Skip to comments.Return to Corregidor
Posted on 06/21/2002 7:18:52 PM PDT by Enemy Of The State
Return to Corregidor
By Ted Lerner
MANILA - For Everett Reamer it is a strangely perfect and idyllic setting. With the glowing late afternoon sun descending slowly into Manila Bay and the warm breeze blowing in off the South China Sea, providing a soothing respite from the scorching Philippine summer heat, he along with nearly 50 other Americans relaxes and chats in a lively manner, sipping a cold beer, nibbling on snacks as a lone guitar player walks around and serenades the crowd.
He has come, as have all of those gathered here - six others like him who lived to tell about it, friends, family and historians - to commemorate the time exactly 60 years ago, in the darkest days of World War II in the Pacific, when this beautiful place was literally hell on Earth. This is the Philippine island of Corregidor. Three kilometers across the strait and clearly visible on this perfectly clear evening sits the Bataan Peninsula. Together they were the scene of some of the most horrific atrocities and some of the most renowned heroism of the 20th century. And also of the biggest and most humiliating surrenders in the history of the United States military.
It began within hours of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Seeking its vast natural resources, the Japanese invaded the Philippines, which was then a colony of the United States. After obliterating America's air force, they began their overwhelming land offensive. US leaders had promised reinforcements and supplies but none ever came. The fight was focused on Adolf Hitler in Europe. The Pacific campaign would just have to wait.
Overwhelmed and on the run, the US and Filipino troops retreated to the Bataan Peninsula. There the Japanese amassed 50,000 troops against 65,000 Filipinos and 10,000 Americans. Nearly three-fourths of the defenders were suffering from malaria, dysentery and starvation. The men fought valiantly, resisting the onslaught for several months before surrendering in April of 1942.
What ensued were unconscionable atrocities. It became known as the Bataan Death March. The men were marched 112 kilometers in the blazing summer heat of April to a field where they were put in a concentration camp. Along the way, though already suffering from fatigue, disease and hunger, they fell victim to abuse, torture and cold-blooded murder. Their Japanese conquerors denied them food, water and medical care. If you fell down you were shot on sight, or run over by the treads of a tank. Men were forced to dig their own graves then shot in the back of the head. Some were simply beheaded. Babies were thrown up in the air and bayoneted. Filipino civilians who dared to offer food or water were beaten and sometimes shot. By July, 1,600 Americans and upwards of 26,000 Filipinos had perished.
With the capture of Bataan, the Japanese turned their heavy guns across the straits to Corregidor, where the Philippine commonwealth government and the US administration had retreated. Shaped like a tadpole, just 42 kilometers from Manila, the eight-square-kilometer island had been fortified by the Americans over the previous 30 years and, with its solid exterior, was aptly named the "Rock".
The Japanese really didn't need to capture Corregidor. The 5,000 Americans and 500 Filipinos there were cut off from the outside world. Their commander, General Douglas MacArthur, had left for Australia under orders of president Franklin D Roosevelt. The Japanese could have left Corregidor alone, surrounded it and let the men there starve. But they had to have it. It was an honor thing.
Theoretically the Japanese should have taken Corregidor in two days. But they ended up in a fight that many now say may have changed the course of the war and the world, bogging down the Japanese, forcing them to expend thousands of much-needed men and vast amounts of hardware and materials, stalling their advance to Australia.
Cut off by the Japanese advance, abandoned by their own country, their food, water and ammunition dwindling, the Americans and Filipinos on Corregidor fought with an awesome tenacity that shocked the Japanese. Eventually on May 6, after five weeks of relentless bombing raids, the Japanese prevailed, overrunning the island and forcing General Jonathan Wainwright to surrender Corregidor and the whole of the Philippines.
War history is often related in general terms, the way a historian might describe it in a textbook. The real history of war, though, lies in the hearts and minds of those who fought it and suffered its consequences, like Everett Reamer. They know only what they've seen and endured. It's a history that is told from a personal perspective, often without mention of the big players.
Now 77 and sitting poolside at the Corregidor hotel, Reamer can gaze down and clearly see the south dock where, 60 years ago, he left Corregidor for the last time as a Japanese prisoner of war (POW) on a tramp freighter straight to hell. He would subsequently be taken to Japan, where he was forced into slave labor and would suffer unspeakable atrocities.
Reamer, a native of Ohio, was only 16 years old in 1941 when he felt the call to duty and to serve his country. He had to lie to get into the US Army, adding two years on to his age on the enlistment application. He enlisted in February and, in April 1941, he arrived in the Philippines and was given basic training on Corregidor. Still only 16, he was assigned a field position guarding one of the giant gun batteries that the Americans had installed to protect the island.
