Two little girls lost their Czech fathers on a Japanese Hellship

Mrs. Jane Bzoch Cambus and Mrs. Hanna Varak Romans Witherspoon recently joined in the Hellships Memorial Tour to the Philippines. Both of their fathers became POWs of the Japanese in the Philippines during WWII and lost their lives on the Enoura Maru, one of the Japanese POW transport Hellships, in January of 1945.

Jane and Hanna pointing the names of their fathers
on the
Monument to the Czechoslovak Heroes in Capas
(photo courtesy: Mr. Casey

Janefs story

My parents were Czechoslovak citizens living in the Philippines.  My father, ING. JAN V. BZOCH,
was in charge of the Office for exports from Czechoslovakia to Philippines attached to the Consulate of Czechoslovakia. I was born in April, 1940. When war became imminent, my father and 13 other Czech men volunteered to help the American Army fight Japan. They felt that in this way they were also fighting against the other Axis Power, Germany, which had already taken over Czechoslovakia.

Seven Czech men died in this war, and my father was one of them. His name is on the monument to the Czechoslovak heroes in Capas, as is Hannafs fatherfs name, Josef Varak. I feel very proud that these Czech men gave their very best effort for a war that was not their war, but by choice they made it theirs.  I feel very sad that this is all I have of my father.
    Jane's father and mother

This trip was my first return trip back to the Philippines. We visited many places and within these were the places where my father had been during the war. 


My father surrendered with American-Filipino Forces at Mariveles in Southern Bataan- Kilometer Marker- 00 - the start of the Bataan Death March– the 100 kilometer forced march of already weakened men, made under brutal conditions without food, water, protection from the sun, and without rest. One Czech died at the end of the March due to the brutal conditions.  My father survived. I felt myself very ill as I rode in the air-conditioned bus from marker to marker thinking about those poor wretched men and the torture they endured. I was struck by the heat, the steep rugged hills and the terrible conditions these men endured or succumbed to.

Cabanatuan Prison Camp # 1

The remaining 13 Czech men, whether coming from Bataan or Corregidor, ended up together here for varying lengths of time. My father spent almost three years here, enduring starvation rations of very poor quality food – mostly rice, rationed water, no sanitation, harsh labor conditions, sadistic guards and rampant epidemics of malaria, dysentery, beriberi typhoid and other diseases, and little or no  medicine.

One bright light - one kind soul – a Japanese Camp doctor agreed to carry into camp a small packet of quinine sent by my mother for my father, and we learned from smuggled messages that he actually did receive it. When my mother tried it again, the doctor was gone.  Eventually, five Czech men would be left here to be shipped out on December 15, 1944 on the Oryoku Maru.

Subic Bay with the Hellship, Oryoku Maru, sunken on the bottom

Twenty of us went out in a boat - a Filipino banka- for a small prayer service for the men still in that ship, and for all of the prisoners who suffered on the Japanese Hellships. After writing our innermost thoughts on the ribbons we threw the floral wreaths out over the Oryoku Maru. What an overwhelming emotion knowing that my father had been a prisoner on this ship but had escaped death this time.  Another Czech had died and is still entombed there, The four Czechs survived only to be put on another Hellship, the Enoura Maru. All four lost their lives in the bombing of this ship in Takao Harbor, Formosa (Taiwan) on Jan. 9, 1945. Their deaths were listed on the Japanese Death List as Bzoch #403, Hrdina #404, Varak #405, and Volney #406.. To the end, they stuck together and supported each other in a terrible time. What a solemn moving occasion this was. I felt like I was witnessing something very overwhelming and very terrible.

At the Hellship Memorial Dedication Ceremony at Olongapo Point, Subic Bay, the Czech Embassy was represented by a delightful couple – Mr and Mrs. Ivan Korcak. Mr. Korcak is Commercial Counselor for the Czech Republic in charge of Czech-Philippine economic and trade relations. The Embassy sent a beautiful standing floral arrangement – the Czech flag done in red, blue, white roses.  I felt very proud that they valued these 14 Czech men so highly, and also very proud of my Czech heritage.

