Life Inside a Japanese Prison Camp, in the Words of an American POW

Inexperienced grows the jungle, brilliant is the dew
Sorry I’m that I can’t get to you
Till our subsequent assembly, right here’s what we’ll do
We’ll change that pink Solar, 
to the Pink, White and Blue!


I FIRST READ these phrases in one in every of a dozen exceptional notebooks that got here to me in a big envelope some years in the past. I had been conscious of their writer, a lieutenant within the 57th Infantry Regiment named Hector John Polla, as I’d written about him in my guide, Black ’41: The West Level Class of 1941 and the American Triumph in World Struggle II, which informed the story of the category that had graduated actually into World Struggle II. Amongst these 424 males, I had been particularly captivated by the tales of Polla and two others who had been the primary to face the enemy in floor fight. Polla, together with Californian Ira B. Cheaney and Floridian Alexander R. Nininger, have been troopers who had fought and been adorned in determined battles on the entrance traces of the Philippines’ Bataan Peninsula lengthy earlier than most of their classmates had gone abroad.

With these notebooks in hand, Hector Polla now appeared rather more actual to me. They contained the phrases—prose, poetry, and meticulous checklists—he had penciled within the months after he was captured by the Japanese on Bataan in April 1942. Polla’s nephew, John Giorza, and his spouse Jane had learn my guide and wished to share with me the journals Polla had stored whereas within the notorious Japanese jail camp at Cabanatuan within the Philippines. I copied them and returned the originals to the household.

A few of the notebooks have been tiny, vest-pocket ones, the type which can be straightforward to hide—which just about actually was what he did whereas imprisoned. Others have been regular-sized college notebooks with the brand of the Philippine Commonwealth Bureau of Training on the entrance that the Japanese had most likely pilfered after which offered to prisoners on the camp commissary. Polla used them to file the foundations of card video games in nice element and to jot notes within the Japanese language lessons he took, most likely voluntarily. He additionally recorded most of his poetry within the bigger notebooks.

A couple of months in the past, I ran throughout my copies of the notebooks. I appeared once more on the 1941 Howitzer—West Level’s yearbook—and on the photograph of an earnest younger man well-liked for having “lightened many duties along with his cheerful method.” I reread the quotation for his motion on February 9, 1942, that earned him a Silver Star. It informed of the lives he saved and the place that might not have been held with out his bravery. Wanting again, this quotation is all of the extra poignant, for we all know that the strategic scenario for these troops in that place was hopeless, and that their short-term future held defeat, the hellish Bataan Loss of life March, and imprisonment.

Polla was the son of Italian immigrants. By summer season 1941 (under), Polla was a freshly minted U.S. Military lieutenant. (Courtesy of the Giorza Household)
(Courtesy of the Giorza Household)

All-American Boy

HECTOR POLLA grew up in Pulaski County, Missouri. His dad and mom, Lodovico “Vico” and Maddelina, have been Italian immigrants; Vico labored as a gardener. Hector was a median child: He had a paper route and appreciated to go fishing. In highschool, he went out for basketball and soccer, and performed clarinet within the band. After highschool, Hector spent two years on the Wentworth Army Academy in Lexington, Missouri, earlier than incomes an appointment to West Level. Marcellus Hartman, a highschool classmate of Hector’s, later informed John Giorza: “I feel it went via Vico’s thoughts that right here I’m a gardener…and my son is graduating from the U.S. Army Academy.”

After Infantry Faculty at Fort Benning, Georgia, Polla, together with Cheaney and Nininger, arrived within the Philippines and joined the 57th Infantry Regiment on November 20, 1941. With its tropical setting and low-cost off-base dwelling, the Philippines had been a prize task throughout the prewar years. Shortly after arriving, Polla dropped off just a few costume uniform objects on the Sanitary Steam Laundry in Manila to be cleaned and pressed, and settled in to savor the lifetime of a younger officer within the unique Orient.

However he and his two classmates had little time for this. On December 8, because the assault on Pearl Harbor was underway throughout the Worldwide Dateline, the Japanese struck the Philippines. Two days later, the invasion started. Filipino and American defenders have been knocked reeling, and inside just a few weeks the trio was among the many outnumbered troops cornered in doomed Bataan. Cheaney and Nininger each misplaced their lives in January 1942. Cheaney was awarded a posthumous Distinguished Service Cross, and Nininger’s posthumous Medal of Honor was the primary to be awarded to a U.S. Military soldier in a floor motion throughout World Struggle II. For Polla—promoted to first lieutenant on January 16—the Battle of Bataan continued.

