Knox County Illinois
World War 2 Experiences of
POW Richard H. Olson
Richard Harry Olson joined the CCC in Illinois before enlisting in the USMC--probably in the summer of 1938.
Richard Harry Olson - World War 2 Marine and Prisoner of War
The following report covers the events of this ex-POW's life from the date he enlisted into the Marine Corps, through the date hostilities ended.
It has been 44 years since I joined the United States Marine Corps, and 38 years have elapsed since war's end. Perhaps my recollection of all of the events are a bit vague at this time, however, there are some that are not so vague and some that will never be forgotten.
I was born and raised on a farm in Illinois, and seeing no future in farming, I enlisted into the Marine Corps on November 27, 1939. Graduating from recruit training, I received orders transferring me to Shanghai, China. Arriving there on May 1, 1940, I was assigned to "Fox" Company, 4th Marine Regiment.
Duty in Shanghai was routine garrison-type duty, i.e., guard duty, inspections (daily and weekly), parades and classroom study. When we found ourselves off duty with an opportunity to leave the compound, our area was restricted to the international settlement. In late 1940, our civilian clothing privileges were removed and midnight curfew was in effect with all hands back in the compound.
Our field training was zero due to facilities being what they were. Our equipment and technology had not progressed since World War I. In summary, we were an ill-equipped, poorly trained, uninformed unit when we boarded ship in November, 1941 - destination unknown.
We arrived in the Philippine Islands some two weeks later and were put ashore at Olonopo, P.I. On the morning of December 7, 1941, at approximately 5:00 a.m., we were awakened by the Sergeant of the Guard announcing war's beginning. We were assembled and moved to the nearby beaches to defend against a possible Japanese landing force. That day will long be remembered in my mind as had the enemy landed, this writer would not have been here because all of us would have been massacred.
Our weaponry consisted of 30 caliber rifles, 45 caliber sub-machine guns and 45 caliber pistols. Later in the day we had a section of 30 caliber machine guns deployed without company lines. NOTE: This point is brought out to give any reader of this report an idea as to what we had to fight with and also what was going through our minds at that time. To put it bluntly, we would have been a dead company within minutes had the enemy landed.
We moved in and out of Olonopo for about two weeks while a decision was being made as to where we were to be assigned - Bataan or Corregidor. We later discontinued our daily visits to Olonopo for eating purposes and moved into the jungle permanently, awaiting orders. We lived in this way for perhaps ten days, eating two meals per day and sleeping on the ground. Malaria-bearing mosquitoes, fire ants, large green flies, and other pests were in our ears and nostrils. Rest was far from easy. I might include a fact that quinine and salt tablets were limited and consequently malaria and dehydration was upon us.
We moved from our jungle life to Marvailes, P.I., arriving there at about 10:00 p.m., on or about Christmas Eve 1941. The scene confronting us in Marvailes Harbor was beyond comprehension. The night was aglow from burning ships, men lay on the beaches - some dead, others dying. The stench from burned and charred bodies hung in the air. We later received word that our boat had arrived for our trip to Corregidor. Upon departing Marvailes Harbor, it felt good to be able to breathe fresh air once again.
Our Company arrived on Corregidor about 2:00 a.m. the following morning. We marched from the bottom-side docks up to the middle-side barracks where we spent the remainder of the night sleeping on concrete floors. Incidentally, we had not had a meal in 16 hours.
At approximately 11:00 a.m. the following day, the "Rock", or Corregidor received its first major bombing. The writer can now describe how a rat lives because we lived in and out of holes from that time on until May 26, 1942.
It has been told before, however, here's a reminder. From mid-March we had little fresh water, none for bathing, and fresh food was also depleted. We were living on one meal per day of canned foods. Men's bodies were growing thin and their faces haggard. Malaria was commencing to take its toll, as was diarrhea, not to mention the daily bombing raids. Morale was poor, causing many to use various methods to wound themselves so as to remain in a tunnel under cover.
