Grace Triumphant - Chapter 15 - Life in an Internment Camp

Life in an Internment Camp

“Be content with such things as ye have: for he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.” (Heb. 13:5)

One afternoon in July 1944, while a neighbor missionary was visiting us, we observed some Japanese officials going to the home of another missionary.  Our visitor hurriedly left by a back way so as to be home if they should visit him.  Soon the unwelcome guests were at our door.  They ordered us to all stand before them while they read a proclamation, first in Japanese, then in English.  The purport of it was they could no longer guarantee our safety because of the prevailing lawlessness.  So for our own protection we were to be confined in an internment camp.  There we would be provided with “protective custody,” a euphemism we readily understood.  We were to be ready at nine the next morning with one suitcase each with our clothing—everything else would be provided!  Anna remonstrated that since our daughter was sick we couldn’t possibly be ready at such short notice.  But she desisted from further protestations when the Japanese officer waved his finger under her nose and said, “You be ready tomorrow morning or else…”  Better let him have the last word under such circumstances.

As soon as they left, word was sent to the brethren in San Juan.  They came out in force to help us.  Our belonging, furnishings, and books were quickly taken away to their homes for safekeeping.  They would have stripped the place bare; but since we were not supposed to remove anything, I persuaded them to leave some furniture in the house.  In this way most of our personal belongings were safely returned to us after we were liberated.  A chiming eight-day clock, one of our wedding presents, and a few books were lost.

The next morning the army truck arrived, already quite full with friends and neighbors.  We interpreted “one suitcase each” somewhat liberally and quickly began to load things on the truck to forestall any objections.  One of our friends had brought us a basket of fruit.  The soldiers hindered Anna’s efforts to get this on the truck—“No food!”  But each time Anna had stopped a little closer to the truck.  Finally she appealed to one soldier who seemed as if he might be a bit friendlier.  “My little girl has been sick, she needs this fruit.”  Possibly thinking of a little girl back home, the soldier put the basket on, and my wife followed.  Finally the boys and I climbed on the tailgate of the overloaded truck and hung on as it lurched its way to Santo Tomas.

There it was made plain to us that we would not have any opportunity to communicate with our friends already interned there.  Roman Catholic priests and nuns and Protestant missionaries alike were crowded into the gymnasium for an overnight stay.  The Japanese tried unsuccessfully to take a roll call and establish some order out of chaos.  The first time they often couldn’t hear the response when names were called.  After calling a nun’s name two or three times someone said she had died some months before. Then they said we should answer by giving our age.  The name of a white-haired Methodist was called and at the top of his lungs he shouted “64.”  This brought forth a burst of laughter from the crowd so this method was abandoned.  I don’t know how the Japanese recorded our names in their characters but we got inkling when they called for “Mr. Littlewood.”  There was no reply.  I turned to our friend ”Chips” Smallwood and said, “It’s you they’re calling.”  However, he declined to respond to “Littlewood.”

A hard concrete floor with no bedding and hordes of mosquitoes were not conducive to sleep that night.  At daybreak we were lined up in columns of four and counted, then loaded on trucks to take us to the railroad station.  Then we were counted as we got off the trucks. Lined up beside a train—counted again.  On the train—counted again about three times.  Evidently they were having trouble getting the same count each time!  Very frustrating for them but very amusing to us though we tried to hide our mirth.

That afternoon we arrived at the grounds of the University of the Philippine Agricultural department at Los Banos.  There were about fifteen hundred internees there before us, and long buildings divided into cubicles had been erected.  These buildings were thatched with nipa palm leaves.  There was the privilege not found in other internment camps that the family could be together.  Husbands and wives shared a cubicle instead of being segregated in separate buildings.  Len and Ken had a cubicle a few doors away and Rose shared one in between ours and Pagets with the daughter of the Pagets, of the Ceylon and India General Mission.

A committee of internees had been formed to manage the affairs of the camp under the supervision of the Japanese.  Japanese soldiers guarded the perimeter to be sure no one escaped and to keep away Filipinos who would gladly have brought food.  So the rank and file of the internees had no direct contact with the Japanese.  Work teams were formed for every able-bodied person to have some part in the maintenance of the camp.  Anna was on the food preparation detail which principally consisted of removing from the rice most of the worms, grubs, and dirt.  I signed up for maintenance and one of my jobs, along with one of the priests, was building a walkway between two buildings, roofed with nipa thatch.  So I learned to tie on the thatch with rattan.  The boys helped in the kitchen, but they also had some special classes and Rose was able to keep up some of her lessons.