Prisoners of the Japanese as of April 9, 1942, American troopers collect at first of what would grow to be the Bataan Loss of life March.(Bettmann/Getty Pictures)

On April 9, two months to the day after he had risked his life to carry the American line, time lastly ran out, and the final line might now not be held. The American and Filipino defenders of Bataan surrendered, and Polla turned one in every of some 60,000 males to face the 60-mile Bataan Loss of life March, enduring unspeakable atrocities alongside the way in which. Males have been crushed or shot for stopping to get a drink of water or aiding failing comrades.

Nearly two months after Bataan fell to the Japanese (above), Hector Polla and different POWs reached the camp at Cabanatuan, the place the Japanese searched troopers (under) upon entry. (Nationwide Archives)
(Bettmann/Getty Pictures)

Lastly reaching Cabanatuan on June 2, 1942, Polla and the others confronted an unsure future, with no concept of how lengthy they’d be confined. Polla’s earliest notations within the small notebooks—typically undated—embrace lists of names and addresses of fellow inmates, the meals they obtained from their captors, quotes from radio information stories listened to surreptitiously, and random ideas: “Ensure roll calls are correct”; “Camp Comdr. objects to assembles (unlawful)”; “Extra rice in rubbish pits to be lowered. Seen by Nips.” His extra systematic, day-by-day diary entries wouldn’t start till the primary day of 1943—by which era he knew he was in for an extended haul.

Like Polla, artist Ben Steele survived the Bataan Loss of life March, solely to undergo nonetheless extra abuse in jail camp, which he documented in paintings. He felt an obligation, he later defined, to “illustrate what went on over there.” (Ben Steele/Courtesy of Jim Opolony)

POLLA’S EARLY ENTRIES paint an earthly image of camp life, at odds with nearly all postwar accounts of survivors who informed of situations at Cabanatuan as being depressing past measure, with brutal therapy by its guards. On January 5, for instance, Polla wrote: “Bridge. One banana issued. One pack American cigarettes. Traded Previous Golds for Camels.” February 18 was marked by bridge and a “Jap inspection of clothes…worse than at college.” But it surely all turned out okay: he was issued “two new shirts and a pair of pants.” He ended his day by listening to the radio.

On March 17, the Japanese handed out fish oil for shoeshining and a ration of tooth powder “for each three males.” Polla goes on to say that there was “a drawing for drawers and towel. I bought the towel.” The subsequent day, between the bridge sport and a day nap, Polla notes being “issued three limes.” That night, there was a “Musical Present” of the type that alternated with film nights a number of occasions every week via 1943 and, with much less frequency, into 1944.

Taking a look at what he wrote—and the place he wrote it—raises questions that can by no means be answered. Had been Polla’s bland descriptions of bridge, leisure, and citrus fruit toned down for worry of what punishment would possibly ensue if his diaries have been found? If that’s the case, one wonders why he penned his poetry, a few of which contained descriptions of cruelty and abuse, within the bigger, harder-to-hide notebooks. Had been his bland descriptions merely factual particulars recited by a benumbed man who had accepted his circumstances? Was the person who “lightened many duties along with his cheerful method” simply making an attempt to take care of his personal sanity? John Giorza means that Hector undertook his writing initiatives and diary-keeping as a method of sustaining his psychological acuity.

Polla’s diary entries not often ebbed on the darker facet. On April 6, 1943, although, he talked about that he had discovered from a guard that two males had escaped, however famous nothing of their destiny. One uncommon graphic description of his captors’ robust arm got here just some days later, on April 14, when he wrote tersely a few man who had been caught trying an escape. He “was imagined to be shot — Head shaved — spared,” Polla wrote. To this, he added: “Rat crawled on my head.” Is Polla maybe telling us that he was the person whose head was shaved?

Nonetheless, he pulled no punches as he wrote in verse about 10 males executed for the transgressions of 1. “The ten they knew that they have to die, altho’ for fact they knew not why,” Polla wrote. “Their life had run its transient brief span. They have been paying the debt of one other man.”

‘I need to go house’

POLLA’S POETRY is commonly wistful in tone— equivalent to when he wrote, “They write of the East as enthralling, and that’s why I began to roam. However now I hear the Occident calling. Oh Lord, how I need to go house.”

The theme of abandonment additionally crops up. In his poem “Scuttlebutt,” most likely courting from the summer season of 1942, Polla borrowed a line from well-liked tradition when he wrote {that a} “good friend of a good friend of a pal of mine” informed of a confidential report that “the Yanks and the tanks are coming. Actually they’re nearly right here.” Certainly, since January 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the U.S. Military chain of command had repeatedly promised the POWs that assist was on the way in which. These making the guarantees knew it was unimaginable, however these in Cabanatuan at first thought that their incarceration is perhaps brief. Polla ended “Scuttlebutt” by writing that the gossip of “previous maids…couldn’t sustain with the rumors in Cabanatuan.”

