Some Hours Later . . . Target Philippines

World War II’s veterans, especially those, that became prisoners of war, have much to teach us about living our lives.  For the men serving in the Pacific, their God, their strength and willpower kept them from eternity as they persevered through the inhumanity of their captors.

Life as a prisoner of war of Imperial Japan determined . . . what many Allied prisoners understood  . . .  dying was easier than living. 

It was December 7th in Pearl Harbor, a Day that will live in Infamy. However, across the International Date Line on the US territory in the Philippines, it was December 8th.  Manila was key to control of the shipping lanes in the Pacific, and the Imperial Japanese Navy was determined to minimize US interference in this vital area. The Philippines became a primary target of Imperial Japan.

Staff Sergeant Leonard Robinson had finished his night watch from 4AM to 6AM at Clark Field, about 60 miles north of Manilla. A member of the 200th Coastal Artillery (anti-aircraft), and a draftee of the New Mexico National Guard, he was scheduled to leave for the US in three weeks. 

Hearing the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Len knew he would serve for the duration of war, whatever that meant.  Little did he know that his war was just hours away.

Following night watch, Robinson fell asleep and missed his ride to breakfast. His men left without him. Both were killed instantly by the first Japanese bombs to hit Clark Field.   

Shortly thereafter, fifty-four Japanese bombers approached Clark.  Bombs dropped. Len and others dived for their foxholes. Aircraft on either side of them were ablaze. Flames licked the skies as explosions rocked the earth. Nearly every US plane was destroyed. The Japanese fulfilled their mission and demoralized the American military.  It was truly a Day of Infamy.

The next day, America declared war on Japan.

Len returned to his barracks and showered. It would be his last warm shower for three years and nine months. 

War in the Philippines was tough. World War I issued equipment and ammunition meant, their efforts were ineffective and many times they didn’t work. On January 7, 1942, US and Filipino soldiers, and civilians retreated to the Bataan peninsula, away from the Japanese onslaught. 

They still had hope.  Hope that they would be safe in Bataan.  Hope that the US would bring in substantial stores of food.  Hope that they would be resupplied with troops and contemporary weaponry.  None of these hopes were realized.

By April 9th, just four months after their retreat, nearly every soldier on Bataan was diseased with malaria, dengue fever, dysentery, and afflictions due to malnutrition. The thousands of military personnel on that peninsula were spent.  On that day, the Battling Bastards of Bataan . . . surrendered.

Among them – was Len.

The notorious Bataan Death March soon followed: 66,000 Filipinos and 10,000 Americans were force marched north. 

Somewhere along the march route, the men were caged, overnight, in a corral. The next morning Robinson’s shoes disappeared. Panicked he looked for them. Two friends from his unit, helped with the search. When the shoes were found, the time spent looking, meant the men remained corralled after all others had marched on. The three stood by the gate, fearful of the Japanese response. 

By mid-morning Len’s trio, with a group of 15 officers, were loaded in a truck and driven to San Fernando, thus, avoiding the remainder of the barbaric march.   

Historically this march, one of the most inhumane events during World War II, resulted in the death of some 2,500 Filipinos and 500 Americans. Ruthlessly, many were allowed to die.  Others were executed along the approximate 66-mile route north to San Fernando. 

Mere days after the march, the POWs were transported in oven-like railcars to Camp O’Donnell.  The cars were so crowded that, when a man died, he still stood at attention among the captives.

At Camp O’Donnell, less than a mile in diameter, some 50,000 men were jammed inside a barbed wire enclosure. Water and housing were non-existent. It took determined effort to stay alive when everything was wrong. Len told me: “Our guards actions were sadistic in nature. We feared them”.  

“At O’Donnell, surrounded by barbed wire, sick and dying men laid everywhere – their feces ran down their pant legs. We slept outside with no blankets. Our only protection was our clothes. Len moved away from the sick and dying. Near the outside fence and away from the smell and those ravaged by dysentery and other diseases, he laid down and stretched his legs outside the wire.” 

The next forty-eight days were filled with massive loss of life. Most died from diarrhea or dysentery. But soon malaria caused even more deaths. “Death at O’Donnell came as a relief to the sick, starved, and diseased men. Seven thousand men entered O’Donnell. Seventeen hundred died over the six-week period there. Twenty-eight percent of the men perished. If we remained until Labor Day, all of us would have died.”

The guards linked ten men together, if one escaped, the remaining nine were executed. This limited escape attempts. 

It took determined effort to stay alive when everything was wrong.”  

In June of 1942, small groups of men were continually evacuated to Camp Cabanatuan some 100 miles north of Manilla. Prisoners faired much better at this camp. Water, food, medicine and barracks were in limited supply, and sometimes available. 

For a time at Cabanatuan, Len worked the burial detail. Four prisoners used a large grass mat and  placed the deceased on it. He was carried on the shoulders of four men, each holding a corner of the mat, to the gravesite. They moved in tandem or they spilled the body on the ground. 

One particular day, Len was on the front and needed to cross a ditch. He alerted the other carriers of his upcoming action, believing they would follow him. They didn’t. They stopped. Len fell. The body fell on top of Len. The dead man laid face-to-face with Len, locked in a deadly stare. Two days later Len came down with diphtheria, transmitted by the deceased POW. It was a lethal disease when you were a starved prisoner of Imperial Japan. 

