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Pacific POW

Data from John P. Hunter of the 351st, concerning a letter of his close friend Arnold A. Bocksel to “Boxie’s” POW comrade James Phillips’s mother in August 17th , 1946. It is impossible not to note that it is dated on the 3rd Anniversary of the 100th famous Regensburg – North Africa shuttle mission. …pw  

Mrs. Wendell Phillips
Malba,N.Y.

Lewiston, Idaho
August 17, 1946

Dear Mrs. Phillips,

In your last letter to me, you mentioned that you loved to hear about the experiences that your son, Jim, and I shared together while we were Japanese Prisoners of War.

Some months ago, while recuperating in military hospital, from the ravages of the cruel and brutal treatment inflicted by our Japanese Captors over a 3½ year period, I wrote this story for you about your son Jim. It started as a letter go you but I could not decide about sending it to you in fear of the emotional impact on you.

After much personal agonizing, I am sending it to you. I hope I have done the right thing.

With much love and esteem,
“Boxie”

A Story for Jim’s Mother

by Arnold A Bocksel

His name was Lt. James Phillips, fighter pilot, USAAF. Over his right eye, etched into his forehead was a large “U” shaped scar, the ends of which trailed upwards and became lost in the black curls of his unruly hair. Memento of a crash landing in a P-40 Fighter Plane after an encounter with a Jap plane over Manila Bay in early December 1941. The scar was not ugly…perhaps it was the way he wore it.. as if it had always been there. He had a warm, infectious smile that he carried in his eyes as well as on his lips. His smile, like the scar, was always there.

Jim was shot down in the early days of the war by enemy aircraft, but not until after he had sent a member of the Rising Sun to set and rise no more. He was rescued from the waters of Manila Bay. Said he never was so frightened in all his life…of sharks!!

I had met Jim for the first time at the bar of Manila Hotel in early December 1941. Manila was a beautiful city at that time, often called the Pearl of the Orient. At that time in Manila, I also remember that a Siren was an attractive woman, and not an air-raid alarm.

The next time Jim and I met was as Prisoners of War, or perhaps I should say “Captives” as the Japanese informed us. We were captured with all other American Forces in the Philippine Archipelago after General Wainwright surrendered our forces. In his last message to President Roosevelt he said, “With broken heart and head bowed in sadness but no in shame, I report to your Excellency that today I must arrange surrender for the fortified islands of Manila Bay. There is a limit of human endurance and that limit has long since passed. Without prospects of relief, I feel it is my duty to my country and my gallant men to end this useless effusion of blood and human sacrifice. I go to meet the Japanese Commander … Good-bye Mr. President.”

While our military history reflects many of the glories associated with our victories, it also reflects the tragedies inherent in war…those who have made the supreme sacrifice, those who have returned maimed and wounded, some forever; and those who have become MIA’s or Prisoners of War, through the fortunes of war. It should be remembered that only combat veterans can become MIA’s or POW’s…an airman shot out of the skies, a Sailor plucked from the raging seas; a tank-man trapped in his destroyed vehicle; a Marine or Soldier found wounded on the battlefield or caught in untenable position; a Doctor, Nurse or Corps-man remaining behind to take care of the wounded and dying…captured, yes…but not in shame.

Some two weeks after our capture, Jim and I learned that the Japs are moving us to a prison camp in Manila. We were herded aboard two Jap vessels and transported to the waters of Manila Bay. We are then transferred to barges towards the city of Manila, where we are dropped off in the water to wade ashore. We were then marched through the city of Manila in our wet clothing ..of course, assisted by the “Noble” Japs exhibiting the true spirit of their loft Bushido Code…blows from rifle butts, jabs from bayonets to assist you in the march. Jim says, “I wish the bastards would stop assisting me…my ass is bleeding in three places so far.

The Jap actions were in part a show for the many sad and teary eyed Filipinos lining the streets by Jap orders. We eventually arrived at Bilibid Prison, where we remained hungry and starving for two weeks. However, we do have water and concrete floors to sleep on.

