Three Years In A Prison Camp
By Lt. Rita G. Palmer, ANC
As Told To Ada N. Hayes, Staff Correspondent
Hampton Union, Thursday, May 10, 1945
[The following account of the experiences of Lt. Rita G. Palmer, ANC, while a prisoner of the Japs at Santo Tomas prison camp in Manila for nearly three years has been written exclusively for the Union by Ada N. Hayes, staff writer, and a life long friend of Lt. Palmer. Although written several weeks ago, it was cleared only this week by the First Service Command censorship office.]
"We surrendered May 10, at Impalatao in Northern Mindanao," said Lt. Rita Palmer, ANC. Impalatao had a native hospital manned by native doctors and nurses. We waited there three days for the Japs to come and they finally did, to inspect the hospital. They removed the military personnel from the village, leaving the civilians. The Japs insisted that there were no women in the United States army although the nurses presented papers to prove it. Consequently the nurses were grouped with civilians.
"This small group lived in the native village under armed guard. Our quarters were the filthy native shacks and our food was soy beans, bamboo roots and rice. Occasionally when the natives were able to procure meat, some was given us. The only reading material we had for this dreary period of waiting was a prayer book. Then some priests came and brought some welcome books from a library. The women experimented with making clothes from sleazy Japanese material which the Filipinos had looted from Jap stores.
"At last the Japanese transferred our group by truck to the coast to Caguyan where we were housed in a very dirty school building for two days. Then we were taken to the city of Davao by freighter. The filth of the native village and school house seemed minor compared to that of the freighter. Large rats scampered over those of us who were able to doze off during the night. On the way to Davao the freighter stopped at Zamboanga. Here we were allowed to swim and go to the native market to purchase rice cakes, cocoanuts and fish. All of which occurred under Japanese guard.
"As I looked from the pier at Zamboanga into the water many brightly colored fish were swimming about and I exclaimed, 'Look at the National Geographic fish'. Our little group arrived in Davao, August 2 1942 where we were herded in to another dirty building this time a convent. Here we remained until September. One day the Japanese informed us that we were to be repatriated whether we like it or not. They insisted again that the nurses were not members of the American army but were Red Cross workers. The next day we were all carried by freighter to Manilla. Immediately upon stepping on the pier, our group was rushed to Santo Tomas, Jesuit University in Manilla. I was able to leave that internment camp just twice during three years imprisonment. Both times I required an X-ray and was hustled to a hospital in an ambulance."
"Santo Tomas Internment Camp No. 1 was as dirty as the other buildings in which this group had been quartered. The books in the library, furniture and woodwork were alive with bedbugs. Soon we learned not to be embarrassed or disgusted if one was seen crawling on some ones shoulder. It was unavoidable. Weekly inspections were held under the supervision of Americans in an attempt to make the camp as livable and as sanitary as possible. Rooms were kept orderly, cobwebs and dust were cleaned away but there always were some people who could not be forced to be clean.
"As the days passed by groups of people with congenial interests drifted together. These groups came to be called families. There were six members in the group with Lt. Palmer. These six ate together, took turns shopping and cooking and generally looked out for each other.
"This group in particular maintained a high standard in morale and in. the general way of living. A clean tablecloth was always used at each meal. Lt. Cassiani embroidered each name on-a napkin so that each person in this family had his own napkin.
"They made every effort to stay clean and this was made a little easier for the camp had running water until just before liberation when the reservoirs were bombed by the Japs. Soap was a very precious commodity. Many women let their hair grow and wore it in braids around their head or in a bun at the necks. Others, who had wavy hair, cut it very short so that less soap would be used in shampooing.
"The first two years of imprisonment went fairly pleasant," said Lt. Palmer. "The Japanese commandant was a civilian who for many years lived in Manilla and was more sympathetic towards the internees than the military commandants who were in charge during the last year.
"The internees food supply was supplemented by food from native markets and gardens. Buyers were allowed to go to the markets and Filipinos were allowed to enter the gates every day bringing meats, eggs, peanuts, vegetables and fruit. Seed was also available at first and our group was the envy of the whole camp when one day we ate corn off the cob grown in our own camp garden."
"The nurses were required to work four hours a day in the small prison hospital. Sometimes the Japs rewarded them by allowing them to buy soap or cigarettes.
"Plenty of time was left for classes after the work. Lt. Palmer has earned credits equivalent to a year of college education. Regular classes were held, four semesters a year and a summer vacation. However during 1944, classes were discontinued for teachers and students alike became too weak and sick from the scanty diet of rice to concentrate. Among the courses and lectures offered were philosphy, English literature, sociology, history, music, several languages and many more subjects in which the various professors were versed. The professors came from the internees, the priests and from the University of the Philippines. One old professor had previously taught for 20 years at the University of Santo Tomas and continued his classes among the internees.
