Today is Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Local mother, son recall POW tribulations

  Email   Print

The pre-war Philippine Islands were the last days of American colonialism and Americans lived extremely well in the Philippines, Leslie said.

Leslie said his family lived in Malate, an area of Manila, while his father worked in businesses including mining, lumber, shipping and realty. However, like so many Americans, their lives would change in December 1941.

Nancy Leslie, who is now 95 years old, pointed out that American citizens living in the Philippines knew what was going on in the world around them. Many were attempting to return to the United States, but Bill noted for many reasons, many could not receive passports, or ships were delayed due to Longshoreman strikes on the American Pacific coast.

Bill Leslie, left, sits with his mother, Nancy in their Lebanon home as they recall tragic memories from being interned during World War II.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt called Dec. 7, 1941 a day which will live in infamy as the Japanese attacked the naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, killing 2,400 Americans and injuring another 1,200.

For the Leslies, who lived across the International Date Line, it was Dec. 8, 1941, but the news traveled just hours after the surprise attack occurred.

My husband had just gone to work, it was a Monday, Nancy said. I got a call and it was him and he was saying, The Japs just bombed Pearl Harbor and I said Whats a Pearl Harbor?

A few hours later, the Japanese bombed Manila as well, creating confusion and fear among the American citizens. Nancy said they had family friends who lived in a different neighborhood in Manila. She said they encouraged her family to move into the neighborhood, which Nancy said was the largest American community in Manila at the time.

The family moved shortly after Dec. 8 and lived in their friends home when Manila was declared an open city and American forces retreated from the city to the Bataan Peninsula, just across Manila Bay, on Dec. 26, 1941.

The Japanese Imperial Army occupied Manila on Jan. 2, 1941, and that day, several soldiers entered the Leslie home along with a local Japanese businessman acting as an interpreter.

They said they were coming to pick us up to take us to Rizal (Stadium), Nancy said.

We were in the first group of Americans to be interned as prisoners of war in the Santo Tomas internment camp, Bill added.

As the soldiers stayed with Bill, who was around 4 years old at the time, his younger brother Tom and their father in the living room, Nancy said the businessman walked with her into the bedroom.

There he whispered to her in English and his help and warnings would better prepare the family for what they would experience in the following 37 months.

He asked me, do you have clothes packed? and I said yeah, and he said bring all the clothes you can, she said.

The businessman also told her to bring their mosquito nets, laundry soap, rice, baby food, medicine and anything else they could carry. She said the Red Cross told them theyd be gone only a few days, but Nancy noted the businessman knew better and helped her prepare for the worst as best she could.

I was better prepared than a lot of Americans, who were picked up on the sidewalks, on the street, Nancy said.

The family, along with many other Americans, British and other citizens of the Allied Nations who lived in Manila, were driven to Rizal Stadium, a soccer stadium in Manila where the citizens were registered.

This photo appeared in a New Haven, Conn., newspaper in 1945. In the photo, American and British citizens stand with their luggage and belongings on the grounds of Santo Tomas internment camp shortly after arriving in 1942.

Nancy said they drove to the stadium, escorted by the soldiers, in Howard Leslies company car. But once they were registered at the stadium, they were taken by truck to Santo Tomas University.

There was no water, no food, all these children were crying, Nancy said.

They were taken to a small classroom on the second floor of the Universitys main building. Bill said the rooms were full of people, at least 50 to 60 to a room, and Nancy pointed out with no school in session, the rooms were awfully dirty.

I found a broom and swept the dust off and marked our space. Thats how we spent our first night, Howard, Bill and Tom and I, she said.

On the University lawn, Nancy said there were families who started fires to heat canned goods for dinner. She started their own fire and rummaged through the things they had brought.

After getting out cans of food, Nancy realized she had not brought a can opener. Continuing to look through their belongings, she found out that she had also forgot to bring silverware.

Across the lawn, Nancy noted a Portuguese family was cooking in the same manner and the family let the Leslies borrow their can opener and spoon so they could eat a simple family meal.

In all, almost 4,000 people were interned at Santo Tomas with little food provided to them. As the war dragged on, conditions would only worsen until the camp was liberated. In the meantime, the prisoners did what they could to occupy themselves and attempt to make life easier.

Bill said the prisoners formed committees and a rudimentary government to operate the day-to-day tasks in the camp. He recalled a small group of men were chosen as representatives to the Japanese.

My mother had to hand out toilet paper to people using the bathroom, Bill said, noting only a few squares was allowed per person to conserve what they had.

While most prisoners lived inside the small classrooms of the University, Bill said the wealthy were allowed to build shanties on the school lawns and stay in them during the day. However, at night, the Japanese required everyone to sleep in the designated rooms.

Bills father, Howard, and most of the men stayed in the gymnasium while Bill, his brother Tom and Nancy slept in the main building in their second-floor classroom. Every day, Bill recalled, he would walk to the gymnasium in the morning with a toothbrush and a glass of water so his father could brush his teeth after waking up.

Time passed slowly in the camp, as Bill noted the lack of fighting in the Philippines during 1942 and 1943 left the war as something far and away. The prisoners managed to eat what little food they could acquire, and they set up a hospital staffed with interned doctors and nurses and interned teachers even taught school lessons to children.

A Japanese soldier took this photo of Bill Leslie, right, and his younger brother Tom, while they were interned in Santo Tomas University, in Manila, the Philippines, between 1942 and 1945. Leslie said he was between 4 and 7 years old during internment.

The prisoners established a garden on one of the lawns where they grew vegetables, but Bill pointed out they only managed to get one harvest from the garden. In 1943, the Allied forces in the Pacific began to pressure the Japanese and turn the tide of the war in the east.

As a result, the Japanese cut back on food allowed into the camps, confiscated Red Cross supplies and one night, Bill remembered the soldiers took everything from the garden that the prisoners had been tending year-round.

Never was there enough food, Nancy said.

At the beginning, there were dogs and cats running around the camp, but after a while, they werent around anymore, you know, Bill noted.

In the first couple of years, prisoners died of starvation and unsanitary living conditions after a flood, caused by a typhoon on Nov. 15, 1943, ruined many supplies and the grounds where they lived.

The last supplies of wheat bread ran out on April 15, 1942. The last supplies of rice-bread were exhausted on May 12, 1944.

The prisoners ate a watery soup with minimal rice and spinach called lugaw or sun-dried fish called dilis. By the time the Leslie family was on its way home, Bill said his father, who stood over 6-feet tall, weighed 128 pounds. On average, adult men lost 51 pounds and adult women 32 pounds during internment.

For the first year or more, Bill said the majority of prisoners who died succumbed to disease and starvation. Once the Allies began their counterattack on the Philippines in October 1944, things would only get worse before they improved.

Staff Writer Patrick Hall may be contacted at

Related Articles
Read more from:
General News
  Email   Print
Powered by Bondware
News Publishing Software

The browser you are using is outdated!

You may not be getting all you can out of your browsing experience
and may be open to security risks!

Consider upgrading to the latest version of your browser or choose on below: