War Stories: Survivors Recall Japanese POW Camps

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During the first three months of 1942, life became a living hell for nearly 80,000 U.S. and Filipino troops amid the throes of World War II (search). Thousands died at the hands of the Japanese, and many others were tortured or killed in prisons scattered across the Philippines.

Some survived. This is their story.

On Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (search) plunged the United States into war with Japan.

In early 1942 on the island of Corregidor, Gen. Douglas MacArthur (search) followed President Franklin Roosevelt’s orders to retreat to Australia amid concerns the general might land in the Japanese invaders’ hands.

This island was the last American stronghold, and when MacArthur and his troops were outnumbered, he retreated, leaving behind some 76,000 starving American and Filipino troops. But the general vowed to return.

Watch Oliver North's "War Stories: Retaking the Philippines," Sunday night at 8 p.m. EDT on FOX News Channel.

The remaining troops were forced to retreat to the Bataan Peninsula.

The siege on Bataan lasted four months. Hungry and desperate, U.S. troops went from half-rations to quarter-rations, then were reduced to eating pythons, lizards and snails. Monsoons, tropical rainstorms and mud and filth proved debilitating.

“The food situation is deteriorating; their health is deteriorating. And so many of these men were dying of malaria,” said Hampton Sides, author of "Ghost Soldiers.”

According to historian Bill Breuer, who chronicled MacArthur's South Pacific campaign in his book "Retaking the Philippines,“ "Their grenades wouldn't explode they were so old; their shells wouldn't explode they were so old. They didn't have enough medicine. …They knew that they were sacrificial lambs.”

With little choice, Gen. Edward King defied orders and surrendered.

“We did not surrender — the general surrendered us,” said Richard Gordon, an Army infantry soldier who was 20 at the time.

Prison Life

The prisoners were forced to march more than 65 miles in 100-degree heat to Camp O’Donnell. By the time they arrived, there was a body every 15 feet.

“The Filipinos would come along the road and throw food to us,” Gordon said.

“They would put cans of water on the side of the road, 5-gallon cans, and along would come a Japanese soldier and kick 'em over.”

Col. Edwin Ramsey, who joined the guerrillas to fight the Japanese, also described the Filipinos as benevolent: “We didn't realize just how loyal and wonderful the Filipinos were. When we got out, the farmers would give us their last bite of bread and rice.”

But once the Japanese had settled in Bataan, they set up a counter-resistance movement including the Kampei Tai, the Military Police and Intelligence Service units.

In Manila, the Kampei Tai was headquartered at Fort Santiago, a 16th-century Spanish compound.

There, hundreds of guerrillas and civilians were incarcerated, tortured and killed.

“To get the Filipinos to talk, [the Kampei Tai] thought nothing of beheading women, beheading children, maybe in front of the fathers, to get them to confess that they were operating as Allied spies,” Breuer said.

One person who had a particularly good reason to fear the Kampei Tai was Margaret Utinsky (search). Known as "Miss U," the 42-year-old nurse for the Red Cross and her comrades risked their lives smuggling food, clothing and medicine to the POW camp Cabanatuan.

Miss U was caught and jailed in a dark, cockroach-infested dungeon, where for 30 days she was beaten with fists, clubs and whips, Breuer said.

The conditions were similar at other prisons, where for three years, thousands faced torture and death.

Reinforcements Arrive

In 1945, U.S. troops arrived, met with strong resistance by the Japanese.

Rear Adm. Iwabachi Sanji and 30,000 of his men went on a murderous two-month rampage, setting fire to Manila as the Americans advanced.

He rounded up civilians and killed as many as possible, said Marine Lt. Col. Paul O’Friel, first secretary of the U.S. Embassy in Manila.

At one hospital, Breuer said, the Japanese tied men, women and children to their beds before setting fire to the facility.

“I saw many bodies of Filipino people … lying in ditches,” said Corp. John Hencke, a New York-born tank gunner.

Hilarion “Larry” Henares was 20 during the Battle for Manila. As in Nanking, thousands of women were raped and 100,000 civilians were murdered by the Japanese.

“When the tide began to turn in our favor, I … kill a Japanese,” Henares said. “I never told anybody. But it's been giving me nightmares. What I did to that man I shouldn't have done to a dog. But it was you just had to get back.”

As the Americans advanced, the Japanese blew up the bridges and forced the Americans into a slugfest, Friel said.

Said Breuer: “The Japanese were defending every street, every house. … And the way you got 'em out of there is you … didn't wound 'em, you didn't capture 'em – you killed 'em.”

“In January 1945 the Japanese had started pulling all the last able-bodied men from Cabanatuan and sending them to Japan to work as slave laborers,” author Sides said. “So the camp population dwindled down from 9,000 to 500, the sickest and the weakest. There was a great fear that the Japanese guards would liquidate these last 500 American POWs.”

On Palawan a month earlier, nearly 150 American POWs had been herded into trenches, drenched in gasoline and burned alive.


In a hastily planned nighttime raid, Sixth Army Rangers and Filipino troops led by Lt. Col. Henry Mucci and Capt. Robert Prince liberated 516 sick and starving Cabanatuan prisoners.

As the prisoners were freed, Gen. Walter Krueger's troops continued their drive across Luzon.

Hencke described the liberation of the Santo Tomas, Manila, camp: “The people started coming out of the buildings, and they were all over us. … They did that to all of the infantry, had people hugging them to death.”

The next day, 600 civilians and others from Bataan and Corregidor were liberated from the old Bilibid prison. Three days later, they got a surprise visitor.

MacArthur went to the prison, greeted by an emotional group of survivors. “There were tears of joy in their eyes, and some of 'em were so weak, they couldn't stand up, but they tried to get on their feet and salute Gen. MacArthur. One of his aides said … he had never seen the boss with a tear in his eye until today,” Breuer said.

On Feb. 23, 125 men from the 11th Airborne Division parachuted into the Japanese-held Los Banos internment camp south of Manila. As Filipino guerillas attacked from the outside, the 11th rescued 2,000 emaciated prisoners.

Struggling to survive when the 11th Airborne jumped in was 29-year-old Jesuit priest James Reuter from Elizabeth, N.J.

“They [the troops] did pick up a communiqué that we were supposed to be executed,” Reuter said.

“We were eating things that you wouldn't normally eat,” such as banana skins and corncobs, he said.

Reuter described the atmosphere when the American troops finally stormed the prison.

“Bullets were whistling through the barracks, and all of our guards were killed in about 15 minutes,” he said. ”The planes kept circling … and we didn't know who they were. … We thought it was Japanese war games or something.”

All but 50 of the estimated 6,500 enemy troops on Corregidor were dead. In a bloody two-week battle, 223 Americans were killed and more than 1,100 wounded — and in that spring, the war in Europe ended.

After the War

When Ramsey, weighing 93 pounds, emerged from his life as a guerrilla, he suffered two nervous breakdowns.

“I'd gone through three years behind enemy lines where 24 hours a day ... you don't know whether you were going to be alive or not.”

Ramsey found help at a Kansas hospital and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (search) before leaving the Army in 1946. He enjoyed a long career in international trading and joined Hughes Aircraft.

Ramsey praised the civilians who helped him: “The Filipinos were so wonderful that I could never describe it. …Many of the civilians died protecting me.”

For her efforts to help the men at Cabanatuan, Utinsky was awarded the Medal of Freedom in 1946.

And Hencke, who settled in Texas, became a photographer.

“I just knew, that the Lord was right there on my right hand because … there were so many times that I had to die.”