Warning: This article contains some war content that might be disturbing for some readers.
When my father, Alfred R. Young, was liberated from a Japanese POW camp at the end of World War II, he weighed 90 pounds—scrawny for any man, but skeletal for someone 6-feet 3-inches tall. His weight, however, was only a shadow of concern compared to his mental and emotional condition after 39 months of wartime captivity. He endured two hellship voyages; physical, mental, and emotional starvation; innumerable beatings; forced labor; disease, psychological abuse; isolation; and six months of Allied bombing raids that eventually obliterated his prison camp, devastated Tokyo and Yokohama, and killed many of the men who had become his brothers.
His physical internment ended in 1945, but Dad was still a captive almost eight years later when I was born. I knew he was a captive because I could see he was somewhere else, walled up inside the sternness of his countenance. I knew it because I could see emptiness in the depths of his eyes.
I came to know that the darkness had something to do with the Samurai sword in the shadows under the couch in the living room and battered cardboard boxes in the garage that were filled with letters, papers, and colorless photographs of desolate places and doleful men.
One of those pictures was a close-up of a man, completely alone, whose eyes were so deeply set that sunlight could not reach them. I can still remember my amazement upon learning that the man in the picture was my father.
Alfred R. Young’s Kawasaki Camp 2B prisoner photograph taken July 10, 1943. Image courtesy of Al R. Young.
The First Attacks
In 1939, the sunlight in some of the pictures shone bright upon my father and his parents as they stood at a railway station. Dad had enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps and was bound for Fort McDowell near San Francisco. From there, he was sent to Clark Field—an air base on Luzon island in the Philippines.
Pop, Alfred and Mom say goodbye at the railroad station in Oklahoma City before Alfred leaves for Fort McDowell and then for Clark Field on the island of Luzon in the Philippines. May 20, 1939. Image courtesy of Al R. Young.
Dad’s enlistment required only two years of duty overseas, but by 1941, the U.S. was preparing for war and his return to the States was canceled. Consequently, on December 8, 1941, just hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Dad endured the terrible destruction that swept over Clark Field, doing to the United States’ air power in the Pacific what had just been done to its navy. Before the war was two days old for American soldiers, Dad had lost two bombers and was the sole survivor of his crew.
Clark Field after the attack, December 8, 1941. Image courtesy of Al R. Young. Image courtesy of Al R. Young.
He remained at Clark Field until the Imperial ground assault on the Philippines forced an evacuation. Christmas 1941 found him in a foxhole on an island named Bataan. In the dead of night, his outfit was split up and he was assigned to a group that boarded an inner island cruiser. Traveling only by night, they threaded their way southward among the islands, survived a direct aerial bombing attack, and disembarked on the island of Mindanao, where he was assigned to a machine gun post on the Pulangi River among the iguanas and head hunters.
For four months, he watched planeload after planeload of American officers and men evacuating from the Del Monte Air Field just a few miles to the north. As a bombardier, he should have been aboard, but the call never came. One morning, he and his men awoke to discover that their officers had vanished in the night. Those left behind survived on worm-infested rice, lived off the land, traded with the Moro people, and eventually retreated into the hills.
Life as a Prisoner
Alfred R. Young poses in his flight gear in front of a Martin B-10 B, in which he flew as a bombardier before the war. The photo was taken circa 1940. Image courtesy of Al R. Young.
When his command surrendered in May 1942, my dad passed through the gate of a makeshift prison camp at Malaybalay. From there, he was among prisoners loaded into what would become known as a hellship, which took them to Manila’s infamous Bilibid Prison. From Bilibid, he and thousands of other prisoners were loaded into unmarked freighters bound for hard labor in Japan to drive the Imperial machinery of war.
Climbing down the metal ladders into the dark holds of those ships, prisoners were forced at rifle butt onto cargo shelves where they crawled in darkness toward the bulkhead. Dad descended until nothing but the naked rivets and rough joinery of the hull separated him from the murky waters of Manila Bay. In the deep shadows, he crawled through the prisoners, already packed into the hold like bodies without coffins, until he came to the small wedge of a space where the curvature of the hull met the underside of a cargo shelf. The hatch closed. Darkness swallowed him.
Cradled in cold steel and stifling stench, groaning men with dysentery and other diseases lived and died in their own waste. It was impossible to know whether the shadowy forms around him were still men or corpses. The only reprieve was waiting on deck in the long lines for the over-the-side latrines that had to serve nearly 2,000 prisoners.
Because the freighters were unmarked, during their journey they came under Allied submarine attack. Dad watched with the rest of the men in line for the latrines, none of whom had a life jacket, as the captain tried to out-maneuver white tufted torpedo trails that claimed more than 3,000 prisoners. Fortunately, Dad’s ship escaped such a fate.
Dad was sent to a labor camp on the island of Kawasaki in Yokohama’s waterfront industrial area. There, he endured days of disease, deprivation, starvation, forced labor, humiliation, beatings, and the constant threat of death for more than three years.
Kawasaki Camp 2B prisoner-group photograph taken November 12, 1943. Image courtesy of Al R. Young.