Once day Jim tell me he has heard that we are being moved to another prison camp in Cabanatuan, Philippines. Sure enough, some days later we are marched to the railroad station in the usual Jap manner. Fortunately, not too far this time. We are given no food or water and the toilet facilities are the floor of the box-cars we are sitting in. With almost every man suffering from dysentery, it was a nightmare.

We finally arrive in Cabanatuan. The Japs are screaming again, the doors of the box-cars are opened and the rush of fresh air does momentarily revive us. We are unloaded and told we will spend the night in nearby pens used for holding livestock. We are given a rice ball and told tomorrow we will march to the new prison camp.

The grounds in the pens are soggy and the odor pungent. We are in a quagmire of feces, blood and urine with thousands of white maggots added for flavor. Someone says, “Now I know what that guy meant when he said , stop the world, I want to get off.”

The next morning we are marching again. The sun is still beating down unmercifully…fiercely. It is difficult to push one foot in front of the other. Chalky dust from the parched dirt roads covers everyone. Dust is in your nose, mouth and streaked on your face where perspiration rivulets have made roads thought it. Your head is drooped from our shoulders watching your feet, helping you to remember what you are trying to do. Men fall out along the line of march at the mercy of the Japs. You recall the incidence of the Bataan Death march where brutality, cruelty, and murder were common place by our Jap Captors. Men pushed into straddle trenches and left to die…the swollen corpses of Americans and Filipinos lined the ditches darkened by the blood from their bodies .. some shot…some beheaded… all with flies and crows feeding on the carrion. At that time the Japs could not be viewed on a plane of moral equality with other civilized nations. Under the Japs, the story of the Prisoners of War is a story of how humans endured under appalling  conditions and how a few triumphed over unbelievable adversities. War behind barbed wire is war waged against hunger, disease, brutality, fear, boredom and at times despair. A war that is fought without the weapons of warfare against a fully armed enemy who in the case of the Japs further victimizes his captives with brutality and starvation. One of the greatest battles a POW has to contend with is that of fighting against the omni-present temptation to yield to self-pity and despair.

Hours later we arrive at the new camp…at least those who were able to complete the march. A search throughout the camp reveals no water …not dam drop anywhere. The Japs say we will march to a new camp tomorrow, nearby … yes, water is there, much water. Now, no water, no nothing again.

You just fall the ground in heap next to Jim….no one is talking…you blissfully enter a state of animated suspension or something like that. One consolation is that even the Japs are apparently very thirsty.

Sometime later, you come to with a start. Was that a drop of water you felt on your face or was it a bird flying overhead. You hear Jim moan and say, “Please God Please”…and looking up into the skies you behold gorgeously beautiful, ominous looking, black as coal skies with the accompaniment of loud thundering noise announcing their arrival. At some celestial command they approach and stop directly on top if us. They come to the majestic position of “Halt” and water from the heavens burst forth…a deluge.

Almost everyone strips off his clothes. You feel the water on your skin…all over your body…delicious…you catch it in your hands, scoop it from the ground, throw it at each other…and drink, drink, drink. No other sensation in life ever tasted or felt so good. We are having an orgy with water. Jim says I hope I don’t wake up and find this is a dream…I reply, if it is a dream, I hope I don’t wake up. A lot of prays were answered that day…thanks God. The next morning we are marched to a camp nearby and fortunately we find that water is plentiful.

One day a man who had been in Jim’s Squadron come over to see Jim. He is stark naked…someone has stolen his clothes while they are drying. They were the only clothes he had. Can Jim help him to get some clothing. (Jim and I have one extra set of clothes between us). Hell yes, says Jim, have an extra set right here…looks like they will fit you …sure, sure, keep them…we weren’t using them. After the fellow leaves Jim says we better keep a good watch over our clothes while they are drying. I sure will, Jim, I sure will, I say, smiling, especially if any of your friends come around!

