Christmas in January 1943

Cabanatuan Prison Camp

Cabanatuan Prison Camp

Commander Melvin H.McCoy of the U.S.Navy had survived the Bataan death march on the Philippines and was now in the notorious Davao Prison camp on Mindanao. Like most prisoners of the Japanese they were on starvation rations and men were dying on a daily basis.

On 29th January 1943 they got a lucky break. For whatever reason the Japanese had for once decided to hand over the Red Cross parcels that had been sent from the States. This was a very irregular event. Many prisoners of the Japanese never saw any of them.

Red Cross parcel

Red Cross parcel

The importance of such support from home could never be underestimated:

“It’s Christmas, Commander McCoy!” he shouted. “It’s Christmas!”

I was well aware that Christmas had already passed, practically without notice, so I asked him to explain his excitement.

“Stuff from home,” he babbled. “Boxes from the States. Red Cross boxes.”

I had quickened my pace, and by now I was trotting along beside him. Then I must confess that both of us broke into a run, a headlong dash for the barracks.

The news was true. There were, indeed, Red Cross boxes, and two for each prisoner. More than that, they meant to each of us … home. As each prisoner ripped open a box, I suspect that there were many besides myself who worked with a catch in the throat.

I will make no attempt to describe the joy with which those Red Cross boxes were received. Just as there is no word for “truth” in the Japanese language, neither are there any words known to me which could describe the feelings with which we greeted this first communication from our homeland. And what a welcome message those boxes contained!

First of all, there was coffee – a concentrate which tasted better than any steaming cup I had ever drunk to cheer an icy night on the bridge of a ship at sea. It was the first I had tasted since a smuggled sip in Old Bilibid Prison, back in Manila. There were chocolate bars, there was cheese, there were tinned meats and sardines, there were cigarettes, and there was a portion each of tea, cocoa, salt, pepper and sugar. Best of all, there were sulfa drugs and precious quinine!

Red Cross packages

Red Cross packages

Since I did not smoke, I very quickly made an advantageous trade for my cigarettes – the only tobacco available for those who used it was a coarse native leaf which grew within the prison confines. Often this was not available, and the prisoners resorted to corn silk and dried leaves. In my trading, however, I could find nobody who would give up a crumb of his cheese: we had known no butter, milk or any kind of dairy product since our capture….Our Christmas had been delayed, but it was one of the most enjoyable many of us will ever remember.

In addition, to the two boxes received by each prisoner, each of us also received fifteen cans of corned beef or meat-and-vegetable stew. This was rationed to us by the Japanese at the rate of two cans a week, and it therefore lasted us approximately eight weeks. The food during those eight weeks was the best and most nourishing I received in all the eleven months of my imprisonment by the Japanese.

But our belated Christmas rejoicings had a dark side, too. In the first place, we learned that our precious Red Cross supplies had been received aboard a diplomatic ship back in June of 1942, in Japan. We never learned why it took them some seven months to reach us in Davao. More catastrophic was the fact that, as soon as our boxes were received, the Japanese promptly discontinued the meager supply of vegetables which we had been rationed in the past. And when each man had eaten the last of his fifteen cans of meat, the vegetables still were withheld from us.

In short, we were back on the same rations we had received at Cabanatuan – lugao in the morning, and rice with a half-canteen cupful of watery camote-top soup for the other two meals.

At first the diet was fair, consisting mainly of rice, salt, sugar, and vegetables. Some of the comments made by the prisoners on the food in those days run as follows: “We grown our own food, including rice in paddies. Still living well on farm.” “Working on poultry farm for our own consumption.” “We eat lots of rice three times a day, banana buds and green papaya, mongo beans, camotes, and jack fruit [which] makes good soup. Native jungle food good.”

On 29 January 1943 each prisoner received one and one-half Red Cross packages, which helped somewhat, but at the same time the Japanese stopped issuing any food, and did not restore the original issue, even after the Red Cross supplies had been exhausted.

Cabantuan POW camp

Cabantuan POW camp

In April of this year the rice ration was cut one-third, after ten prisoners had escaped, and in August it was cut a second time. For a time the Japanese set up a canteen where they sold dried bananas, but this did not last long. Later they put some moldy tobacco leaves on sale, which the prisoners bought eagerly, in spite of their moldy condition.