Polla wrote typically of meals, a fixation frequent to folks on significantly lowered diets. Steamed rice was the staple, and the prisoners have been additionally typically served lugao, the rice porridge frequent to the Philippines. Of their early days of confinement, they ate creamed corn and canned salmon, most likely from captured American meals provides.

Polla’s early journal entries tended towards largely mundane lists: the presents he and others obtained at their first Christmas (under), for instance, or the rations of meals he was given. (Courtesy of the Giorza Household)
(Courtesy of the Giorza Household)

As the boys of Cabanatuan neared their first Christmas in captivity, captured canned items ran out, however the Japanese allowed presents to succeed in the prisoners. Polla recalled {that a} delegation of “Manila Girls” got here to the camp with such treats as cigars, cigarettes, and sweet. He doesn’t say who these ladies have been—though had they been from the Pink Cross, he would have talked about this, as a result of he notes on the identical web page that Worldwide Pink Cross packages with sweet bars, cleaning soap, and canned items additionally reached Cabanatuan forward of Christmas 1942.

By way of the early months of 1943, Polla wrote of eggs being served regularly for breakfast, and of oranges, limes, and Pink Cross sugar typically being distributed. On Might 10, he savored “the primary mango of the season.” Into 1944, Spam, jam, and canned corned beef arrived in Pink Cross parcels. The lads additionally maintained a farm outdoors the principle jail compound. In his diary, Polla recalled raking cornstalks and being in control of the camote (candy potato) planting element within the spring of 1943.

Polla’s weight, as a sign of his stage of nourishment, declined from 163 kilos in October 1942 to 156 in February 1943 and stabilized within the low 150s via July 1944, the final time he famous it.

There was a hospital of kinds at Cabanatuan, overseen by a U.S. Military physician, Colonel James Gillespie. Military Medical Division historian George Cressman has written that it “lacked the provides and medicines to successfully deal with sufferers.” Nonetheless, Polla wrote at size about an early 1943 malaria affliction and that he obtained quinine routinely. He additionally typically mentions different medicines, together with an antibiotic, sulfanilamide. In April 1944, he obtained a cholera vaccination and a month later he was again on quinine for one more bout of malaria.

Aspirin was out there, and circulated among the many prisoners. “Valentine’s Day however no Valentine,” Polla wrote on February 14, 1943. “Stayed within the sack a lot of the day. Acquired 2 aspirins from Knopping.” This was his first point out of Warrant Officer Joseph Knopping, an aviation engineer from Palisades Park, New Jersey, who would play an vital half in Polla’s story two years later.

Holidays in hell

THE JAPANESE repeatedly paid the prisoners small sums in Philippine pesos, which had a prewar worth of about two cents in American {dollars}. The funds have been stored in Japanese Postal Financial savings accounts. Based on Polla’s working whole—which reached 470 pesos by October 1944—he began out receiving 5 pesos month-to-month, however in October 1943, firm grade officers like himself bought a increase to 40 pesos. With their cash, the prisoners have been in a position to store on the camp commissary, shopping for recent fruit, canned espresso, toiletries, tobacco, and even recent eggs. Polla was an everyday client of sugared peanuts, which offered for 15 to 18 centavos a bag. Eggs fluctuated at rather less than one peso a dozen, about the identical as the price of a pocket book.

Polla documented vacation celebrations. On Thanksgiving 1943, he reported having “had an excellent supper.” Each Christmas Eve and New Yr’s Eve in 1943 handed congenially with “cake and low.” On April 29, 1943, the boys have been served hotcakes for breakfast in celebration of Emperor Hirohito’s birthday. The identical day one yr later, nonetheless, was what he known as a “Regular day.”

Polla didn’t point out his personal birthday in 1943, however on September 30, 1944, as he turned 28, he reported consuming cornbread and peanut butter. Easter 1943 was celebrated with a cup of sugar within the ration allotment, whereas on Easter 1944, he “attended dawn companies” and “broke out my new uniform.”

By his account, the Cabanatuan inmates stayed entertained. Performances by the camp theater corporations and glee membership occurred repeatedly in 1943, and he reviewed them. He deemed the glee membership present on February 21 “superb,” whereas the range program on March 6 was merely “fairly good,” and the movie Tobacco Highway on March 30 was “not too good.”

