Jesse Miller lay in a dry river bed under the scorching Philippine sun, paralyzed from the waist down. His basic Army medical training enabled him to understand that he was dying. Languishing as a prisoner of war under brutal Japanese captors, he recognized that he was suffering from both beri-beri and yellow jaundice. Based on the progression of a yellowish tint moving from his eyes to his fingernails, and then to his skin, Jesse knew that the end would come soon. His death would take place in a few days, at most, unless he could somehow get some sugar. As he prayed for God’s mercy, whether in death or in life, he heard a rustling sound in the tall grass beside the river bed. As the Filipino guerilla fighter crawled on his stomach to avoid detection by the Japanese guards nearby, he quietly communicated with the sickly American soldier. Calling Miller “Joe,” a common name used by both Filipinos and Americans when conversing with each other, he urged him to escape and fight with his guerilla band in the mountains. Jesse declined, noting how sick he was and that the other nine men in his ten-man POW squadron would all be shot if he attempted escape. As the Filipino inched away, back toward the safety of the mountains, he held out two, life-giving one-kilo bags of sugar to the previously dying man.
Jesse Miller would survive his POW ordeal, emerging three and a half years later, at the end of the war, as an emaciated skeleton of a man. Captivity, despite all of its brutality and death, had become a time of incredible spiritual growth for the young Christian soldier from Wyoming. A few years later he would return to the Philippines as a missionary, eventually starting an outreach to American servicemen and women known as Overseas Christian Servicemen’s Centers (OCSC). OCSC would soon spread to U.S. military bases all across the globe, and have a profound, even eternal, impact upon the lives of thousands over the years, including the author of this article. Formerly OCSC, Cadence Ministries is a thriving outreach to the American military to this day.
Jesse Miller was one of more than 120,000 Americans held captive as prisoners of war during World War II. Some, like Jacob DeShazer, would spend virtually the entire war as a POW. DeShazer was one of five crew members in a B-25 bomber that had dropped their payload on military sites in Nagoya, Japan. Running out of fuel and forced to bail out over a Japanese-controlled area of China, he and the other members of his crew were captured within hours. They had been part of the otherwise successful Doolittle Raid on Japan in April of 1942. DeShazer would spend the duration of the war, some 40 months, as a POW at various prison camps in Japan and China.
On the other side of the world and much later in the war, young Second Lieutenant Hill Bohannon and his bomber crew would bail out of their badly damaged B-17, affectionately named “Flying Home,” near Regensburg, Germany. A native of Summerville, Georgia and father of local City of Calhoun Director of Purchasing Barry Bohannon, he became a prisoner of the Germans on Jan. 20, 1945. It was his fifteenth and, as it turns out, final mission of the war. Bohannon’s stay as a “guest” of the Third Reich lasted almost four months, until the war in Europe ended in early May 1945.
Of the just over 120,000 American POWs during the war, almost 94,000 were imprisoned by the Germans in Europe, while nearly 30,000 were brutalized and worked as slaves in Japanese internment camps scattered throughout occupied areas of Asia and mainland Japan. Most of those in Europe came from the ranks of downed airmen, like the ten members of Hill Bohannon’s B-17 crew. Other Americans taken captive in the European theater included almost 24,000 soldiers in the Battle of the Bulge alone.
Meanwhile, in the Pacific, most of the U.S. prisoners held by the Empire of Japan had arrived at their fate due to the fall of the Philippines in early 1942. Occupied by the Americans since the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898, it was home to a large American military contingent. The capitulation of thousands of U.S. soldiers on the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines on April 9, 1942 was, at the time, and still is, the largest surrender of American military forces in our history. Less than a month later, thousands more Americans would be forced to lay down their arms on the Philippine island of Corregidor. Those captured in the Philippines during April and May of 1942 would join about 2000 of their countrymen, already suffering as POWs of the Japanese. These earlier captives had come mostly from Guam, Wake Island, survivors of the sunken cruiser USS HOUSTON, and a whole Texas National Guard battalion that had been dispatched for the defense of the island of Java. The latter group of 534 soldiers, whose whereabouts were a mystery until late 1944, would become known as the Lost Battalion.
Conditions in the camps were obviously harsh. While by no means a “cake walk,” life as a German POW was, without question, far preferable to life as a prisoner of the Japanese. The Germans generally honored the earlier Geneva Conventions, treaties which required humane treatment of prisoners of war. It should be noted that they treated the Americans, British, Canadians and Australians far better than they treated the Russians, most Eastern Europeans, and certainly, the Jews.
