John E. Olson

Born: Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas (1917)

Fifty Seventh Infantry (PS)
Bataan Death March, Camp O’Donnell,
Camp Cabanatuan, Nagato Maru
Camp Yodogawa (Osaka 3-D), Oeyama (Osaka 3-B)
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In 1985, Col. John E. Olson, US Amy (Ret.), wrote O’Donnell: Andersonville of the Pacific. What follows are excerpts from the book and a recent interview with Col. Olson.

From “Prologue”

This study is the fulfillment of a promise that I made to myself over forty-three years ago.

The WHAT of the promise was to write an historical study of what went on in Camp O’Donnell, Luzon, Philippines in 1942. The WHY is that , though much has been published about the experiences in captivity of the Americans and Filipinos who became prisoners of the Japanese, very little has been said about Camp O’Donnell. Yet in terms of death and suffering, it was by far the worst.

I felt that from the point of view of knowledge I had the dubious distinction of having been in the camp longer than all but a small handful of the still surviving inmates and to have been in a position that afforded me more personal exposure to what went on than any one still alive.

During the period April 26 through July 5, 1942, I was first the Personnel Adjutant and later Adjutant of the American Group, Camp O’Donnell. This pre-war Philippine Army camp was used by the Japanese Army as an enclosure for the captives, both American and Filipino, who fell into their hands on the Bataan Peninsula of the island of Luzon on April 9, 1942. These were the troops who had striven so doggedly under the command of Major General Edward King to hold back the relentless advance of the Japanese Fourteenth Army under the command of Lieutenant General Masaharu Homma.

I had participated in this campaign as the adjutant of the Fifty Seventh Infantry (PS), one of the famous Philippine Scout organizations. I arrived at Camp O’Donnell from Bataan on April 14, 1942 after completing what was later to be called “The March of Death”. This was only five days after the surrender. Mine was the first group of Americans to have made the March.

On the 25th of April, I was ordered to report to Brigadier General Arnold J. Funk, Chief of Staff, American Group. General Funk asked me if I would like a job. Since in the eleven days following my arrival I had been severely depressed by having nothing to do, I accepted eagerly the opportunity to evade the boredom….

My principal duty was to prepare the daily strength report that was submitted in General King’ name to the Japanese camp commander…

                                                                                      Armband worn by captain Olson as
                                                                                                     Adjutant, American Group in Camp O'Donnell

The Welcome

Perhaps the most vivid memory that every prisoner who entered O'Donnell had was of the "Welcome" ceremony. Certainly, the many former inmates who have been contacted by the author, the men who escaped successfully and those liberated in early 1945 who were interrogated by the Recovery Teams, almost without exception were able to recall clearly that fateful experience. Many could remember little else, but their minds were indelibly imprinted with what they saw and head that day...

Act 2 was a welcome speech. This was delivered by Captain Tsuneyoshi. Dulled as were their senses; numb as were their weary bodies, the thousands  of Americans and Filipinos who were subjected to the diatribe remembered the episode when memories of many other aspects of the incarceration faded. As with the Shakedown, though there were minor variations in the scenario, the overall show was basically the same. What comes forth from the recital of the event are two principal remembrances: First the speaker, his appearance, mannerisms, and actions, and Second, what he said...

The first rendition of this oft repeated charade comes from Colonel Quinn... "....he let loose with a tirade against the British and Americans for their domination of the Orient, and asserted that the domination was gone forever. Japan, he said, was now ready to take over the entire East Asia territory. He expressed regret that he was unable to destroy all of us, but the spirit of Bushido forbade such practice. We were assured, however, that the slightest violation of any orders would result in our instant execution...

According to Col. Miller, after the shakedown, the Japanese commander mounted a box "and stared at us evilly. He was one of the ugliest mortals I have ever seen. He breathed the very essence of hate."  Miller went on to say that though the audience were so exhausted they absorbed little except that "we all agreed on the last words". These were that they were not POWs, but captives and would be treated as such; that they were an inferior race; that Japan would win the war as they would "fight you, and fight you and fight you- for 100 years!"

POWs at Camp O'Donnell (American Historical Collection)

From author’s daily entries as Adjutant of the American Group

April 26, 1942 – 0830 Interpreter for camp commander arrived and interviewed Col. Halstead. Formation for Japanese roll call at 0900. Formation dismissed at 10:30 am. Meeting of Group Commanders with General King at 10:45 am. Instruction to stop use of towels and handkerchiefs on heads, use of “V” signal in any fashion, and monopolizing of water bucket by officers. 4:00pm Gen King called a conference and discussed problems as Japanese ordered recount of men to take place on April 27, 1942. Usual fatigue and water details ordered. Permission by Japanese to run same at night in view of the formation on morrow. Check 7:00 pm. Total present : 8375. 14 died.