Reports from returned prisoners show that in the later days of the camp the Japanese took more and more of the food the prisoners raised on the farm for themselves, leaving only a very little for the men. They also forbade the prisoners to eat the wild food that grew in the vicinity of the camp.

OFFICE OF THE PROVOST MARSHAL GENERAL: REPORT ON AMERICAN PRISONERS OF WAR INTERNED BY THE JAPANESE IN THE PHILIPPINE ISLANDS

http://ww2today.com/

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Current News – 

ta-plane-art

Dive team explores the wreckage of a WWII Tuskegee aircraft – 

http://www.stripes.com/news/us/dive-team-explores-wreckage-of-tuskegee-airman-s-wwii-plane-1.363937

$1. bill with a message

$1. bill with a message

Heart-warming story of returning a 1942 $1. bill – 

http://www.stripes.com/news/veterans/longshot-hunch-brings-veteran-s-63-year-old-war-dollar-home-to-grandson-in-maine-1.364407?utm_source=Stars+and+Stripes+Emails&utm_campaign=Military+History&utm_medium=email

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Military Humor – nurse

uso

Courtesy of Chris @ Muscleheaded

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Farewell Salutes – 

Gino Ascani – Chicago Heights, IL; US Army, WWII, Purple Heart

Elario Banuelos – Boyle Heights, CA; US Army Air Corps, WWII, PTO, 7th Air Force

Frank Funk – Tucson, AZ; US Army Air Corps, WWII, ETO, 463rd Bomb Group/15th Air Corps, POW

Ira Kelly – Boston, PA; US Army, Vietnam, Purple Heart, Bronze Star, POW

Harold Konvalinka – Clarksville, TN; US Air Force (Ret.), WWII, POW

Glenn Maddy Sr. – Helena, OH; US Army, WWII, ETO, 65th Division, Purple Heart, POW

Joseph Ondrejka – Rockford, IL; US Army Air Corps, WWII, ETO, 460th/15 Air Force, Purple Heart, POW

James Pappas – Bradenton, FL; US Army, WWII, POW

Armond Provencher – South Berwick, ME; US Army Air Corps, WWII, ETO, POW

David “Pops” Reed – Virginia Beach, VA; US Army, Korea, POW

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About GP Cox

Everett Smith served with the Headquarters Company, 187th Regiment, 11th A/B Division during WWII. This site is in tribute to my father, "Smitty." GPCox is a member of the 11th Airborne Association. Member # 4511 and extremely proud of that fact!

Posted on August 27, 2015, in First-hand Accounts, WWII and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 110 Comments.

  1. So many red cross parcels didn’t get through at all, or were stolen, or arrived a year late, and yet this story makes all that effort to get them to the FEPOWs worthwhile.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A Christmas miracle story. That drawing of the prison camp produces some powerful emotion.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It does send chills, doesn’t it!!

      Liked by 1 person

      • More interesting details…

        The artist’s name is Ben Steele from Montana. He was a POW in one of the camps at Cabanatuan when he drew the original in charcoal on a piece of salvaged paper. I’m planning a post on this drawing and his other works in the future. (I’m a lazy blogger)

        Like all of the other POWs imprisoned in Japan, their lives after the war was forever shaped by their experiences. Ben Steele’s certainly was.

        Thanks again GP for such an interesting and informative post!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. The receiving of the Red Cross parcels, must have appeared as a miracle to those tormented men, a brief respite during those years of hardship. There must be many survivors who recall the moments of opening those boxes, Manna from Heaven until they were all gone, then the starvation begins again.
    Great reading gp.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Some things we learn just make us boil.
    But the mistake is judging other ‘folks’ by our own standards, or trying to make sense of a totally alien ‘culture’. And again, not everyone is the same …

    Having said that, it would be nice to somehow discover that all the guards and their commanders in those places died of malaria (or something really nasty) before the war ended.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Arr – and you were going so well and then wished them to die. Emotions change like the wind in war…..

      Like

      • I know it’s nice to ‘love your enemies’; and the Japanese are not my enemies.

