Inside the Capitol

Monday, August 01, 2005

8-10 Liberation

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- The New Mexico National Guardsmen who were loaded aboard hell ships in the Philippines in December 1944, were taken to prison camps in Japan, Manchuria and Korea.
Those camps were located near industrialized cities where the prisoners could be put to work on loading docks, in factories or in mines. The few who remained at hospitals in the Philippines, were liberated in late January and early February of 1945, when we retook the Philippines.
Our troops knew Japan was on the run. The last of the hell ships had left the Philippines less than two weeks before the Americans landed. And as soon as the prisoners got to their new camps, they began to see American planes in the sky.
On the night of March 9-10, hundreds of B-29 Superfortresses swept over Tokyo releasing napalm-filled incendiaries that destroyed a quarter of the huge city. In succeeding nights they hit city after city, leaving them burned to the ground.
The raids were dangerous. Prison camps were occasionally hit and some of our men died. But the raids were also beautiful. Prisoners, many of them on their last legs, took heart. Morale was high, even as guards became edgy and more cruel.
As industrial cities burned, prisoners were transferred elsewhere to work in factories that hadn't been hit, yet. They were told that they would be the first to die when the Americans landed. They were forced to dig their own mass graves into which they would be herded.
But as more cities were leveled and more bombs began falling on prison camps, Japanese attitudes began to change. One commander asked his prisoners to make recordings to send home urging the president to stop the bombing because prisoners were getting killed. But the prisoners' message was "Keep 'em coming."
And then the Japanese began talking of a horrible new American weapon. They questioned the Americans. Something terrible had happened. And it happened twice.
Our prisoners had no idea what had happened. Even the B-29s looked unbelievable to them. They'd never seen such things. They made fun of their captors when told that one bomb had killed 80,000 people. As one guard put it "Number One Bomb blew up whole city."
But some were close enough to see it. They saw the mushroom cloud and they saw Hiroshima and Nagasaki burn all day and night. Those bombs were their salvation. In their panic, prison commanders didn't know what to do. Orders were not coming through from headquarters.
As we now know, the Japanese high command was in a shambles, trying to figure out what to do. It understood what the bombs were. Japan was working on one of its own.
But securing enough fissionable material from their resource-poor lands had been very difficult. Reportedly a submarine was on its way from Germany with the uranium it had gathered for its stalled A-bomb project. But it was too late for that.
Indecision at the top levels of government left the now-scared prison commanders and guards paralyzed. And then the air drops began. Food, clothes and medicine rained down on the prisoners.
Boxes were overloaded and too heavy for their parachutes, causing damage and some deaths. Nick Chintis, of Silver City, noted the irony of a man who had starved for three years being wiped out by a barrel of fruit cocktail.
Also parachuting in were special service teams to provide our men with direction on how to save themselves. As soon as the prisoners realized they were free, the overwhelming urge was to get out of there. But guards were still present and armed, even though they weren't sure what to do.
It would take time for Navy reconnaissance planes to scout out all prison camps and evacuate the most seriously ill. And it would take time to arrange transportation and medical services. In the month it took, 900 flights dropped 4,470 tons of supplies on 158 camps.
WED, 8-10-05

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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