Yesterday, a small carrier-based plane with the white stars of the United States on its wings dropped a message in the centre of the parade square at Ohasi Prison Camp in northern Japan. The terse message read “URGENT. Prepare all allied personnel for evacuation by sea – AM 15 Sept.”
Could this be true? After nearly four years, were we going to survive this nightmare of slavery, starvation, disease, abuse and death at the hands of the Japanese?
Is freedom possible? Could we ever see our homes and our loved ones ever again?
The next day, the 15th dawned warm, bright and clear. All was ready. Our few miserable possessions were packed - our sick were prepared for transport and assembled in the square. The sun rose over the horizon, breakfast of bully beef, hardtack and tea was over. A deep silence fell over the camp. Were they really coming or was it a hoax? The early minutes slowly ticked by into hours until at about 10 am the silence was broken by a distant rumble down the road which grew louder and louder, and then a roar of engines as a cavalcade of military trucks and armoured vehicles full of heavily armed US Marines crashed through the gate and into the camp.
The marines were cheered, embraced, and a pandemonium of sheer joy swept through the happy throng of anxiously awaiting prisoners.
A marine Colonel mounted on a jeep beside a 50 calibre machine gun was in command. Within minutes orders were given, trucks were loaded with sick first and when all hands were ready, the Colonel asked, “Are there any questions”. An American officer spoke “Yes” he said “I have one: What took you so damn long to get here?” That brought a smile to marine faces and we then were off down the road, hell bent to get down to the harbour, and the open sea, and out of Japan forever.
Soon the harbour was in sight and on the beaches were the landing craft which had landed the marine vehicles. The inner harbour was full of gray naval vessels dominated by a big cruiser and a huge white painted hospital ship named the “Mercy”. In minutes we vacated the trucks and were ferried by Naval launches to the big white hospital ship.
Once aboard the Mercy, the navy took over and lined us up along the rail on the port side of the ship. The order was given strip off every piece of clothing and everything else you have and place it by the rail. We obeyed. Now came the order, dump it all over the rail into the sea. We did and over the side went our clothing and everything else we possessed.
Now in our birthday suits we entered the ship to meet a crew of sailors who first covered our faces with a towel and sprayed us with DDT. Next we went into a large shower room with ample hot water and soap where a group of sailors scrubbed us one by one until they were satisfied we were squeaky clean.
Now in this scrubbed, disinfected state we were issued with brand new naval uniforms according to our rank. I was outfitted as a Naval Lieutenant.
Next we went one at a time before a battery of doctors in a triage group to receive a medical examination. The sick were immediately separated, and placed on gurneys and whisked off to hospital beds with white sheets, navy doctors, and beautiful young nurses to care for them.
Next we went before a group of marine police and asked if we wanted to bring criminal charges to any Japanese by name on shore.
After that we were told we could send a high priority cable to anyone in the world we wished. Thus our families heard of our release that day.
Now it was time for lunch in the ship’s gleaming cafeteria with tomato soup, spaghetti and meat balls and ice cream for dessert - could all this be real?
It was apparent that our respectful American hosts were going to do everything they could to make us welcome and as comfortable as they could.
Next we were escorted to our comfortable sleeping quarters of tiered bunks below decks for a nap before dinner. At this point my name was called out and a naval officer said he was ordered to escort me to the Bridge where the captain wanted to see me.
Upon arrival the captain informed me that the Admiral commanding had ordered that I was to be ferried to the big cruiser in the harbour.
I replied that I couldn’t possibly leave my men and could not make the transfer. At that point the captain said as if speaking to a mentally challenged teenager “Lieutenant, when that man over there (pointing to the cruiser) says you are going over there - then Lieutenant, you are going over there...period!”
He then added, “I will take care of your men until we are reunited in Tokyo.”
In a half an hour I was climbing up the side of the cruiser. There I was met by the deck officer of the watch and was escorted to the cruiser’s sick bay to be examined by one of the ship’s doctors.
Thankfully no further hot showers were required. After a thorough examination the doctor relaxed and we began to talk. After a while the Doctor said “Lieutenant, as you know the American Navy never consumes alcohol at sea.” “But...” he said, “Since your rescue is an emergency operation, I am going to prescribe for your recovery a shot of medicinal brandy - and one for myself as well.” He then unlocked a cabinet and poured for us two whopping big glasses of brandy. At this point I said to myself, if this is just a dream please don’t let me wake up. Then after kind wishes from the doctor, two white-coated Filipino mess boys escorted me to a spotless cabin with a bed with white sheets and told me that they would call for me at six o’clock for dinner with the admiral.
At six o’clock as promised the mess boys escorted me to the ship’s ward room where I met the Admiral.
All the ship’s officers were there and he introduced me to each. Afterwards I was seated on the right hand of the admiral and a chicken dinner on white table cloths was served with apple pie and coffee for dessert.
After dinner the Admiral asked me, among many other questions, what in heaven’s name were Canadians doing in the Pacific theatre of war.
I caused great merriment amongst the ward room audience when I replied “We thought you Yanks might need some help.”
After dinner and more discussion and cigars, I was escorted back to my cabin. As the door closed behind me, I heard the anchor being hoisted aboard and the soft whine of the cruiser’s mighty turbines as she prepared to leave the harbour for the open sea. What a day! I was exhausted!
My men were safe in the capable hands of our allies, our sick were finally being treated.
The war and the prison ordeal were both over. We had done our duty and behaved with courage and honour.
To the gentle rocking motion of the big cruiser, it was now time to sleep and to dream of home and freedom. We were going home.
George S MacDonell