Adapt Or Die: A Former Japanese POW Tells All
About the Book Cover
Friendship with the Japanese
JD became a POW of the Japanese in April of 1942, when the Japanese troops burst into Field Hospital #2 in Bataan where he was recuperating from his wounds received during the Bataan campaign. He quickly realized that he needed to learn Japanese language in order to survive.
(Book Three: Bataan Surrenders)
Now, with learning Nippongo my objective, I gimped around on borrowed crutches, seeking a tutor. The hospital covered a big area so, going further each day, I finally came upon a barbed-wire stockade holding several Jap POWs. I hadn’t known any captured-on-Bataan Nips were held at #2 but there they were, s sorry-looking lot, all recovering from wounds and malaria. Hoping for the best, I tried sign language through the barbed wire but they hissed and turned away. When I persisted, one young soldier finally crawled over to the fence and asked in broken, high-school English, “What you want?” Ducking his question, we exchanged names (his name was "Mori") and started talking about home and families. Then time passed quickly till I had to leave, promising to return soon.
Early next morning, I took the young heitai (soldier) a big rice ball which he quickly wolfed down and that small kindness encouraged him to tell me his story. Back in Japan the IJA, desperate for recruits, was taking every male of High School age and his entire class was drafted. After brief training, they were sent to the Philippines to reinforce the troops already fighting on Bataan. Sighing, he said, “I was wounded there but most of my classmates were killed. Now I’d take my life if I weren’t a born-again Christian.”
Changing the subject, I spoke of my desire to learn his language and he quickly perked up, “Great, by helping you, my English will improve” and just like that I had my tutor. First teaching each other simple phrases: How much, how many and names of various foods, we progressed to more useful words and phrases about Japanese life, culture and protocol. As I wrote everything down in a small, spiral notebook, he did the same on a rolled-up sheaf of white rice-paper…
…My affinity for learning languages now paid off. Basic Nippongo, its simple words and commands, were easily learned. However, another factor also helped –the aura of life and death surrounding us – looking at eager bayonets in the hands of barbarians 24/7 –all that helped to make me become a quick study.
During our sessions, sharp, little “Mori” kept track of every lesson on a roll of rice-paper. Soon we were visiting and joking like old friends, any wartime animosities forgotten. His friendly but intense work-ethic had me so totally immersed in learning Nippongo that I went at it as though my life depended on it. (which it really did.)
But, all that time, Mori often spoke of his fear of the occupation troops
that still roamed the hospital. Still woefully ignorant of the sinister
nuances that lurked in Japanese culture, I would tell him, “Mori don’t
worry. You’ll be going home soon to be with your family.” Secretly, I
often mused, “Why in hell haven’t these occupation troops turned their own
POWs free by by now."
POW days in the Philippines were spent mostly in Manila’s
Port Area as a stevedore. There, he befriended an old Japanese reserve
Colonel, Watanabe (Nabesan), who had his own cabin in the Augsburg
(Japan renamed it as the Teiryu Maru after it seized it in Saigon).
Whenever the Teiryu Maru came back to Manila, JD would visit
Nabesan and learned many insights into Japanese culture from conversations
(Book Four: A Wondrous Discovery)
When the Augsburg next arrived from Saigon, a smiling Nabesan gave me a box of fine, Vietnamese cigars. Showing my gratitude, I asked him to keep them in his cabin so we could smoke them together during our tea times. “You’re fast learning our ways,” he teased, “That’s the act of a cultured, young Japanese gentleman.” On our first “cigar soiree,” the conversation led into a venue I’d long wanted to explore - the multiple meanings of seemingly ordinary Japanese words and phrases - a subject that had intrigued me since learning my first Nippongo from Little Mori.
The common noun that first came to mind was “Maru.” Though a fixture on every Japanese merchant ship, I’d never gotten a straight answer about its translation. Most Japanese would say, “Oh, that word, it just means city or ship or some such ordinary thing.”