Films, from the Marx Brothers to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs—most likely 16mm prints captured from American bases—have been proven a number of occasions every week, typically interspersed with Japanese newsreels. On September 12, 1943, Polla wrote “Film — Judy Canova in Puddin’ Head loved by all despite the fact that it was a second charge film.” Ten days later, the 1931 Charlie Chaplin movie Metropolis Lights earned a “very foolish” from Polla. On October 21, he wrote: “Film all in Japanese besides a cartoon, ‘Looney Tunes.’ Cartoon solely factor worthwhile.”

Studying Polla’s many film evaluations, like studying web page upon web page of a “bridge and citrus” way of life, is perplexing: it’s laborious to sq. his journals’ account with the unanimously hellish tales of therapy at Cabanatuan which have emerged for the reason that struggle. Was he making an attempt to give attention to the few glimmers of a brilliant facet? Maybe a solution to this query will be present in his penmanship and his language. By the summer season of 1943, Polla’s handwriting had grow to be extra careless, as if he was working out of steam. His entries grew shorter, now often being only one line. Certainly, for many of August, and sporadically into October, the phrase “Regular day” was repeated, with no additional remark, day after day.

Letters from house reached the prisoners at Cabanatuan solely sporadically at first, with a Christmas letter from Polla’s mom lastly arriving in February 1943. Practically a yr later, in his January 1944 entries, he talked about mail a number of occasions, noting that he obtained two letters in a day—one from his dad and mom and one other from a good friend named Kay, from whom he obtained a number of letters. By June, it was a “Regular day” when 250 letters arrived at camp.

In reply, inmates have been permitted to mail postcards with a 50-word message restrict. Amongst these to his mom that survived the struggle, his card of July 22, 1944, stated: “Don’t fear about me…ship sun shades when you may.” Maybe his sanguine descriptions of Cabanatuan have been partly designed to defend his mom from the anguish she would really feel if she have been ever to see his notebooks.

MEANWHILE, EVEN AS THE MAIL for the boys began flooding in, the prisoners themselves started flowing out. The Japanese began pulling males out of Cabanatuan to be despatched to Japan in “work particulars.” Essentially the most able-bodied of the boys have been, the truth is, being conscripted as slave laborers, and have been transported on vessels aboard which the situations have been so merciless and unsanitary that they got here to be generally known as “hell ships.” Polla first talked about a element leaving for Japan on March 6, 1944. By the summer season, the departing work particulars turned extra frequent, with the boys typically rousted round midnight to go away within the wee hours of the morning. As a result of they by no means returned, these left behind had no concept what they’d undergone.

Certainly, there was cause for optimism. By September 1944, because the prisoners marked 27 months of imprisonment, the fortunes of the once-invincible Imperial Japanese Military had ebbed and turned. Japan had been defeated from the Solomons to the Marianas, and Normal Douglas MacArthur’s promise of a return to the Philippines loomed massive as an imminent actuality. For Hector Polla, this was greatest recalled in his September 21 entry. After writing “Regular day” dozens of occasions, he was in a position to write “Uncommon day.”

Later in Polla’s imprisonment, his handwriting grew extra harried-looking, along with his entries typically a short “Regular day”—till he famous (seen halfway above) an “Uncommon day” that gave him hope. (Courtesy of the Giorza Household) 

“American planes flew over,” he defined. “One Jap aircraft shot down — Pleasure working wild…two planes flew low overhead at a excessive charge of pace. They appear to fly unmolested and at will… [I’m] Assured of early freedom.” He optimistically added “Most likely have birthday dinner in Manila,” however that was to not be. On September 30, as he celebrated his twenty eighth birthday, freedom was not his to know.

On October 15, it was Hector Polla’s flip to affix a departing element. His diary entry for that day, within the type of a be aware to his mom, was his final.

U.S. Military Rangers freed greater than 500 Individuals from Cabanatuan on January 30, 1945. Hector Polla was not amongst them—however the man who safeguarded Polla’s journals was. (Bettmann/Getty Pictures)

“Depart tonight at midnight. Giving [my notebooks] to Knopping to ship on to you,” he informed her, referencing Joseph Knopping, the person whose identify had first appeared in his diary 20 months earlier. “I’m in good well being…. I don’t imagine that we’ll depart the islands, but when we do you could relaxation assured that I’ll get alongside all proper. I’ve been in a position to to date and I’ll proceed to take action.”

5 days later, Normal MacArthur waded ashore on the island of Leyte on the head of his Sixth Military and the liberation of the Philippines started.

