A story of survival

Man shares brother's story of suffering as a POW in World War II

January 29, 2011|By DAN DEARTH |
  • Lester Hart holds the 24-page memoir written by his brother, Harold Hart, who survived the infamous Bataan Death March and other acts of brutality as a prisoner of the Japanese during World War II.
By Yvette May, Staff Photographer

America's entry into World War II was only a few months away when Lester Hart dropped off his brother at the military inception station in Washington, D.C.

It was the summer of 1941, and Harold Hart and some of his friends had enlisted in the Army Air Corps following their graduation from Hagerstown High School.

"I don't think they knew what they were getting into," the 92-year-old Lester Hart said recently.

Less than a year later, they were Japanese prisoners of war and endured the Bataan Death March, a 60-mile forced march across a portion of the Philippines. Many of the prisoners were tortured and murdered by their Japanese guards. The march and treatment of the prisoners led to a war-crimes trial after the war.

Lester Hart said his brother never talked about the horrors of being a prisoner of war for 3 1/2 years. He never talked about a Japanese soldier knocking out his teeth with a rifle butt. He never talked about watching his high school friend, Ralph Tagg, die of disease. He never talked about living in human waste as American POWs were shipped to Japan to perform slave labor.

It wasn't until Harold Hart was on his deathbed in 2004, Lester Hart said, that he released the written account of his life during World War II.

"I guess he felt the end was coming," Lester Hart said. "He felt it was time."

Harold Hart's 24-page memoir covers June 13, 1941, when he graduated from Hagerstown High School, to his discharge from the military on June 23, 1946.

Shipping out

In the memoirs, Harold Hart writes of joining the military and being promised by his recruiter that he would never go overseas.

"In fact, I believe I signed an order to that effect," he wrote. "Regardless, we left for San Francisco ... (and) left on November 1, 1941, for an unknown destination."

Five days later, his ship docked at Pearl Harbor, where the men briefly went ashore before shipping out to their duty station on the Philippine Islands.

"This was to begin the most eventful experience in my short adult life," he wrote, "In fact, from that time, I felt our transfer to the Philippines, along with all the other outfits, was deliberate. We now knew we were to become expendable."

Hart wrote that he was in the hospital with tonsillitis when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

"With all haste, I sought to be discharged from the hospital without the removal of my (tonsils) for I was new in the islands and did not want to be separated from my squadron," he wrote. "News was that many of us were to be sent out of the islands to Australia ... By that time the war had been declared and our bases at Clark Field and Nichols Field (in the Philippines) were being bombed."

A deadly march

Originally trained as an airplane mechanic, Hart and other airmen were given rifles and honed their shooting skills — by practicing on wild dogs — in anticipation of the Japanese invasion.

"We were kept informed by 'grapevine' of the Japanese advance," he wrote. "Food became scarce and before long, most of us foraged for most of our food, with the exception of rice. This was available in quantities."

As Japanese forces pressed inland, the airmen were sent to aid infantrymen on the front lines. The Americans fought the Japanese advance and tropical diseases for several months until April 6, 1942, when "all hell broke loose."

"Shelling, rifle fire, grenades, yelling, it sounded like all the (Japanese) in the world were out in front of us. With practically no ammunition, we tried to hold out but the order came to fall back. My experience recalls it as a rout."

The Americans retreated, "hungry, exhausted and humiliated," and waited to be captured. On April 9, Japanese tanks rolled up to the American encampment. The prisoners were ordered to throw their weapons in a pile. Some American soldiers and their Philippine allies cried along the side of the road.

The captives — 65,000 Filipino servicemen, 25,000 civilians and 12,000 Americans — were ordered into groups of 100.

"This would be our marching order for the next seven or eight days," he wrote. "(Japanese) soldiers were to march along with us as guards. Thus began the infamous 'Death March' out of Bataan into death for many of us and prison camps for the rest."

Hart wrote that the prisoners were searched before the march began. They were ordered to surrender their belongings and strip their uniforms of insignias to look as little like armed forces as possible.

"As we marched, many prisoners fell out of line exhausted or to get a drink," Hart wrote. "Some were bayoneted on the spot. Others were beaten with gun butts or clubs. Surprisingly, some of the guards were 'human' and gave out food, cigarettes, and allowed us to have a drink from the artesian wells along the way."

Hart wrote that the march claimed 70 to 80 Americans per day. Men who were too sick to eat traded their rice for cigarettes and quickly grew weak.

They finally arrived at Camp O'Donnell, which previously was used to quarter the Philippine army when it trained. The shacks were bamboo with thatched roofs. No sanitary facilities were available, so the prisoners were made to dig ditches to use as toilets.