After Bataan fell, Corregidor received heavier bombing and artillery that covered the entire surface of the "Rock". The only place anyone was safe was in a hole as the artillery was most devastating, ripping and tearing everything in its path. One never knew if he would be around from one day to the next. Our hospital facilities were full, medical supplies were nearly exhausted and the dead couldn't be buried until the shelling ceased. In short, life on the "Rock" was a living hell.
Rumors started circulating that surrender was inevitable and that the Japanese did not take prisoners. Consequently, everyone was concerned about survival when surrender came. On May 26, 1942 it came… Some, like myself, figured this was the end. We marched from middle-side down to the Malinta Tunnel area. I fully expected to see those in the lead being shot because Japanese machine guns were exposed and manned all around us. Fear was rampant throughout the entire column but their chatter of death never came.
All military and civilian personnel were finally assembled in the 92nd Garage (Amphibious Aircraft area). We had to dig open trenches for human waste and there were men using these pits day and night. The areas surrounding those pits soon became wet and slippery and some found themselves in these holes. When a man had to relieve himself he would walk away gagging and vomiting. Soon large green flies filled the garage area and the stench was unbearable.
After approximately two weeks of carrying our own water from a distant watering point and living on one rice ball per day, we were loaded aboard ship and transferred to Manila, P.I. Our arrival had been scheduled so as to have us march through the streets to Bilibid Prison during daylight hours. The march extended about seven to ten miles from where we were put ashore. This trek was the most humiliating, degrading, demoralizing experience any man could endure, enroute Old Bilibid Prison. My stay in Bilibid Prison was just an overnight affair because I joined a 2,000-man detail that was being moved to Cabanatuan #3 Camp.
At 4:00 a.m. the following morning we were assembled and marched to the railroad yards where we were packed into boxcars. I do not recall how many of us were loaded in each car but I do remember that we had standing room only.
The trip from Manila to Cabanatuan was sickening. We were in total darkness with no ventilation and no place to relieve ourselves. In a short time men were vomiting, urinating, and relieving themselves on one another. At about mid-day the temperature inside the boxcar was well over 100 degrees. Men were collapsing and there was nothing anyone could do. I recall one man who became hysterical to the point where he swallowed his tongue and died. That scene remains very vivid in my mind to this day. Arriving in Cabanatuan at about dusk, we were herded into a schoolyard where we spent the night with no food and little water. The night we spent in the schoolyard was uneventful, other than the fact that there was little if any rest, as mosquitoes were everywhere. I somehow managed to rest after I covered my head with a jacket, as we had no blankets. The following morning we were fed a ball of rice, permitted to fill our canteens and assembled for the march to Camp #3. The march from Cabanatuan to our camp was about ten miles. Our captors were not as vicious as those who conducted the "Bataan Death March", however, some prisoners were prodded with bayonets and others were hit with rifle butts.
Arriving at our destination about midday, we were escorted into a barbed wire enclosure that encompassed approximately five acres. Our sleeping quarters were very primitive but at least we had a roof over our heads.
We were assembled into ten-man squads and advised as to what would take place if any escape was attempted. In short, if anyone of a particular squad were to escape, the remainder of the squad would be shot. This type of execution actually took place approximately four weeks later. As I recall, six men were marched to a hill in full view of all of us, forced to dig their own graves and then shot. I did not think that it would actually happen, but it did. It was a nauseating and inhumane act that was enacted for our benefit to quell any future escapes. To my knowledge, no further attempts were made at Camp #3.
In late 1942 I joined a work detail and was transferred to Nielson Air Field near Manila, where we slaved in the tropical sun building an airstrip. One day while at work, malaria fever overtook me. As I recall, I became delirious and had to be restrained. My body was in pain continuously, first fever then chills. I remained in this state for approximately ten days and was finally returned to Bilibid Prison. There I received medication for about two weeks and was returned to Cabanatuan once again in a boxcar. This trip was not as bad as the first one because there were less of us per car and the doors were left open.
