‘Hellships’ just one misery in abject lives of WWII POWs held in Philippines
Daniel Crowley often repeats two words as he recounts his experience as a prisoner of war being shipped from the Philippines to Japan in 1944: nightmare and lucky.
“The hellships were nightmarish,” said the 96-year-old. As the Allies prepared to retake the Philippines after more than three years of Japanese occupation, POWs were marched to ports to be shipped to the Japanese mainland. Hundreds of men would be crammed together in the deepest bowels of the ships in sweltering heat and little or no ventilation.
“They would prod you in the ass with their bayonets and force you down into the deepest ‘dragoons’ until they packed human beings so tightly that you couldn’t turn around, sit down, lie down,” Crowley said. “You just sat in the [feces]. It’s beyond your worst nightmare.”
The guards’ “idea of a humane gesture,” he said, was to let a few men each day carry buckets of feces and urine to the top deck and dump it over the side of the Taikoku Maru. “And throw dead bodies over the side,” he said. “They definitely allowed that every day.”
“But actually, I was lucky,” Crowley said, noting that the ship made it to Japan intact in a relatively fast 17 days. Other hellships took many more weeks and were frequently targets of Allied submarines and carrier aircraft because they were not marked as carrying POWs.
Death march For Crowley and all the other American POWs in the Philippines, the hellships were just one scene from a three-year tribulation steeped in death, deprivation and depravity.
The youngest of six brothers, Crowley was stationed in the Philippines in the spring of 1941 as a private in the U.S. Army Air Corps and worked on servicing aircraft.
With the outbreak of war with Japan that December, he and everyone else in uniform “all turned into infantry grunts,” defending the island with mostly World War I-era weapons.
Four months later, about 78,000 American and Filipino troops made a final stand with their backs against the sea at the tip of Bataan Peninsula. Crowley was among them.
On April 9, 1942, Maj. Gen. Edward King Jr., surrendered those troops, and they were led away on the infamous and deadly Bataan Death March.
Crowley, however, jumped into the sea at night and swam to Corregidor Island, about three miles off the tip of Bataan, which was still held by the U.S. Marines. He fought there until May 6, when Gen. Jonathan Wainwright surrendered. The POWs were marched through the streets of Manila escorted by young Japanese officers on horseback with drawn swords, Crowley said.
At the end of the march, they were loaded into railroad boxcars, where they were crammed together standing for what was about an eight-hour trip.
“Most everyone was suffering from diarrhea,” he said. “Between the urine and the [feces], we were wallowing in it. The floor of the car became a pestilence.
“That was probably the most horrible thing and all those years of incarceration — wallowing in the human waste,” he said.
‘Known mess’ Crowley ended up in a POW camp near the city of Cabanatuan, about 70 miles north of Manila.
“The death rate got to be astronomical,” he said. “Those who were dying were thrown under the barracks to lie in the dirt. That was called the ‘zero ward,’ meaning you weren’t going to come out of there alive.”
With the “known mess” he was in, Crowley said he jumped at the chance to join a work detail that was sent to the southern Philippine island of Palawan, where he spent a year and a half building a runway from jungle using nothing but axes, picks and shovels.
They survived on what was roughly 600 calories a day in the form of rice soup.
“The body stabilizes after a while, and all those who are going to die quickly, die quickly,” he said. “So the death rate was at horrendous levels in the first two months. After about six months, weak from the lack of nutrition and water under the brutal slave labor, you were a living skeleton.
“If you didn’t jump and work your ass off when you were ordered to, they’d just beat you to death if they wanted to. At the very least they’d beat you to pulp.”
“My beard was down to my waist,” he said. “My hair was hanging over my shoulders. My skin was burned black from the sun.”
He feigned insanity, and with the appearance to match it, the work camp’s doctor eventually deemed him “unfit for labor,” Crowley said with a laugh.
Others found a more painful way out of hard labor. He recalled that a guy from Long Island would use a metal bar to break the arms of the willing.
“These fellows would put their arm down on the stump, and he’d shatter it with his metal bar,” he said. “That was 10 cigarettes he charged.”
‘American slaves’ In March 1944, Crowley was shipped to the Japanese mainland where he worked in two separate copper mines, the last one 2,000 feet below the surface.
“We were slaves at the Furukawa copper mine,” he said, recalling the sadistic pleasure the controller of the cable and winch seemed to get in letting the bucket filled with men freefall for 1,900 feet before it careened to a stop.
He recalled walking through waist-deep snow to the wooden hut they were housed in outside the mine.
“They would give us two or three fist-sized clumps of charcoal to heat the whole wooden structure where hundreds of slaves were packed in — American slaves,” he said.
How did Crowley cope with such conditions for long without losing hope?
“I simply believe I was blessed by a strong father with the strong mind who imparted some of his genes to me so that I could make it,” he said. “I just pretended it was normal to get in that bucket with about 20, 25 other people and drop at an alarming rate for brutal slave labor. Every day was a new milestone. It actually got to the point where it was the normal way to live.”
But he also fixated on fantasies of vengeance, with thoughts of making the “sons of bitches pay if I could someday,” he said.
Crowley has had a good life since he was liberated, married 65 years to his first wife with whom he had two children. Living in Connecticut, he remarried recently, and his wife, Kelley, 42 years younger than him, admits that she has a hard time keeping up with him. He laughs often and jokes frequently.
But he will not make peace with his old enemy.
“I couldn’t forgive,” he said. “How could I forgive?