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Pa. man shares harrowing tales of four years as WWII POW

November 12, 2003|by DON AINES

chambersburg@herald-mail.com

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Last month, James F. Hammond Sr. of Shippensburg, Pa., drove out to St. Louis for a ceremony honoring 123 American prisoners of war massacred by the Japanese on the Philippine island of Palawan during World War II.

Their graves had not, until then, acknowledged that they died at the hands of their captors, a fact that was being commemorated with a bronze plaque, according to Hammond.

"We wanted them to put on there that the Japanese murdered them, but they wouldn't let us," Hammond said.

Had it not been for a badly infected leg and the intervention of a Japanese guard, Hammond said he could well have been the 124th man interred in the cemetery.

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It was 1944 and American forces were retaking the Philippines. Hammond, now 80, was a member of the slave labor detail at Palawan, but a guard sent him to a hospital for treatment.

By that twist of fate, he avoided being gunned down when the Japanese received orders to kill prisoners before they could be liberated by the advancing U.S. forces.

During World War II, 34 percent to 38 percent of American prisoners of war held by the Japanese died in captivity, according to the historian Stephen Ambrose, now deceased. From May 6, 1941, to September 1945, Hammond said he endured "1,227 days and nine hours" as a prisoner of war.

Tuesday, while attending Veterans Day services at AMVETS Post 224 in Chambersburg, he related some of the experiences of that ordeal.

Born and raised in the Path Valley area of western Franklin County, Hammond enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1941 at the age of 17. In June of that year, he was shipped out to the Philippines, where he served on the Island of Corregidor at the mouth of Manila Bay.

"I was assigned to Battery H, 59th Coast Artillery, Harbor Defense," Hammond recalled. He was on a 12-inch mortar crew and, after the Japanese invaded the islands, provided artillery support to Marines fighting on the nearby Bataan Peninsula.

After Bataan fell, he and his comrades endured weeks more of bombardment before the Japanese landed on Corregidor. He said the enemy was driven back several times before the order was given to surrender.

They remained on Corregidor for two weeks before being taken to Manila, where they were paraded down Dewey Boulevard in Manila before the Filipino people. The POWs then were marched to Bilibid Prison, one of about a half-dozen camps he was transferred to during the war.

"I saw many atrocities committed," Hammond said. One occurred during the march to Bilibid, when the Japanese decapitated a Filipino woman who tried to pass food along to the prisoners.

"I saw fellows shot for trying to get water out of a caribou hole," Hammond said.

"I saw four guys dig their own graves, stand up in them and get shot," Hammond said of another incident.

The commandant of one camp was raised in Germantown, Pa., before returning to Japan, according to Hammond. The officer spoke English and expressed his regret that he could not provide better food and treatment for the prisoners, something that eventually was reported to his superiors, Hammond said.

"He disappeared," Hammond said.

When U.S. forces returned to the Philippines, Hammond and hundreds of thousands of other POWs were herded onto "hell ships," merchant vessels that transported them to Japan.

"It was standing room only. We took turns sleeping. The dead bodies were stacked to the side," Hammond said. They were fed pails of watery rice and human waste collected at the bottom of the cargo holds, he said.

Because the ships bore no markings that indicated they were carrying prisoners, the hell ships often were targeted by American submarines and aircraft, he said. His ship made it to Japan, where he spent the final months of the war working in a steel mill on the island of Kyushu.

During his captivity, Hammond wasted away from about 160 pounds to 107 pounds. After the Japanese surrendered, the guards simply walked away from the camp.

"When the war was over, I walked away from the camp. Me and a fellow from Oregon," he said. Through the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor, the ex-prisoner of war organization he belongs to, Hammond said he has kept tabs on William C. Hamby.

"He's alive. At least I haven't seen his obituary," he said.

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