Sixty-eight years ago, one of the most poignant Memorial Day events took place, one which every single attendant could identify with personally. On May 30, 1943, at Camp Cabanatuan in the Philippines, fifteen hundred prisoners of the Japanese gathered at the burial grounds of 2,600 of their comrades, some of whom they had just talked with days before.
The American Army chaplain presiding over the service was Col. Alfred C. Oliver Jr., who, along with many of the other POWs, was captured on Bataan. Chaplain Oliver wrote a very moving and graphic report on the work of his fellow chaplains, what they endured, and what they suffered to bring the men at Cabanatuan the spiritual help, comfort and solace that they so desperately needed. Here are excerpts from that report, entitled, "The Japanese and Our Chaplains":
The policy of the Commanding Officer... was far stricter than that at Camp O'Donnell especially in the first three months. During this period he would not permit the Chaplains to hold any religious church services; he would not permit them to even bury the dead...
The Chaplains daily went from man to man giving what spiritual help they could. When death occurred, these poor emaciated bodies were stacked in a small morgue, where each morning, at the risk of their lives, the Chaplains held appropriate religious services. The Chaplains were not permitted to go out with the bodies to hold burial services, but had to stand sadly by and watch a detail of American prisoners load these naked skeletons on bamboo litters.
Along in the fall of 1942, there was a change in Japanese policy. Chaplains were permitted to bury the dead, but in order to hold a religious service, the Chaplain was required to present to the Japanese a copy of the sermon to be delivered not later than Thursday of each week. Often the Japanese censor would cut out great portions of the sermon and there would be no time to rewrite. What was approved had to be delivered exactly as written. At that time all services were held out in the open from a stage erected for camp entertainment; by spring the Chaplains were permitted to use two-thirds of the camp library building for religious services. A schedule was established so that denominational services did not conflict. In spite of an apparently more relaxed attitude of watchfulness the Japanese censorship persisted.
Time after time an interpreter would walk down to the front of the building where services were being held and sit there with a copy of the approved script in his hand. Only a minister can realize how hard it is to deliver a sermon under such conditions. The hymns to be used also had to be approved. On a Sunday nearest to July 4, 1943, the Protestant Chaplains took a chance and had the congregation sing "God Bless America." The next morning the Japanese camp commander called the American camp commander to account for this breach in orders, warning him that a repetition of this incident would bring severe punishment on the Chaplains. The song had been used as the closing hymn of the service. How the Japanese learned about it will ever remain a mystery...
On Memorial Day, May 30th, 1943, the Japanese permitted camp services at the cemetery. Every man in camp wanted to attend this special ceremony but only 1,500 were allowed to go. All but a small group of Chaplains were lined up outside the cemetery fence. A chorus sang "Rock of Ages," and "Sleep, Comrades, Sleep." Prayers were read by Protestant Catholic Chaplains and a Jewish Cantor gave part of the Jewish burial ritual. One could hardly recognize this plot as the cemetery of 1942. At that time the mud was shoetop deep, bloody water stood in the ditches and the air was full of the stench of rotting bodies. Now, the ant hills which had infested the cemetery had been destroyed. Graves had been built up and leveled off; paths had been made; the entire area had been ditched, the stream controlled, and white crosses with the names of the 2,644 who had died there, erected. Those attending the service returned to camp with thankful hearts that in these small ways loved ones had been cared for.
On this Memorial Day 2011, we, too, with very thankful hearts, remember the suffering and sacrifices of those whose remains were once under white crosses, in a land thousands of miles away from homeland and loved ones. And we especially remember those valiant and faithful chaplains, who counted it more blessed to give than to receive, many ultimately giving their all, to bring heavenly comfort to thousands.
Chaplain Oliver, along with more than 500 other POWs at Camp Cabanatuan, was
rescued by the famous U.S. Army Rangers and Alamo Scouts on January 30, 1945. He
concluded his report with this short and moving story:
On the now famous twenty-five mile hike to liberty, the little band of American prisoners straggled quietly along through Japanese-held territory in East Central Luzon. One weary soldier drew near a Chaplain for companionship, walking in silence for a while. Barefoot, without shirt or hat, his entire covering consisted of a pair of patched pants. Finally, out of thoughts evidently far away, he spoke slowly, not looking at those near him. With head uplifted and eyes on the fading stars of the western sky he said, "You know, Chaplain, I lost everything back there in that hellhole of a prison camp, every earthly thing including my health -- but I didn't lose God." He said no more, and together he, the ragged soldier, and the worn chaplain moved forward toward freedom and Christian liberty.