4 Decades Later, Civilian POWs Reunite to Remember

Times Staff Writer

Dr. Carol Talbot only remembers that she was working on her book. Suddenly, she heard the rapid rat-tat-tat of gunfire.

Before she realized what was happening, she was crouched in a fetal position under her dining room table, covering her ears. Talbot thought it was World War II again.

“When I was under the table, I was back in the prison camp,” said Talbot, who lives at Leisure World in Seal Beach.

Later, realizing where she was, she got on her feet. Still, the sounds persisted. She walked out of her apartment and saw that a group of Polynesian entertainers were playing bongo drums for a crowd of retired people basking in the August sun.

Talbot is among about 7,300 American civilians who were held prisoner by the Japanese during World War II. Stranded in Manila on her way to do missionary work in India, she spent more than three years as a civilian prisoner of war after the Japanese overran the Philippine archipelago in late 1941.

Reunite for First Time

Survivors of the Philippine camps will gather for the first time today in Fullerton.


Although the three-day conference is organized for former civilian POWs, former military POWs from all wars are expected to attend. Under the theme “Memories Together,” the former internees will listen to a representative of the U.S. Department of Labor explain available medical benefits and compensation. They will also hear from medical doctors and psychologists knowledgeable about internment and prison camp malnutrition.

More than 700--about 10%--of the American civilian POWs died on the islands, at camps called Los Banos, Bilidad and converted facilities at Santo Tomas University in Manila. Many of the survivors still experience nightmares, more than 40 years later.

Starvation a Vivid Memory

It is the starvation that they remember most. They had only rice mush, and little of it. Many ate weeds to stay alive. “I really wanted to push away the experiences,” said Talbot, who is writing a book about her ordeal. “If I had known how much I would have to relive those experiences to write this book, I wouldn’t have done it.”

Henry Sioux Johnson, a professor of Asian studies at Cal State Long Beach, is a former internee and a conference organizer. He hopes that the three-day event will serve as a catharsis for many survivors still tortured by memories.

“We hope this conference will get us organized, so we can help each other. Some of us have been living dead for too long,” he said.

Johnson spent 37 months in the squalor of Los Banos prison camp. Then only 14, he and his two brothers and a sister were on their way to the United States from China, but their ship left them in Manila.

“It was the first time in the history of the United States that one large group of civilian Americans had been interned in (American territory). We suspected, in some respects, that we were hostages,” he said.

Johnson also wanted to forget. Four years ago, Johnson suffered a heart attack and learned that starvation and beriberi, which causes the body to swell, had contributed to his condition four decades later. It was then that he began to study the long-term emotional and medical effects internment had on thousands of civilian Americans.

In a recently completed study, called “Living with Dignity,” Johnson found that the Philippine internees were eligible for federal benefits and lifetime medical care, but most chose not to take advantage of these benefits.

“We wanted to get away from World War II. We were our own worst enemies. We didn’t go out and let people know what happened to us. But we had something to share,” Johnson said.

Most of the survivors are reluctant to talk about their ordeal. But they are willing to discuss the 11th Airborne Division of the U.S. Army, which rescued more than 2,000 of them at Los Banos, and the 1st Cavalry Division, which liberated a similar number of prisoners at Santo Tomas University in Manila.

‘Rejoice Over Rescue’

Though the civilian internees have never held a reunion, they often attend reunions of the two Army divisions.

“Most of us suffer from emotional amnesia. We have a way to block out all the unpleasant things,” Johnson said. “We went to reunions with the airborne and cavalry divisions, but that was to rejoice over our rescue.

“We focused on that because it was safe not to talk about us.”

In their diaries, internees wrote in detail of the small and often amusing incidents that made life in captivity bearable. They talked about scheming behind the Japanese guards’ backs, scrounging for food and calling the guards names they could not understand. But they avoided deeper emotions.

“We were helpless. We remember the pleasant things and forget the ugly,” Johnson said.

Now, finally, they are willing to describe life in the prison camps.

“When you’re in a place like that, you just exist. And you worry about all the frightful things going on,” said Dorothy Hinck, 88, who lived in a camp with her five children and who plans to attend the reunion.

Fate Always Uncertain

“People who have never been in a prison camp can’t ever realize what it was like,” she said. “Everything you experience in a place like that remains very vivid in your mind. You never knew if you would be dead or alive the next day.”

Hinck and her husband had lived in the Philippines for more than 20 years. They decided to stay there after World War I when her husband was discharged from the Army. He was a customs official until the fall of 1941, when the military recalled him. In late November, John Hinck died while on assignment in Australia. The ship carrying his body back to Manila arrived the day after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

On Jan. 23, 1942, a squad of Japanese soldiers, armed with rifles and fixed bayonets, knocked on Hinck’s door, and she and her children--then ages 6 through 20--would not know freedom again until Feb. 23, 1945.

No Traces of Camp Today

The Hinck family was kept at Santo Tomas, a 4-century-old Catholic university that the Japanese converted into a prison camp. (Today, the only reminder of the misery endured there during World War II is a small plaque on a wall in the university’s main building.)

From there, the Hincks were transferred to Los Banos, 30 miles south of Manila. Today, there are no traces of a prison camp in the jungles of what used to be Los Banos, which was destroyed long ago.

The Hincks remember scrounging for food. They also remember that the Japanese built wooden dining tables for the internees, but as the years dragged on and people died of starvation, the tables were used to build coffins.

