American Heroes: Prisoners of the Rising Sun

The Philippines, June 2005: On a hot, steamy afternoon, I followed Oliver North down a crowded alley in Manila that lead to the entrance of the Manila City Jail. We were in the Philippines to do some location shoots for an episode of "War Stories with Oliver North" entitled "Prisoners of the Rising Sun," about the brutal treatment of Japanese prisoners of war during World War II.

The narrow alleyway leading to the gate was overflowing with friends and relatives of the prisoners. Children in diapers walked around unattended and the stench of rotten food and garbage permeated the air.

The sense of despair was palpable.

• Catch the 'War Stories Classic: Prisoners of the Rising Sun,' Mon., December 8 at 3 a.m. ET

We were at the city jail because during WWII, it was the notorious Bilibid prison. Bilibid was a temporary home to thousands of POWs during the war — a stopover on their way to brutal work camps in the Philippines, China or Japan.

"I couldn't believe that human beings were forced to endure this kind of treatment," Oliver North said to me. "Bilibid Prison was just the beginning of a long nightmare."

As I looked around the squalor, I wondered to myself what it must have been like to be one of those POWs — a young man, often fresh out of high school, 8,000 miles away from home, with no way to contact family or friends; trapped in a living hell with a fate unknown.

Robert Granston is no stranger to that feeling.

"We were herded into confined rooms," remembers the Seattle native, who as a young Naval supply corps officer spent 10 days in Bilibid after surrendering to the Japanese on the Philippine island of Corregidor in May of 1942. "There we were guarded. There we were given little rations of water and minor rations of rice and food." Granston spent two and a half years in various camps in the Philippines before being shipped to Japan on December 13, 1944.

The ships that carried the prisoners to their various destinations have been called "hell ships." There is no better term to describe the conditions. "There is no water, and during the first day when we were crowded into these holes and the hatch covers put down, you could imagine how that temperature rose," Granston recalled in an interview in his Florida home, "and those that were pushed back in the sides of the ship almost immediately became disoriented, dehydrated, and began losing their minds."

To add to their torment, American bombers were targeting their unmarked ship. "We got a bomb directly in the forward hold," remembered Granston, "and the hatch boards came crashing down on us. And there were approximately 250 of us in that hold. And of that 250, less than 100 of us were living after that bombing."

Granston ended up on three different ships before finally arriving in Japan. More bombings and the inhumane conditions took a horrible toll on the prisoners. "Of the 1,618 of us that started from Manila, on December the 13th, about 350 of us arrived in Japan, on January the 30th of '45," remembered Granston. "And of that 350, over half of those I understand, perished either through malnutrition, wounds sustained, and the like."

The brutality of the Japanese POW experience wasn't limited to the "hell ships" or to just Americans. Oliver North and I traveled to Amsterdam to interview Dick Van Zoonen, who as a young Dutch soldier was forced to surrender to the Japanese in Java in March of 1942. Van Zoonen lived with his wife in a small apartment in The Hague that overlooked the North Sea. Van Zoonen calmly recalled working on what became known as "The Bridge on the River Kwai," a 250-mile railway that connected Burma and Thailand through some of the world's toughest terrain.

"We worked nine days and then the tenth day we had that day off," Van Zoonen recalled. "Most of the deaths were from disease. Disease combined with lack of medicine and poor quality food. Those three things, they worked together."

The prisoners would slave sometimes up to twenty hours a day in sweltering heat with very little food. "One incidence I remember very strongly," Van Zoonen said. "Somebody knocked on our door and he said, 'Can I come in to your tent?' And first people looked a bit suspicious. They said, 'Okay, come in. Sleep here with us.' And the next morning he was dead, laying beside me. He probably had a heart attack in the middle of the night. He was not sick when he came in. He died from overwork. That was one of the worst things."

Oliver North and I also traveled to London to interview 86-year-old Fergus Anckorn. A native of Kent, England, Anckorn had served with the British Army in Singapore and was forced to surrender to the Japanese in February, 1942. He too found himself working on the railway.

"We would be got up at dawn and work through till midnight, 18 hours," Anckorn recalled to Oliver North. "We often carried men out on stretchers to work because they were dying, and they would lie on the stretcher having to break rocks with a three pound hammer."

When Oliver North asked Fergus why he survived, his answer was quite simple: "It was in your head, if you wanted to survive, you had the chance of surviving. If you didn't, you had no chance. I did nothing except that I did everything that I thought was right for me. I ate anything that moved, no matter whether it was snakes, slugs, maggots, anything, I would eat it."

Dick Van Zoonen also had a clear take on why he managed to make it back home: "People who lost courage, they had a good chance of dying. Only the people who were convinced we'll get through this, we'll reach the end, and we'll win the war finally, they were the ones who survived."

— Steven Tierney is a producer for "War Stories with Oliver North"