Smiling, Nabesan settled back and, puffing happily on his cigar, began to expound on “Maru.” Explaining it was a special word with unique nuances that would illustrate the multitude of problems gaijin (foreigners) like myself found while learning conversational Nippongo, he then opined, “Jooey, you’ve opened up a very broad subject. First, basic Maru means, “circle, perfect, complete or excellent results.” When he added, like an after-thought, and magic spells, I interrupted, “Mati, mati Sensei” “What’s this magic business?” Smiling patiently, he explained that ancient Japanese sailors were a superstitious lot who feared to sail in uncharted waters far from home. For example, ancient sailing charts in a Kobe museum have Koko ni ryuu ga aru (dragons live here) written on their borders. The ignorant, old sailors associated storms, hidden shoals and other maritime dangers, real and imagined, with black magic. “Possibly,” Nabesan smiled, “They had had too many cups of Sake but, for some reason lost in history, “Maru” was added to every vessel’s name, probably meaning “safely-complete-circle,” providing their vessels a successful passage to and from their exotic destinations.”
Then he went on to say that many modern Samurai still used Maru
when boasting of their strength, skill and dedication to a certain cult.
Those same warriors also added Mar to their sons’ names, indicating their
pride and hope that their offspring would mature into first class
Outsmarting the Japanese
JD's quick thinking and
his Japanese language skills often saved him from punishment. One day, his
secret selling of T-shirts to Japanese workers on the docks was reported
to Col. Matsui, Port Area’s Commander.
(Book Four: A Wondrous Discovery)
On the way to the Custom’s Building, I kept asking “why” till the Gunso in
charge finally growled, “Shut up, bakeru! When Colonel Matsui finishes
with you, we’re going to take you out and shoot you.” About then I advised
my brain, “Start cooking, pal! You’ve got some heavy duty ducking and
jiving ahead of you today.”
Facing gimlet-eyed Colonel Matsui again really had me sweating. At his Headquarters, the guards played their intimidation-charade perfectly. Setting me on a hard, wooden chair outside the Colonel’s office, the little guard-sergeant kept making disemboweling gestures with his bayonet. Figuring I was safe for a moment, I hissed at him, “Shut up, your little piss-head. I’m listening to your Colonel’s part of a phone conversation. He has a problem with his personal auto, maybe I can help him.” But my mind was busy with plans to help myself and then, BAM!; a half-assed, no -brainer kind of idea that just might work exploded in my head - a plan aimed primarily at diverting the Colonel’s mind from shortening my tenure on Planet Earth. It wasn’t the best of plans but it was all I had.
When the Colonel hung up his phone, the Gunso shoved me into his office and put me at attention before Matsui’s big, mahogany desk. I knew better than to speak before the Colonel opened the pleasantries. Scowling, he finally looked up and snarled, “Horyo, do you know why you were brought here today?” Thank you, Jesus! I thought. That’s the opening I was hoping for!
Bowing, I blurted, “Colonel, yes Sir! I do know and am most grateful that you requested my presence. Please know it is a great honor for me and my entire family. My beloved father will be especially pleased when he learns of your kindness.” Taking a deep breath, I blundered on, “Please know when I return home after the war, your kind indulgence will be remembered.” Whew! With my eyes glued firmly on his left ear, I shut up and remained at attention - elated at having completed my opening “statement” before he exploded. And explode he did! He face assuming a splotchy red, he sputtered in Nippongo, so guttural it was hard to follow: “What in the name of every Emperor of the past 1,000 years are you talking about?” Breathing deeply, I babbled on. “Your Honorable Excellency,” (I knew he’d love that) “I’ve observed your wise choice in vehicles. As a Taisa, you could have any make of automobile and you chose the best among all American cars, The Studebaker President. Sir, your action has brought great honor to my father, the owner and master designer of Studebaker Corporation in South Bend, Indiana!” Stricken speechless, the Colonel leaned back in his chair and studiously steeples his fingers, a typically Japanese gesture indicating he was thinking deeply.
When the Colonel finally peered up at me, he asked: “Young man, how can I be sure you speak the truth about your father and the Studebaker Co.?” Giving him a big Cheshire cat grin, I said, “Sir, please look at this picture from Life Magazine. I'm sure you know about it.” Meanwhile Life’s picture of me and Helen Rose had been burning a hole in my shirt pocket, just waiting for that very question. Since the Colonel spoke no English, I felt showing him the treasured picture was a safe bet. All he could read in the advertisement was the word, “Studebaker.” Carefully studying my picture, looking at me and back to the picture, he finally said, “This is a fine picture of you, young man. A hansamu na seishun (handsome youth) you certainly were and, may I say, still are.” Showing my appreciation, I bowed, “Sir, you are most gracious. Your kindness has given me an even greater incentive to share today’s meeting with my father when I return home and tell him about my days in the Orient."
