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.
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?"
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."
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.
You can stop swimming now, Papa. You've reached the shore.