© 2024
Prairie Public NewsRoom
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Corregidor and the Hell Camps


Shortly after bombing Pearl Harbor, the Japanese invaded the Philippines. Allied forces put up a stiff resistance but slowly retreated to the Bataan Peninsula, where they had protection from the big guns on Corregidor. Corregidor, also known as “the rock,” is a small, rugged, island that was then serving as Allied headquarters and the seat of the Philippine government. In February 1942, General MacArthur left for Australia, leaving Gen. Jonathan M. Wainwright in command.

The Bataan peninsula fell on April 9th, but Wainwright and 7,000 troops made it to Corregidor, where they held out for another 27 days. Cut off, outnumbered and starving, the Allies surrendered on this date in 1942. They had successfully stopped a Japanese invasion of Australia, but the price was high. Some 79,500 soldiers at Bataan laid down their arms; 72,000 were part of the infamous Bataan Death March, during which at least 650 Americans died of thirst, starvation, disease and/or military atrocities.

At Corregidor, 7,000 surrendered and also were imprisoned in what became known as the “hell camps.” The 1929 Geneva Convention had drawn up crucial guidelines for how POWs were to be treated by their captors, but Japan and Russia didn’t sign. Japan had no word for surrender – in fact, Japanese men who gave themselves up were shamed and dishonored. Likewise, they disdained men who surrendered to them; to become their prisoner was to indeed be in hell.

North Dakotans later learned eighty-two of its own were taken prisoner by the Japanese, and many died in captivity. Among those who made it was Colonel Harold “Johnnie” Johnson, from Grafton. You may remember that, as a 4-star general, Johnson later became Army Chief of Staff under President Lyndon Johnson.

Johnson was sent to Camp O’Donnell, which he called the “Andersonville of the Pacific.” It was unfinished and completely inadequate for housing its 90,000 prisoners. The men’s side by side sleeping quarters consisted of 2 feet of space on bamboo racks. Almost everyone was sick from tropical diseases, and rampant diarrhea polluted the air. There was little shelter from the sun, and thousands depended on one poorly working tap for drinking water. Food consisted of small intermittent servings of rice – Johnson noted in his diary the first time it was salted.

Lieutenant Ted Spaulding of Sherwood was later transferred to a camp at Fukuoka in Japan. In 1999, he and his wife published Itchy Feet, in which he wrote, “In about the sixth week at Fukuoka the Japanese must have believed that we prisoners needed a good cleaning plus a medical check-up... We walked to the bath house where we were ordered to strip down (and) wash ourselves off with a bucket of soapy water... It was there where we realized how tough we looked. We saw one another standing there naked which led to much joking and laughter, so hearty that we jokers had to sit down on the floor to rest. We were allowed to weigh ourselves and I was astounded to see that after six weeks off the boat... I weighed in at all of ninety-seven pounds... My average weight before imprisonment had been (183) pounds on my five foot eleven and a half-inch frame.”

Still, Spaulding considered Fukuoka a step up from other camps he’d been in. “I recall that once...I made the remark, ‘Hell, this isn’t bad. I spent the first nineteen years of my life in Sherwood (ND) before I came here...’ A few of my friends became curious...and I was forced to tell them some stories about my youth. They didn’t believe me when I told them that I had pulled a sled around town, delivering milk (probably frozen) when it was 48 below zero, even 54 below on rare days. Then they heard all about the fistfights in the pool hall, pitching hay in 110-degree weather and even more unbelievable stories than those.”

Sources: Lewis Sorley, Honorable Warrior: General Harold K. John and the Ethics of Command, 1998; Ted & Ardes Spaulding, Itchy Feet, 1999

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm