Eastern Oklahoma VA Health Care System
Honoring Oklahoma’s Former Prisoners of War
On April 13, the Jack C. Montgomery VA Medical Center (JCMVAMC) held its annual Former Prisoner of War (POW) Recognition Ceremony to honor and remember Oklahoma’s former POWs.
The ceremony, which was attended by eight former POWs and their family members, was held at the American Legion Post 15 and included a free luncheon for them and their family.
Following the presentation of the colors and remembrance ceremony, which were performed by the Muskogee High School Air Force Jr. R.O.T.C., JCMVAMC Director James Floyd and Muskogee VA Regional Office Director Jason McClellan addressed the former POWs and thanked them for their service to the nation.
“Freedom is not free,” said Floyd. “We’re here today to pay tribute to you and express our deep gratitude for the trials and tribulations you have been through. I hope that you feel respect from us today and the honor we want to give to you. It really comes from the heart.”
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Joe Newhouse, a field representative for Rep. Jim Bridenstine, was the guest speaker for the ceremony and also thanked the former POWs for their sacrifices.
Assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz, then Lt. Newhouse flew multiple missions during the Iraq War providing aerial coverage to Marine convoys over Fallujah and Baghdad. As part of his pilot training, Newhouse said he received two days of POW training.
“I had two days worth of it in a POW camp where they try to replicate what it’s like to be a POW,” said Newhouse. “In my 10 years active service, those were by far the hardest two days of my life. So the fact that several of you went years as a POW is just unbelievable. Thank you for your excellent service in the cold, the heat, the isolation and just the dire conditions. We can’t fathom what that was like.”
Oklahoma Veteran Recalls Time in Japanese Labor Camp
Among the eight former POWs who attended the recognition ceremony was World War II Veteran Jack Warner, who drove from his home in Hammon, Okla. to attend the event.
In 1939, the Oklahoma native enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. After combat training in California, Warner was shipped off to Shanghai, China where he served at the International Settlement for 14 months with the 4th Marine Regiment.
In 1941, Warner and the regiment were dispatched to the Philippines to defend the island of Corregidor from a potential Japanese invasion. Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese bombed Corregidor.
“We didn’t know war had been declared and the Japanese Zeros came in,” said Warner. “They sank every (boat) the Navy had and then they started to hit the mainland and all the officers were yelling ‘don’t fire, don’t fire!’ The pilots were flying so low you could see the profile of their faces when they hit us. We didn’t have anything big enough to bring them down. So we just put so many holes in them they couldn’t stay up and we shot them down. We just gave them everything we had.”
On Dec. 29, 1941, the Japanese began bombing Corregidor on a daily basis in preparation for an invasion.
“Every day, you could almost set your watch between two and three,” said Warner. “There were three waves of 29 bombers that came from Manila and they would bomb us.”
Warner said the U.S. military had several World War I era anti-aircraft guns to defend the island, but they were ineffective against the Japanese planes.
“(The Japanese) could fly at 27,000 feet and not be hindered by the anti-aircraft,” said Warner.
Shortly before midnight on May 5, 1942, the Japanese began their assault of Corregidor and the first wave of Japanese troops began coming ashore.
“The Army had one search light left on Melinda Hill,” said Warner. “It came on for about three minutes, maybe that long, and that showed these landing boats coming in.”
Warner’s battalion was assigned to defend the beach and he helped place electric mines along the beach. When the enemy troops came ashore, he helped detonate the mines.
“We had a button we could punch for the mines to blow,” said Warner. “We used every third one the first (wave), and every other one the second, and then we fired everything we had.”
The U.S. military inflicted about 900 casualties on the Japanese, but also suffered around 800 casualties as well. Almost out of ammunition, the U.S. surrendered the island to the Japanese on May 6.
Warner Becomes a Prisoner of War
Warner said he was forced to strip naked while Japanese doctors examined the surviving American troops. The Japanese selected 300 Americans, including Warner, to be sent to Japan to work as slave labor.
“They hand picked us and they told us we’d be the first group to go to Japan,” he said. “They took 75 Marines, 75 Navy and 150 Army. We had to strip off in our birthday suit and they had about 12 Japanese examine you. But they picked out the best physically fit ones.”
Before they arrived in Japan, the POWs were sent to Taiwan where they were forced to learn Japanese.
“They’d write Japanese on one side and translate it into English on the other side,” said Warner. “A lot of (the POWs) learned a lot more than I did. I thought there’s no use learning something you’re not going to use.”
From Taiwan, the POWs were shipped to a POW labor camp in Yokohama. Warner said 26 Americans died during the journey from malnourishment and disease.
On Thanksgiving Day 1942, Warner began working as a riveter in a Japanese shipyard where he was force to build tankers for the Japanese fleet.
At the beginning of each day, the POWs were forced to line up and count off in Japanese. If they didn’t say their number correctly in Japanese, Warner said the Japanese prison guards would beat them.
“You sure wanted to learn their language because you had to count off,” he said. “If you couldn’t remember your number in Japanese, they’d work you over pretty good with a club or rifle or whatever they had.”
Warner said he boxed in the camp with other POWs, which helped him sustain the beatings from the Japanese.
“I could roll with the punches when they worked me over pretty good,” he said.
One day, Warner volunteered to take a beating for a Navy sailor who he said was in bad shape.
“I don’t know what he had done, but he was a good kid and I knew him,” said Warner. “We knew he couldn’t take it if they give him a real beating.”
Warner said the POWs were only given a small amount of food to eat each day which usually consisted of rice and fish heads.
Warner said he was also forced to repair German ships which docked outside the Yokohama harbor. However, he said the Germans fed him better than the Japanese.
“When we went out and riveted on a German ship, we always liked that because they carried hogs on their ships and they fed us two meals,” said Warner. “We got our ration plus what they gave us and we usually carried ours back to give to our buddies.”
While working in the shipyards, Warner said he and the other POWs helped sabotage the Japanese ships they built.
“We found out that all we had to do was get rid of the bolt, the washer or the nut,” said Warner. “If we hadn’t taken care of it through sabotage, the (American) submarines got it before it went out of the bay.”
When the U.S. began winning the war in the Pacific, the Japanese were very clear about what they’d do to the POWs if the U.S. invaded Japan.
“They already told us if there was an invasion, they were going to kill us,” said Warner. “They didn’t want no witnesses.”
However, when asked if he was ever afraid during his time as a POW, Warner quickly and without hesitation, said no.
“No, we didn’t have any of that,” he said.
In May 1945, American bombers destroyed the Yokohama shipyard. Warner said he had never seen an American B-29 bomber before, but he said he was happy to see them.
“When the B-29’s were flying, (the Japanese) had the fear of God put in them long before they dropped the atomic bomb.”
With the shipyard destroyed, the Japanese moved Warner and the other POWs up north to a steel mill where he was forced to build tunnels for an underground tunnel. He also was forced to clear land so the Japanese could plant gardens.
When the Japanese finally surrendered in August 1945, Warner finally became a free man and returned to the U.S. five years after departing San Francisco on a U.S. Navy ship for China.
Looking back on his time as a POW, Warner said his will to survive was fueled by his desire to tell the world what the POWs endured at the Yokohama labor camp. Warner said the Japanese officer in charge of the camp was later convicted of war crimes and hung.
“I always figured I’d come back,” said Warner. “I said I was going to live through it all, because somebody had to tell the story.”
Warner said it is an honor to be a POW.
“I wouldn’t say it was a privilege, but I’d say it was an honor to be able to live through it and come back and talk about it,” he said. “A lot of (POWs) wouldn’t talk about it at all and still don’t.”