2011-12-14 23:41:57 UTC
<Note: When I was a boy, I played Little League baseball in the Carl Mango
League, as did my son, forty-seven years later. Growing up, Dr. Mango's
brother was our family physician.>
FROM: Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account
of World War II's Greatest Rescue Mission ~
By Hampton Sides
December 14, 1944
Puerto Princesa Prison Camp, Palawan, Philippines
All about them, their work lay in ruins. Their raison d'etre, the task their
commandant had said would take them three months but had taken nearly three
years. A thousand naked days of clearing, lifting, leveling, wheelbarrowing,
hacking. Thirty-odd months in close heavy heat smashing rocks into smaller
rocks, and smaller rocks into pebbles, hammering sad hunks of brain coral
into bone-white flour with which to make concrete. Ripping out the black
humus floor of the jungle, felling the gnarled beasts of mahogany or narra
or kamagong that happened to be in the way. Above the bay, in a malarial
forest skittering with monkeys and monitor lizards, they had built an
airstrip where none should be, and now they were happy to see it in ruins,
cratered by bombs.
One hundred and fifty slaves stood on a tarmac 2,200 meters long and 210
meters wide, straining with shovels and pickaxes and rakes. Ever since the
air raids started two months earlier, Lieutenant Sato, the one they called
"the Buzzard," had ordered them out each morning to fill the bomb pits, to
make the runway usable again. This morning had been no different. The men
had risen at dawn and eaten a breakfast of weevily rice, then climbed aboard
the trucks for the short ride to the airstrip. As usual, they worked all
morning and took a break for lunch around noon. But now the Buzzard said no
lunch would be served on the strip, that instead the food would be prepared
back at the barracks. The men were puzzled, because they'd never eaten lunch
at their barracks before, not on a workday. It didn't make sense to drive
back now, for they still had considerable repair work to do. Sato offered no
The prisoners crawled into their trucks again and took the bumpy serpentine
road back to the prison. In the meager shade of spindly coconut palms, they
ate their lunches squatting beside their quarters in an open-air stockade
that was secured with two barbed-wire fences. The entire compound was built
at the edge of a cliff that dropped fifty ragged feet to a coral beach
splashed by the warm blue waters of Puerto Princesa Bay.
Around 1 p.m. the air-raid alarm sounded. It was nothing more than a soldier
pounding on an old Catholic church bell splotched with verdigris. The men
looked up and saw two American fighters, P-38s, streaking across the sky,
but the planes were moving away from the island and were too high to pose a
danger. Having become discriminating appraisers of aerial threat, the
prisoners ignored the signal and resumed their lunches.
A few minutes later a second air-raid alarm sounded. The men consulted the
skies and this time saw an American bomber flying far in the distance. They
didn't take the alarm seriously and kept on eating. Presently a third
air-raid alarm sounded, and this time Sato and a few of his men marched into
the compound with sabers drawn and rifles fixed with bayonets. Sato insisted
that everyone heed the signal and descend into the air-raid hovels. "They're
coming!" he shrieked. "Planes-hundreds of planes!"
Again the men were puzzled, and this time suspicious. When planes had come
before, Sato had never registered any particular concern for their safety.
Many times they'd been working on the landing strip when American planes had
menaced the site. The Japanese would leap into their slit trenches, but
often made the prisoners work until the last possible minute. The Americans
had to fend for themselves, out in the open, as aircraft piloted by their
own countrymen dropped out of the sky to bomb and strafe the airstrip.
Several weeks earlier an American from Kentucky named James Stidham had
taken a piece of shrapnel from one of the American bombers, a B-24
Liberator, and was now paralyzed. During the lunch hour he lay on a
stretcher in the compound, silent and listless, with a fellow prisoner
spoon-feeding him his ration.
"Hundreds of planes!" Sato shouted again, with even more urgency. "Hurry."
The slaves moved toward the air-raid shelters. They were primitive, nothing
more than narrow slits dug four feet deep and roofed with logs covered over
with a few feet of dirt. There were three main trenches, each about a
hundred feet long. On both ends, the structures had tiny crawl-space
entrances that admitted one man at a time. Approximately fifty men could fit
inside each one, but they had to pack themselves in with their knees tucked
under their chins. The prisoners had constructed these crude shelters for
their own safety after the American air raids started in October, to avoid
more casualties like Stidham. With Sato's reluctant approval, they'd also
painted "POW" on the galvanized-metal roof of their barracks.
