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I Am Alive!

A United States Marine's Story of Survival in a World War II Japanese POW Camp

Written by Charles JacksonAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Charles Jackson and Major Bruce H. NortonAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Major Bruce H. Norton
Read by John Henry CoxAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by John Henry Cox

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Read by John Henry Cox
On Sale: June 03, 2003
ISBN: 978-0-7393-0333-7
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In the bleak and bitter cold of a copper mine in northern Japan, a Chief Petty Officer of the U.S. Navy was given an opportunity to write a prisoner-of-war card for his wife. He was allowed ten words—he used three: “I AM ALIVE!” This message, classic in its poignancy of suffering and despair captures only too well what it meant to be a prisoner of the Japanese Army.

Now, acclaimed military historian Major Bruce Norton USMC (Ret.) brings to light a long-forgotten memoir by a marine captured at Corregidor in the spring of 1942 and interned for three devastating years by the Japanese. With unflinching prose, the words of Marine Sergeant Major Charles Jackson describe the fierce yet impossible battle for Corregidor, the surrender of thousands of his comrades, the long forced marches, and the lethal reality of the P.O.W. camps. Joining some of the most important eyewitness accounts of war, I AM ALIVE! is a testament to the men who fought and died for their country. Jackson’s unembellished account of what his fellow soldiers endured in the face of inhumanity pays tribute to the men who served America during the war—and shows why we would ultimately prevail.

From the Paperback edition.




Father McManus is dead. When a prison ship, the Enote Maru, carrying American prisoners of war, was sunk by our own bombs and torpedoes, Lt. Frank McManus of the Chaplain's Corps, United States Navy, went down to his grave in the deep, blue Pacific.

Thus perished an obscure Catholic priest. I do not know the details. I feel sure, if there was a spark of physical strength left in the frail, starved body of the man, he died helping others to live. He came from somewhere around Boston, and I hope his people get to read this tale, for Father McManus was a saint out of the early days of the Christian Church. I can never forget him.

I once read Thucydides, the most sublime of historians, an Athenian of classical Greece. To borrow a phrase he applied to another sage of antiquity, "He consulted the light of reason before that of the faith had arisen." Parts of a speech he puts in the mouth of Pericles come to our mind. They seem to fit Father McManus so well that we are copying down the oft-quoted words of the old Greek:

We are not suspicious of one another, nor angry with our neighbor if he does what he likes; we do not put on sour looks at him, which, though harmless, are not pleasant; . . . For we are lovers of the beautiful, yet simple in our tastes, and we cultivate the mind without loss of manliness. . . . For we have a particular power of thinking before we act, and of acting, too, whereas other men are courageous from ignorance but hesitate upon reflection. . . . Reflect that this empire has been acquired by men who knew their duty and had the courage to do it, who in the hour of conflict had the fear of dishonor always present to them, and who, if they ever failed in an enterprise, would not allow their virtues to be lost to their country, but freely gave their lives to her as the fairest offering they could present at her feet. . . . For the whole Earth is the sepulcher of famous men; not only are they commemorated by columns and inscriptions in their own country, but in foreign lands there dwells an unwritten memorial of them, graven not on stone, but in the hearts of men. Make them your people.1

This priest thought before he acted, and acted, too. Many a man who wears a medal for bravery will freely admit that he acted upon ignorance; had he reflected, there would have been no gallant deed. Raw, physical courage is the commonplace on the battlefield; the records are studded with deeds of nineteen-year-olds, the best of battlefield age. Quiet, unsung moral courage is more valued and rare. No doubt the name of Lt. Frank McManus, Chaplain's Corps, United States Navy, is suitably inscribed in the bronze and stone of the written records, but among the prisoners of war who knew the man for his deeds there is an unwritten memorial, graven in their hearts. To make him an example is asking too much of weak flesh, but those who knew him are better men for that privilege.

And now to the tale. I must of necessity put a bit of myself into it, for I was there at the time.

Much has been written of Cabanatuan Military Prison Camp Number One, Nueva Ecija Province, Philippine Islands, and much of it is true. In April of that dreary year of 1943, the mental state of the prisoners was at low ebb; the physical but little better. Nearly all the weak and brokenhearted were now dead; the tough and wiry were alive. The death rate had been, among some 5,000 men, about 28 per day. Red Cross food and medicines had been allowed to come in, so that now only one man or so died per month! (Executions now and then are of course not counted in the death rate.)

The Japanese are a strange mixture of kindness and cruelty. I know I shall never understand them. Nearly half of the 5,000-man group was permitted to be in the hospital, under our own doctors. (These unselfish physicians worked day and night with meager equipment and few drugs to save lives.) No hospital patient worked on outside details.