Food was scarce and many men died of malaria because there wasn't an adequate supply of medicine. It was at Camp O'Donnell that Hart and his high school classmate, Ralph Tagg, volunteered for work details in an effort to get more food.

"My friend Tagg experienced another attack of cerebral malaria," Hart wrote. "He would go out of his head for days during such an attack."

Because the Japanese separated the sick from other prisoners, Hart wrote that he faked a fever so he and Tagg could stay together.

Death of a friend

"If I could fake a fever, I could return with Ralph, who needed me very much," Hart wrote. "When the (Japanese) guard felt my head, he responded by knocking me back with his gun butt, which knocked out some teeth."

A sympathetic guard stepped in and allowed the men to accompany each other to a hospital. Hart wrote that he rejoined some other friends after leaving Tagg at the hospital to receive treatment. Later that night, Tagg strayed from the hospital.

"For one evening after dark, Ralph, my friend, came to me in all that sea of humanity," Hart wrote. "He was extremely sick with malaria and out of his head. How he found me is a miracle in my mind at least. Seeing his condition, I asked three of my friends to help me take Ralph back to the hospital. When we did arrive at the hospital, I (sensing his death) removed his graduation ring and took his testament. Later they were taken by (Japanese) guards.

"I later learned of his death about June 3, 1942. A couple of days before this, I was taken to Cabanatuan prison camp. Just to leave O'Donnell was a relief. Thus started another phase of my POW experience."

Music and medicine

Hart wrote that life was a little better at Cabanatuan. Kitchens were set up, and the Americans prisoners received more food and medicine. Some of the prisoners were given instruments and played music in the evenings.

The Japanese guards forced the Americans to dig irrigation ditches to grow vegetables.

"We raised beautiful vegetables for the Japanese," Hart wrote. "There were traces of these vegetables in our soup, but mostly flavor. The (Japanese) took most of the solids. Regardless, I survived. Many of our prisoners died though (from malaria, dysentery and other diseases)."

Hart wrote that in the fall of 1943, he and other prisoners were chosen for work detail at Nichols Field south of Manila — one of the most notorious prison camps on the Philippine Islands.

Nichols Field was commanded by a Japanese officer who decapitated prisoners and hung them from their thumbs until they died. They called the Japanese commandant White Angel.  

"White Angel was a pure sadist and in their military hierarchy, there was no check on him," Hart wrote. "If he killed a batch, he'd just call Cabanatuan and order some others ... At Nichols Field you were never safe. They said anyone who got sent to Nichols Field twice had bad luck. Anyone who got sent three times was a born loser."

Hart weighed a little more than 100 pounds when he was sent to Nichols Field to help build a runway. The sick and undernourished prisoners were forced to break rocks with sledgehammers. Filipino civilians, under the threat of death, smuggled food to the Americans as they marched to work.

Hart wrote about one occasion when American prisoners were beaten after a demolition charge that was set to remove rock incidentally damaged equipment.

"When we finished the day, we went to the rest shack," Hart wrote. "After a long verbal rebuke in Japanese (translated into English), we were forced to do pushups until exhausted. Then we were beat across the small of the back with bamboo poles until we lay still.

"From that day, my back has given me problems and my legs tire easily. I firmly believe my back muscles were weakened by these acts of cruelty. I was helped back to my friends who assisted me in the camp. Days went by until I was able to go back to work. After that, my co-prisoners gave me the easier tasks to perform."

Aboard a 'Hell Ship'

After Nichols Field, Hart was taken to Bilibid Prison in Manila, where the prisoners received more food and better medical care. The brief respite was nothing more than a staging area for one of the most harrowing experiences of Hart's captivity.

On July 17, 1944, the men were herded like animals onto the Nissyo Maru, one of many Hell Ships that transported prisoners from the Philippines to Japan to perform slave labor.

"We were loaded into the hold of the ship until everyone was in a standing position," Hart wrote. "There was no room to lie down. We had been stripped of our belongings ... Prisoners started fainting from the heat and several were suffocated."

Rice was lowered to the men in 5-gallon cans "to be rationed out," he wrote. "Can you imagine the filthy stench and odor that resulted? No bathroom facilities, just cans to use as toilets (which we lifted through the hatch and discarded in the sea)."

The men lived in those conditions for nearly two weeks until the ship finally left Manila Bay for Japan.

"Days passed, men sickened and dropped from disease," Hart wrote. "I kept still and calm, conserving all my energy and not having to breathe hard. Thanks to God I did not get seriously ill."

Not until 30 hours into the voyage was each man given about a half canteen of water to drink. The prisoners wept at night and lived in their own waste during the trip. To make matters worse, the body heat of the men below deck, coupled with the blazing sun, made the situation almost impossible to endure.