Either my sincerity or the picture must’ve impressed him for he ordered the incredulous guard to fetch hot tea, sweet rice cakes and sake! While waiting, we chatted amiably, mostly about cars. Then we took a brief time-out when the tea, strong and aromatic, arrived to help reduce my pulse rate to a semblance of normal. When the next cup was poured, my host casually spiked our drinks with generous amounts of Sake and fresh hope arose that he’d accepted my fairy tale.
Then, as the effect of the sake took hold, my mind harkened back to a sales booklet every Studebaker salesman had had to study, “Studebaker History.” With great poetic license, I told the Colonel about my grandfather, Henry Studebaker, a former farmer, blacksmith, inventor and wagon-maker and how he’d built his first Wagon factory in a cow pasture in 1852. My sake-enhanced eloquence flowing freely now, I told how Grandpa’s fine wagons had helped the 1800’s brave settlers to conquer America’s Wild West. Now an avid listener, the Colonel leaned toward me, urging me to continue. “With the coming of the automobile,” I said, “My father went to work for Grandpa in 1902 at age 25, helping him revamp the Studebaker Corp. to build electric autos alongside the last of their famous wagons. Then, in 1904, Dad talked Grandpa into building gasoline powered cars along with another auto company. Finally in 1913, my father was now president and chief designer when Studebaker began producing gasoline powered autos under its own trade name. “Under his leadership,” I boasted, “The new company quickly earned a sterling reputation for such quality that its new slogan said it all: “Always give more than you promise.” Finally I concluded with: “Now, Studebaker is American’s Finest Luxury Automobile.” Plumb out of plausible stories, I shut up, having noted the Colonel, probably a farmer in civilian life, had liked the farm and early-days stories the best.
About then Col. Matsui turned serious and asked about his Studebaker’s “secrets,” special stuff his untenshu (driver) should know. (Most Japs were as mechanically minded as a carabao turd)
Sensing further opportunity, I said, “Colonel, your car has many “secrets”
the driver should know.” Beaming, he said, “Would you teach my driver
those secrets?” when I said it would be a privilege, he jumped up and
hollered like a kid at a Christmas party: “Son, my driver will pick you up
at 0800 tomorrow at your barracks, be ready.” Then he teased, “Don’t even
think about returning to the docks till I’m through exploring your mind.”
Grabbing my hand, he pumped it hard, with a good, old American “priming
the pump” kind of handshake! Whew! That was too close a call…
There are several episodes in the book where JD describes his heart-wrenching farewells to his fellow POWs, Filipino friends and even a Japanese soldier, all of whom were killed by the Japanese military.
Here is how JD lost his first Japanese friend, Mori – the former student who taught him Japanese. While still in Field Hospital #2 that was now under the control of the Japanese military after the US surrender, JD was assigned to a burial detail.
(Book Three: Bataan Surrenders)
Taking shovels, we were ordered to follow a Jap sergeant. As Blackie struggled along with his false limp, he growled, “What kinda shovel work kin this sick crew do?” Well, we’d soon learn as we neared the Jap POW enclosure. There, the sweetish smell of death filled the air with a sick, cloying, abattoir-odor. On seeing the scene from Hell that awaited us, several GIs became violently ill. Reluctantly entering the cage, a scene from “Dante’s Inferno” met us, one so horrible it would haunt us the rest of our lives. The POWs’ mutilated bodies lay scattered about, helter-skelter, heads, arms and legs hacked off, bodies slashed open, organs putrefying in bloody piles. This maniacal deed gave mute evidence that the monsters who had committed it were insane.