The 2,500 so-called "well" men were divided into three groups of about 800 men each. Each unit had about 250 officers, of whom few worked, and 150 enlisted men, clever and adroit, who had gotten the inside jobs. They hung on to them like grim death.

Of the 400 left in a group, the Japanese allowed about 100 sick to be marked "quarters"; they either worked at easy inside jobs in that status, or, in the more severe cases, were allowed to ya si me. (We thought more of that Japanese army word for "rest" than we did for food, starved though we were.)

That left 300 to a group, 900 for the camp, men not sick enough to make the highly prized "quarters" list or clever enough to secure inside jobs, to work [on] The Farm. This place was simply hell. (From now on, any reference to The Farm will be capitalized; my leg alone will never let me forget it.)

Happy was he who worked in the commissary, the galley, or the food supply room. While he lacked ordinary American food, he could gorge himself on inferior third-grade rice, decayed and evil-smelling salt fish, stringy carabao (water buffalo) meat now and then, and native vegetables, often rotten or spoiled. We were sure that some of these men were also filching more than their share of the Red Cross food issue, for they had charge of it.

How we hated (and wistfully envied) them all!

The Japanese stayed on the outside of the barbed wire, turning over the running of the inside of the camp to the prisoner officers. It was either the most fiendish of clever, diabolical moves to sharply cleave officer and man or else it was done in ignorance. We suspect the former.

Second lieutenants received twenty pesos per month; the higher grades more. Privates and noncommissioned officers who worked The Farm got ten or fifteen centavos.

(I repeat the words; "The Farm" is capitalized on purpose. That evil place is indelibly inscribed in our memories. Even today, after release, when there is no armed guard ordering us around in this land of plenty, most of us shudder to think of The Farm.)

The Farm fed outlying garrisons of the Imperial Army and the camp guard of six hundred or so men; the prisoners got what little was left. There were signs all over the place saying, any prisoner picking unauthorized food will be shot. In spite of this, we stole whenever we could. No prisoner was ever shot, but some few were caught, brutally beaten, and tortured.

The prisoner officers ran a camp commissary, selling such divine delicacies as atrocious native tobacco, crude "caromata pony" sugar, dirty native syrup swarming with dead insects, rancid coconut oil, raw peanuts, strong-smelling duck eggs, and once in a while a puny chicken or a stringy duck. He who had twenty pesos or more each month lived in what we "have-nots" thought was luxury; but he who earned from The Farm, at the most, three pesos [per month] could buy but little. The "haves" seldom shared with the "have-nots." It was, to use our expression, "dog eat dog!" (The commissary food was in addition to the scanty rations the Japanese allowed us in the mess lines.)

Americans under such conditions tend to become mean and selfish. Every form of black market and petty racketeering came to the fore. Quite justly, the Japanese derided us for it. Hatreds grew that will never die out among us; we try to forget them but we cannot. The gulf between the officer prisoners, our natural leaders in any escape plan, and their men became so enormous that, incredible to relate, as far as we know, no such design was ever seriously thought of except in rare, individual cases.

Who has not heard of "R.H.I.P," meaning, "Rank has its privileges"? Too large a number never forgot it, but failed to remember its corollary, "But it also has its obligations." Under the dismal life we led, who could blame the officers? Human nature was there in the bleeding raw. I probably would have acted the same, and maybe worse, had I been in a position to do so.

An ugly picture has been delineated; it has been necessary to do this to explain Father McManus when I come to tell you [of] what he did.

Now in this April of 1943 there is a change in the guards, for the worse. The garrison commandant, one Lt. Col. Mori, was relieved; some four hundred of his veteran Japanese soldiers were replaced with a like number of half-savage aborigine conscripts from the island of Taiwan. Mori was not too bad, unless one was being executed. He always tortured the victim from twenty-four hours to a full week before the firing squad and death brought a welcome release. To give the devil his due, he did seem to hold in the sadistic impulses of his men to some extent.

His successor was a weak, white-haired old major, a reservist, I heard. In appearance he seemed benign and kind, but he could not control the fiendish cruelty of his men, even had he desired to do so. The second-in-command, a captain, ran The Farm. It was told of him that he had said, "To work Americans, beat like carabao." The regular soldiers were bad enough, but the native young Taiwanese were ferocious in their uncontrolled cruelty.

The daily detail for The Farm had been about 900 men. Now it was stepped up to 1,500. This increase resulted in a great scurrying around to fake illness and get in the hospital, or at least to make the "quarters" list. The officers eased some of the special-duty men out of their sinecures. Now even some of the latter had to go to work, and junior captains and lieutenants took over some of the outside details, but not The Farm. Some of these details had always included fine officers who volunteered for such jobs as woodcutting,2 fence building, and ditch repair, but such work was decidedly not The Farm.

