Marine Master Sergeant Lou Curtis was one of the 5,000 Americans who surrendered on Corregidor in May 1942. They were split into two groups and loaded onto barges which took them to Manila, then to the prison camp Cabanatuan.
“I don’t think the Japanese were prepared for so many men,” he said. “I remember being put in a railroad boxcar and the terrible things that went on there; people passing out from heat exhaustion, no water or toilet facilities. The doors were closed and locked. Movement was impossible. Many of the prisoners were suffering from diarrhea and dysentery. The heat and stench were unbearable.”
At the prison camp Cabanatuan, so many men were starving that Curtis and his buddies all volunteered for work detail in the hope of getting fed. They were sent to live in a Japanese camp on the Philippine island of Palawan. The POWS were supposed to be building an airstrip. “But we did as much sabotage as we could,” Curtis said. “We didn’t mix the cement right. Actually, when the Japanese planes landed on the runways, many of them cracked up.”
Curtis and his pals didn’t mind the hard labor because it afforded them an opportunity to supplement their meager diet of rice. “We all weighed around 100 to 115 pounds,” he said. “While we were in the jungle, we’d steal coconuts, bananas and papayas and share them with our fellow prisoners. They’d try to catch us, but we got pretty good at stealing.”
Disobedience was dangerous, however. Curtis remembers the Japanese beheaded two men who tried to escape. “The older guards were not so severe, but the young Japanese treated us brutal,” Curtis said. “They would look for any excuse to beat us.”
The Japanese often delayed notifying the Red Cross of the names of POWS. Families in the United States knew only that a man was missing in action. Once Lou Curtis’ sister learned of his fate, she mailed him a recorder, a substitute for his beloved saxophone he loved to play. Although the Japanese distributed mail and food parcels haphazardly, Lou Curtis received his little flute recorder a year and a half after his capture.
“I played marches and everything on that,” he said. “We had a guy make a guitar, bass fiddle and drums out of boxes. Every prison camp had a bunch of guys get together, make their own instruments and get a little band going. The music cheered everyone up. The Japanese seemed to like it too. In fact, some of the better Japanese used to give us a little rice if we would play music. We played a lot of American patriotic tunes, but they probably didn’t know it. It was just nice music to them.”
The Imperial Army allowed GIs to send post cards home limited to 50 words. On one, Curtis thanked his sister for the gift and urged her to keep the faith. “My prayer is you will not lose courage under any condition,” he wrote.
Like most GIs, Curtis did not doubt the Allies were going to win the war, so he just tried to hang on. Rumor of U.S. victories reached POW camps. With most of the construction finished on Palawan in the fall of 1944, the camp commander divided the prisoners. Curtis and a group of 150 POWs traveled to Manila and then to Japan. The trip by sea in the hot, crowded and unsanitary holds of “Hell Ships” killed many malnourished men. The GIs cheered when they heard U.S. planes overhead. But friendly fire sometimes brought death as well as hope. The Japanese purposely did not mark their ships and trains with Red Crosses hoping the Allies would bomb or torpedo them.
In Japan, Curtis learned just how far luck had taken him. With American forces closing in on Palawan, the Japanese massacred almost all of the remaining prisoners; all of the friends he left behind.
“Sometimes I think, ‘Why me’?” Lou Curtis said. “We all got kind of religious. I just played it day by day. We knew it wasn’t going to last forever.”
Faith kept them going. There is no great future without it. The POWs kept their faith in God and their fellow citizens back home.
Let us never forget them and please keep all of our service men and women in your prayers.
Charles R. Pearson
Malvern Legion Post #375