 Present               Off.         NCO         PVT        C (civilians)        TOTAL

                          1250         2613       4452            83                 8375

April 27, 1942 – Reveille: 6:40 am. Total present 8533. Check formation held at 9:00 am. Group dismissed at 10:15 am.  Instructions to groups to secure special qualifications of each prisoner with a view to his employment in the New Philippines. This to be submitted by 12:00 am to this Hq and to Japanese Hq by 1:00 pm. Conference held by General King 11:00 to discuss reorganization in compliance with order from Japanese Hq. 9 men died from disease. 15 officers CA ordered to report to Japanese Hq. Reorganization to take place along occupational lines.

May 1, 1942 – Reveille: 6 40 am. Present strength 8602. Usual camp details performed. Reorganization completed in Casual Officers Group., Tanks, Ca and Service. Japanese Headquarters called for questionnaire on all colonels and generals. Water running smoothly. Rice ration for hospital increased 100 grams and sugar ration 10 grams. Group of 14 officers and 84 EM arrived. Twenty six men died in course of day.

May 5, 1942 – Present strength: 8,636. Usual work. Letter confirming movement of the generals and colonels to Tarlac received by the Camp Co. Details of 103 men from the Air Corps returned to camp. Twenty one deaths occurred. Hospital received a little medicine. A little meat received for the first time. This was in the form of two small calves who were slaughtered. Thirty men from the Air Corps brought in sick. 30 more sent to Bagac to replace them.

May 8, 1942 – Strength: 7,505. Usual duties. Plan for move of colonels and generals completed. Twenty four deaths today. Total to date 238. Official word received of fall of Corregidor.
   Actual Journal kept by Capt. Olson

May 11, 1942 – Strength: 7,344. Usual duties. One pump broken giving the threat of water shortage. Details of 200 drivers left to go outside. One medical officer (Major, Ruth) evacuated to Tarlac. Largest death reported as 32 died.

May 15, 1942 – Usual duties. Strength: 6, 523. Flour issue continues. Hospital inspected by Japanese Medical Officer who stated American would go to Kobe before rainy season.

May 19, 1942 – Usual duties. Report from Japanese headquarters there will be a move soon.

May 30,  Captain Olson down with Dengue Fever.

After the majority of POWs moved to Camp Cabanatuan on June 4, Captain Olson stayed on in camp O’Donnell until July 5. He summed up this period as follows:

During the scant thirty one days of Phase II, the American population was reduced from 1,008 (90 officers; 271 NCOs; 637 EMs and 10 Civilians) to 718 (89 officers; 199 NCOs; 441 EMs and 7 Civilians). This was a total of 227 deaths or 22.5% of the strength. This averaged 7.3 men per day.

Col. Olson wrote additional chapters on the following topics:

-Water, The Most Precious Shortages
-Food, The Second Shortage
-The Hospital, Last Stop for Many
-Cemetery and Burials
-Escapes and Executions
-Disease and Death The Daily Toll
-O’Donnell as the Japanese Saw It

                                                                                                     Exterior of Barracks
                                                                                                        (post war photo by Lt. Col. Frank Anders)
From “Cemetery and Burials”

The macabre job of the men of the burial details left a nightmarish memory that haunted all who participated for the rest of their lives. Just what they experienced can only be told correctly by those who endure it. In view of the fact that it required at least four men for each body and for much of the time the number to be interred was between 25 and 50 a day, the requirements of the bearers were high. In addition, another details was needed to dig the graves. Thus hundreds of the prisoners had at least one tour on this odious chore. Some, because one or more of their buddies passes away, volunteered more than once. Truly a heart rendering tribute to their comrades.

The men who performed this grisly task were either volunteers or were assigned at random by the barracks leaders who were levied each day for men to perform various needed tasks. The numbers required rose steadily due to the increasing death and also because the diminishing physical strength of the men required more per body. Even though the bodies were little more than skeletons it finally took four bearers per corpse.

Each morning the details were formed in front of the American headquarters where they were placed under the direction of a Line officer from the Casual Officer Sub-Group. They were joined by a chaplain and either Fullerton or Koenig. Next, they  were issued shovels, blankets and poles. Also, there were some doors from the buildings that were used as litters. The end of the blanket were knotted over a pole creating a sling for the cadaver. Although no pictures have been found of an American burial detail, the famous photo of the Filipinos that is shown here portrays accurately the grim scene that was enacted in both sectors of the camp daily.