Hanna and Jane with Czech flag floral arrangement
(photo courtesy: Mr. Casey Kenaston)

Life in Manila

Living in the Japanese occupied Manila, my mother and I were issued Japanese identification papers - even I had my own – and  we were required to present them once a month at the Japanese Headquarters in the Manila Hotel, and whenever demanded on the streets. 

This photograph was taken in this time.  The Japanese soldier was very polite and asked to have his picture taken with us.  He was very respectful and even paid for the picture.  The other two girls were Russian friends of mine.

My mother lost everything in the fighting in Manila when the Americans returned. She was literally caught in the crossfire between the Japanese and American forces. She hid in doorways, bushes, and in concrete foundations of destroyed buildings. Fire spread rapidly over most of Manila and everything was burned. 

Somehow she made her way to the home of Russian friends in an unburned area of Manila. I had been sent to Baguio with a Filipino family in anticipation of a very bloody, hard-fought battle. Baguio was also a Japanese Headquarters and was not spared fighting and bombing. We ended up living in a gold mine for several weeks.

                                                                                               Japanese soldier and Jane (right)

After the surrender, my mother and I were reunited. We were granted a 60-day visa to the United States with free transportation on an Army Troops Transport Escort ship, the USS General Manning. We had to wear life vests at all times, because Japanese submarines were still patrolling the Pacific Ocean. In the United States, doctors discovered that my mother had a very severe case of tuberculosis, and she was isolated and hospitalized for 3 years. At age 6, I was placed with a foster family on a farm. The hospital would not allow me to visit her because I was under age 16.  Finally in 1949 she had recovered and we were reunited. My life finally began to be normal.

*Jane's father was posthumously awarded American Medal of Freedom, the highest recognition that the country can give to a civilian, for spending more than 36 hours behind enemy lines to dismantle a rice mill to take back to U.S. troops in desperate need of food.

Hanna's story

Josef Varak, my father, was born in Stipa, Moravia, Czechoslovakia on May 9, 1917.  He worked for the Bata Shoe Company in Zlin, CZ, as a machinist/engineer.  The political situation in Europe forced the Bata Shoe Company, with Mr. Jan Antonin Bata the principal share holder and Chairman of the Board, to move its overseas headquarters to the USA. In 1939 my father and 149 other Czech factory workers were chosen to go to Belkamp, Maryland, U.S.A, to start a new Bata shoe factory. Among these workers was Josefa Zapletalova, my mother, who was an instructor. They successfully started the shoe factory, and by early 1940, they were producing shoes. 

        Hanna's father

In February, 1941, Mr. Bata decided to open another shoe factory in the Philippines, then a U. S. Commonwealth.  By this time the visas of the Czechs who had come to America had expired.  Both Josef Varak and Josefa Zapletalova were chosen to go to the Philippines.  The new factory was started. Because Germany occupied Czechoslovakia and took control of the Bata factory, the company in Manila was registered under the name of Gerbec, Hrdina, Inc., and the stores were named G&H Shoe Company.

On December 8 (Philippine time), 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.  On the same day, they bombed Manila and war was declared.  Since the Japanese and the Germans were allies, a small contingent of Czech citizens in the Philippines decided to help the American cause in the war. They wanted to do whatever they could to defeat the enemy-the Japanese and the Germans.  Fourteen Czech men wanted to join the American Army.  Col. Michael Quinn advised them not to join the U.S. Army because if the Americans were defeated, the Czechs would be shot as traitors.  He did allow them to be civilian employees of the American Department of War.

On December 30, 1941, the Czech volunteers were notified to report to the Army & Navy Club in Manila that afternoon.  From that meeting they were taken by military transport with windows blackened to the Bataan Peninsula on Manila Bay, southwest of Manila.  They were not able to say goodbye to their families or to take anything except the clothes they wore.  When they arrived, they were asked to swear allegiance to the USA and were issued personal ID cards stating they were civilian employees of the U. S. Department of War.  They were issued plain khaki uniforms and divided into three groups.  My fatherfs group included five Bata employees.  They were taken several miles deeper into the jungle to a motor pool depot and were given their assignment to patrol the roads and bring back any vehicles that could be salvaged or any usable parts from vehicles damaged beyond repair.  The segment of road they patrolled was about 30 miles long on the eastern shore.

