When Elton Buck Turner was a boy working in a cotton field in Throckmorton County in the Great Depression, he had told his father that if he ever grew up to be a man of his own, he wouldn’t even live where cotton was raised.
But the skills of a farmer so enabled him to survive a Japanese prison camp in the Philippines during World War II, that by age 20 he was telling fellow prisoners, “If I get out of here, I’ve got to go home and apologize to my Dad.”
Turner had enlisted in the Army in February 1941, almost a year before World War II erupted with the attack on Pearl Harbor.
He had chosen Corregidor, about three miles from Bataan, for two years.
“The war was expected. When we got over there, our commander assembled his battalion and said chances were that before we got out of there we would have to fight a war.
“That was in March of 1941.”
In the first year of the war, Turner missed the Bataan death march by just a few hours. He was in a unit firing antiaircraft guns as part of the coastal artillery on Bataan.
“We were right on top of what we called Gobblers Nob, a hill there on Bataan. Our job was to mess up those flights coming in from Formosa. They would release their bombs, and they would be on target.”
Bataan lost cause
He said, “My battalion commander refused the order to send us to the front, because he said it was a lost cause: They would just send us up there and throw us in that hole where the Japanese were coming through.”
The men in his unit were sent to a dock on Bataan, and put aboard the only boat that left the night Bataan fell.
They reached Corregidor and were at their home base — but not in safety.
Although his group hadn’t suffered casualties on Bataan, by the time Corregidor was surrendered 28 days later, 80 percent of his battery had become casualties.
“They estimated that at times during that last 28 days, there were as many as 80 artillery batteries firing on Corregidor at one time.
“It was just a constant shell burst.”
He remembers, “I was in a group of 14 one morning, down on what we called Gary Trail. It was a road cut out of the side of the mountain with a high embankment on one side and dropped off into the canyon on the other.”
They had worked all night on their gun pits and were taking time to rest, when the the air raid siren sounded.
“I was the farthest man up the road, and I walked up to an ammunition dump that was stacked in close to the wall for protection, and sat down between the ammunition dump and the high embankment.
“That bomb came right over the lip of the high embankment and hit right beside the ammunition dump. It killed 11 of our 14 men — I mean on the spot. And there I was the closest man to the bomb, and all I got was some shrapnel up this right leg.
“It blew me out into the road, I guess as far as from here to that door.”
Although Turner says now from his home in Lubbock that his injury wasn’t so serious. He was kept in the hospital for two weeks, and it was still a raw wound when he was taken out by the Japanese.
“On Corregidor we ran out of food and ammunition and everything. We didn’t have any choice but to surrender.”
Corregidor had become part of the surrender by Gen. Jonathan Wainwright of all U.S. forces in the Philippines on May 6, 1942.
The general also was taken captive and imprisoned — and starved like the other captives.
“They kicked me out of the hospital. The wound was all raw, it hadn’t healed. And if it hadn’t been for a fellow from Breckenridge and another one from Moran that I met in the same barracks ... both were medics, and they kept that leg dressed for me.
“I walked across death’s doorstep so many times.”
He added, “Generally, the Japanese didn’t bother the hospital patients. You take the nurses and all that was there ... they didn’t bother them. That was one thing I respected them for.”
He said he was able to walk even with the wound, and he and others were put aboard a Japanese freighter for transport to Manila.
Wade to shore
“They took us in as close to the beach as they could, and jumped us out into the water. We had to wade to shore. Some of the little short guys that weren’t as tall as me, for some of them it was over their heads. They had to swim.”
The troops were put in the Bilibid Prison Camp, a former Spanish prison, in Manila.
By September 1942, they had been taken to Cabanatuan Prison, and knew they were helpless before their enemies.
“They put us in Camp No. 3 at Cabanatuan, then transferred us down to Camp No. 1, which was known as the Japanese death camp.
“We were burying anywhere from 20 to almost 40 a day. They were dying from malnutrition. I had it bad there with beriberi and pellagra, and I don’t know what all.”
He remembers, “I was in the hospital section there, and this American eye doctor walked up and looked at my eyes. He said, ‘Are you from Texas?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I am.’ He called his assistant over there and showed him what he was looking at, and said, ‘Every Texan’s got one of these.’
