Veterans recall experience in Mukden camp
NEW ORLEANS — By late 1942, American servicemen in the Philippines had already experienced some of the worst of war. They had fought hopeless, desperate sieges at Bataan and Corregidor. Most had endured the Bataan Death March. All had been in squalid prison camps or prisons.
When more than 1,000 of them boarded a Japanese freighter, the Tottori Maru, on Oct. 6, 1942, some might have hoped things would get better. Such hopes would be dashed when, on Nov. 11, they arrived at their new home.
No Japanese prisoner of war camp was nice. The Hoten POW camp in Mukden, Manchuria, was notorious, a place where, in addition to the typical indignities, the captors conducted medical experiments on POWs.
“They treated us like a bunch of livestock. They mistreated you,” said Robert Rosendahl, 91, of Springfield, Mo. “If you disobeyed them they’d kill you. If you gave them any trouble they killed you. And they got away with it.”
Rosendahl is one of four Mukden survivors holding a reunion this weekend in New Orleans. They toured the National World War II Museum on Wednesday, and will have a Saturday night banquet at the Hotel St. Marie.
The reunion coincides with the 70th anniversary of their being shipped out of the Philippines. That journey itself was an adventure. An American submarine, unaware of who was on board, tried to sink the ship, but the torpedoes missed.
The ship docked in Pusan, Korea, and roughly 1,200 prisoners were put aboard trains to Mukden. Despite being moved from the tropics to frigid Manchuria, not all prisoners received new clothes, and the ones who did were given summer Japanese military uniforms.
“It was raining, and it was colder than hell,” said Randall Edwards, 95, of Lakeland, Fla. “We went out of the camp from the railroad station in open trucks. I would say probably about 10 kilometers, and it was pretty nasty. They finally got us some more clothes. In Mukden, Manchuria, it gets to 40 below. We weren’t too comfortable.”
It was worse than uncomfortable. By the following summer, 205 prisoners had died. The 173 who died during the winter were not buried until the following spring.
“A lot of guys had dysentery, and starvation,” said Ralph Griffith, 89, of New London, Mo.
Most prisoners were put to work in a nearby factory, and others worked in a tannery, textile plant or steel mill. Edwards credits a Japanese doctor with getting the captors to change their rations from cabbage soup to soybean soup, which had more nutrition.
“It saved our lives,” he said.
Other medical attention had sinister motives.
After the war, it was discovered that the Japanese were conducting biological warfare work at a nearby installation known as Unit 731, which included experimentation on humans. In her book, “Guests of the Emperor: The Secret History of Japan’s Mukden POW Camp,” author Linda Goetz Holmes reported that doctors from Unit 731 exposed prisoners to diseases.
“We got an awful lot of shots,” Edwards said. “One of the main ones that they gave us was for Japanese encephalitis B. That was the name they hung on it. Was it real? I don’t know. We had lots of other shots. Why were they giving us the shots? I don’t think there were any diseases they were trying to prevent. So, I think we were control (subjects) for experiments they were doing up in (Unit) 731.”
The prisoners did their part to thwart the Japanese. The factory made various parts for the Japanese military. Prisoners sabotaged the work at every opportunity.
“All the parts that they made, they made sure they didn’t fit,” said Erwin Johnson, 90, of Lacombe. “That was one of the good things that they did.”
“You wonder why we would do it and take the chance of getting our heads busted,” Edwards said. “Well, we did get a lot of beatings for it. I got lots of knots on my head because I worked on four different machines in that factory before I was done. But the Japanese orders were that if the Americans invaded Honshu, the prisoners were to be executed. It’s that simple. We didn’t really care. We knew we were going to be executed anyway.”
POWs knew that Americans were getting closer when, on Dec. 7, 1944, B-29 bombers bombed the Mukden war industries. Two of the bombs fell inside the camp, killing 19 prisoners and wounding more than 30. The prisoners were ordered outside their barracks and to lie down in the open, so they watched the bombers in action.
“My buddy was laying right close to me,” Griffith said. “After it was over, I turned over and he was dead. Shrapnel hit him. He didn’t even know what hit him.”
Edwards helped a wounded prisoner to the infirmary, and the Japanese insisted he first be used in a filmed propaganda interview to criticize the Americans for bombing them.
“They set it up, and he said, ‘Send them again. They’re beautiful,’” Edwards said. “That was the last of that interview.”
In mid-August, 1945, prisoners saw a handful of red parachutes appear in the sky and drift into Mukden. Members of the Office of Strategic Services — the forerunner of the CIA — had arrived to inform the prison officials of Japan’s surrender and to protect the prisoners.
The highest-ranking POWs of America and Britain, Gen. Jonathan Wainwright and Gen. A.E. Percival, were being held nearby.
On Aug. 19, the Russian army arrived.
“When they lined us all up the next morning and told us the war was over, you’d have thought there would be a tremendous blast of cheers and whatnot,” Edwards said. “You could have heard a pin drop in that compound, and people wandered around and went back in their barracks. It didn’t sink in until about 2 o’clock that afternoon: ‘Hell, we’re out of here.’ The Jap guards were already gone.
“The first ones out of the camp came back in with an oxcart load of vegetables. The ox and the vegetables all went into the pot.”
The survivors were a shell of their former selves. Rosendahl doesn’t remember how much weight he lost in captivity, but said he gained 90 pounds in 90 days after being freed.
Now, Mukden is only a bad memory for the survivors.
“It doesn’t bother me any more,” Griffith said. “I used to dream about a lot of stuff. When I got discharged, they looked in your ears and throat and discharged you. They didn’t follow through like they do nowadays. But I was lucky enough. I didn’t have anything wrong with me.”