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Life as a POW in the Japanese-Occupied Philippines

Ten hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces successfully invaded the Philippines. Those Americans and Filipinos who did not retreat endured three years of Japanese rule, murder, torture, and hard labor. Thousands died in the infamous Bataan Death March, and countless more were coerced into work details or brothels. General Douglas MacArthur fulfilled his promise to return to the Philippines in late 1944, but fighting continued until the Japanese surrendered on September 2, 1945. In the following interview with G. Lewis Schmidt in August 1989, James J. Halsema recalls his experiences in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, the clever ways he found out about current events, and the humanity of the Japanese commandant.

Read other Moments about WWII, including this piece about U.S. diplomats who were held by the Nazis until they were exchanged for German diplomats. Go here to read about people who were held as hostages.


A few instances of terror

HALSEMA:  After graduation, I returned to the Philippines by way of the Japan-America Student Conference in the summer of 1940 and became the editor of the Baguio edition of the Manila Daily Bulletin, the American-owned newspaper. I was in that position until the Japanese Army marched into Baguio on the 27th of December 1941.

I spent the next three years as a guest of the Japanese Army, during which I had the same kind of experiences as most people who are interned—a few moments of terror and years of boredom….

There were several occasions at the beginning when we didn’t know when families would be separated. We were told by the Japanese that we were going off to an unknown destination and we didn’t know whether we’d see the members of our family again.

When I was taken in by the Kempeitai [Military Police Corps, at left] and tortured to find out what I knew about how news was getting into the camp.  And then, of course, during the liberation, when we were in the middle of the Battle of Manila. But most of the time it was quite a boring experience. I was on the garbage crew that took the trash out of the camp and dumped it, which was one of the better things to do. I turned out a daily sheet of one page—plus one carbon copy that went down to the camp hospital. It was a daily summary of what was going on in the camp.

At the beginning and the end, our food supply was very inadequate. But, basically, I would characterize our treatment, as opposed to that of prisoners of war, as being neglect rather than a deliberate effort to make us uncomfortable.

A hidden radio and a link to the outside world

I was very interested in the subject of people’s morale, and I shared a secret that very few people in camp knew. That was a hidden radio. We could hear the outside world by short wave, which was forbidden, of course. I got used to reading the Japanese newspaper in English, which was published in Manila, and piecing out what was actually happening from what the Japanese were telling us. So that was an early training in learning what was going on without having access to accurate information.

Also, knowledge of what sorts of things people believed. For instance, at the beginning there were wild rumors about our imminent liberation by MacArthur riding a white horse, or something similar. Whereas in the latter part of the internment period, people were beginning to be rather discouraged about ever being able to get out, so that my role, given to me by the people who had the radio, was to give out information as a cutout between them and the camp.

Then at the end of ’43, we got our one and only Red Cross shipment. The Japanese went through it with considerable attention to be sure there were no forbidden materials, like books, or magazines, or newspapers. But they didn’t look through it as carefully as I did, and I found a number of scraps of newspapers in the shipment and was able to put together enough information that I could give a lecture to the camp about the conditions in the United States in 1943, including the fact that the American Army had adopted a new helmet, which I saw in a piece of “Gasoline Alley” comic strip that showed Skeezix landing on Attu.

I guess the most cheering news which I gave was a scrap of a financial section of the New York Times. It was a tiny piece, and on it was a quotation for Metropolitan Water Works of Manila bonds which were due in 1990, and they were selling above par. And I said, “Wall Street thinks we’re going to get out.”

We could hear all [the radio broadcasts], but I suppose the most reliable one we got, as far as news about the European War, was Radio Saigon, which was at that point controlled by the Vichy French. And we could also get, of course, the San Francisco radio KGEI, BBC, and a Soviet station in Shanghai. We didn’t have access to the radio throughout the period. It got to be too dangerous in the latter part. I think that I had a pretty good idea of what was happening in the war in general terms. I guess we missed some of the later landings in New Guinea, but on the basic trend of the war I got a pretty good idea of what was happening.

I was asked about this question by the Kempeitai and I told them that I was allowed by the guard to listen to the Japanese-controlled radio in Manila on the guardhouse porch. And I said, “You know, I compare information that I get from time to time.” The Kempeitai were not skillful at their questioning. All they really wanted was a confirmation of what they already believed. So they never tumbled onto the other things I knew.

The man who put this [radio] together was an electrical engineer. He got a couple of telephone earphones to clamp on one’s ears to listen. I guess all the camps had at least one secret radio. These are things that later influenced my career because in camp I was involved in trying to give out the kind of information which would counteract adverse reactions on the part of the internees.