There isn't a detail of his war experiences that Reamer doesn't remember. He describes the war from the trenches, how his battery countered the Japanese air assault, the planes they shot down, the times he was injured by flying debris, the comrades killed, the steadfastness with which he and his colleagues fought. He describes in detail how he could see across the strait and watch the Japanese cut through the US lines on Bataan and set the peninsula ablaze. That was when the Japanese turned their guns on Corregidor.
"Corregidor was the Gibraltar of the Far East," Reamer said. "And I'll always be proud of that fact. We held our ground, and we could have defeated the Japanese if we would have been able to be resupplied." Although the promised supplies never came - and were never even sent - he claims to harbor no bitterness.
"We were fighting a day at a time," he said. "True, we were limited as to the number of rounds we could fire, to conserve ammunition. But we never had a morale problem. Even the last day, on May 5, we had been shelled and our position had been destroyed and I was still trying to clean the trenches between our guns, and I still thought we would be successful in holding the Japanese off. I never ever gave up hope that we here could not withstand the Japanese onslaught. I was shattered beyond belief when it (the surrender) happened." Although at the time he didn't approve of the surrender, Reamer now realizes Wainwright made the right call.
"I agree that after viewing the situation on the end of the island and the death that occurred, I think he used good judgment. He didn't want all of us to be slaughtered. I think he felt he would try to save as many lives as he could by surrendering. We were overwhelmed. I think he knew far more than I did out in the field. He had a lot of input and I think he used good judgment."
The slide into the abyss, however, was just beginning for every one of those captured. Reamer says he was so depressed that he went into shock after the surrender. He recalls seeing Wainwright being escorted out of the Malinta tunnel by the Japanese with tears streaming down his face. He remembers the Japanese stripping the men of all their valuables and having his dog tags ripped off with a bayonet because he refused to put his hands up for a propaganda shot of the surrender. And of course the horrible smell and sight of war all around.
"You couldn't look 10 feet in any direction without seeing a dead body," he said. "And these guys were all bloated and the stench was horrible. We had no provisions for food or water. They [Japanese] were real crude, like animals, with us. They hated the ground that we walked on. There was no arrangement for feeding. It was dog eat dog, a horrible experience."
Things would only get worse from there. In mid-June the men were taken to Manila by tramp freighter. Thousands of hungry and bedraggled men were humiliatingly marched down Dewey Boulevard in Manila in front of Filipinos who lined the road. Filipinos would often try to give the men rice and water. If they were caught they were beaten by Japanese on horseback. The soldiers were marched to Bluebird prison for one night, with no food or water.
"The following morning," Reamer said, "we were marched to the train depot and put on boxcars, 100 to a boxcar packed in - you had to stand, there was no room to sit. It was so hot and humid, guys died right there. We got to Cabanatuan that night. It was raining and they had a barbed-wire enclosure and we were forced to stay out in this enclosure in the weather. There were pots of rice being cooked on open fires. If you were lucky you got some. I was unlucky, I didn't get any." They eventually ended up in a place called Camp 3.
"It was horrible conditions there. The food was not sufficient. I had yellow jaundice and I went through a procession where your body goes through a dramatic change when you don't get the right diet, you're not getting nutrition.
"We had guys who tried to escape there and they forced us to watch them dig their own grave and then they would shoot 'em and some of the other prisoners would be forced to cover them up. There were a number of incidents of torture, guys being forced to be in a squatting position with a timber behind their knees and legs out in the hot sun. And because of these few escapes they put us in what we called bloodhound groups, groups of 10. If one guy escaped out of the group they would shoot the remaining nine.
"They asked us what we did in civilian life. Of course I was hungry and starved, so I put down that I was a baker, thinking that I would get near some food. But unlucky for me, they decided that I would make a good candidate for slave labor."
Two thousand men were put on a train and shipped back to Manila, where they boarded the Totori Maru, one of the notorious Japanese "hell ships" that shipped POWs to Japan. The Japanese packed the prisoners below deck in conditions not fit for pigs. The ships were always unmarked and often came under fire from US submarines. Sometimes the ships were sunk by these torpedoes and thousands perished. Thousands more died along route from the harsh conditions.