I returned to Camp #1 on this occasion but my bout with malaria was far from over. I was advised at out aid station that the quinine supply was limited but that I would receive some along with a dosage of another medication known as adibrine, which caused me to turn yellow. I now had what was called "yellow jaundice" as well as malaria.
My weight by this time had dropped from ___ to 145 pounds as I recall, with no signs of improvement. Some additional quinine finally arrived, from where I don't know, but was welcomed by all hands.
Our diet at that time was two rations of rice per day - a mushy substance in the morning and a ration of steamed rice in the evening. Nothing was wasted; even the burnt rice that stuck in the bottom of the caldrons was consumed. My having diarrhea qualified me for a ration of the burnt rice, which helped curtail my bout with diarrhea somewhat.
Approximately six months later I was assigned to a detail of 500 men to be transferred to Japan. I was still sick with malaria, jaundice, etc., but it was felt by our captors that I was able to withstand the journey.
In July 1943, we boarded a Japanese ship in Manila, now knowing that this and others to follow were to be later called "Hell Ships". We were placed in one of the forward holds with the hatch cover closed. Here again our ventilation was limited. It was stifling hot and soon the air commenced to have a rancid odor. I might add that our toilet facilities consisted of large buckets. These living conditions remained the same until we were well out to sea.
Once out to sea, the hatch cover was partially removed permitting fresh air to enter our "pig sty". At this point, fresh air was a welcomed and refreshing need. Words can hardly describe the scene and odor below deck - vomit, urine, and human waste lay on the deck that would slide from side to side as the ship rolled. We finally received permission to clean our compartment with a fire hose pumping salt water. However, our clothing and blankets were still saturated with the grime and much that had previously covered the deck space. With the hatch cover removed and our compartment somewhat cleaner living conditions improved, but that too was short-lived.
I don't recall the number of days we had been out to sea, but on this one particular day, the ship started zigging one way, then would turn another way. It was quite evident that the ship was taking evasive action for some reason. The hatch cover had once again been closed and we were in total darkness. All we could hear was the noise of the ship's screws turning in the water. It was quite obvious that the ship's lookouts had detected, or thought they detected, a submarine.
As we huddled in our sealed compartment we expected to hear the explosion of a torpedo or torpedoes at any moment. No one can imagine the hell and torment we were going through as we sat in that hole, waiting for the inevitable explosion. Men were sick with fear, some were throwing up their insides while others screamed and moaned.
To this day it is not known if that ship was under surveillance of a submarine or if the ship was merely undergoing evasive action drills. Whichever the case, it didn't alter our situation in the locked hold.
We finally reached Japanese home waters and were put ashore at a port on Japanese soil believed to have been Moji, Japan. As we were ushered out of the hold of the ship, we were sprayed with a disinfectant and loaded aboard a passenger train. We were seated in coach-type cars with all of the window shades drawn. We traveled in this fashion the entire trip, approximately eight to ten hours, arriving at our destination at about midnight. We unloaded in a freight yard, which we soon learned was Omuta, Japan, on the island of Kyushu.
As we marched through the freight years in darkness it was obvious that we were in a large industrial area as you could hear the sounds of machinery and other equipment in operation. Reaching our new prison camp in the early hours of the morning we were presented with our first bath and decent meal since being captured. (I might add a personal note at this point - this was beyond belief.) However, it was short-lived as well because the following day we were assigned to work groups and introduced to a new hell; "The Mitzui Coal Mine", where some of us were to die in cave-ins, others from malnutrition and starvation, and the like. Some men even maimed themselves to avoid the mine. My own life nearly came to its end while at work one night.
