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To hell and back

Memorial Day | On Sept. 7, 1944, Edward Treski received a lifetime dose of perspective

Issue: "Playing with capitalism," May 23, 2009

Last January while chauffeuring around my 87-year-old grandfather, he struck me speechless when, frustrated over losing his driving privileges and heartbroken that his wife of 63 years now lived in a nursing home, he blurted: "I have no idea why I am still alive. I should have died that day."

"That day" was Sept. 7, 1944, when 23-year-old Army 2nd Lt. Edward Treski descended into a war experience so hellish he could only be saved by a torpedo and a grenade.

For two years, three months, and 15 days he survived as a prisoner in three Japanese internment camps spread around the Philippines-places where the punished found themselves hanging by their arms at the camp gate or beaten with electric cattle prods while standing in water. Where guards played games to keep their saber skills sharp by swinging their swords at kneeling prisoners' necks, seeing who could get closest before turning the blade to whack with its flat edge. Places where prisoners would hide the dead to get extra food rations until the smell became too great and where the decomposing bodies would rise out of their graves every rainy season demanding to be reburied.

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Then, in the late summer of 1944 as Japan's long stranglehold on the Philippines began to weaken, my "Papa" found his neck tethered by ropes to hundreds of other emaciated prisoners. The guards, nervous because Allied planes had bombed nearby runways the night before, gave the order for these conjoined barefooted men to march:

"There was no stopping. There were trucks in front of us with machine guns pointing our way and trucks behind us with machine guns pointing in our direction. Guards were on both sides with fixed bayonets. After several hours someone would drop. Those tied closest would have to drag him, pick him up and carry him. If a guard would see you carry one, he would hit you with his rifle butt. He would cut the man loose, retie the rope, put the fallen man into the ditch, and sometimes stick him with the bayonet before moving on."

By dark the prisoners found themselves in the port area of Davao. Soon they longed for the space and air found during the forced march:

"They put us down in the hull of the ship. Packed like sardines down there. They had the guards fix bayonets, and they'd send a bunch down the hull, and they would lunge at us, you know, sort of packing, packing until they got as many as they could get down in there. Then they got out, and they pulled the stairway up. They put the timbers across the hull and rolled some canvas and tarp over top of that. They just left one little hole open on the one end of it, one corner of it, where a guard sat down and was looking down there laughing at us. It was like a furnace down there, no water, no facilities at all, nothing."

My grandfather found himself one of 750 POWs crammed into the hull of what survivors later called a "hell ship." Guards used a rope to lower a five-gallon can of water and peelings of rotten tropical vegetables to the starving prisoners. Fights for the food and water followed:

"Some of us decided to organize and take charge of the food when it came down to be sure the weak got some. They'd send a tin can down there for waste, and I believe it was the same can they put the food and water in. There was a lot of crying and praying going on. I thought it wouldn't have been but a matter of days before we would all be dead."

The prisoners of war managed to spend 14 days in that foul and steamy hold, four at sea hugging the coast and 10 docked at the port of Zamboanga. Then the Japanese switched ships to throw off U.S. submarines. Now crammed into the darkened hull of the Shinyo Maru, the prisoners lost track of time. Records show that on Sept. 7, 1944, the Shinyo Maru joined a convoy of four other ships: destination unknown. It would be a short trip.

Just hours later torpedoes from a U.S. submarine slammed into the unmarked ship. The Japanese guards panicked, unleashing a slaughter:

"A guard just stuck his rifle down into the hole there and emptied it, and the bullets were whizzing all over the place. After emptying his rifle, he took a hand grenade and threw it down there. And I was sitting there where I could see it coming. It exploded. Knocked me unconscious. . . . More?"

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