"The problem was dehydration," he wrote. "There was just not enough water, and the barley went dry in their mouths. Unable to swallow, men gave up eating and fell back in a stupor. The greatest crime the Japanese committed was to deny helpless prisoners adequate drinking water.

"The guards on deck played horrible games," Hart wrote. "They brought out containers of water, showed them to captives, drank from them, then washed their feet in them. They flung the rinsing into the hold and laughed uproariously."

On July 26, 1944, American submarines attacked the convoy of ships in which Hart was traveling. Several of the ships were torpedoed, but the Nissyo Maru carried on unscathed.

Hart wrote that the "rest of the voyage was anticlimactic ... Finally on Aug. 4, 1944, we docked at what later we learned was Moji, Japan ... Quickly, we were put into buses and taken to a little mining camp at Oeyama, Japan."

The prisoners were sent to work in the nickel mines with picks and shovels. Hart remembered that the treatment wasn't particularly harsh, but the men complained about the lack of medicine and food.

Tomoya Kawakita, an American-born citizen who visited Japan and stayed there during World War II, served as an interpreter at the camp.

"He readily joined the abuse of American prisoners," Hart wrote. "He was abusive and (taunted) the prisoners. He always informed the prisoners he would beat them back to the United States."

After the war, Kawakita was tried and convicted of treason. He was sentenced to death, but his punishment was commuted and he was deported to Japan.

A daily routine

Knowing they were there for the duration of the war, the prisoners settled into a daily routine of working in the mines. They rode boxcars to and from work.

"I was used to load coal for the furnaces or to help unload the ore cars from the mines," Hart wrote. "Two men had to unload 30-ton ore cars pulled over a hopper ... This work continued throughout the winter of 1944 and 1945, and soon spring arrived. I was glad because during the winter, the weather was very cold and lots of snow fell. Many men got frostbite, and some lost toes and fingers."

As the war pressed on and the Allied advance moved closer to Japan, the prisoners saw American reconnaissance planes over the camp. On Aug. 10 or 11, 1945, Hart recalled, the prisoners were not summoned for roll call.

"Hours went by and then the roll call was ordered," Hart wrote. "American cigarettes were passed out and we were given the day off. This continued until the 15th, when we awoke to find all the Japanese had left."

Hart said he and the other prisoners thought they would be killed, but Japanese representatives from the mine later came to the camp and apologized for the internment. They were given a skinny pig for food.

End of the ordeal

"He informed us that the war was over and left," Hart wrote. "Adult hardened men cried for joy, happy the long prison days were over."

Japanese medical officers came to the camp and gave the prisoners aid. The Americans foraged for food in the countryside until American planes dropped supplies on Aug. 19.

"All kinds of clothing, food and medicine were sent," he wrote. "We began to return to our U.S. form of living."

In early September 1945, the Americans boarded a train and traveled to Yokohama. From there, they were sent back to the Philippines.

"Special care was always present and nothing was too good for us," he wrote. "Our trip to Manila was like a dream."

From Manila, the men sailed to Hawaii, then San Francisco, where they were welcomed home as heroes.

"Crying was the thing to do — tears of happiness flowed," Hart wrote. "We disembarked onto the shores of the USA. Home again, from what seemed a nightmare but was a very true and horrible experience. I kissed the soil of my country, glad to be back and not sorry for my voluntary enlistment."

Hart was sent to Woodrow Wilson Army Hospital in Virginia, where for the next several weeks, he received treatment to replace the teeth that were knocked out by his Japanese captors.

It was on a weekend during his stay at the hospital that his father and brothers came to visit him. He was given a surprise 30-day leave and traveled back with his family to Hagerstown.

"I arrived in Hagerstown after dark, was let out of the car alone (by my request) and walked a short block to my home" Hart wrote. "I entered the house and on into the living room, where my mother was resting. She burst into tears (as I did) when we saw each other. For moments, neither of us spoke. I believe we thanked God silently for our answered prayers. Then tears turned to happiness and we talked."

Hart said he spent the next 12 years trying to readjust to everyday life. He died of leukemia in 2004.


Lester Hart said that in what might seem a twist of irony, his brother got a job with Japanese automaker Toyota and worked as an automotive service manager for the Eastern Seaboard.

"We used to tease him quite a bit about driving a Toyota," Lester Hart said. "He spent quite a few years working for them. Harold went back to Japan for business and looked up his former captors."

Lester Hart said his brother's capture spurred him to join the Army. He served in Italy with the 10th Mountain Division from 1944-45, and was awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

"I had to be a part of it," he said.

Tears filled Lester Hart's eyes when he recently reminisced about his brother's homecoming after the war.

"We cried a lot," Lester Hart said. "I can't remember actual words. I'm sure I was very happy to see him. I'm sure I told him I loved him."

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