Prisoners of War in Kobe, Japan. American civilians from Guam. Courtesy of Irene Ploke Sgambelluri.

Prisoners of War Camp in Zentsuji, Japan. Navy sailors from left to right: Chief Pharmacist First Class and Mortician John Francis Ploke, Wilbur Kack Truman, LD Plumas, RD Jones, and LQ Eadas. Courtesy of Irene Ploke Sgambelluri.

Nearly 500 Americans from Guam taken to camps in Japan

After Guam was captured by the Japanese 10 December 1941, the Americans who remained behind were taken prisoner–477 military personnel (including five female nurses, one civilian woman and her newborn daughter) and 100 civilian men, including businessmen and the American Catholic priests, as well as the Spanish Catholic Bishop, Miguel Olano. According to official records nineteen of them died while they were prisoners. All of them suffered from malnutrition and exposure.

Click on image below for a complete listing of the Guam POWs, as compiled by historian Roger Mansell:

Download list here.

Robert O’Brien, a Navy man assigned to the USS Penguin on Guam, left an account of his experience as an American prisoner of war in Japan. He recounted that, once the battle at Plaza de España was over at about 7 am,  the Japanese troops ran the American soldiers through a double line of troops, a gauntlet, and swiped at them with bayonets and gun butts. The man right behind O’Brien was killed. Others lost parts of their scalps; one bled to death later from a bayonet cut across the back. One of the wounded, who had been shot through both ankles, was kicked repeatedly on his ankles. Another man later lost his mind after the ordeal.

The Japanese soldiers then stripped the American soldiers naked and made them lie in the sun until 11 a.m. without medical attention or water. These were bitter moments, O’Brien said.

Before the day was over, they herded us into a building and permitted us to get back some clothes and then the next day we were all locked up in the Cathedral and served two skimpy meals a day. A few brave Guamanians managed to smuggle in a little food and medicine.

O’Brien’s wife, Maria Santos Inouye, was allowed to see him once near Christmas time and again with their four children before the men were put on a ship to leave Guam. Several other American captives had wives and children on Guam: James Underwood, Chester Butler, William Johnston, Edward Howard, Ernesto Wusstig, and many others.

Maria O’Brien brought her husband food and cigarettes but he said it was obvious her needs were greater than his.

Since she was married to an American service man, she was barred from our home, and couldn’t even get in to pick up cooking utensils or anything. The Japanese had moved into our house, using it as an officer’s quarters.

O’Brien recalled that everyone on Guam was in bad shape by the end of the first month of Japanese occupation. Life was thoroughly disrupted with most of the island being reorganized by the new Japanese administration. The people of Sumai were forced to leave their village and they, along with many in Hagåtña, left their homes and moved to their ranches. Business was at a standstill and there was a shortage of food.

For one month, the Americans were kept in the Agana Cathedral and the adjacent St. Vincent de Paul building. Then, on 10 Janunary 1942, the Japanese marched them five miles to Piti and onto the Argentina Maru, a troop transport.

Historian Dr. Pedro Sanchez said the POW march to Piti was a painful sight:

As the American marchers waved good-bye to their families, relatives, friends and other islanders, many wept openly. The people waved back and prayed and wept with them. Somehow they drew strength and encouragement from each other for the ordeals ahead. Some tried to follow the marchers but were turned back by armed Japanese troops.

Spanish Bishop Miguel Olano described the boarding of the soldiers after he and the other clergy waited four hours aboard the ship for them to arrive.

The Japanese Officer in charge went into a frenzy of checking and double checking. Now he would make us squat on the floor, Buddha-like, while he counted us by twos, by threes, by fours. He repeated this procedure several times making us stand up like soldiers or squatting like apes in the jungle. It was a long and tedious process. The omnipresent whip master took us down to the hold of the ship. As we descended to the bottom of the steerage, I felt a suffocating intolerable heat envelope us completely like a blanket. I tried to choose a conveniently cool spot in that crowded room but the whip master threatened me with his whip and pointed to a large bunk. It could accommodate nine people, and by his gestures he indicated that we were to stay there.