Sato was behaving strangely today, the prisoners thought, but perhaps he
knew something, perhaps a massive air attack was indeed close at hand. All
the signs pointed to the imminent arrival of the American forces. The tide
of the war was turning fast*#8212;everyone knew it. That very morning a
Japanese seaplane had spotted a convoy of American destroyers and
battleships churning through the Sulu Sea en route to Mindoro, the next
large island north of Palawan. If not today, then someday soon Sato and his
company of airfield engineers would have to reckon with the arrival of U.S.
ground troops, and their work on Palawan would be finished.
Reluctantly, the American prisoners did as they were told, all 150 of them,
crawling single file into the dark, poorly ventilated pits. Everyone but
Stidham, whose stretcher was conveniently placed beside one of the trench
entrances. If the planes came, his buddies would gather his limp form and
tuck him into the shelter with everyone else.
They waited and waited but heard not a single American plane, let alone a
hundred. They huddled in the stifling dankness of their collective body
heat, sweat coursing down their bare chests. The air-raid bell continued to
peal. A Navy signalman named C. C. Smith refused to go into his pit.
Suddenly the Buzzard set upon him. He raised his saber high so that it
gleamed in the midday sun, and with all his strength he brought it blade
side down. Smith's head was cleaved in two, the sword finally stopping
midway down the neck.
Then, peeking out the ends of the trenches, the men saw several soldiers
bursting into the compound. They were carrying five-gallon buckets filled
with a liquid. The buckets sloshed messily as the soldiers walked. With a
quick jerk of the hands, they flung the contents into the openings of the
trenches. By the smell of it on their skin, the Americans instantly
recognized what it was-high-octane aviation fuel from the airstrip. Before
they could apprehend the full significance of it, other soldiers tossed in
lighted bamboo torches. Within seconds, the trenches exploded in flames. The
men squirmed over each other and clawed at the dirt as they tried
desperately to shrink from the intense heat. They choked back the smoke and
the fumes, their nostrils assailed by the smell of singed hair and roasting
flesh. They were trapped like termites in their own sealed nest.
Only a few managed to free themselves. Dr. Carl Mango, from Erie,
Pennsylvania, sprang from his hole, his clothes smoldering. His arms were
outstretched as he pleaded-"Show some reason, please God show reason"-but a
machine gunner mowed him down.
Another prisoner crawled from his trench, wrested a rifle from the hands of
a soldier, and shot him before receiving a mortal stab in the back. A number
of men dashed toward the fence and tried to press through it but were
quickly riddled with lead, leaving a row of corpses hung from the barbed
strands like drying cuttlefish. A few men managed to slip through the razor
ribbon and leap from the high cliff, but more soldiers were waiting on the
beach to finish them off. Recognizing the futility of escape but wanting to
wreak a parting vengeance, one burning prisoner emerged from his trench,
wrapped his arms tightly around the first soldier he saw, and didn't let
go-a death embrace that succeeded in setting the surprised executioner on
All the while, Lieutenant Sato scurried from trench to trench with saber
drawn, loudly exhorting his men and occasionally punctuating his commands
with a high, nervous laugh. At his order, another wave of troops approached
the air-raid shelters, throwing grenades into the flaming entrances and
raking them with gunfire. Some of the troops poked their rifle barrels
through the entrances of the trenches and fired point-blank at the huddled
forms within. James Stidham, the paralytic who had been watching all of this
from his stretcher, quietly moaned in terror. A soldier stepped over to him
and with a perfunctory glance fired two slugs into his face.
When Lieutenant Sato was satisfied that all 150 prisoners were dead, he
ordered his men to heave the stray bodies back into the smoky pits. The
soldiers splattered additional gasoline inside and reignited the trenches.
They tossed in more grenades as well as sticks of dynamite to make it appear
as though the victims had perished in an air raid after all, with the
shelters receiving several "direct hits" from American bombs. The immense
pall of smoke curling from the three subterranean pyres was noted by
observers five miles distant, across Puerto Princesa Bay.
Entries from Japanese diaries later found at the camp spoke hauntingly of
December 14. "Although they were prisoners of war," one entry stated, "they
truly died a pitiful death. From today on I will not hear the familiar
greeting 'Good morning, Sergeant Major.'" Another mentioned that on the
beach below the camp, the "executed prisoners [are] floating and rolling
among the breakwaters." Said another: "Today the shop is a lonely place.
There are numerous corpses...and the smell is unbearable."