Sometime after this Jim and I came into possession of a tin of sardines. One of Jim’s men stole it from the Jap warehouse. In a Jap prison camp, this was comparable to winning the lottery. After much deliberation we decide to keep the sardines for some day of dire need. (I am sure you know what is coming) Well Jim comes over to you one day and says Boxie do you remember So and So.. you remember So and So. Well Jim continues, he is extremely ill…in dire need… actually besides lice…he has pellagra, scurvy and beriberi, etc. (so do we !)

Later you wonder and salivate over the thoughts of what those sardines would have tasted like. They were packed in tomato sauce, too. Your only consolation is that you know Jim has these same thoughts…probably wishing he had a stronger character.

Another day (no he is not giving anything away…we have nothing left) Jim says to me, Boxie, I had this fantastic dream last night…no, no not erotic. I dreamed I was back home watching my Mother bake bread. As fast as it come out of the oven, I would grab each load, smear it with butter and devour loaf after load for hour after hour. Mom said I was making a pig our of myself. I wonder if bread and butter really taste that good. He continues, you know how my Mother makes bread…and some hours later, I not only learn how his Mother makes bread but almost every other dish she has ever cooked. That night, I didn’t dream about women, I had dinner at Jim’s house. He was right, she was a wonderful cook.

Some months later I learn that I am being transferred to prison camp in Northern Manchuria with about 1,500 other POW’s. All I can find out a bout the camp is that it is in Manchuria, near to Siberia and Northern Mongolia, and that it is cold, cold, cold. I also learned that the Chinese up there eat cornmeal as the main staple of their diet… and that Elizabeth Taylor was never married there.

Jim and I never said a formal good-bye to each other…I guess we were both afraid to. We just talked about the things we would do together when we met again after the war was over.

I was awakened in the early morning hours of the morning we were leaving. I reached over to awaken Jim and watched as he pretended he had just awakened. Well, gee whiz, he says, why didn’t you call me sooner. I said I figured your were having another orgy with bread and butter at your Mother’s and I didn’t want to take your food away from you.

The Japs started screaming again for us to fall in. I took hold of my meager possessions, grabbed Jim’s hand and squeezed it and just held it…I just couldn’t let go…my eyes filled with tears and I could not see his face anymore. He threw his arms around me, hugging me and could not talk…I rushed away.

This was the last time I would ever see him.

Several day later, in route to Manchuria in the hole of the Jap Vessel, SS Something or other Maru, I was rummaging through my belonging and staring up at me from a torn shirt was a small package with an attached note that read;

Dear Boxie;

I sneaked into town the other day and shopped around until I found these. I could not find any packed in tomato sauce, the fellow said they were difficult to get these days…didn’t I know there was a war on.

I took these, they are packed in olive oil and love…Save them till you really need them.

I will never forget you…never.

Jim

Inside the package was tin of sardines. I never opened them…I was waiting to share them with Jim.

In December 1944, Jim was among a group of 1,805 American Prisoners of War being transported to Japan from the Philippines. The vessel was unmarked for carrying POW’s, in direct violation of the Geneva Convention Regulations for transporting Prisoners of War. The Prisoners were loaded aboard in the lower holes of the vessel…just like cattle.

The vessel was bombed by wave after wave of American Planes, Jim was among the 1,795 American POW’s killed in the air raids on this vessel.

In total over 5,000 American POW’s were killed on unmarked Jap vessels transporting them from the Philippines to Japan during WW II. His body was never found.

It is said that the war is over when the Band stops playing. The guns are now silent…the War is over, the Band has stopped playing…but not for those of us who have been there and those of us who have lost loved ones over there…for us the Band will never stop playing…we shall always hear the strains of the music in the far distance evoking memories of our war years… of those who we shall never see again on this earth. Hopefully we shall all meet again one day. America will always owe it’s gratitude to all those who served and especially all those who perished while serving. They are the real heroes, those who have given up their tomorrow’s so we could have our today’s.

Mrs. Philips, in was, I along with many others learned to cry again. You do not weep alone for your son…I still weep for Jim and shall always.

I am proud and honored to have shared your son Jim with you.