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To hell and back

"To hell and back" Continued...

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

Alone, Papa began swimming and praying, swimming and praying:

"I felt like I was going to give out. I just couldn't make it anymore. I thought I'd just lie on my stomach and sink. When I did, I looked down and lo and behold, right below me was a white coral reef. I reached down to see if I could stand on it, and I could just barely catch it with my toes. I started heading towards the shore. The more shallow it would get, I'd sink down more, until finally I got down to where I was just on my stomach, pulling myself on my hands."

On the beach, he zigged and zagged to avoid the bullets. Diving over a pile of driftwood for cover, he felt a jerk that made him think his foot had fallen off. Crouched behind the driftwood, he pulled his foot up and saw a tremendous hole at his ankle with flesh pouring out of it. The bullet had gone clean through.

Taking the only clothing he had at the time-his groin cloth-he pushed his flesh back into his foot and wrapped it tight. Taking a deep breath and wiping the blood from the grenade wound on his forehead, he ran naked into a cornfield that fronted the beach. There he hid from patrols-telling himself he would not let anyone take him back to a prison camp alive.

Out of the 750 prisoners on the ship, 82 survived the torpedo blasts and the ensuing carnage, finding some way to shore. Many joined a group of battle-hardened Filipino guerrillas desperate to rid the island of Japanese. After more than two years of being imprisoned and tortured, the prisoners were eager to fight back.

There a patient Filipino doctor saved my grandfather's foot. Eventually a U.S. submarine arrived to supply the guerrillas. The captain said there were too many surviving prisoners to take into the sub. But when he saw what kind of shape they were in, he changed his mind: "Put them all on here. We'll take them all," Papa remembered him saying-words that meant he was headed home.

The Japanese took more than 130,000 POWs during the war. The Shinyo Maru survivors represented one of the largest single groups of Pacific POWs to return at one time. Several traveled to the new Pentagon to brief war leaders on the prison camps and the hell ships. There Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall pinned a Purple Heart on the chest of my Papa, Edward Treski.

During subsequent reunions, the Shinyo Maru survivors dubbed themselves "the swimmers." Now less than a dozen of them are left after my grandfather passed away in March.

At his funeral, while standing above his flag-draped coffin, I tried to answer his question from January: Why had God spared him that horrible day in 1944? Could it be that God allowed Papa's peaceful, generous life-that somehow managed to flow out of those horrific experiences-to stand as a tribute to His grace? Was he allowed a rebirth in that hell ship so that he could live a life on Earth that reflected Heaven?

The salvation and redemption Papa experienced while swimming to safety at his breaking point taught me that sometimes you have to sink to the bottom before you can stand and that you should never quit:

"You know, many times you feel like you've had it, this is it, you don't want any more, and you give up," he said during one of our taped sessions. "And when you give up, that's it, and you're gone, sure enough."

The hell he suffered gave him a lifetime dose of perspective needed to relish the simple things in life and to keep the faith: "During the six months of fighting I believed, during the prison camp I believed, and the time on the prison ship, I believed. I believe today and I'll believe forever."

Two rows of veterans came to Papa's funeral. We gave them seats at the front, and they led the processional outside after the service. The whole sanctuary paused and watched as these dying warriors used their canes, walkers, and each other to slowly make their way down the aisle. It took a while, but nobody else moved-except our heads as we turned in tribute to follow their quiet progress. The organist played "God Bless America" while they exited-the same song my grandfather sang as a prisoner over 60 years ago.

When we came out of the church carrying my grandfather's casket, I discovered why all those veterans wanted to leave first. They had formed two lines leading to the hearse. As we passed, they marshaled their military memories and stood as straight as their crippled bodies could and saluted with their shaking hands. That was the only time I cried during the service-but they were tears of joy and gratitude. For my grandfather and for these other veterans. For being fighters. For being survivors. For enduring.

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