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2 Counting the Days: POWs, Internees, and Stragglers of World War II in the Pacific

 

During the Second World War, the probability of death as a prisoner of the Japanese was ten to twenty times greater than the probability of dying in combat. The Japanese army believed in the samurai code of bushido—“the way of the warrior.” This was a philosophy that permeated even to the lowest ranks of the military. It taught that it was the greatest disgrace to become a prisoner, that a soldier’s life belonged to the emperor, that martial courage was respected above all else, that suicide was preferable to capture or defeat, and that it was a duty to kill one's own wounded rather than have them fall prisoner to the enemy. This philosophy governed not only the Japanese soldiers’ behavior, but also their conduct with enemy prisoners. Soldiers memorized this maxim: “Honor is heavier than mountains, and death is lighter than a feather.” It was the soldier’s duty to fight to the death, or, “To eat stones,” meaning to fall dead, face down on the battlefield.

 

To those Japanese who failed to die in combat, suicide or dishonor were the likely alternatives. Some sought a third choice, not committing suicide, but not surrendering either. These were the stragglers who remained hiding in jungles long after the war ended.

 

In Counting the Days, I tell the stories of six POWs—Horyo, in Japanese. They were imprisoned because of the conflict the Japanese called “The Pacific War.” As in all wars, the prisoners were civilians as well as military personnel. In the spirit of objectivity, I included prisoners from both sides of the conflict.

 

Two of the prisoners were captured on the second day of the war and spent the entire war years in prison camps. First is Garth G. Dunn, who was a 20-year old U.S. marine stationed on the island of Guam and was among the American military personnel taken prisoner by the Japanese the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed. He survived four different camps, brutal beatings, starvation, and work as a slave laborer in a Japanese steel mill. His last camp was a hundred miles from Hiroshima, and he will tell you how the atomic bomb saved his life and the lives of thousands of other POWs held by the Japanese.

 

Second is the remarkable story of Ensign Kazuo Sakamaki, captain of one of five midget submarines that tried to penetrate Pearl Harbor during the attack. All were lost, including their crews, with the exception of Sakamaki, the sole survivor. He suffered the ignominy of being Japanese POW number 1, captured the day after Pearl Harbor, and had the further humiliation of being the only Japanese POW for the first seven months of the war. He also spent the war in four different POW camps, but these were on American soil.

 

Simon and Lydia Peters were civilians, European expatriates living in the Philippines. Their story is typical of the thousands of non-combatants captured by the Japanese. Their house and belongings were confiscated and they were separated and placed in different camps. Eventually released by the Japanese, they reunited and fled to the jungle for a harrowing existence in a no-man’s land between Philippine guerilla raids and Japanese counterattacks until finally, on the verge of death, they were rescued by American forces. Theirs is an incredible story of love and survival.

 

Mitsuye Takahashi was a U.S. citizen of Japanese descent living in Malibu, California. Hers is another story of disruption, dislocation, loss of homes, jobs, and belongings, and love and renewal. She symbolizes the plight of the 110,000 Japanese-Americans who were unjustly imprisoned by America for the duration of the war.

 

Finally, Masashi Itoh was a Japanese farm boy who enlisted in the Japanese army shortly after Pearl Harbor and came to Guam near the end of the war. After the Japanese defeat, he remained hidden in the jungles of Guam, held captive by his own conscience and beliefs until 1960, 15 years after the end of the war. In an unusual chain of events, I happened to find his wartime diary, had it translated, and later found him still alive and living in Japan. Eventually I arranged to meet him in Guam, where I returned his diary during a ceremony 40 years after the end of the war. As part of this remarkable story, I explored the jungles of Guam and located some of the straggler’s hideouts, using maps in his diary (all of this before I knew that he had survived the war).

 

In their own words, these six individuals share their captivating stories of perseverance, including their struggles in captivity and the small daily triumphs that gave them hope to continue living.

COUNTING THE DAYS

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  • Counting the Days: POWs, Internees, and Stragglers of WWII in the Pacific

    by, Craig B. Smith.

     

    The story of six POWs who were imprisoned during the conflict the Japanese called “The Pacific War.” The prisoners were civilians as well as military. Two were captured on the second day of the war and spent the entire war in prison camps. Garth G. Dunn was a 20-year old U.S. marine stationed on the island of Guam and taken prisoner by the Japanese the day after Pearl Harbor. He survived four different camps, brutal beatings, starvation, and work as a slave laborer in a Japanese steel mill. Ensign Kazuo Sakamaki was captain of one of five midget submarines that tried to penetrate Pearl Harbor during the attack. All were lost, including their crews, with the exception of Sakamaki, the sole survivor. He suffered the ignominy of being Japanese POW number 1, captured the day after Pearl Harbor. He also spent the war in four different POW camps, but these were American camps. Simon and Lydia Peters were civilians living in the Philippines. Their house and belongings were confiscated and they were separated and placed in different POW camps. Eventually released by the Japanese, they reunited and fled to the jungle for a harrowing existence in a no-man’s land between Philippine guerilla raids and Japanese counterattacks until finally, on the verge of death, they were rescued by American forces. Mitsuye Takahashi was a U.S. citizen of Japanese descent living in Malibu, California. Hers is another story of disruption, dislocation, loss of homes, jobs, and belongings, and love and renewal. She was one of 110,000 Japanese-Americans who were unjustly imprisoned by America for the duration of the war. Finally, Sgt. Masashi was part of the Japanese forces defending Guam. After the Japanese defeat, he remained hidden in the jungle until 1960, 15 years after the end of the war. Smithsonian Institution Press.