"There were baseball games, golf, symphony concerts, lectures and an orchestra.
"Every Saturday night a stage show was presented. On Christmas 1943, the "Messiah" was presented by a group of the internees with a 100-voice chorus and a large orchestra. The instruments for the orchestra came from the junior symphony orchestra of the high school in Manilla and from the Manilla symphony orchestra.
"Since there was little or no privacy for any one anywhere in camp the rehearsals were held on the roof of the camp in a futile attempt to present "The Messiah" Christmas evening as a surprise. The members of this company particularly enjoyed the "Hallelujah Chorus." Soon fellow internees began to look forward to the Christmas season passing for they said one more Hallelujah would have been too much.
"Every occasion for a celebration was grasped. The birthdays and anniversaries of the members of each one's family far away in the United States or some country were duly feted with a special tablecloth and a cake baked in an oven which one of the internees called a "flowerpot" stove for it looked very similar to an inverted flowerpot.
"Coffee grounds were dried and used over and over again until it scarcely colored the water in which it was boiled. For Christmas in the bleak and terrible year of 1944, each member in Lt. Palmer's family saved their coffee grounds and dried them under their beds. Christmas Eve arrived and these gallant people held a gala Christmas party celebrating by a teaspoonful a guava jelly, a bit of rice and the precious pale brown water called coffee.
"During the period when the Americans were allowed to purchase supplies from the outside, an attempt was made to store canned food. However there was so little space available for storage among the closely packed three and a half thousand prisoners that an adequate supply was impossible to acquire.
"In 1944 after the gate was closed, these meager supplies gradually dwindled away. It was hard to know just when the food emergency occurred for month by month, then week by week, less food was given them, and when it seemed as if conditions could be no worse the Japs would take more food from them and each one dipped into his supply of stored goods. Thus when the real emergency arrived nothing was left to eat.
"In December, 1943, the only Red Cross Shipment arrived that these people ever received. There was a food kit, medical supplies, clothes and badly needed shoes. The next day there were 15 "kit" casualties, as the doctors termed it, from eating the chocolate bars.
"Clothing was made from cloth purchased from the Japanese. Blue denim was particularly prized for its durability. Each person had to fashion his own clothes, design, cut and sew by hand. Many learned to sew for the first time. One of the men made bamboo knitting needles for the women and the women knitted and crotcheted underwear and socks. G-strings were worn more than any other article of underwear by both men and women for they were easy to make, and cool and comfortable to wear.
"Bakis were worn for shoes. These were wooden soles tied with hemp straps to hold them to the feet.
"During the long imprisonment, church services for every denomination were held. This meant practically all religions for nearly every nationality were represented as prisoners at Santo Tomas, even a few German Internees.
"Sometimes visiting Japanese officers would come to the camp to deliver lectures. One in particular had been held at an American allocation camp in the United States and had been exchanged. He told the Santo Tomas internees, that the Japanese could afford to be 'magnanimous' in their treatment of them for the Japs were winning the war. He told them how lucky they were to be prisoners of the Japanese. He described horrible conditions in the American camp where he was interned and told of one Jap officer who was cruelly forbidden to see his wife and she had to wave to him from the street corner.
"Then in January 1944 after an air raid and as the Americans drew closer, the gates were closed. No more contact was allowed with the outside world. The military commandant took away more privileges. The internees were required to bow to the Japanese officers as they passed, then to every Jap who walked by.
"They were no longer allowed to go to markets and it was necessary to eat from the "chow line" food furnished by the Japs. Stealing became prevalent and the Americans themselves found it necessary to impose sentences upon those who attempted to get more than his share. As the days went by, food became the only thing they thought about.
"One day a pig escaped from the Japanese-owned pen and ran in among the shanties on the grounds of Santo Tomas. Strangely enough it disappeared instantly without making a squeal. The Japs could never understand what had happened to it and searched for it diligently. They never learned that some of the men living in the shanties fed the pig sodium amatol tablets and when the pig was sufficiently doped, it was killed.
"Every night the camp was blacked out. Air raids became more frequent. And as the Americans drew nearer still less food was given to the people. It may have been that the Japs did not have it for themselves as well. Some people became panic-stricken and ate boiled hibiscus leaves or cats but the doctors soon put a stop to this for those people became very sick. However the large flock of pigeons that had nested in the eaves gradually disappeared.
"When the first Americans planes appeared over the prison the internees were greatly heartened. Then when the pilots became braver and flew low over the camp and tipped their wings everyone felt very proud and cheered the daring pilot.