On the other hand, the Japanese did not honor the Geneva Conventions. Additionally, their culture led them to despise any soldier or sailor who would surrender, rather than fighting on until death, or even taking his own life. Life in a Japanese POW camp was, in a word, hellish. Beatings were commonplace, malnutrition and disease widespread, living conditions deplorable, and grisly executions an ongoing reality of life. Prisoners of the Japanese typically worked as the slaves of their captors, on grueling and dangerous projects such as the Thai-Burma “Death” Railway, and in coal mines. Thousands were worked and starved to death over the course of the war. As Japan’s empire slowly started to crumble due to liberation by the Allies, the Japanese began to transport American POWs from far flung camps to the Japanese mainland. Packed like sardines into unmarked cargo ships, vessels which quickly earned the name “hell” ships, many died at sea as they were torpedoed and sunk by unknowing American submarines.
As the war drug on, conditions in the German POW camps deteriorated as well. Malnutrition, overcrowding, and lack of medical attention all escalated in the last days of Nazi Germany. Near the end, as the noose tightened around Germany’s neck, long forced marches to relocate prisoners closer to the German homeland took their toll on weakening Allied prisoners. In the final result, however, the American death rate in German camps was about 4 percent, while Japanese brutality cost the lives of almost 40 percent of the Americans they had rounded up and imprisoned throughout the war. More than 11,000 of our fellow citizens would perish in the Japanese death camps.
Hill Bohannon returned to Summerville at war’s end, entered the business world for a while, and started a family. Eventually he would work in several government jobs related to aviation and weather. Still flying his own airplane until near the end of his life, and remaining very much the raconteur, he died at the age of 92 on July 3, 2014.
Jacob DeShazer spent 40 months as a prisoner of the Japanese, 34 of those months in solitary confinement. Of the five members of his B-25 crew, all of whom had been captured, three were executed by a firing squad and one was slowly starved to death. Only DeShazer survived the war. While in captivity he pleaded with one of his Japanese guards to loan him a Bible. Miraculously and providentially, he received the Bible, but only for three weeks. During that time he committed his life to Christ and resolved to live a devoted Christian life. Following the war, he prepared to become a missionary to Japan by studying at Seattle Pacific College. In 1948, three years after the war had ended, he returned to Japan with his wife Florence. During the next 30 years of ministering to the very people who had imprisoned him, he left an enduring legacy. DeShazer was involved in starting a church in Nagoya, the city he had bombed during the Doolittle Raid years before. In 1950, he was instrumental in leading a Japanese man named Mitsuo Fuchida to faith in Christ. Fuchida had been the lead pilot in Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor nine years earlier, but, after his conversion, became a powerful preacher throughout Japan and parts of Asia. Jacob DeShazer died in his hometown of Salem, Oregon in 2008 at the age of 95.
Maybe America’s most widely recognized World War II POW, at least in recent years, is Louis Zamperini. Made famous through Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling book UNBROKEN, Zamperini’s life story is staggering in scope. (If you haven’t yet read the book, you must….soon!) A world-class Olympic distance runner before the war, serving as a bombardier on the B-24 bomber during the war, Louie survived over two years of unrelenting cruelty and beatings as a POW of the Japanese. Returning home after being liberated, he was demonized by dreams and memories of his POW experience. With his life spiraling out of control and alcohol taking its toll, Louie reluctantly attended a Christian evangelistic crusade where a young man by the name of Billy Graham was speaking. The rest, as they say, is history. Louie placed his faith in Christ, and was immediately and completely transformed. For the rest of his life he was heavily involved in ministry to troubled youth. The book UNBROKEN provides a powerful and engaging glimpse into the lives of World War II POWs of the Japanese. In my opinion, the movie by the same name, produced after the book and directed by Angelina Jolie, doesn’t even begin to accurately portray the full story of Louis Zamperini’s life and legacy.
During the hard fighting and sacrifice of World War II, some 120,000 Americans became prisoners of war. Thousands of them died in captivity. Those who survived and returned home, for the most part, sought to resume their lives and to raise their families. Most succeeded. But, all would carry the memories of what happened during their days of captivity for the rest of their lives. Remember them. Remember what they endured for us, preserving the precious freedom that we Americans enjoy every day of our lives. Remember those who gave so much….75 years ago.
“If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are….” Ronald Reagan
You can find all of Donnie Hudgens’ World War II Diaries at his website, ww2diary.wordpress.com.