“I don’t know what it was.”
Turner remembers, “I was nearly blind, and that guy got hold of some cod liver oil from somewhere, and started giving me about a tablespoon full of that a day. My eyes returned to 20-20, and they never left that.”
Turner and others were ordered to turn unbroken land into a 300-acre farm with which to grow vegetables, and he discovered his farming ability had become crucial to his life.
“We went out, dug up the ground with picks and shovels, and cut the grass off of it.”
He began to appreciate the farm in Throckmorton County, where he learned to handle farm tools and knew how to plant and nurture crops.
“Hoes ... I had chopped cotton all my life, and pulled bolls and worked on the farm, which I didn’t like at all. But I got over there and I wouldn’t have taken a million dollars for it.”
There was freedom from the prison, and time to remember home.
“One year during the Depression, I pulled bolls for 25 cents a hundred pounds. I could pull 150 pounds in a day, that was 37.5 cents a day.”
There was irony in the work:
“We grew a lot of vegetables there, but we didn’t get hardly any of them. They would take them to the Japanese warehouse, and most of them went out to the Japanese army.”
Turner spent two years on sparse rations, then was put into the hold of a Japanese ship in 1944 and taken to Japan, apparently by a circuitous route.
“All we had was about a canteen cup of water a day and about a canteen cup of rice. That’s all we had.”
Turner is 6 feet 2 inches tall.
“I was in the hold of that ship for 62 days, and when I got off the ship in Japan, I weighed 112 pounds.”
He was taken to a coal mine area and put to forced labor. But he considered himself fortunate, in that he didn’t work in the coal but was a member of a hard rock crew.
Tunnels in rock
“We were driving tunnels. Some of them were air tunnels, some to run rail cars through.”
In the desperation of starvation and hard work, where they were watched over by brutal guards, some men resorted to unthinkable tactics to get rest. Veterans have reported that a broken arm gave a man time off from the mine, and some of the broken arms were intentional.
“I knew of some cases where they did that. I never did have nerve enough to do it. I took the attitude of, I’m going to take what they give me, do the best I can with it, and hope for the best.
“That’s the attitude I took, and it paid off for me.”
He said, “My foreman, an American who was in charge of our mine crew down in the mine, stuck his little finger under the loaded rail car and let it run over his finger and cut it off. And you know, he got out of work down in the mine, but he got cut to half ration in the camp. If you didn’t work, you sure didn’t get much to eat.”
End of war
Turner was still in the prison camp when the war ended, and it was a deliverance that came gradually.
“The first inkling we had that something was wrong, was the Japanese commander came in and called the guards together. He lined them up out in front of the guardhouse about 2 o’clock in the morning.
“When he quit talking to them, they went in and tore out all of their black-out curtains that kept light from being seen from airplanes.
“We knew then that something was wrong. About an hour after that, they came around and told everybody in the barracks there would be no work the next day — then, we really knew something was wrong.
He remembers, “About the 17th of August, two or three days after the surrender, the Japanese commander called us together and told us that the war was over, that they had lost the war, and that he was now our junior.”
The prisoners, who for more than three years had been totally subjugated by the brutality of the Japanese military, were slow to grasp the privileges offered by freedom.
“Then, our American commander stepped forward and said to the Japs, ‘We want more food and we want it today.’
“And that guy went out somewhere and he came leading a cow in that day. And boy, we had beef in our rice that night.”
Then the American B-29s began dropping food and supplies to the prisoners from the air.
“They just covered us up with food and clothing — uniforms, everything. Dropped it on the prison camp.”
Turner and the other prisoners hadn’t fully grasped that their freedom had come when they were put on a train and taken along an Osaka peninsula to American soldiers.
“They stopped the train and told us we could get off ... and everybody just sat there. We didn’t know what to do. Then, a big old husky sailor stepped up in the door and he said, ‘Well, just sit there — we’ll send you back where you came from.’
“That broke the ice.”
Food in abundance
The freed prisoners were taken to Okinawa, where they spent one night, and the next morning they were put on B-24s and flown to the 29th Replacement Depot in the Philippines.
“And, oh, I’ll tell you what — they fed us, Lord have mercy, they fed us!”
He remembers, “By the time I got home, I didn’t look like I had ever been a prisoner of war.”