Work gangs were of thirty men each with a junior officer who, as supervisor, did not work. Senior officers looked after several groups. Overall, as overseers, were Japanese farming specialists. At the head of them was the "Beat like carabao" captain, who had an assistant in the person of a three-star private, a perfect cartoon-type figure with buckteeth and glasses and a look of restrained ferocity. We called him "Air Raid." He was a most unpleasant person. Who among us that knew him shall ever forget him?

In addition to the perimeter guards around The Farm, there were four or more Taiwanese to each four-bull gang of thirty. We called them the "torture squads." Let a man slow up and they pounced on him. For forty-five minutes, prisoners were required to slap each other until blood came, hold heavy farm tools at arms' length until muscles screamed with pain, hold these same tools over their heads until they nearly collapsed, and then finish up by kneeling on the ground with a tool handle between the back of the thigh and the calf of the leg. Try this sometime, if you can, for five minutes, and see if you can walk afterward! Often to all of this was added a clubbing with what we prisoners called, with sardonic humor, "Jap vitamin sticks." The grim threat of being shot or bayoneted if one faltered was always there. A man who went through this felt the results for over a week. (We know one man very, very well whose clubbing on the thigh lamed him for some three years. Even today he can feel the effects. The man--myself!)

Naturally, there was very little "soldiering" on the job. You had to "keep your head down and your tail up" unless you wanted a good working-over. We may add that all Japanese tools are built to make you work in this position; it is natural to them, but how foreign to us, and it made our backs ache cruelly.

To the hazards mentioned above was added what seemed to be a quota system of men to be tortured. If no one was caught loafing, about four men were picked out of each group of thirty, "pour l'encouragement des autres!"

Every trick and device of the malingerer was brought into play in order to make the "quarters" list. But what could the doctors do when only a certain number of men were permitted to be so marked? This small number was decreased daily by the stern orders of the conquerors. Men who had malaria and a fever of over 102 degrees were dosed with a little quinine (there was never enough) and sadly told they must go and work in the blazing sun. The heat of the dry season was pitiless. Mild symptoms of beriberi, scurvy, pellagra, and amoebic dysentery were not enough to make the "quarters" list. If one could produce positive, non-encysted stool, with blood, one could make the hospital, but not otherwise. A fair guess would be that the average weight of the men, all suffering from malnutrition, was about fifty pounds below normal.

One hardy soul was reported to have been detected eating large green flies from the latrines around the dysentery barracks, hoping to get a positive specimen and the comparative paradise of the dysentery hospital. I knew of a young officer,3 a second lieutenant, assistant leader of a dysentery barracks, who feared his job would be given to a senior and that he might then have to work at The Farm. He actually used to pay a Marine "quarters" case for his stools and then take them to the dispensary for a microscopic examination. It was funny in that the Marine's own stool, every time the doctors looked it over to shake him loose from the hospital, was always positive, but the samples submitted by the lieutenant were all negative!

Among the black market operators and "Big Dealer Kings," along with the professional gamblers who were listed to work The Farm, the price for a sick man on "quarters" to take their place for half a day's work had been only a few pesos. Now it rose to ten; for a starving man, this might mean enough commissary food to save his life.

And now, at long last, we come back to Father McManus.

One day in my agony of "head down and tail up" with a Japanese pick whose handle was about half the length of an American-made one, I saw to my utter surprise Father McManus working alongside me. He wore the rags of a private. Barefooted, he worked in the sharp gravel and had on no lieutenant's insignia. I had known him personally but slightly, though fairly well by reputation, for he had been a member of the USS Canopus's gallant crew, whose tale will long live in the annals of the navy. He was much underweight, and I felt sure that, like some very, very few other officers, he had been giving away his pay to starving men.

From the Paperback edition.
Charles Jackson

About Charles Jackson

Charles Jackson - I Am Alive!
Charles Jackson was born in 1903 and raised in the township of Arcadia, New York, in the Finger Lakes region, where much of his fiction is set. After a youth marred by tuberculosis and alcoholism, Jackson achieved international fame with his first novel, The Lost Weekend (1944), which was adapted into a classic movie by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett. Over the next nine years, Jackson published two more novels and two story collections, while continuing to struggle with alcohol and drug addiction. In 1967, after a fourteen-year silence, he returned to the best-seller lists with a novel about a nymphomaniac, A Second-Hand Life, but the following year he died of an overdose at the Hotel Chelsea in Manhattan.

  • I Am Alive! by Charles Jackson and Major Bruce H. Norton
  • June 03, 2003
  • Biography & Autobiography - Military
  • Random House Audio
  • $7.95
  • 9780739303337

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