Reamer recalls several torpedoes coming close to the Totori Maru but none hitting. The men were fed two small bags of molding oyster crackers a day with limited water. He remembers the Japanese above deck would throw a handful of rice down to the starving men and laugh while the prisoners fought over the morsels. The trip to Osaka lasted five weeks. Some 1,600 prisoners got off in Husan, Korea, for eventual work in Manchuria as slave labor. On November 11, 1942, after a harrowing five-week journey, the Totori Maru finally arrived in Osaka, Japan.
Reamer says American prisoners were in the minority in the Osaka camps. British, Australians and Chinese made up the bulk of the captives. They were given living quarters, 72 to a room. They slept shoulder to shoulder on wooden bays with no padding. People died from pneumonia or unknown reasons. There was no medical treatment of any kind.
For the next 22 months he was forced to work seven days a week. He was fed rice and watery soup, said to be 1,500 calories a day. He worked unloading ships and barges, in steel mills, foundries and lumber yards and in other jobs. The men would often sabotage things but if caught would face severe consequences.
"It was always harsh treatment," Reamer said. "I never met in my time there a kind Japanese individual. They were always harsh, stern and demanding and the threat of death constantly if I didn't do this or didn't do that. You didn't step out of line for a minute or you were dead. If we were caught stealing food we were severely punished, sometimes to death. Severe beatings and standing at attention without clothes in winter were common methods of punishment."
In August of 1944 he was accused of stealing food. He was subsequently tortured for 28 straight days. They first tied him to a bench and pumped water into his lungs with a fire extinguisher until he nearly died. He was then forced to hold a heavy office chair by the back legs until he could no longer do it. He was beaten while this was being done. He was then made to stand at attention in front of the main gate to serve as an example to other POWs who would come and go there. He stood at attention without food or water for 132 straight hours and eventually passed out and collapsed. He wasn't allowed to go to the toilet nor was he given food or water during that time. It's a dubious feat that landed Reamer in the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest recorded case of being made to stand at attention.
"When I finally collapsed it was almost certain death," he said. "I was doing that because they threatened to kill me if I didn't. When I did that the British - God bless 'em - I didn't know it at the time but they rushed in and picked me up and took me back to their quarter. And evidently they did that under the threat of death to themselves."
After 28 days he was taken before a Japanese military court in Osaka and sentenced to one year's solitary confinement in Osaka Sakai prison. He was issued red pajama-style clothes and no shoes. He was put into a 2.4-by-1.8-meter concrete cell with a small barred window at the back to let in air and a thin blanket that was insufficient to provide warmth. There was no running water, no heat; a bucket served as the toilet. Food consisted of a quarter-bowl of rice a day. During daytime hours he could not stand up or lie down; he could only sit upright. There was nothing to read or occupy his time. He was not allowed to talk to other prisoners.
There were five Americans in there including himself. There were two British soldiers and one Dutch soldier. They also had eight foreign civilians who were in the import-export business in Japan. The governor general from the Dutch East Indies had been imprisoned there. He was in a cell directly across from Reamer, and he died in December of 1944.
Once or twice a month the prisoners would be let out to walk in a circle out in the prison yard. They weren't allowed to talk but found ways to communicate. He found out here that the war was turning against the Japanese.
The winter of 1944-45 was bitterly cold and Reamer's hands and feet froze, causing infection. Feeling close to death, he yelled for help. Finally he was taken for treatment, and a doctor cut and scraped his infection without any painkiller. Later when he went to have the bandages changed, the assistants beat him over the head with a meter-long hardwood club.
Reamer remembers when the Allied bombing of Japan started in June 1945. On August 22 he and the other prisoners were all taken out of their cells. "I said, 'Oh shit. This is the end. They're going to kill us.'" The prisoners were marched up to the control center.
"They used to have a Japanese flag in a frame," Reamer said. "And I noticed that the face of it had been turned to the wall with the back outward. And I knew then ... I felt secure. I knew if they went to that extreme that they weren't going to kill us. It was just an inner feeling of mine. I knew the war was evidently over. They were ashamed of their flag and didn't want it displayed. We were taken up into a room and there were two Japanese officers of high rank with an interpreter. The officer spoke in Japanese and the interpreter interpreted it and he said, 'The war is now over. We are now friends.' Now can you believe that? That's the honest-to-God truth."
The prisoners eventually found their way to Kobe, where they met up with other Americans and much-needed help. He weighed only 42 kilograms and was immediately airlifted out of Japan for medical treatment. He made it back home to Ohio by October and discharged from the army in 1946.
Like many veterans, Reamer never talked about his war experiences for many years. When the war-crimes trials happened in Japan after the war, his case turned up as a war crime. He was asked to go and testify.