Then, as we began
covering the bits and pieces of once-human remains with sand, clouds of
huge green carrion flies, drawn by the stench of viscera, rose to attack
us. Pulling shirts over our heads, we futilely tried to keep the
carrion-eaters from crawling into our eyes, ears and mouths. After a bit,
I found one of Mori’s arms, his precious roll of rice paper still clutched
in a little brown hand and I damn near lost it. I doubt any living
American, or Nipponzin, can visualize that mass execution and
sadistic-mutilation of their own men by their own soldiers. When
our grisly task was finally over, I prayed for little Mori, my first
Japanese friend, and then I made this vow. Never forget for one second
that you are a captive of an unpredictable, sub-human race of vicious
savage and barbarians. Fortunately, I didn’t know greater atrocities
(Book Four: A Wondrous Discovery)
Resting my winch between loads, I heard a commotion on the pier, screaming and guttural cursing in Nippongo. Running to the rail, I saw the ornery Jap Sergeant was stomping and kicking one of our men. Climbing to a higher vantage point, I recognized the victim was “Little Red,” one of the pitiful, half-staved guys who had arrived in November ’42 from Cabanatuan. By the time Al and I shut down our winches, ran the length of the ship and down the gangway to the pier, the most outrageous assault ever by a guard in Port Area was over. Pushing my way through the crowd of guards and POW dock workers, I knelt by the kid. Covered with blood, limbs all askew, his tongue was lolling from his battered mouth. Feeling for a pulse, there was none. He was dead, murdered in cold blood by that bastardly sergeant!
…Later I learned that no one on the deck knew why the sadistic sergeant
had chosen Red for punishment. With his sunny disposition and
happy-go-lucky ways, it was inconceivable he’d said or done anything to
anger the SOB. It looked like the old bastard had just taken out his
angst on the weakest POW available. After Red’s final ignominy, (his body
was tossed into the Bay like a sack of garbage) I began plotting revenge
for our little pal. This bastard had to go and fate had nominated me Judge, Jury and Executioner.
In 1944, JD was sent to Hanawa, a town surrounded by mountains in Northern Japan, where he was forced to work in Mitsubishi Osarizawa copper mine. He describes the beauty of the place and the dark days spent there by POWs.
(Book Five: Hanawa)
After tenko, I lingered while my comrades rushed back to the barracks to
escape the unaccustomed cold. Some inner, visceral-need to view my first
sunset at Hanawa kept me rooted and waiting. Shortly, I would be richly
rewarded when the sun’s great, bloody-orb slowly descended in the west,
its rays slicing like a laser through the crisp, clear air. Nearby, a
massive obelisk of obsidian granite reflected tiny particles from the
fading light, creating a gathering of faux-fireflies in the dusk. Then a
row of mauve-hued, brooding mountains took form, great, surly guardians of
another lonely valley where golden rice straw still lay thickly on the
earth. Bordering that valley, dark stands of spruce and fir stood
ram-rod-straight like regiments of troops at evening retreat. In the far
distance, past Hanawa valley’s rice fields, a purplish hill sparkled with
tiny dots of light that spoke of houses and families living their
traditional, agrarian lives. To the right, another wide valley still
showed faintly, reflecting a verdant green in stark contrast to the
purple-mauve of its multi-colored mountainous surroundings. As most of
this wondrous scene still flaunted the autumn gold and crimson leaves of
coniferous trees, a stern warming
suggested –winter is
As the incessant snow
and abominable weather relentlessly worsened, it became a foe more potent
than even the uncaring Japanese.
This was our
daily challenge now: Clothed in thinly woven burlap jacket and pants
that afforded scant protection from the arctic blasts, wearing cumbersome
rice-straw shoes that quickly wore out, we faced an evil, nearly
insurmountable opponent. Why most of us didn’t lose our feet to frost-bite
that winter is a mystery. Ironically, several of us Cabanatuan survivors
still had our GI leather shoes but were forbidden to wear them—the
local citizens might be offended. With Hnanawa’s blustery winter
assuming the disembodied character of a monstrous demon intent on taking
our lives, this fantasy can best be explained with a word picture of us
horyos at that time: Men worked beyond all reason- forced to load 16
tons of ore each day on 800 calories –constantly in fear for their lives
–working under conditions too dangerous for the worst convicts—beset daily
by random blasting, cave-ins, and accidents. Was that just a whimsy,
dear reader? No, that was a fact.
In November, 1944, my irascible friend, Dr. Jackson, had a violent
confrontation with Cyclops over the death of another horyo, Robert Ring.
Bob had died of malnutrition, gradually wasting away to skin and bones
despite Dr. Cal’s valiant attempts to get more food for him. When Jackson
listed the cause of death as malnutrition and neglect, insane-corpsman
Cyclops insisted the death certificate be changed to accidental death.
Crusty Dr. Cal refused – angrily jerking the sheet off the corpse, he
shouted: “Look at this once robust man, a mere skeleton now.” With that,
Crazy Cyclops grabbed his sheathed sword and began beating Jackson with
the scabbard, all the while screaming, “Get out, get
JD's honesty did not spare the military leaders of his own country from his harsh criticism.