For several months our end of the camp was segregated from the other; and since we were all religious workers, our end was dubbed “Vatican City” or “Holy City.”  Since the hospital was at the other end, one way for us to get down there was to be sent to the hospital.  When I had an attack of dengue fever I spent a couple of days there.  This enabled me to contact Mr. Dayton and pass on to him a few things his wife had asked me to take to him.  His job was buying food supplies from Filipinos at the gate.  Later on Anna developed beri-beri from the insufficient diet so she needed to visit the hospital for injections.  What vitamins were available were kept there for those who were badly in need of them.

At first the food was fairly adequate though quite plain.  This didn’t last long and soon was quite insufficient.  We liked to think that a Japanese defeat in the war was followed by a cut in rations.  Towards the last we averaged 700 calories a day per person.  “Lugao” was rice boiled in a lot of water.  That was the main dish.  Once in a while a pig was killed—it didn’t go far among two thousand people.  There was an occasion when dried fish and salted eggs were available.  Hunger spices up even eggs that are a bit “high”.  We tried growing greens or anything that seemed edible.  By the cubicle of a friend was a banana plant.  We fried the inner part of the stalk and the roots in rancid coconut oil.  We got the oil by accepting a ration of cigarettes for trading purposes.  On the rare occasions we got bananas we fried the skins and ate them too.  From our camp we could see the hillsides around lush with banana plants and coconut trees.

Later on, the “middle wall of partition” was removed and we were free to mingle with others.  The difference in behavior in the two sections soon became evident.  Among the religious group, even if they were certainly not all believers, there was a spirit of friendliness, consideration, and willingness to help others.  Although there were some missionaries in the other section, the majority were a miscellaneous group of businessmen, professionals along with the riff-raff of tramps, prostitutes, and some merchant seamen.  The tension among them resulted in quarrelling, selfishness, and taking advantage of others.  After we were liberated it was plain that some had hoarded food or sold it at exorbitant prices, for their greedy purposes.

People often asked us if those who were interned with us were more open to the Gospel.  There was no indication that troubles softened the hearts of the unsaved.  It is a common idea that calamities will cause men to turn to God.  This may be true in isolated cases, but it generally does not happen that way.  In the Great Tribulation, we are told, “. . . and they gnawed their tongues for pain, and blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, and repented not of their deeds” (Rev. 16:10-11).

One building had been set aside for a chapel by the committee of internees so regular services and Sunday school was carried on.  The Roman Catholics and Protestants had separate services, of course.  Since there were so many different groups, a committee was formed to make arrangements for services and rotate speakers.  Sometimes a liberal preacher would lay stress upon man’s love for his fellows.  Personally it seemed rather hard to conceive of loving that Japanese guard with a rifle as he walked by outside.  Once I was invited to give the morning message and chose to speak on the person of Christ from the first chapter of Colossians.

Those were opportunities to get to know each other better and to respect some with whom we did not agree theologically.  The Episcopal Bishop Binstead earned our respect when he volunteered to help in an emergency in a temporary hospital.  Emptying bedpans during an outbreak of dysentery was not a pleasant task.  The Seventh Day Adventists adhered faithfully to their principles of not eating pork and observance of tithing and keeping the Sabbath.  I told one of them, “I don’t agree with some of your principles, but I do admire your living up to those convictions.”  Len and Ken worked out a deal with some of them to work in the kitchen on Saturdays to have time off on Sunday.

Almost everyone had brought in a few books for their own use, so it was decided to pool all these and put them into a library where they would be available to everyone.  One afternoon I was looking over the books with an Anglican missionary from Japan.  Looking at Papin’s “Life of Christ” he glanced over and said, “That’s a good book but you wouldn’t approve of it.”  He knew where I stood theologically.  It was there that I had the time and opportunity to read the trilogy “Mutiny on the Bounty,” “Pitcairn Island,” and “Men against the Sea.”  These were intensely interesting, and the second one presents the influence and change that came to the survivors through a copy of the Holy Scriptures.

Some of the internees who were teachers were assigned to teach the children though often they had to improvise since they lacked books and supplies.  One of the priests took a special interest in helping Len with advanced mathematics.  Rose took an interest for a while in sketching.  One evening there was an unusually beautiful sunset.  The sky was covered with delicate pastel shades that attracted the attention of many.  I remarked to Rose that it would be nice to get that in a picture.  She replied, “Dad, there is only one artist who could paint that!”  I said, “Who would that be?”  She replied, “The Artist who has just painted it in the sky.”