        But just because the war is long over, and I’ve learned a lot about about Japanese culture — doesn’t mean I have to love scum-ball animals.
        What those gentlemen did was (by my standards) less than human, and even if it be offensive: I wish anyone treating anyone like that dead. Asap, and give it wings … honi soit qui mal y pense.

        Forgive a mad dog? No … understand it, yes, but the sooner it is cured or put down the better for all concerned.

        For an insight one might read ‘Samurai’ about Saburo Sakai (Japanese air ace WW2) in which he makes no bones about how he and his fellow embryonic pilots were treated in the Japanese forces whilst under training. Other readings confirm that brutality was universal in the Japanese forces; so why should they treat despicable ‘stinking foreign barbarians’ any better than their own? So they didn’t … which again is understandable. It’s an interesting study if you can spare the time. People who can easily forgive most likely weren’t involved, not as victims.

        Like

  5. Thanks for sharing this GP Cox, hard times indeed, how many suffered and died of Starvation before the Red Cross gift finally arrived, yes no doubt the Soldiers if still alive today would feel greatly for the Men, Woman and Children who are starving today in places around the world, their rations come mostly from the rubbish tip and begging, we have so much, they have so little and yes Red Cross and other caring Organizations come to the rescue again.

    Blessings – Anne.

    Like

    • Hello Anne,

      You may already know this but, thousands of Red Cross packages were sent per the Geneva Convention but the Japanese did not honor the regulations. Very few POWs in Japan ever saw ANY Red Cross packages until the day before they were liberated, the Japanese had been intercepting all deliveries and stole or sold their contents. American cigarettes were highly prized. Towards the end of the war Red Cross deliveries became vital supplies for the Japanese themselves. Even the Japanese military elite were starving at that point.

      I’ll not elaborate much but I’ll re-tell part of a story my old friend Bill shared with me about Red Cross packages.

      Bill was handed his first Red Cross package as he walked out of the front gates of the POW camps he had been held in for over 3 1/2 years. It was Liberation Day and he weighed 72 lbs. He and a few others immediately left the camp when they realized their former Japanese guards had dumped a truckload of Red Cross packages near the front gates then drove off in a hurry. They had witnessed the mushroom cloud over Nagasaki the day before but didn’t know what it was.

      They were all starving but Bill never opened the package he had been handed at the gate, he and the others continued walking on bare feet towards nearby villages.

      Bill carried with him the same shovel he had been forced to use in a coal mine for over 2 years. He said it was “nearly worn down to a nub but it was still very heavy, and I wasn’t gonna make the trip without it”. As he walked with shovel and package in hand, he began to notice the local Japanese people, children and women, who were also starving and scavenging for any scrap of food they could find. He stopped, then handed his first and only Red Cross package to a woman who was kneeled and bowing beside the road, two small naked children stood beside her. He then continued on to his destination four miles ahead.

      Bill would not eat or drink until his return to camp later that day. The first thing he wanted when he returned was a cigarette. He told me, “I slept for the first time in years that night”. I suspect others had similar experiences that day.

      He later told me “the faces of those poor children” had been burned into his memory his entire life. Bill had many, many memories, but the faces of those two Japanese children were as vivid as the day he saw them in 1945.

      Men like my old friend Bill knew the difference between hatred and compassion.

      “we have so much, they have so little”

      I think that sums it up pretty well. If they are still alive today, I wonder if the Japanese woman and her children remember Bill’s face as vividly as he remembered their’s.

      I reckon it’s remembering that really matters. I hope that by discussing and re-telling stories like this we can all be reminded with vivid pictures in our minds that keep them all “alive” in our hearts and minds forever.

      Doc’ & CJ

      Liked by 1 person

  6. ps I hope you will be safe from the hurricane…

    Like

  7. I had never seen a photo of an actual WWII Red Cross package. Fantastic. Yet, as bewildering it is for me to see now, I am unable to comprehend the feelings these POW’s encountered. I had also never read about what they “smoked” for cigarettes…

    Like

    • Finally getting those packages – I don’t think it much mattered what they looked like!!