What a pitiable plight that group of war prisoners presented! We were all very hungry, for we had not taken anything since our early morning breakfast of bread and Vienna sausage. When we were finally settled to the satisfaction of our whip master, we were given a plate of white rice and water. That was our luncheon for the first day and for many days thereafter.

The prisoners landed in Japan three days later in the dead of winter and were taken to Zentsuji, Shikoku Island, on the inland sea. O’Brien recalled that it was rugged trying to get used to the sudden change in climate on soup only, which they were served three times a day. Many were ill and everyone was feeling low. Because they had left tropical Guam and arrived in Japan in the dead of winter they were not properly clothed. Before long, however, they were issued some old military uniforms to wear.

O’Brien described their new outfits:

You should have seen us taller men in those short-legged pants and small coats. My pants reached my knees and the coat sleeves reached my elbows. I laugh lots about it now, but boy, that was sure hard to take to have to accept a Japanese uniform at the time, especially so soon after having been in our own uniforms… anything to keep from freezing.”

“Even then it was so cold for all of us that we doubled up at night when trying to sleep under blankets made out of paper. A break for us was the appointment of an old retired Japanese Colonel as head of the prison camp and the old boy had a heart and soon we had some small coal stoves for heat. And we soon were permitted to take a bath (did not have one from the time we left Guam until a month after our arrival in Japan) and three meals a day of rice and soup as our fare.

Life in the camp

The prisoners were made to work. Officers spent their time caring for a garden, and others were conscripted to load food from one train to another. But the prisoners took advantage of the situation — they were able to take some of the food being transferred from train to train.

O’Brien, assigned to the kitchen, said they boiled some horse bones over and over again to make soup.

We used to stack them up like cord wood and from experience we soon learned how long to let a given batch of bones rest before putting them in the pot again. The pots were big black kettles. Each batch of bones was labeled, and when their turn came, into the pot they went; and each successive use saw more of them broken up and pulverized to get the calcium.

The camp was riddled with bedbugs, flies and lice. Dr. H. J. Van Peenen who once had been assigned to the naval hospital on Guam, managed to get the cooperation of everyone in an attempt to rid the buildings of the dreaded bedbugs. He ordered that every article of clothing and bedding be boiled, finally bringing the infestation under control.

The prisoners would leave the camp for work at 4:00 a.m. and arrive back at 8:00 p.m. hauling water, wood, or working in the garden. They had communal bathing — a big tub that was filled with hot water. The Japanese camp staff took their baths first and then it was 20 men at a time, until everyone had bathed. The water was unchanged for the 800 men at the camp.

Others in the prison were from Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia, the Netherlands, Canada and the US mainland. Luckily for the men from Guam, the Zentsuji prison camp was used as an example of POW camps to be shown to the International Red Cross. Though it was by no means great, it did mean they had better treatment, improved food, and the installation of medical facilities, and men were permitted to study various subjects that the Japanese considered “non-military.”

In the early part of their confinement, before the Japanese forbade whistling and laughing, they permitted the prisoners to organize entertainment groups which made for some great evenings of entertainment by the “scarecrows” despite being weak from hunger, beriberi and diarrhea.

Keeping Catholic traditions

Many soldiers kept their spirits up through the ordeal by turning to religion and prayer, including the celebration of the Catholic mass. O’Brien said he and others stole a bit of flour from the kitchen to make hosts for holy communion.

It was rather difficult, but I worked it out where I used a steel bolt with a round flat head which I heated in the ranges under the pots along with a piece of sheet metal. I would make hosts whenever the chance came, because the Japanese permitted Mass but wouldn’t let us make hosts out in the open. Doing this in a clandestine manner didn’t seem wrong to any of us. As for Mass wine, Father Turner managed to arrange for some through a Japanese Catholic priest. Father had asked the Japanese to permit a priest to come into the camp to hear his confession, and somehow he arranged it with the Japanese priest. The wine, along with a few other needed items, somehow came into the camp. Just how it was arranged we never did learn.