A burial detail at Camp O'Donnell (P. I. National Archives)

From the headquarters the detail trudged up the slight rise to the Morgue, where the bodies had been stacked. Most had been stripped of all clothing. In some instances, where the body had not been discovered immediately after death, decomposition had set in. This action takes place very rapidly in the tropics.

The resultant putrid odor filled the nostrils of the bearers and sickened violently many of them...

The author has queried a number of survivors who were on at least one burial detail. Some had been on several. Their comments revealed how traumatic had been their experiences:

Sergeant Richard M. Gordon, Headquarters Company, Philippine Division, who was on a number of burial details: “Doors of some of the buildings were used as stretchers. Bodies were stacked, sometimes, as many as 15-25.” (When he was on the details no crosses had been erected.)  ”The dog tags when present were put on the toes of the corpses. Corpses were bloated, emaciated and completely nude. On one particular trip, in rain I stepped in a puddle which was a hole in road. My shoe stuck in mud. Pulled my leg out of the shoe. Rather than leaving the shoe I unconsciously reached down to retrieve it, and the body we were carrying toppled over falling on top of me. The skin of the corpse burst on contact with me covering me with a foul smelling substance.”

From “Epilogue”

Camp O’Donnell’s appearance in the endless stream of History was brief, but dramatic. During its  less than nine months as a concentration area, it saw some 1,565 American and over 26,000 Filipino, all in the prime of life, perish ignominiously and needlessly. Because of the callousness and inefficiency of an enemy who relentlessly applied  an atavistic code of conduct to dealing with helpless individuals, they were not treated according to the codes subscribed to by most of the nations of the Twentieth Century. Though what happened to the Americans was reprehensible, the studied extermination of the Filipinos, whom the Japanese had ostensibly come to free from the “Tyrannical Oppression” of the Imperial Americans, is utterly inexplicable.

The majority of those who were most intimately involved in this useless slaughter were made to pay with their lives, but the numbers who did were miniscule compared to the thousands they were responsible for destroying.

Cherishing an implacable hatred for the Japanese people can serve no useful purpose. The majority of the millions of Japanese who are alive today were either too young to have been of an age to be aware of O’Donnell, even if the story had been published, or they were not yet born. Undoubtedly, many of those who were of age in 1942, and learned of this tragic facet of the war after it was over, are truly sympathetic and remorseful. Their ready acceptance of the renunciation of war that was incorporated in their post war constitution would seem to lend credence to this hope…

Over three years have past since this work was undertaken… I have sought by this book to bring into the homes of the Survivors of Camp O’Donnell and the relatives and friends of those who perished there as accurate a picture of the environment and circumstances of incarceration that we endured, as possible. 

Interview with Col. Olson

Can you tell me about your background?

I was born on November 7, 1917 in Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas. My father was an officer who had served in the Philippines twice before I was born. But he died from pneumonia when I was ten. His lungs had been weakened by his exposure to German gas while fighting in Europe during WWI.

My father’s death motivated me to follow in his footsteps. I graduated from the US Military Academy in West Point in June of 1939. I took the Philippines as my first assignment. It was a two-year assignment and I received my order to go home 10 days before the war started. So I had my furniture and goods all packed, and was ready to go. And the war came. It was an entirely different story.

On the jacket of your book, O’Donnell: Andersonville of the Pacific, is a picture of a cross. Can you explain about this cross?

I was one of the next to the last group to leave O’Donnell. An American supply officer came to me and said that a Japanese supply officer had given him a sack of cement and told him to build a shrine to those Americans who died in the camp. This officer asked me, “What do I do?” I said, “We are not going to build a shrine, but we can build a cross.” So he went off and I did not have a chance of finding out what happened because I was leaving for Cabanatuan.

It was not until many years after the war that I went to the Philippines and went up to Camp O’Donnell. There in the cane field, I found this cross that he had built. I made up my mind then that we should bring the cross back to the United States.

The cross symbolized the 1,565 Americans who died in Camp O’Donnell. Twenty-six thousand Filipinos died in the same camp. But this cross was for the American deaths.

I went to work trying to get the cross back to the United States. It took me about 30 years before I finally affected it. It is now at the National Prisoners of War Museum in Andersonville, the site of Civil War POW camp, Georgia.

Thirty years is a very long time. Why was it so important for you to bring this cross back to the United States? What was the driving force?

Every day during the weeks I was in O’Donnell, I had to get the list of how many died that was to be reported to the Japanese. And I felt that I owed it to those who died to retain that memory and history.

(Interviewed by Kinue Tokudome)

Col. Olson and Mrs. Olson in a recent photo

Col. Olson's essay, The History of the Philippine Scouts, is available on the website of Philippine Scouts Heritage Society:

*  Col. Olson passed away on October 2, 2012.