Primarily based on eyewitness accounts later compiled by the U.S. Military, a fairly correct image of Polla’s subsequent experiences will be pieced collectively. After two months at Manila’s Bilibid Jail, Polla was crammed into the filthy maintain of the Oryoku Maru in Manila Harbor, together with 1,555 different Individuals and 64 prisoners of struggle of different nationalities. On December 13, 1944, the ship departed for Japan. Two days later, although, like many Japanese ships in Philippine waters, the Oryoku Maru, unmarked as a POW transport, turned a goal of American plane. Because it sank, 270 prisoners died. Polla was among the many survivors who have been reloaded aboard the Enoura Maru on December 27.

The ship reached Takao, Formosa (now Kaohsiung, Taiwan), on New Yr’s Day 1945, and was nonetheless docked in port on January 9 when American bombers attacked it, closely damaging—though not disabling—the ship and killing greater than 400 POWs. However Hector Polla as soon as once more beat the chances.

On January 21, his luck ran out. His personal undated poem, “Requiem,” gives a somber epitaph:

“God relaxation ye lifeless and relaxation ye effectively; T’is greatest ye be free’d from hell.”

Two massive Japanese cargo ships smoke after a bombing by American plane on January 9, 1945. Polla was on one in every of them. (Naval Historical past and Heritage Command)

Messages from the grave

IN JULY 1945, Vico and Maddelina Polla obtained a letter from Main Normal Edward F. Witsell, the U.S. Military’s soon-to-be Adjutant Normal, who wrote that their son had died within the sinking of the Oryoku Maru in December. In October 1946, Witsell wrote once more, amending his earlier report to inform them that Hector had survived the December sinking, solely to die on January 9, 1945. However this was to not be the top of the Pollas’ emotional curler coaster experience.

Official paperwork and letters to Vico and Maddelina, which John Giorza shared with me, present that the military had a tough time checking out the small print of the boys who died aboard the hell ships. The date of Hector’s demise was amended a number of occasions within the years after the struggle as increasingly more eyewitnesses have been situated and interviewed, and as extra Japanese data have been situated and cross-checked with different data. The ultimate dedication lastly got here on March 28, 1951. It was concluded that Hector had died in an assault on the Enoura Maru in port on January 21, 1945, that killed some 400 extra POWs and completely crippled the ship. Nonetheless, it was famous that his stays “couldn’t have been recovered.” A grisly handwritten be aware added that after the disabling of the Enoura Maru, the “stays recovered at Takao, Formosa, [were] unimaginable to segregate satisfactorily.”

Within the midst of all this, the uniform objects that Hector had left to be cleaned on the Sanitary Steam Laundry in Manila in 1941 have been picked up by the U.S. Military’s “Results Quartermaster” and delivered to his dad and mom. Maddelina Polla had taken her son’s demise terribly. John Giorza was solely 4 when she died in 1954, however he recalled that with Hector gone, “her life was over. She by no means left the home.” As for Hector’s father, John informed me that “Hector was his hero.” Vico Polla carried the load of his son’s loss till his personal demise in 1978.

Hector Polla’s journals had their very own distinctive journey house. Late in 1944 Joseph Knopping discovered that he was about to be transferred to Bilibid Jail, the place many extra able-bodied prisoners have been being consolidated forward of the approaching American landings on Luzon. Earlier than departing, he handed the dozen various-sized notebooks to artilleryman Non-public Arthur Hilshorst. Each males prevented Polla’s destiny: the U.S. Military freed Knopping from Bilibid in February 1945, and Hilshorst was a type of liberated by U.S. Military Rangers within the “Nice Raid” rescue mission at Cabanatuan on January 30, 1945, that launched the final of the camp’s inmates.

Contained on this envelope, Polla’s journals made it house. Inside was a poem expressing his longing to do the identical: “They write of the East as enthralling, and that’s why I began to roam.However now I hear the Occident calling. Oh Lord, how I need to go house.” (Courtesy of the Giorza Household)

Hilshorst reached the U.S. Military’s Letterman Hospital in San Francisco in March 1945, and on April 2 he mailed the journals in a big single envelope to Polla’s house in Missouri. Because the envelope arrived, Vico and Maddelina have been nonetheless holding on to hope in regards to the destiny of their son. The dad and mom later positioned this envelope, together with Normal Witsell’s letters and Polla’s dry-cleaning, into the footlocker their son had introduced house from West Level in June 1941. There they’d stay for greater than half a century. John Giorza informed me that after his mom handed away in 1995, he and Jane opened the footlocker. They discovered Hilschorst’s envelope there, nonetheless sealed.


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