Inside the Capitol

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

9-7 Bataan prisoners liberated

90712 prisoners freed


     SANTA FE – As part of our state centennial observance, we celebrate today the 67th anniversary of New Mexico's Bataan veterans being liberated from Japanese prison camps.

     The doors did not swing open immediately upon Japan's August 15 surrender. The prison guards had high-tailed it for sure. American agents from the Office of Strategic Services had parachuted into prison camps to brief the prisoners and organize for the evacuations. Food was dropped in 55-gallon drums.

     The first order of business for American troops when they landed was to find all fighter planes that were still in flying condition and remove their propellers. 

       During the month following the Japanese surrender, medical cases were evacuated first. Then recovery teams methodically got all former prisoners to ports of embarkation. Troops from allied nations were given priority.

     The wait was tough, but for many men who had spent four years away from home, three-and-one-half of that in captivity, it provided time to mentally prepare for their return.

   It also gave some time to become reacquainted with the real food falling from the sky. Many had trouble keeping anything down for a while.

   The medicine drops helped too. Medicine and other supplies often were dropped in mattresses. They were thin, but luxurious compared to the slats they had slept on.

   The sick and injured received plane rides to stateside hospitals, some of them for long stays. A few others who got lucky caught hops back to the United States. The rest found themselves on slow boats back home.

   That wasn't such bad duty. Navy cooks were instructed to give the prisoners all they wanted to eat, at any time of day. That meant morning, noon and evening meals ran together, as some seemed never to quit eating. Many men said they gained 50 pounds or more on the trip home.

   The men wanted to look better for their wives and sweethearts. The American government wanted that too. It worried about public reaction to seeing men half their normal weight returning from prison, when many Americans were upset at what they thought was our coddling of POWs.

   Liberation didn't happen as quickly for the prisoners held in Manchuria, where the Russians were invading. Many of the Japanese guards were killed on the spot, but the Russians often weren't much better hosts. They were primarily interested in plundering anything they could find rather than helping their allies, the Americans, get out of there.

   The ship rides were slow. Every vessel was pressed into service and some were no longer very seaworthy. Mines and typhoons slowed them down more. Some ships stopped several times in Japan, Okinawa, Guam, and even the Philippines before heading home.

   The homecoming ceremonies at dockside were big events. Bands played. Crowds lined the harbors to watch the boys come home. Many wives and families were there. And some weren't. Parents had died or wives and sweethearts were no longer waiting.

   Things had changed. America had made great strides during the previous four years and they hadn't been part of it. How difficult would it be to adjust? The slang bewildered them. Popular songs were new. Customs had changed. They had to get reacquainted with their country.

   Most went to West Coast hospitals to be checked out for the effects of beatings, abuse starvation and overwork. Doctors told them they likely had only about 10 years to live and wouldn't be able to father children because of the damage done to their bodies during captivity.

   The bad news was taken in stride by most of them. They had become accustomed to bad news and were determined to enjoy their freedom as long as they could. And maybe they could even beat the odds one more time.

   Most of them did. Among them, they can boast many, many children. Quite a few of them were still going strong 60 years later.

      Even though many survived the physical abuse to their bodies, some didn't survive the mental abuse well. Most had trouble adjusting to civilian life. Heavy drinking became a problem with some.

   But even without the psychological services the military offers today, our guys survived amazingly well to become productive citizens of our state.


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