Prisoners of War

Written by Harold (Diz) Kronenberg

Four Death March Survivors. Left to Right: Ervin Keilholz, John Hryn, John Bruer, and Cliff Omtvedt.

The South Pacific, 1942
There were two main theaters of operations in World War II—the South Pacific and the European. In 1942, as the American effort got underway, attention was focused on the South Pacific. In the early stages of the war, most Infantrymen from the Chippewa Valley were sent to this part of the world.

Bataan (in the Philippines) was the scene of intense and prolonged fighting in the early stages of World War II. Large numbers of invading Japanese troops fought the entrenched, but hopelessly outnumbered, Filipino and American forces. After Manila fell, the Allied troops on the Bataan Peninsula—without ammunition and food and badly mauled—surrendered to the Japanese. It was at Mariveles Airfield on Bataan that the American and Filipino prisoners were herded together and sent on the infamous March of Death to various prison camps, including Camp O'Donnel near Cabanatuan.

The March of Death began at daylight on April 10, 1942. The prisoners were searched and stripped of all personal belongings before beginning the long trek. If they possessed Japanese tokens or money, they were beheaded. As they marched for days through the dust and blistering heat, they were not permitted to eat or drink. For many, the most excruciating pain came from thirst. One Japanese soldier took an American soldier's canteen, gave the water to a horse, and threw the canteen away.

The prisoners were slapped and beaten with sticks all along the march. Some, half crazed with thirst, threw themselves into water-filled carabao [water buffalo] wallows, even though they knew it meant certain death, since they would be killed for leaving the straggling ranks. The Japanese bayoneted these prisoners or stepped on their heads until they drowned or were suffocated. Other atrocities were committed that are too horrible to tell. Those who died on the road, and there were many, were left to be run over by heavy trucks or other military vehicles.

Four men from Eau Claire were taken prisoner by the Japanese in the Philippines. Three survived the Death March. John Bruer escaped, swam the shark-infested waters back to Corregidor, but was captured again. These four—Ervin Keilholz, John Hryn, Cliff Omtvedt and John Bruer—spent the rest of the war in Japanese prison camps. They were forced to do hard labor and suffered conditions of widespread disease, including dysentery and malaria.

One of the worst ordeals for these men was being aboard Japanese ships on their way to Japan. They were placed in the hold of the ship where there was very little ventilation and the stench was unbearable. Most of the men had diarrhea. Metal buckets (called "Honey Buckets") were lowered once a day to provide for the removal of the excrement. Their captors treated them harshly, men were dying all around them, they were being bombed by American planes, and the humiliation of defeat was almost too much to bear. It seems that only hope kept them going—hope that sometime soon they would be liberated by the Allied Forces.

Four years later, when the war was nearing its end, the Americans flew over the prison camps and parachuted food down to the prisoners. Omtvedt, Hryn, and other prisoners used the red, white, and blue silk parachutes to make an American flag. It was a difficult job, especially since they had not seen the Stars and Stripes for four years. (Where do you place the stars, and which comes first—a red or white stripe?) When they raised it over their camp—the first American flag to fly in Japan since the start of the war—hundreds of men cried with emotion.

Although the prisoners were not yet officially liberated, the Japanese realized that the end of the war was near and allowed the flag to fly. After the war, the flag was exhibited in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC for many years; it was then moved to a private museum in Fort Lee, Virginia. Recently, it was placed in the museum of prisoner of war artifacts in Andersonville, Georgia.