An Ilonggo veteran was a prisoner of war. Worse, he was forced as gravedigger. That was his ordeal 70 years ago at a young age of 17. Now, he’s 88 but vividly remembers the nightmares. It takes a lot of courage to tell his story. Read on.

O’Donnell concentration camp through the eyes of a POW

By Ricardo G. Hechanova
Inquirer News Service / Apr. 8, 2003

(The author, an engineer, was a technical sergeant of the 2nd Infantry Regiment, 1st Regular Division, of the Philippine Army. He is also historian of the Sixth Military District.)

Burial grounds

I was a prisoner of war in the Camp O’Donnell Japanese concentration camp in Capas, Tarlac.

I was assigned to the GR & BS — the Grave Registration and Burial Service — a gruesome assignment of which I was the officer in charge.

I had to lay out the plots to be dug and to give the picks and shovels to a company of POWs, and to keep a registry of the burials.

Because of illness, malnutrition and extreme stress, hundreds of POWs had to be buried daily at a pace faster than the diggers could dig. Some of them, perhaps, were willing to die if only to free themselves from the agony of hunger, disease, despair and the cruelties of the Japanese Imperial Army.

The year was 1942.

The helplessness of the men was the most dreadful part, the feeling of absolute impotence in the face of evil, making the emotional texture of warfare vastly different from that of prisoner-hood.

Not being able to strike back or take action to save oneself or one’s comrades, not being able to pick up a weapon, was a terrible feeling.

I could only watch when, for instance, a Japanese soldier pressed the muzzle of his rifle to the forehead of a prisoner who was pleading for mercy and was shouting at the top of his voice; one shot was all that was needed to keep the POW quiet.

My anger burned up inside me.

Camp O’Donnell had been a training ground for the Philippine Army. It was designed to accommodate no more than 9,000 people. By the time the prisoners who survived the infamous Death March entered its gates, O’Donnell’s population swelled to 50,000 Filipino and American prisoners of war. Each barrack designed for 50 men was crammed with more than a hundred. It was a place for men to go to die.

My job and those of five others was to lay out the plots for the digging detail to excavate, then for us in the team to bury the dead into the many 6 by 12 by 5 foot holes. My count of the dead we buried in the biggest of the three burial grounds was 25,384; there were about 6,000 Filipinos and 4,000 Americans in the other two cemeteries.

Burial was the camp’s main activity. Disease was the real enemy, killing the POWs and sapping our morale. The daily death toll was indeed tragic but for most of the prisoners, the desire to live was very strong.

Two men would carry a dead body in a blanket that was strung from the middle of a bamboo pole. The bearers, after a short committal prayer offered by our chaplain, would walk over the grave and unceremoniously allow the dead to slide out of the blanket and into the hole.