      PS. we have a storm coming – no problem as far as safety goes, but loss of power may magically make me disappear. So… if I’m not around for a few days – you know why……

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Hello – I was wondering if you could me credit for the picture you used in the “Farewell Salutes” section?
    thank you & you do great work!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Excellent story, to get a bit off topic my dad and I were having breakfast in a local Cracker Barrel in Urbana Illinois when we met a gentleman in a WW2 veretan ballcap and discovered he was a P-38 pilot in North Africa and Italy during the war. He was a spry 93 and going strong. The restaraunt has a picture of him from 1943 hanging in the restaraunt and a reserved spot for him when he comes in for breakfast. I hope he is still around in 2 months when I return and I can get a pic of him next to his picture from 1943. That would be so cool, he is after all a true american hero. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  10. The brutalities of war – worth telling and worth remembering. Great post

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Can’t even imagine living under those conditions. Bet they were so happy to receive a package and appreciated everything inside. Had to smile to think that no one would trade their cheese. It’s sometimes the small things in life that we miss the most. Another great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m even surprised that they could have cheese in that heat – but where there’s a will…. Yes, you’re right about the little things – sometimes they’re not so little to the ones getting them!!

      Like

  12. Fascinating post and the comments were good reading too, GP. I am interested in your comment about the Salvation Army. The fact it was prefaced with ‘believe it or not ‘ made me think they might not be as loved in the USA as they are in Australia and the UK. Is that correct?

    Like

  13. This is so heartbreaking to read about. I know a man who was in a prisioner of war camp in Vietnam and have heard a few of his stories (he rarely talks about it. which I understand why.)
    A great reminder of how important love and support from home really is!
    After crying through most of this, I got to the end and laughed out loud! Even snorted! 😛 Those cartoons are a hoot! 😀
    HUGS!!! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  14. It seems miraculous any survived. We met a lady who was captured in Singapore and spent a long time as a prisoner of the Japanese. She has souvenirs of things like the needles formed from fishbone used to sew up wounds, and things of that sort. She also describes what insects, frogs and lizards which we regard as repulsive are not only edible but nourishing.

    Liked by 2 people

    • When it comes to survival, the human mind can come up with ingenious ideas and eating reptiles I think were some of the least offensive I’ve heard of recently. Acts of survival were drastically demonstrated by the Japanese troops, especially when the Imperial Command abandoned them. I thank you for sharing the woman’s story from Singapore, those treasures from the POW camp must be priceless, especially in the history they hold. Thank you.

      Liked by 2 people

    • @colonialist

      Reading your comments made me vividly remember very similar accounts of eating insects and lizards told to me by an old friend many years ago. Those are the kind of details and souvenirs that can only be known by those who were there.

      As GP said; Priceless.

      Thanks for sharing such priceless treasures with us all.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Excellent article GP!

    An interesting note: The 10 prisoners Commander McCoy mentioned in his statement

    “In April of this year the rice ration was cut one-third, after ten prisoners had escaped”

    Those 10 were the only prisoners to ever successfully escape any Japanese POW camp. They later became known as “The Davao Dozen”. (The original escape group consisted of 10 Americans and 2 Filipinos) After their escape they went on to wreak havoc against Japanese installations throughout the area for a few months with the aid of local Filipino Guerrillas before being “rescued” and extracted by a US submarine in the dark of night.

    The American leader of the escape and the ensuing Guerrilla warfare was Army Lt. Col. (then Captain) William E. Dyess. He was born in Albany, Texas not far from where my wife and I live. Albany, Texas is less than 50 miles from where my old friend Bill Sublett was born and raised, Bill probably knew Col. Dyess before the war (small Texas towns were always connected in one way or another) and Bill Sublett was also captured by the Japanese during the invasion of the Philippines. They may have even been held in the same POW camp at some point, they may have even recognized one another. But Bill was never fortunate enough to be able to escape and was imprisoned (and tortured) for over 3 1/2 years.

    Bill Sublett died in a VA hospital in Big Springs, Texas less than 100 miles from where he was born and raised. Abilene, Texas sits approximately in between Bills birthplace and the VA hospital he died in. Albany, Texas (birthplace of Lt. Col. Dyess) is about 40 miles from Abilene.

    Today, Abilene, Texas is the home of Dyess Air Force Base. (7th Bomb Wing)

    My wife was born and raised in Davao City.

    Like Lt. Col. Dyess and USMC PFC Bill Sublett, I am a Native Texan.