"At first rice was served three times a day, then twice a day.. There was no longer enough other food to supplement this diet and gradually the insidious symptoms of beri-beri appeared. Lumps appeared under the skin caused by the starchy diet. Hands and feet became swollen and it was with great difficulty that the people climbed stairs to their rooms.
"A few of the elderly men died of starvation. However, the children in the camp fared better, for the Japanese soldiers seemed to love children. During the periods when the Japs were dining, the children would hang around the table. When they could not stand it any more, they would toss scraps of food from the table to the wide-eyed hungry children.
"At this time rice had become a terribly monotonous diet. Lt. Palmer's family tried to vary the taste in many ways. While she was at duty one day, the priest in the family took her carefully hoarded cold cream and fried rice in this as an oil. It was surprising how well it tasted. Soda was found to make sour rice taste much better.
"The internees were not allowed outside the building after the first air raids. They were convoyed to and from work under guard. Each morning at 6:30 they were awakened by a recording broadcasted from a loud speaking system. At first the Americans were allowed to choose the records for reveille. If there had been an air raid the previous night, "Pennies from Heaven" was a source of laughter and jokes. If there had been no air raid then they would play "I'm Biding My Time". "Japanese Sandman" was also a favorite.
"The Americans came to enjoy interpreting the morning music so much that the Japs commenced choosing the records themselves. By the early morning mood of the records the prisoners felt that it was indicative of news about the progress of the war.
"At eight o'clock roll call was held and the internees were required to stand outside their rooms at attention then bow as the Japs walked by. Even this was made a joke most of the time. The monitor for the group in which Lt. Palmer lived, Lt. Edith Snacklet would give out the orders, 'Ready-Bow!' 'As you were', followed in true sergeant's manner."
"All during the three years of imprisonment, the Japanese could never understand the sense of humor and the laughter of the prisoners. A disgraced group of people who had lost face surely had nothing to be happy about. But the Americans maintained their sense of humor the entire time.
"All during internment, the prisoners received news from the outside world by word of mouth. It was not until after they were liberated that they discovered there had been a radio in camp all that time at great risk and secrecy to one man. Of course this news became greatly exaggerated according to the temperament of the person that passed I it along. Consequently the internees expected to be liberated long before they actually were. Then they believed that the Philippines would be bypassed and there would be an invasion of China instead. Consequently the actual liberation was a great surprise.
"When the Americans landed on Luzon the Filipinos living close to the walls of the camp became very daring and turned the volume of their radios on very loud so that the internees might hear the news inside the camp.
"Two weeks before liberation Lt. Palmer finally became so weak with dysentery and hunger that she was hospitalized. She had previously suffered two attacks of malaria.
"One night word spread through, the hospital that a house boy had sent a note in a coffin into the camp. It said, "Dear Sir, Please be careful. I think there will be trouble tonight." The internees became frightened for often the guerrilla forces had informed them that they would rescue them. This seemed worse than being imprisoned by the Japs for these sick and unarmed people could never hold out against the powerful and armed Japanese. Then that night, machine gun fire was - heard. Bright lights of the flares and the searchlights were seen. Then came the sound of American voices as the American soldiers rode the tanks up to the gates to liberate the prisoners from starvation as well as the Japs.
"As weak as she was Lt. Palmer got to the window sill to watch the amazing and glorious scene -- American soldiers pouring into the camp grounds. Clad only in shorts and pajama tops, she stood on a window sill with Frank Hewlitt's wife. Mrs. Hewlitt's husband had been repatriated on the Gripsholm and Mrs. Hewlitt wished that he was with her to watch the liberation. It was a great surprise to discover that he was with the liberators.
"Later on Lt. Palmer assisted in caring for the casualties -- still clad in her pajama tops and shorts. She was given her first bar of chocolate that she had eaten in two years, by an American soldier.
"The Japanese did not give up the Santo Tomas prison easily. First they shelled it while the prisoners were still there, then some held out for thirty-six hours on the second floor preventing the internees on the third floor from escaping and preventing the Americans from firing upon the Japanese. After thirty six hours the Americans consented to allow the Japs to came out armed and march single file between two rows of threatening tough American soldiers. The oppressors of three years disappeared in the darkness outside the camp gate. Later it was learned that two blocks away from the camp, the guerrillas had killed every Japanese who had filed out of Santo Tomas.
So after three years of experiences like these, Rita Palmer came home, hoping desperately that home had not changed.
"I should like to express my thanks to all who made my homecoming so pleasant: to the committee in charge, to all the organizations taking part and to the friends and neighbors present. I appreciate deeply their lovely flowers and other gifts. My welcome was an event I shall never forget."