(Book Five: Our Hellship –The Noto Maru)
service men killed by our own submarines and bombers. Then the same,
horrible question returned. With Japan near defeat, why did we have to
sink those old freighters carrying POWs but nothing else of value? SWAPAC
(MacArthur’s forces) knew exactly when every Jap Maru left Manila with
POWs. Working on the docks, we always knew. Hell, we saw the poor guys,
as did the guerillas there with us, the same Filipino Patriots who were in
daily radio contact with SWAPAC. Why wasn’t an order to CEASE SINKING ALL
HELL-SHIPS issued? To this cynic, it’s plain that MAC and his SWAPAC just
didn’t give a damn about us poor bastards—instead, they preferred to stoke
their ego and gain promotions by inflicting more damage on a defeated
enemy. How the conscience of SWAPAC’s brain trust could condone the
slaughter of thousands of their own countrymen is beyond this crusty old
warrior. MacArthur, Sutherland, Halsey and the others of their
conniving-cabal should have been tried for treason and hung! Sadly, it’s
now too late....
End of the war and an agreement not to write a memoir
JD survived the worst winter at Hanawa POW camp and the war itself. But here is what happened right after his liberation that would delay the publication of his book by more than half a century.
After Japan surrendered in August, 1945. we horyos were returned home in stages. A train took us to Sendai where the Hospital Ship, Rescue, met us. Then, at our next stop in Yokohama, a detail from the CIC (later the CIA) interviewed us and several of us were ordered to refrain from writing or speaking of our experiences. Angrily stomping from their office, I assumed that was the end of the foolishness but, at our next stop in Manila, another, more forceful group was waiting.
This time, the threat of harm to my aged parents was added to their litany of demands. The senior officer told me that his orders came from high in the chain of command, from powerful men burdened with the fragile task of reaffirming Japan’s credibility among the newly aligned world powers. With my Dad nearing 70 ‘and my mother in failing health, I reluctantly agreed, verbally, to refrain from writing a book or speaking to groups about the atrocities I had witnessed for fifty years - a promise that I faithfully honored until its expiration in 1995 when I began to write my book, “Adapt Or Die.”
I understand that many of my fellow horyos signed documents, surrendering their Constitutional Rights but my Irish stubbornness kept me safe from participating in that dishonor.
Interview with the author, JD Merritt
Did you keep a diary while being a POW?
Yes. It was written in what I called "Butai." An amalgam of English slang, Tagalong and Nippongo. To further confuse anyone who might confiscate the little dairy, the mixture of tongues was then written in a nonsensical US Marine jargon that the "Old 4th Maries," better known as "The China Marines," used to tell naughty stories. Tough code to break!
Did you intentionally keep your promise with the US Government not to
write a memoir for 50 years?
What made you decide to write this memoir?
What kind of experience was it to write this memoir? How long did it take? Was it difficult to revisit some of the painful events or were you glad that you could finally write about them?
It took 15 years to write "Adapt Or Die." During that time, I became reacquainted with myself. On returning to America in 1945, like many other GIs, I was totally devoid of social graces. Knowing that condition was not acceptable to the society I was again joining as a neophyte, I vowed to never raise my hand against anyone except in defense of a loved one or, in a finality, to save my life. For a while that was difficult but my self-discipline saw me through. Yes--many happenings brought me great angst to revisit--the loss of so many men and women, that fate didn't allow me to tell goodbye.
What would you like the readers to come away with after reading your book?
As truth is the soul of my book, I would like the readers of this memoir to come away with the knowledge it was written by a person who was really there and in the trenches when the bombs fell 24/7. Further, I would hope the reader learns that hell can be made more palatable by adapting rather than confronting. Who knows - perhaps the personal problems so prevalent in our "modern" society can be solved by my theory on Adapting. Surely it's worth a try.
I pray though that it won’t be too long before I can come running in to
895 (his home) and find you all well and waiting for those big
foods we’re going to have when I get home. Bye for now, with all my
love, Your son, Joe
The letter reached America in August of 1942. It gave his mother the faith to hold on till Mr. Merritt returned home more than three years later. (Actual letter here.)
And now Mr. Merritt has finally written his memoir that was forbidden by his own government 65 years ago.
* Please also visit his website