Having daily Mass, until Father Turner was taken away in early 1945, was the greatest blessing we had. Many non-Catholics in the prison became Catholics. At one time we even organized a Holy Name Society in secret (unknown to the Japanese), but eventually had to stop when one of the collaborators spilled the beans on us. We had been using what was supposed to be an abandoned outhouse for our meetings; and the Japanese would never have suspected it.

News of the War

The POWs were not given any news of the war for many months. Their guards told them that Japan was winning. However, the Japanese civilian labor used to carry newspapers which the POWs would snag from time to time. As more prisoners learned Japanese they were able to translate them. Toward the end of the war a secret radio was assembled in the ceiling of the room housing six Pan American Airways men out of parts taken from a Japanese storage shed. They quickly found out the schedules of news broadcasts from around the world, listened in, and then quietly spread the word. They vowed never to let anyone besides themselves know of the radio’s presence and were never discovered.

There were some particularly rough times for the POWs. On 18 April 1942, just months after Pearl Harbor, US Army Air Force Lt. Col. James Doolittle took off from an aircraft carrier and flew over Japan. Doolittle led a raid of B-25 bombers on Tokyo and other cities. The raid shook up the Japanese and they responded by taking it out on the POWS harshly.

As the war’s momentum switched in favor of the Allies in 1944, conditions for the POWs worsened. Several times the prison guards lined the POWs up facing their soldiers with fixed bayonets. The POWs prepared for the worst but for some reason, they were not shot.

In August 1945, the Japanese began to rant about “the inhuman bomb,” recalled former POW Charles S. Todd in a 1994 interview. The POWs did not have any knowledge of the atomic bomb, so they believed that this “inhuman bomb” was some kind of gas. “We had no idea.”

O’Brien said after the bombing of Hiroshima, the Japanese were “pretty touchy” with the prisoners, though they did seem to have a little more interest in their welfare.

We had a hunch that the end was near because of the fact that several of the meanest guards suddenly disappeared right after Hiroshima. It was a good thing we were becoming optimistic, otherwise we would never had made that last month. I was down to 120 pounds after dropping from 175 pounds at the start of the war. However, I was in good shape compared too many. Beriberi had raised hob with almost everyone. But for some reason, after the second winter it never bothered me too much.

Once Nagasaki got hit with an atomic bomb O’Brien said kamikazes tried to kill some of the POWs. Sworn to die for the Emperor they wanted to take a few POWs with them. However, the number of prison guards was doubled, which brought an end to this danger. American bombers, however, kept splattering Japan with bombs and artillery. It got to the point where it was impossible to rest as air raid alarms went on day and night.

Many POWs in Japan were never told the war was over, finding out only when most of the guards had left, leaving their rifles behind. O’Brien said the few US Marines among them organized into a security guard. They heard through the radio that the POWs were to remain in their camps until they were rescued. An American flag was put together and flown on top of the building. Soon American planes arrived and began dropping parachute loads of food, medicine and clothing.

It was over a month after the war ended before an Army Rescue team found them. However, within a week after the war was declared over, the Japanese people sent delegations to the camp inviting them to various homes for small parties. The men decided it was safe enough and enjoyed the company of their neighbors and did some sightseeing.

The men, after more than four years of imprisonment, would be repatriated to a world so greatly changed by a war of which they saw so little.

By Shannon J. Murphy

For further reading

Camacho, Keith L. Cultures of Commemoration: The Politics of War, Memory, and History in the Mariana Islands. Pacific Islands Monograph Series 25. Honolulu: University of Hawai`i Press, 2011.

Howard, Chris Perez. Edward: An American Tragedy. Hagåtña: Cyfred, Ltd., 2006.

Mansell, Roger, and Linda Goetz Holmes. Captured: The Forgotten Men of Guam. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2012.

Palomo, Tony. An Island in Agony. Self-published, 1984.

Sanchez, Pedro C. Uncle Sam, Please Come Back To Guam. Tamuning and Hagåtña: Pacific Island Publishing Company and Star Press, 1979.