During our time there our clothes and footwear were getting the worse for wear.  What shoes we had wouldn’t last long, especially in rainy, muddy weather, so generally we wore “bakya,” the Filipino wooden shoe.  Once I removed a piece of wood from the wall of our cubicle in order to fashion a pair of “bakya” for myself.  Sometimes it was easier to go barefoot than attempt to walk through the mud in “bakya.”  One afternoon a number of the men were taken out of the camp by the Japanese to cut firewood in the hills around.  We learned later that the Japanese included the cost of such firewood in their expense accounts.  At one point they wanted us to work for them, offering the munificent wage of 25 cents a day.  Our committee claimed exemption on the grounds of the Geneva Convention.  That didn’t mean anything to the Japanese, but they probably despaired of the quality of work we would produce.

One priest remarked, “We are developing a keen sense of RUMOR.”  That was true!  Rumors that Red Cross supplies had arrived at Santo Tomas Camp in Manila; that they were at the railroad station in Los Banos; that they were in the Japanese Commandant’s office.  Rumors of American landings!  In the evenings there were furious arguments that the thunder and lightning in the distance was the roar and flash of artillery fire.

Fortunately we also retained our sense of HUMOR too.  Said one theologian, “Camp life puts us in a receptive mood.  We are ready to receive anything—moldy mush, wormy rice, green water, meatless watery stew—anything that is called food.  And what a cure for allergies—they have become ancient history to internees.”

It was reported that Mr. Leith, a British missionary, mistook his stew for hot water and made tea with it—just like an Englishman.  That report couldn’t have been true—the stew was never that hot!

A lady reading the instructions for writing cards home, that they must be in English or Nipponggo, was heard to exclaim, “Oh, I shall write mine in Nipponggo.  Mother and Father are so fluent in it!”

Conversation overheard over the partitions:
Mr. G.  “I hate to go to bed on such a full stomach.”
Mrs. G.  “Don’t lie on your stomach, lie on your back.”
Mr. G.  “I do—but still my stomach touches the bed.”

There were a number of Dutch priests brought into the camp, and they formed a glee club.  So once in a while the monotony was relieved by putting on a concert.  Some wrote parodies on oldtime songs concerning our conditions.  “They’ll be Coming Round the Mountain when they come” was a favorite.  It had such references as to killing the old black bull (the only work animal) so that one day we would be full.  The innuendoes about the Japanese were highly gratifying because they were subtle enough to escape the attention of those gentlemen.

It was during those days that I passed through a spiritual turmoil.  It was bad enough to be perpetually hungry, but to also see my children hungry but not complaining was hard.  Then to see my wife’s feet and legs puffed with beri-beri, a malnutrition disease, was an added trial.  We elevated the foot of her bed to help the circulation and she went frequently to the hospital for vitamin injections.  At that time one verse came repeatedly to mind, “Be content with such things as ye have” (Heb. 13:5).  It seemed I could not evade it.  In the middle of the night I would wake up and “Be content with such things as ye have” would come to mind.  But what did I have to be content with?  An empty stomach, an ailing wife, hungry children, little strength or energy because of lost weight.  My weight was down to 105 pounds and my wife’s to 85.  We had no idea what was happening to our home and few possessions.  There was no communication with friends and loved ones; no certainty that we would come out of this alive.  Be content with such things?  I was too pious to voice the inward rebellion, but it did seem as if the Lord was asking a bit too much just then.

There flashed across the screen of memory what the Apostle Paul wrote, “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.  I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need” (Phil. 4:11-12).  The inward reaction was that Paul was an apostle, an exception Christian, which I am not; but then I had to face the fact that Paul wrote those words when he was in prison in Rome.  “Be content with what ye have.”  It seemed as if there was a mental block which stopped the quotation at that point.  “Such things as ye have,” seemed to be mostly a minus quantity.  Really, I did want to be content—but couldn’t it be postponed until after our release?

No!  I had to learn the lesson of contentment there and under those circumstances.  This seemed to go on for some time until I just told the Lord, “If You want me to be content, You will have to do it, I can’t.”  Then it seemed I was at the point where I could go on to the rest of the verse, “for he hath said, ‘I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.’ ”  Those familiar words then glowed with a new light.  God wasn’t asking me to be content with things, with circumstances, but with Himself.  We can never be content with things for they are only temporary and transient.  In this world we can never be satisfied with our circumstances.  It is only in Christ that we can find contentment.  That’s how Paul learned this difficult lesson—“I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.”  His grace is always sufficient.  His power is made perfect in our weakness.  Like the old hymn of our childhood days, “I have Christ, what want I more.”  No matter what the circumstances may be, Christ is enough the heart and mind to fill.  He alone can satisfy.  “Godliness with contentment is great gain.”