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To hell and back

"To hell and back" Continued...

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

That was the question my grandfather asked me repeatedly during tape-recorded sessions I began in 2001. Of course I wanted more. I'd spent my childhood trying to get his war experiences out of him.

Occasionally he'd reveal snippets at unexpected times. When commercials interrupted an Atlanta Braves baseball game, Papa would unleash a war tale perfectly timed to end before the next pitch. I wished the commercials would never end.

Once, he told about taking over the steering wheel of a military bus laden with explosives after the driver fled during a Japanese ambush, the bullets piercing the roof as Papa drove. From history books I learned that for six months after Pearl Harbor my grandfather and others in the 31st Infantry blew up bridges, ferries, and roads while trying to stop the Japanese army's inevitable steamrolling of the Philippines. By turning himself and his rifle in to a Japanese camp in May 1942, Papa had joined one of the largest military surrenders in American history.

But Papa's tales as I grew up avoided such humiliation and emphasized the fleeting moments of pride the soldiers shared. Like when he joined hundreds of prisoners to sing "God Bless America" at the top of their exhausted lungs while pushing a broken train back toward camp-all after a day of forced labor in the rice paddies. The jittery Japanese guards let the chorus continue while other prisoners could hear the refrain ringing all the way back to camp several miles away.

The starvation, diseases, torture, and executions unleashed on the POWs at the hands of the Japanese are also the stuff of history books. While the death rate for Allied POWs in the European front was 4 percent, in the Pacific, it was 27 percent. My grandfather refused to talk about the tortures he likely endured.

He did say that whenever he was on the verge of giving up he'd visualize the tears running down his mother's cheeks the day that as an 18-year-old in February 1940 he asked her permission to join the service. He had to keep going, he decided, because he needed to get back home to wipe those tears away.

In the face of brutality, acts of defiance-and humor-kept him going. The POWs named one guard, who was mean, Caesar, and another, who was talkative, Donald Duck. When guards distributed fake newspapers recounting how the Japanese had invaded the United States using submarines to control the Mississippi River, the POWs took the papers to the outhouses.

Forced to build an airstrip using crushed coral, the prisoners dug holes on the landing strip and covered them with a thin layer of coral in the hopes Japanese planes would crash upon landing. And the prisoners hatched intricate plots to lure guard dogs into the inner fence of the camp, where their capture meant adding meat to the diet of one sardine can's worth of maggot-infested rice per day.

More?" he would ask. "Yeah, yeah. Definitely. Keep going," I replied. So he returned to the torpedoed Shinyo Maru:

"I don't know how long I was out, but when I came to I was sitting in water in the slowly sinking ship. Bodies floated back and forth, parts of bodies. I looked across the ship and saw this big opening where the torpedo had hit. So I walked over to the hole to get out. There I saw a sight that I will never forget as long as I live.

"The guards had their life rafts in a semicircle around the swimming Americans. These guys were struggling to keep their heads above water just so they could get a little breath of air only to have a saber come down to split their skulls. I could see the glitter of the sun in the sabers, just chopping heads. They cut heads like they were cutting wood-sometimes taking the heads completely off. Other soldiers had fixed bayonets and they were sticking their fixed bayonets into the swimmers. Those they couldn't reach, they would shoot."

The minutes in which the grenade explosion had knocked out Papa prevented him from becoming a victim in this massacre. With the ship about to sink, he swam to the other side away from the death-wielding Japanese lifeboats. He could see the shore three miles away. So Papa, down to 85 pounds from his normal 175-pound weight, grabbed a fellow prisoner and, holding onto a piece of timber, together they started kicking towards shore.

One of the torpedoed ships had managed to run onto a reef. The Japanese immediately set up their machine guns and, using binoculars, began to pick off prisoners swimming towards them. Soon they opened up on Papa and his companion: "Jim, we are making too big of a target. We're going to have to let this plank go. You go one way, and I'll go another."

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