"I wanted nothing to do with Japan," he said. "I wanted to stay a million miles away from Japan." Instead he gave a deposition. Back in Ohio he worked for General Motors supervising an assembly line and raised a family. Occasionally the war would visit him in painful ways. He has health problems as a result of his treatment at the hands of the Japanese. One particular beating has caused occasional excruciating back pain that causes him to scream and yell.
"When I get in that state," he said, "I can just see myself behind a machine-gun and a bunch of Japs in front of me and I just want to mow 'em down. I can just visualize that." In 1985, he begun to speak about his war experiences and he regularly appears as a guest speaker on Veterans and Memorial Day programs. Speaking out has helped him come to terms with what happened to him.
"Now it's ironic, in the last two years I've got the urge to go back to that prison where I was held in solitary. Just to see if it was as bad as I had imagined it." Still, the bitterness still lingers, for the most part because the Japanese have never owned up to the atrocities they committed.
"There's never been an apology to this day and we keep asking for it," Reamer said. "I came back here [Corregidor] in 1992 for the first time. There was Japanese here at the hotel. Some of the guys went over and talked to them. And they were veterans fighting us here. And I could not do that. I wanted nothing to do with that.
"It's up to the individual. I never ever saw any kindness from any of them. Not a one. I have no hatred toward the children of that time frame. When we used to go up and down the streets marching as POWs, the children would sometimes throw stones at us. But I could not feel bitter or hatred towards those children, because that was what they were taught."
Indeed, as Everett Reamer sits and enjoys the quiet tranquility that is now Corregidor, one detects very little acrimony about his past experiences, all which started on this island. Yes, he remembers every sordid detail in vivid color, but coming back brings him an obvious contentment. Even though his doctor has given him one year to live - the dehydration he suffered while a prisoner of war 60 years ago permanently damaged his kidneys and they are finally giving out - he says the illness will not stop him from returning again to the Philippines and Corregidor in six months' time. He feels a need to come back.
"It's the kindness of the Filipino people," he says, "and the loyalty of the Filipino people and the appreciation they always show toward we veterans of Corregidor and Bataan." And then there's the appreciative joy of coming full circle, and being alive to tell about it in a place that, 60 years on, still feels like home.
"There's a serenity about the place. To know that we've been able to enjoy so many of the good things in life after our liberation, that it's all behind us now. Every day is a holiday."
Ted Lerner is the author of the book Hey, Joe: A Slice of the City, an American in Manila. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
He puts a real face on things...
Japan at that time got what it had coming...
Towery then got a job as a reporter for the newspaper in the little Texas town of Cuero. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1955 for his series of articles exposing a scandal in the (Democratic) administration of the Veterans' Land Program in Texas. If you're old enough, you may remember watching him get the phone call informing him of his win on Edward R. Murrow's tv program "SEE IT NOW."
He then went to work in Texas politics and was instrumental in the election of John Tower to the U.S. Senate a major landmark of the rise of the GOP in modern Texas history.
Towery became chief of staff for Sen. Tower and later deputy director for policy and plans at the United States Information Agency; President Reagan appointed him to the board of directors of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
He's now owner of a small Texas weekly newspaper and writes a column called the Lamplighter.
A related story is told about POW labor and Japanese industry in Unjust Enrichment: How Japan's Companies Built Postwar Fortunes Using American POWs
" Ken Towery, a Texan captured on Corregidor with his army unit, still remembers the speech with which the Japanese commandant greeted prisoners at the vast Mitsubishi factory complex in Mukden, Manchuria. The yellow and the white man are eternal enemies, the Japanese officer announced, and as long as the white man was in Asia "There will be no peace in Asia." At Towery's camp, the Japanese did their best to assure a peaceful future in Asia: of 1,500 POWs who began the journey to Manchuria with Towery aboard the merchant ship Nitta Maru in January, 1942, 500 were left in Japan, deemed too weak to be any good for work. An additional 80 were dropped off at Pusan, Koreatoo sick to bother transporting farther. Several died at sea due to the dreadful conditions in the sealed hold of the ship. Only 1,100 arrived alive at Mukden, including 920 from the Nitta Maru. Of these, 300 died the first winter in the extreme cold, and from being forced to live in unheated semiunderground mud barracks, built some years earlier by Chinese soldiers. "We buried 176 in one day that first winter," Towery recalled in a March 2000 interview.Ken Towery is another hero of Corregidor, a staunch conservative, great American and man of great courage, character and accomplishment.