“All everybody had in their heads was food,” said Dorothy Hinck, who lives in Fresno.

Her son, John, who lives in Huntington Beach, also remembers the starvation. His most vivid recollection was asking a guard if he could climb a tree and pick coconuts for his family. The guard gave his permission. “I was halfway up when I heard the bolting of the rifle,” he said. “I looked down and he had the gun pointed at my back. I creeped down and walked away. The whole time I felt the rifle pointed at my back. I thought he was going to shoot me.”

20 Days in Solitary

John Hinck’s older brother, Ed, remembers 20 days of solitary confinement for trading a pack of cigarettes to a Filipino friend for a handful of nails. His buddy was tortured.

“I could hear him screaming at night,” he said.

Ed Hinck also remembers another Filipino friend who was tortured to death for striking a Japanese guard. The Filipino was strung up and used “for bayonet practice. All day long they poked at him. He died the next day, but he never screamed. Not once. They made us watch that.”

Talbot, fresh out of Biola College, had resolved to serve God by teaching and helping India’s poorest children. Her dream, eventually realized, was postponed by her internment.

Talbot set sail from Los Angeles aboard the SS President Grant in the fall of 1941. When she reached Manila, the liner was taken over by U.S. military officials. She was stranded.

Cables home did not reach her parents. She stayed at a hotel for a time and was frightened at night by the air raid sirens. Later, she went to a friend’s home outside Manila. Soon after that, she was captured.

Scrapbook Details Internment

Talbot keeps a neat scrapbook of the articles she acquired during her captivity. She also has most of the poems she wrote at Los Banos. There are wrappers for cookies and chewing gum a paratrooper gave her after her rescue.

After their rescue, the internees were taken in amphibious tanks to Muntinglupa, across a lake from Manila, where they were served soup from steaming trash cans. The next day, during a thanksgiving service, the liberated Americans drank Communion wine from .50-caliber shells. One of those shells is Talbot’s most precious possession.

“I was the only one to keep mine because I saw the significance of God turning an instrument to kill into an instrument of blessing,” she said.

Talbot also contracted beriberi and impetigo, a contagious skin disease that turned her into the “camp leper.” For months, no one could come near her, and she struggled with her faith.

‘Diseased and . . . Dying’

“I was diseased and I was dying of starvation. But He was showing me what it was to be diseased and sick. He was giving me empathy for the people I was going to minister to in India,” she said. “I bowed my head and thanked God for it.”

Talbot arrived in India in 1947. She stayed for 17 years.

Recently, Talbot received a video showing scenes from the 11th Airborne Division’s assault on Los Banos and the rescue of 2,146 Americans and about 300 British citizens. On Feb. 21, 1945, U.S. intelligence officials had received information that the Japanese might kill the internees.

At dawn on Feb. 23, U.S. paratroopers, aided by 300 Filipino guerrillas providing ground cover, stormed the camp and in 45 minutes killed about 200 Japanese guards and rescued the internees. In the film clip, emaciated men and women are shown climbing onto the amphibious tanks. The attack and rescue had to be quick, which many of the internees did not realize initially.

‘We Had to Get Out’

“We thought the whole American Army had come. We didn’t realize we had to get out of there,” Talbot recalled.

For Tressa and Lowell Cates, imprisonment postponed their wedding. On Jan. 5, 1942, the day they planned to marry, the Japanese took them into custody. They survived more than three years of internment and they were married in June, 1945.

“Lowell said to me: ‘Don’t worry, honey, the Americans will be here in six weeks and we can go ahead and get married.’ But they didn’t come for a long, long time,” Tressa Cates said.

For Tressa, a nurse at Sternberg General Military Hospital in the Philippines when she was captured, life at Santo Tomas was a bit easier than for her future husband. She was able to work at the hospital, but Lowell contracted tuberculosis and was bedridden for eight months.

‘Too Much Destruction’

The Cateses, who now live in San Marcos in San Diego County, stayed another three years in Manila after their repatriation while Lowell worked for a pharmaceutical company.

“But it was never the same again. There had been too much destruction,” he said.

Frederic H. Stevens, who was in his 60s during his internment, published a book in 1946 titled “The Santo Tomas Internment Camp.” He described the cries of those who were tortured and the filth in tiny rooms where as many as 16 men slept. The bugs, he wrote, seemed to be “spawned by the furies of Hell.”

Stevens, who died recently in Corona del Mar, lived to be 103.

The rescue of the internees at Santo Tomas was not as dramatic as the operation at Los Banos. The 1st Cavalry Division captured the compound on Feb. 3, 1945, but it took three weeks to drive away the Japanese troops. The internees had to stay in the prison camp during the battle, and 16 of them were killed.

465 Americans Killed

Tressa Cates wrote her own book, “Drainpipe Diary,” about their 37-month ordeal at Santo Tomas. The manuscript had been hidden in a drainpipe. First published in 1957, it was recently republished as “Infamous Santo Tomas.”

As a nurse, Tressa saw the disease and starvation that killed 465 Americans at Santo Tomas.

“In the last year, we could pick out who would die. You didn’t say anything, but you knew,” she said.

In her book, she also described the triumph and the hate that the internees felt when they saw the body of the commander of Japanese forces in the Philippines, whom GIs called “The Butcher of Bataan.”

“Following the example of some of their elders, I saw 4- and 5-year-old American kids spitting on the dead man,” she wrote. “This, too, the war had done to young children.”