We were working the night shift preparing the equipment for the day shift to start excavating coal. As we went about our work, a huge slab of rock about 15 feet in diameter, 20 inches thick, fell from overhead without warning, knocking me backward and pinning down my legs. My position at that time was at the outer edge of the cave-in and I later learned that had I been nearer the center, I would have been crushed.
After being removed from under the fallen rock, it was found that I had no broken bones, but I did have a gash in my right leg about five inches long exposing the bone below the knee. I might add, I still carry a scar from that ordeal.
I was removed from the mine and taken to the camp infirmary where my wound was cleaned and dressed. Thereafter, I remained a patient for approximately the next three months, undergoing skin grafts. During my convalescence I too decided I would try to avoid returning to the mine, so I continued to use my injured leg as an excuse to stay out of the mine.
As the days and weeks passed in late 1944 and early 1945, we could sense that things were going bad for the Japanese in their war effort because the beatings by our guards became more numerous and our food ration was reduced in quantity as well as quality. Those who worked in the mine each and everyday were walking skeletons. Consequently, production decreased and the inhumane treatment increased above and below ground. I recall seeing some being carried out of the mine at days end.
The day finally came when I had to return to the mine. Upon my first day back at work, I was singled out for punishment, apparently for no reason other than to punish me for staying out of the mine for so long. Upon reaching our work are, I was removed from our work detail to a side tunnel. There my wrists were bound together and I was hung from a steel peg that had been driven into the wall of the tunnel. With my toes barely touching the ground, I was forced to hang in this manner until I finally lost consciousness. Some time later I found myself lying on the ground, my entire body was numb and I couldn't move my arms.
Upon returning to camp I reported to the American doctor advising him of my situation. After checking me out he immediately fashioned a harness strapping my upper arms to my body. Once again I became a patient in our infirmary. Shortly after being hospitalized, the Japanese Camp Commander entered my room along with our interpreter and the American and Japanese doctors. The Camp Commander was advised of my condition and became furious. As I lay there in my harness I thought that I was going to receive additional punishment, but after much raving and shouting, the Camp Commander finally left. NOTE: At this point it might be noted that my upper arms will still slip out of joint from my shoulders if I'm not careful when raising my arms and hands over my head. I remained in the hospital for quite some time while my shoulders healed. During this period I was advised that I had been assigned to a detail that was to be transferred to Fukuoka, Japan.
At about mid-July, 1945, the transfer was made and it was at this camp that I became sick with diarrhea once again. My weight at this point fell to about 110 pounds, but I continued to survive. I could feel myself wasting away as time passed and I do not recall ever feeling so low. In any event, I continued to work in a nearby lumberyard in that condition.
One day while at work, we were assembled and marched back to camp. After returning to camp we were advised to assemble in front of the Camp Commander's office. No one knew the reason for this meeting as we stood at attention, awaiting the Commander's appearance.
When the Commander finally approached his podium, we could tell he was quite shaken. His message was slowly translated to the effect that Japan had surrendered. Needless to say, we couldn't believe our ears. Some stood in silence, others wept tears of joy. As for me, I don't actually remember; I guess I was still in shock.
To sum up my life as a prisoner of war is unimportant to other, but to me and to those who were captured along with me, it is very important. I say this because those 42 months as a POW were months of torture, starvation, disease, degradation, and suffering beyond comprehension. It is unknown how much of one's life can be considered as lost, but whatever it is, it is gone. As for me, I've had eye surgery in both eyes, partial loss of my hearing in my left ear, stomach ulcers, surgery on my navel, hernia repair, and a cyst removed from my tailbone since being released from captivity.
I won't go into detail about my anxieties and frustrations at this point, other than to say I've become calloused, my patience has disappeared, and when things go wrong I seem to lose my composure. I might add, I attribute all of this to my being a Prisoner of War.
In conclusion, it is felt that the attached report written by Dr. Thomas H. Hewlett, published in the August 1983 issue of American Ex-Prisoner's of War, should be thoroughly studied prior to evaluating former POW's present conditions.
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