All diphtheria patients, including Len, were isolated in the zero zero ward because they had zero chance of survival. Len thought he would die. His throat closed up. He had paralysis. Death felt near. But, little by little, he regained strength.  Five of the men in the zero, zero ward survived. Leonard Robinson was one of them. The greatest perk of diphtheria was none of the other POWs wanted to be near you. Bed bugs never infested your bed. And isolation from the masses of the camp proved valuable to the survivors. 

Twenty-four months later as the war progressed, Japan desperately needed laborers. Hellships, as they were called, and for good reason, transported thousands of Allied POWs for slave labor to  Japanese occupied territories. Held in the hulls of unmarked freighters, POWS were moved for months and for thousands of miles aboard these ships. In the dark, dank, filthy holds, “men endured allthe horrors of the prison camps magnified by tenfold”. 

Little food or water was provided. Some attempted to drink human waste and their own blood. Sanitary facilities were their clothes.  Human dignity and decency were destroyed, as some resorted to cannibalism.  Americans killed Americans in an attempt to survive another day in a hell ship. 

Many of these Hellships were sunk by American torpedos, killing thousands of prisoners. The government justified their killing because they didn’t want the Japanese to know their codes had been broken.

Len’s ship sailed in September of 1943 and finally docked at Moji City, Japan. The men were moved by train through the island of Honshu. By morning, they had traveled over the mountains and up the western coast to the Niigata POW Camp. On the coast of Northern of Honshu Island, Robinson would spend the next twenty-three months. The men wondered if their motto “Golden Gate in forty-eight, I may be late, but I can’t wait” was true, as they moved further and further away from their homeland.”

Niigata was a port, where the cold literally seeps into the bones. Len’s first winter there received 25-30’ of snow. At night, the five rationed blankets did little to keep the men warm. They slept on their wet clothes attempting to dry them by morning.

Leonard’s assigned unit served as stevedores on the docks and initially moved pig iron into rail cars. Eventually they moved all kinds of freight – foodstuffs, military equipment and other necessities for the Japanese. For their labor they were paid five cents a day. 

The food ration barely sustained them. In an earlier, happier time, Len had studied as an engineer at the University of Colorado, learning efficiency.  In Moji City, he applied that skill, working to make the men’s labor easier and, at the same time, keeping his mind clear. By doing so, the guards were rewarded, the Cooley’s (horse-drawn cart drivers) made more money and the men stood a better chance of survival. 

Because the men moved more freight, a bag of soybeans was placed in the nearby POWS mess (kitchen). After a few extra bowls a week, the men worked harder, more was accomplished. The guards noticed the men’s improvement and decided they should receive bean soup daily. While the prisoners grew in strength, they were careful not to show it, in order to save their health.  

One day, US aircraft were seen overhead. The men knew Uncle Sam neared.  Their homeland was a little closer.

After nearly two years held at Niigata, the first Allied dive bomber attacked the airfield and refinery. By August 10, 1945, an all-out battle raged near the stevedores by raiding Allied planes and a Japanese destroyer. 

Later in August leaflets were dropped by B-29s. Overnight, the entirety of Niigata city was evacuated. The men’s liberation neared. Fortunately, after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan surrendered.  Niigata was also a target for the Atom bomb. Those leaflets were a warning.

The Japanese surrender had saved countless American POWS from certain death.

Len’s saga quickly began its inevitable conclusion. On August 15th, they were lined up for work and then dismissed.  The guards told them. “The war was over.”

On August 20th, it finally sank in that this story was not a dream, and he finally had a peaceful night’s rest with the release of pressure. August 29th, two B-29’s dropped food.  Enough to have six meals a day.  Len and the men gained weight.

On September 5th, he caught a train to Tokyo and saw a city that had been totally destroyed.

Ultimately, he made his way to Yokohama, where a hospital ship with a big red cross awaited those deemed ill.  One nurse asked a group of former POWs if she could help.  In Len’s words, “a POW asked her to stand by the side of the building so we could look at her.  She was the first American woman we had seen for a number of years.”

On September 8th, he was flown to Manila. And on September 19, 1945, at 1pm, Len began his journey home – the last leg of a journey that began on December 8, 1941,  at Clark Field.

Staff Sergeant, Leonard Robinson of the 200th Coast Artillery Corps escaped death at least five times during his incarceration. He placed his life in the hands of his God, always believing that he would survive. Leonard affirmed that when he left Tokyo, he forgave his captives – all of them. He closed the book on that chapter of his life. And remained free from trauma for the rest of his life. 

He said he could teach veterans how to heal. His method was quite simple: 

Trust in God, Jesus, turn your life over to a higher power. 

Learn to tell your story, not all the gory details, but become comfortable with it all. 

And forgive unconditionally. 

That day, when I met Len, he used a cane to walk up his sidewalk and enter his home. After many hours of testimony, he jumped up and out of his chair to retrieve memorabilia to share with me. He acted younger. He looked youthful, the longer he recounted his story. He was a young man as he recalled his war.

I have heard over 175 POW oral histories and many other shared stories . . . every one of them has taught me its own important life lesson.  With Len, he taught me the importance of unconditional forgiveness. My hope is that the POW’s stories will have the same effect on you.

With this work, the goal is to share their stories, their lessons, their remarkable understanding of people and life on this earth. We must not let their stories – and their insight – die.


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