    We still live within a 100 mile radius of all of the locations mentioned above. We often see C-130’s and B1-B Bombers stationed at Dyess AFB as they fly very low overhead. Every time I see one I think of William E. Dyess and my dear old friend Henry W. “Bill” Sublett. We are all Texans, including my wife. Knowing the history, we are proud to say so.

    Thank you GP for reminding us all that history is always directly connected to the present and the future.

    Doc’ & CJ

    Liked by 1 person

    • Your comment completes the article, Doc! What can I say after thank you? Giving us the connection between past and present for this area and by naming names, you contribute to their history!! One of the most profound statements I’ve ever heard was, “When you forget their names, it’s as though you’ve killed them a second time.” Between the articles and contributors, such as yourself, we can help to fix that. I appreciate you taking the time to read this and to add on to it!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks GP,

        I am flattered and honored to play even a tiny part.

        I will add only this much. Lt. Col. Dyess didn’t die as close to home as Bill did. Col. Dyess died in California as he directed the malfunctioning test aircraft he was flying directly into the only vacant lot visible below him. He was killed on impact. No one one the ground was injured.

        Of the original 12 escapees, 4 were Texans.

        Liked by 1 person

  16. Institutionalized brutality.

    Like

  17. Having sent an ‘infinite’ number of packages to deployed troops, I found this post very interesting, and love the photo of the packages. God Bless our Red Cross.

    Liked by 2 people

  18. I took my father to Bataan and the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial in the Philippines back in 2009. It was emotional for the both of us. Heres a link to the video: Bataan – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HZ_tkTS7Df8
    Manila American Cemetery and Memorial in the Philippines Part 1 and 2

    part 2 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dxmy1-q2z7M

    Liked by 3 people

  19. A shocking way to treat fellow human beings.

    Like

    • When I watch the news at night, it makes me believe it seems to be our nature.

      Liked by 1 person

      • “It seems to be our nature”.

        I just had a brief but intense exchange with a rather prominent leader of of the Presbyterian Church about this very subject. While I completely share that view, needless to say Rev. Stewart did not.

        After our conflicting but very cordial exchange, the Reverend told me “I will always find our brief correspondence meaningful and hope you will do the same”.

        I am hopeful that anything I said might have helped him to understand the reality of the “nature of mankind”. As you so correctly pointed out, history teaches that very lesson again and again.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Between history and current news, sadly that is my opinion. I respect the good Reverend’s position on the matter, and we all have our own opinions, but I sure don’t see any changes coming about in the near future.

          Liked by 1 person

  20. Do you know when these POW’s from the Bataan death march were rescued? Did they remain POW’s until the end of the war?

    Like

  21. It’s unbelievable. The Japanese treatment soldiers was as horrible as the Nazis.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Stories like this, even with the bits of uplifting news, make me think about how hard it was for these brave soldiers to endure years away from home and the simple day-to-day comforts we take for granted. It is hard to conceive of the world that would have resulted from our losing that war.

    Liked by 3 people

  23. A detailed anecdote of history we only know about in general. Lugao in the morning? I can imagine the disappointment. I can barely eat lugao. Just had it recently during a bout of intestinal flu, and it was not pleasant to eat!

    Liked by 1 person

  24. A good lesson in what can be important during times of hardship and stress. We often overlook the small things at a time of celebration, like Christmas. These accounts should make us all realise how lucky we are. If we didn’t already know.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 3 people

  25. I have no idea how I would have gone if it had been me in one of those camps. It is interesting that the Japanese Prime Minister has just recently apologised for the barbaric way POWs were treated.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I don’t think any of us really knows how they’d react under similar circumstance. The apology is a coincidence.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Yes I know it is a coincidence. It is just interesting that a lot of recent posts on different blogs have been focussing on the topic. I certainly am not imagining that there is any influence there. But it’s about time.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Yes, I’ve noticed that myself. I have this post because of the timeline with where I’m into the war, but it might also have to do with the added successes of the groups returning the bodies that were MIA for so long? Perhaps that has dug up added memories?

          Liked by 2 people

  26. Small mercies, I suppose

    Liked by 1 person

  1. Pingback: Christmas in January 1943 | New Mexicans in WWII and Korea

  2. Pingback: My Article Read (8-27-2015) | My Daily Musing

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