On April 9, their commander advised that the US forces had officially surrendered. Everyone was to destroy all useful equipment and begin to move toward Mariveles Airport in southern Bataan.  At this time, my father and several men were high in the cliffs.  They decided to go to the coast by climbing down the cliffs instead of walking along the crowded, narrow road. They had done this many times during their foray for equipment.

Upon reaching the coast, they became aware that the soldiers on Corregidor had not surrendered.  The distance to the island of Corregidor was impossible to reach without a boat.  As they continued south, they saw a boat close to the shore.  Nearby hiding in a cave a Chinese Mestizo told them his boat wouldn't start.  My father was a very good mechanic and soon had the boat running.  The Chinese man said the water was heavily mined, and the Japanese had set up artillery on top of the cliffs.  He suggested they go along the coast toward Mariveles until they reached a channel to Corregidor that was free of mines.  He went along with them, and they loaded the boat with as many soldiers as was possible.  They were very overloaded, but they made it to Corregidor safely.

Among the guards on Corregidor was a Marine sergeant of Czech decent who spoke the language.  He took them to an underground food warehouse in a ravine near the Malinta Tunnel.  On this island they were reunited with four other Czechs who were evacuated from Mariveles by the US Navy. 

At the fall of Corregidor, they became POWs and were interned in Bilibid and then Cabanatuan #1.


                               Bilibid Prison                                                  Bilibid Prison today

Mr. Karel Aster and my father were among 13 Czechs held in Camp 1 at Cabanatuan.  A section of the camp was set up as a ghospitalh.  This area was where patients were sent if they were not able to take care of themselves or were not ambulatory.  Most patients never left this section.  When they died, they were buried in mass graves.

At one point my father became very ill and was sent to the ghospitalh.  His Czech friends gave up on him.  However, a message was smuggled into the camp from Manila that my mother had given birth to a baby girl named Hanna.  When his friends told him this, he didnft seem to understand and just looked blank.  A few days later following a miraculous recovery, he was released from the ghospitalh. 

My father then was sent to the Oryoku Maru to be transported to Japan. The ship went to Subic Bay, and on December 15, 1944, it was sunk by an American plane sent from the aircraft carrier, USS Hornet.  Luckily, my father survived this. 

From Subic, the POWfs were put on another train and sent to San Fernando la Union to later be placed on the ship the Enoura Maru. The Enoura Maru headed for Formosa (Taiwan).  It actually reached the harbor there. Again planes from the USS Hornet attacked the ship on January 9, 1945.  As far as I know, my father was killed on that ship.

In the mean time my mother and I were living in Manila.  The Japanese burned our house.  We were on the second floor at the time.  My mother literally dropped me out the window and someone escaping the flames caught me.  We went to the beach to escape the fires. Later, my mother met an American soldier from Pikeville, Tennessee who was stationed in the Philippines.  On August 13, 1945 they were married.  He adopted me.

When the war was over, he returned to Tennessee.  My mother soon followed him.  I was left with an American Colonel Curtis Lambert and his wife.  I boarded the ship the SS General Miegs on my sixth birthday, August 24, 1948 to come to America.  My stepfather met me in San Francisco and accompanied me to Tennessee.  When I arrived in Pikeville, my mother and little brother met me.

Much of this information was gleaned from the gRecollections of My War Yearsh written by my fatherfs Czech friend, Mr. Karel Aster.  He was one of the seven Czech volunteers who returned from the war, out of the fourteen, who volunteered to join the Americans as civilian employees of the American Department of War.

As I was on the banca placing the wreath on the water in Subic Bay over the sunken ship the Oryoko Maru, my thoughts were -- because my father, who was Czechoslovakian, volunteered to work as a civilian in the American Army and died on the Enoura Maru as a result, and because my Czech mother married an American soldier when I was three who adopted me, I am privileged to be an American and to have the wonderful life that I have today.

Laying wreaths for those who died and suffered on Hellships
(photo courtesy: Mr. Casey Kenaston)