- Historic Sites
After living through America’s worst defeat in World War II and the infamous death march, Army Private Ben Steele started drawing pictures of the images that haunted him.
Summer 2009 | Volume 59, Issue 2
Steele’s wound hurt, but it was not as deep as he’d thought, and eventually the bleeding subsided. He’d tend to it when they stopped for the night, he told himself. Just keep going.
After five, perhaps six days, his column reached San Fernando and the railhead to prison camp. At the depot, the marchers found boxcars waiting, old French Mercis just big enough (about 20 feet long and roughly seven or eight feet tall) to carry roughly 40 men. Now the Japanese were shoving more than 100 men into these ancient wood-and-metal carriages, packing them shoulder to shoulder, belly to back, and slamming the doors shut, leaving them in the hot and stifling dark. By the time the trains reached their destination 22 miles up track at Capas, there were a number of corpses in each car.
From Capas they walked west a few miles to an old Philippine Army training camp the Japanese had converted to a POW pen: Camp O’Donnell, a steaming 617-acre tract of abandoned rice paddies and rolling grassland with rows of partially completed open-air barracks and buildings. O’Donnell was actually two camps separated by a road, some 60,000 Filipino POWs on one side, roughly 10,000 Americans on the other. As soon as he arrived, Steele spotted Q. P. Devore.
Q. P. had been lucky. He’d been part of a small group picked up by a Japanese truck on the way to San Fernando. The ride had spared him many of the deprivations of the march, and, compared to most of the others, he seemed in good shape, better at least than his emaciated buddy. Steele had lost so much weight that Q. P. thought he looked like a walking cadaver.
“Goddamn, Ben,” Q. P. said. “I can hardly recognize you. But don’t worry. The word around camp is, we’re gonna be out of here pretty soon. The Americans are gonna clean the Jap plows in 30 days.”
Weeks passed, weeks of hunger and thirst, disease and death. For water the camp had only one well with two small faucets, and thousands of men had to queue up for half a day or more in the broiling sun just to get one canteen full. Now, too, malaria, dysentery, and other diseases were beginning to take their toll.
The dying were placed in a hospital but called “Zero Ward,” a lazaretto and morgue in one. From there burial details picked up the bodies-40 a day by the first week in May—and carried them to the camp cemetery. It was grisly work (in the tropical heat the bodies would quickly swell and decompose, and the stench hung in the air and clung to the ground), but Steele wanted to keep busy, so he volunteered for the detail. The graves he helped dig were six feet wide, 10 to 25 feet long, and four to five feet deep, into which 10 to 20 corpses were pitched at a time.
After he’d been on the detail two weeks, he thought, “I should volunteer for some other work.” Get out of camp and perhaps find something to eat. Work parties were leaving O’Donnell all the time now, cultivating crops in nearby fields for the Japanese mess, doing one kind of labor or another. And often when they returned, the men smuggled back something edible.
On the afternoon of May 21, word spread that a work detail of 300 men was forming. Steele hopped on one of the waiting trucks. No one knew their destination, and no one likely cared, so long as it was out of O’Donnell.
The trucks carry them south to Manila, then south again to a train that took them to the township of Calauag, Quezon, on the wild, rain- swept Bicol Peninsula. At last they arrived at a shallow jungle river.
The guards gathered them on a rocky shelf that fanned out into the water. They were told to sleep there on the rocks.
“There’s nowhere to get out of the rain,” Steele thought. “This isn’t good.”
The next morning they learned they’d be breaking ground for a road—Tayabas Road— doing with picks, shovels, and wheelbarrows work meant to be done by trucks and bulldozers. Each day they marched into the jungle to move mounds of earth. Each night they returned to their bed of stones in the open, shivering in their sodden clothes, meat for legions of mosquitoes.
After eight weeks of this, 100 men were dead. Most of the rest, Steele among them, were so sick that they could not stand, and the Japanese folded the detail and shipped the survivors back to Manila, to Bilibid Prison in Manila, where a group of POW Navy doctors had set up a makeshift hospital.
Steele was delirious when the truck pulled into the prison yard. Someone was slipping arms under him now, lifting him up, setting him down on a stretcher. They carried him across an open area and into a building. The first thing he thought was, “I have a roof over my head.” They set the stretcher by a wall, spread a cotton pad on the concrete floor, and rolled him onto it. “How about some soup?” one of the corpsmen asked. The soup tasted good.
“Thank you,” Steele said, “thank you.” Then he began to weep.
His malaria had restricted the blood supply to his brain, and he was unconscious for long stretches of time. His beriberi was advancing rapidly; his ankles were swollen to the size of melons, and the edema had progressed from his legs to his chest and head. He had blood poisoning from a suppurating puncture wound from Tayabas Road, and the doctors thought they detected the first signs of gangrene. (During a moment of lucidity, he was sure he had heard one of them say, “You could lose that leg, you know? You hear, soldier?”) His lungs were gurgling and his temperature was spiking, sure signs of bronchial pneumonia. He still had dysentery, and he was jaundiced— a liver infection, the doctors said. Some days he knew he was alive; some days not.
On one such day a priest appeared: Father William T. Cummings, a short, plucky chaplain. He opened his Mass kit, taking out a prayer book, a rosary, and a tin of holy oil.