you join the Army?

I had finished high school in Billings, Montana and was working as a messenger for the Western Union Telegraph Co. earning $12 a week. I knew that it would not be possible to go on to college and thought that it would be quite an adventure to join the Army or Navy and see what other parts of the world looked like. The Army recruiter said they could send me to Manila in the Philippine Islands and I signed up for a three-year enlistment (which turned in to five years).

I had been in Manila, in the 31st Infantry Regiment for five months when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941. It was Monday, Dec. 8 in the Philippines which are on the other side of the International Date Line. We were asleep in the barracks about 4:30 a.m. when the news came that war had started and we knew that the Philippines would soon be attacked because the Islands were only a few hundred miles south of the Japanese-held island of Formosa (now Taiwan).

What was it like when the fighting started?

It was very uncomfortable and very scary. We were always hungry and in danger from enemy shells and bombs and of course from rifle fire and hand grenades when the Japanese were attacking on the ground. It was also very depressing to realize that there were only two things that could happen. We would either die or be captured by the enemy. All we could do was hold out as long as possible and help keep the Japanese forces occupied and away from Australia until America could train more soldiers and sailors and manufacture ships and planes and guns and get everything to Australia before the Japanese could get there.

What did it feel like to be captured?

We did not know what to expect. Japan had not signed the Geneva Convention regarding the treatment of prisoners of war. Before the war we had read about how brutal the Japanese had been in parts of China and it seemed unlikely that we would be treated well. We hoped they would treat us as prisoners of war but it turned out we were considered captives with no rights of any kind.

Were you part of the Bataan Death March?

No. I was in the hospital being treated for malaria when Bataan surrendered. The hospital was an area in the jungle near a stream, with hammocks and bunkbeds scattered around under the trees and a few small buildings which housed supplies, equipment, and an operating room. I was given a spoonful of liquid quinine twice a day to fight the malaria and it took about a week to recover.

If the mosquito that bit me and caused the malaria had waited a few days to bite your grandfather, I might have been killed during the last battle on Bataan, or would have been on the death march with malaria and might have been one of the 1,500 or so American soldiers who died on the march. So it may be that you are here on this earth only because a particular little mosquito bit me on, say, April 5, 1941 instead of April 9.

As it turned out, the Japanese put a barbed wire fence around the hospital area and placed artillery (big guns) close to the hospital, so they could shoot at Corregidor and our people on Corregidor could not fire back without killing fellow Americans. After Corregidor surrendered everyone from the hospital was taken out of Bataan by truck to a prison in Manila called Bilibid.

Two days later I was in a small group sent to a camp near the city of Cabanatuan. The people who survived the death march were taken to a place called Camp O'Donnell where many of them, Americans and Filipinos, died. Later on, the remaining Filipinos were released to go to their homes and the surviving Americans were either sent to Cabanatuan (where I was) or were sent to Japan. In Oct. 1942 I was sent to Clark Field, about 60 miles north of Manila, where American prisoners worked at various jobs on the airfield until August 1944.

How long did the war actually last? How long did it feel like to you?

The fighting on Bataan lasted four months. I was a prisoner for 41 months, from April, 1942 until early Sept. 1945. This was a total of 45 months, or 3 ¾ years that the war lasted. This is about the amount of time you were in school from the time you started first grade until you finished the fourth grade. It seemed like a very long time to me because we were hungry nearly all the time, working hard, always in danger of being beaten by a guard and not knowing when the war might end. About 40 percent of those who were taken prisoner by the Japanese died before the war ended.

Some were killed on the death march, many died from disease because there was little or no medicine available, a few were executed for trying to escape or because somebody in their group escaped. More than 3,000 died on the way to Japan when the ships they were on were sunk by American planes or submarines. Some died in mine or factory accidents in Japan. I feel very lucky to be in the 60 percent who managed to live through all those terrible things.

How did you end up in Japan at the time Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed?

In Aug. 1944 we were working on the airfield one day and on the way to Manila the next day to catch a ship (the Noto Maru) to Japan. This was two months before American troops made the first landing in the Philippines, Oct. 20, 1944. All American prisoners in the Philippines who were well enough to work were shipped to Japan during the late summer and early fall of 1944. Those who were crippled or too ill to work were left behind in Cabanatuan or Bilibid Prison.

I was in a group of about 1,000 who arrived in Japan in early Sept. 1944. We were split into smaller groups and sent to work camps in various places. I was in a group of 150 sent to work in a smelter in a small town near the city of Nagoya, on Honshu Island, south Tokyo. Tokyo is the biggest city in Japan and Honshu is one of four main islands of Japan. Hiroshima and Nagasaki are both south of Toyama and Tokyo.

What did it feel like when America bombed Japan? What did you feel like?

America had been bombing Japan for several months with B-29 bombers based first in China and later from islands in the Pacific which were taken from the Japanese. We knew the war must be about over the day we saw a big silver American bomber flying all alone at a relatively low altitude with no Japanese fighter planes trying to shoot it down. This was a B-29, but we did not know that at the time.

A short time later there was a night bombing raid on the town of Toyama which lasted several hours. We were close enough to hear the first planes coming over, and later on could see planes in the light of fires started by the first bombs.

A few days later our guards and the Japanese people working in the smelter were overheard talking about a big bomb. We did not know it at the time, but they were talking about the atomic bomb which was dropped from a B-29 called the Enola Gay over the city of Hiroshima on Aug. 6. Three days later, a second atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki.

We could tell that something big had happened but didn't know exactly what it was. Russia had declared war on Japan and we thought this might be the reason the Japanese were so unhappy. On August 15th, the day before my 23rd birthday, work was stopped at the smelter and a radio message from Emperor Hirohito was broadcast over a loud speaker in the smelter. The war was over. Japan was surrendering.

What did it feel like to get free?

We were not free yet but the war was over and we had lived to see that wonderful day. And sometime soon we would be on our way home. We painted a big PW on the barracks roof and American planes came over to drop food, medicine, and uniforms. Early in September, after spending a year in Japan and losing 12 of our original 150 to pneumonia, we were on planes flying south towards Manila and a boat home.

It was the most wonderful, exciting feeling you can imagine but there was sadness. So many of those we had lived with and worked beside and suffered with were gone. They would never know the pure joy of freedom and good food and loved ones.

As you can see, I was lucky to live through the war and come home to go to college, marry your grandmother Nancy, be blessed with daughters Carol and Linda, son-in-law Chuck, and granddaughters Elizabeth and Allison.