The other one was, of course, learning how to find out what was really going on in the place by reading between the lines, which I gather the people in the Soviet Union, for instance, have been adept at for years.

Tortured by the Kempeitai

[The Kempei-Tai] hung me up by my thumbs. There’s a book on this subject which has just come out in the Philippines, which lists me as one of the subjects in a war crimes trial, and that lists some 47 different methods the Japanese used for torturing people. It also points out that basically the Kempeitai was a great mistake in the Philippines because they used unreliable interpreters, since most of the Kempeitai did not speak English or Philippine languages, and they contributed to the failure of the Japanese to win over the Filipinos, rather than to be an adjunct to their war effort.

They used local people mostly [as interpreters]. There were some Japanese who were available, but they weren’t too many. They just didn’t really find out anything more than what they already suspected. They didn’t parlay their information into new fields that they didn’t already know something about.

The other thing which I found that was a great education in camp was learning that the Japanese came in all shades, and that the only real difference between us and the Japanese was that their system encouraged the negative aspects, whereas ours discouraged it. The people had just as great a variation as we did. That really confirmed an opinion which I’d had before, living in an international town in which there were people of all races.

Q: Did you establish any very close relationships with any Japanese in the camp?

HALSEMA:  No, we had a small guard in camp, and a group of civilians, some of whom were local Japanese in Baguio. This situation changed from time to time, and we had all together three different Commandants. The last one was a real S.O.B., who had been disgraced, it turned out, and was demoted in rank and sent to run this civilian internment camp, more or less as punishment, and he took out his feelings on us. There was one Japanese who was the official interpreter [and] whose name was Yamato. He’d been a schoolteacher from Osaka. I did get to know him quite well, but, let’s say, I didn’t have any great respect for him. He was one of these people who was a failure at everything he did, including that he wasn’t really a very good interpreter.

Most of our contact with the Japanese was through Nellie McKim, an Episcopal missionary whose father had been the Episcopal Bishop of Japan. She was educated in the…School in Tokyo, and she spoke court Japanese. Our last commandant, who was from some hill town in western Honshu, I guess you could call him a hick—it’d be sort of like somebody from the Ozarks—was so nonplussed by her language that he always addressed her as “Honorable Aunt,” and then he’d get very angry at himself speaking with a prisoner that way.

But Nellie McKim was a great asset to us because she not only understood the Japanese language, she also understood Japanese customs. So she was able to give us an approach on how to deal with Japanese in ways which would appeal to them.

For instance, my parents were allowed to live in Baguio, after the first couple of years, because they were well-known people and they were vouched for by Filipinos that they would not be any problem to the Japanese. The one time I got out to see them—we were tearing down a building so we could take the materials to use in our camp, and, of course, we had a Japanese guard with us. Thanks to Nellie, I knew how to appeal to him. He didn’t understand much English, but he knew a few words, and I pointed out that my parents were living next door and that I wanted to pay my respects to my parents, he couldn’t resist. I’d learned from Nellie McKim, to appeal to his basic code of filial respect. Nellie was insightful in many ways and was a great help to us. She further contributed to my education in terms of understanding that you have to learn peoples’ values before you can appeal to them. You cannot use your own values and expect them necessarily to be worthwhile in persuasion….

Q: I’ve heard you say before that you felt the man who was a superintendent of your internment camp was a sympathetic and lenient administrator?

HALSEMA:  Yes, Rikuro Tomibe from Kyoto—a commandant for one year— was a man of great kindness and intelligence. We became friends in camp. When he left us, he wrote a poem in Japanese to me in the back of one of my notebooks, saying that while during the war we were enemies, someday peace would come, and he hoped that we would remain friends. And indeed we did….

He was a civilian employee of the military at that point. Later on he was brought back into the regular Army, and he fought with the Yamashita forces in northern Luzon until the surrender. I saw him when he was a prisoner of war and I was a correspondent, the job I took after I was liberated in Manila in 1945. I was able to talk with him and learn about his experiences and why he was a witness in the war crimes trial of General Kuo, who was the commandant of all of the prison camps in the Philippines.

I learned that he was being held in a special prison for people who were suspects. Bob Sheridan, a Catholic priest who’d been in our camp, and I talked to the War Crimes people and found that they were only holding him on general suspicion. We said we’d be glad to testify in his defense—that he’d been a very considerate person. They said, “In that case, we don’t have anything against him, we’ll send him home,” and indeed he went.

We kept in touch with each other until he died in 1984. We called on him at his home in Kyoto just a few days before his death. He was one of the people that I was certainly glad survived because he represented all that was the best in Japanese culture.