Robert W. Phillips

Born: Duluth  MN (1920)

- US Army Air Corps
- 28th Bombardment Squadron, Clark Field,
- Malaybalay,
Maru, Kawasaki (Mitsui) camp (Tokyo #2),
  Tokyo Army Hospital,
Shinagawa Hospital,
  Hitachi camp

My POW Experience:
A mini story of an important part of my life

I became a Prisoner of War of the Japanese Imperial Army on May 10, 1942 on the island of Mindanao in the Philippine Archipelago. On that date all U.S. armed forces were ordered by our commanders to lay down their weapons and to surrender to the Japanese. At that time I held the rank of Private, First Class with a specialty rating as Aircraft and Engine Mechanic, Second Class.

I had served for several years in the Philippines as a member of the 28th Bombardment Squadron, mostly at Clark Air Base but after war began, served at Del Monte Air Field on Mindanao. I served as an aircraft and engine mechanic, crew chief and flight engineer.


Immediately after our surrender we were ordered to make our way to the Philippine Army cantonment called Camp Casisang, near Malaybalay, Bukidnon Province. I walked most of that distance before catching a ride in one of our trucks whose destination was the same as mine. At Camp Casisang I was put on a detail planting kamotes (yams/satsuma imo). We were assigned to groups of ten men and told that, if any one of us attempted to escape, all other nine men would be shot to death. Several Filipinos soldiers were recaptured and shot to death in plain sight of our chow line, as if to emphasize that we, too, would suffer that end if we escaped. The point was made clearly.

In late September 1942 about five hundred of us were taken to the port of Bugo (or Cagayan), transferred to an inter-island freighter which took us to Manila. From the Manila Port area we were marched to Bilibid Prison where we spend less than a week before being marched back to the Manila Port area and loaded onto the Tottori Maru for what would be a long, dangerous and deadly trip to Japan.

The Tottori Maru was loaded with about 2000 POWs; about 500 men in the front hold and about 1500 men came from Cabanatuan and were packed into the aft holds. We were packed so tightly into the holds that I could hardly move. There was no ventilation and it was obvious that the Tottori Maru had previously been used to transport horses. For the next six weeks or so we would be fed just a small bag of crackers and a little water. The conditions were inhumane and some men died due to the unsanitary conditions and lack of food, water and ventilation; all of us developed dysentery.

About the second day out of Manila the Tottori Maru was attacked by several torpedoes, apparently launched from an American submarine. Some of our men who were on deck at the time of the attack reported seeing two wakes coming toward the Tottori Maru. The ship maneuvered and the defensive cannon fired several rounds; the torpedoes passed by harmlessly. Nevertheless, I vowed to not ride in the hold again if I could avoid it, and I perched myself on a winch for the rest of the trip.

The Tottori Maru went first to the port of Takao, Taiwan, then back and forth a couple times to the nearby Pescadores Islands, anchoring there once for one week. During one of the stops in Takao we POWs were all put off onto the dock, where a fire hose was turned onto us; our first and only bath for a month and a half! Eventually the Tottori Maru joined a convoy and we headed into colder weather; next stop was the Korean city of Pusan, where all 1,500 men from the after holds were disembarked for their journey to Manchuria. By this time many POWs had died en route, due to the filth, starvation and sense of hopelessness that pervaded and permeated the entire POW population. The Tottori Maru then headed for Moji, a trip up the Inland Sea and the end of that trip at Osaka or Kobe. We were put onto a train for a trip to Kawasaki then marched about six kilometers from the Kawasaki station to Mitsui Camp (Tokyo #2) which would be home to most of us for nearly three years. The date was November 11, 1942

Life at Mitsui Camp was a real hardship; our clothing had been minimum for the tropics and we were not issued much cold-weather clothing for that Winter. The cold weather, combined with meager rations, poor quality of rations, hard work in the surrounding, sickness from the Tottori Maru, caused numerous deaths in our Camp that Winter. My weight decreased by about 60 pounds and I had constant diarrhea, colds and coughs. The guards and Japanese camp personnel added to our misery by their brutality and pathological pleasure in finding ways to punish us for nothing at all.

Each day we were formed into work details and marched out to the surrounding factories and docks, where we were forced to work hard for about 10 hours per day. Our work places included Mitsui warehouses, Nippon Kokkan (Steel Mill), Showa Denko (chemical factory), a ceramics factory and a few other places around Kawasaki. Midday meals were brought out from camp to the work details, but it was meager and insufficient to support life; more men died that Winter.

In February 1943 I became so weak from the dysentery that I was put in the camp sick bay, which meant having my food rations cut by 50% then shipped out of Mitsui Camp to a POW room in Tokyo Army Hospital. There I was diagnosed as having tuberculosis in addition to the dysentery. I stayed there for six months, still on half rations and having not received any treatment for my sickness; then (August 1943) I was transferred to a newly constructed POW hospital called Shinagawa which was just another warehouse for sick POWs; if we died, our ashes would be saved in a white box; if we lived, we could go back to our camps and work again in the Japanese war factories.

I lived; in November 1943 I was taken back to Mitsui Camp in Kawasaki, where I was at least back in the company of my friends from earlier days. I worked on various work details; this was my life until the B-29 raids destroyed Tokyo, Kawasaki and Yokohama. By the Spring of 1945 the Japanese war factories and the docks were brought to a standstill and most of us in Mitsui Camp were moved to another Camp near Hitachi, where we worked in the copper refining industry. That work, too, was brought to a standstill by air raids and attacks by one of the  American fleets.

Hitachi refinery in 2005
Photo courtesy of Ms. Taeko Sasamoto

One day we were told that we would not go to work that day; our “yasume” extended for several days before we were told that Japan had surrendered. Then our (American) officers took command of our camp, U.S. bombers dropped food and clothing and we waited for repatriation. About three weeks after fighting ended we were put on a train to Yokohama, where we were met by soldier of the American 1st Cavalry and the 11th Airborne Divisions. Repatriation was almost anti-climactic. I remember being taken to the Yokohama dock area for processing (de-loused and bathed, etc.) by a hospital unit. Food was plentiful and we slept in real beds and took real showers. Within a few days we were flown to Okinawa and then, after a few days, flown to Manila. At the 29th Replacement Depot were issued new uniforms and treated to more food than we could eat!

The boat trip from Manila was three weeks long; a lot had happened in the nearly 5½ years since I had taken a troopship from New York to Manila. Only when I set foot in San Francisco could I relax and look forward to joining my family again.

An Epilogue
Trying to make Sense of the Experience: Living with the scars

Some of the scars that mar the lives of my group of ex-J-POWs are immediately obvious; missing limbs, emaciated bodies, young men who returned home as old men, although only in their mid-20s, etc. Society and medical science did their best to help our men deal with these problems, to make the most of their lives and to learn from those conditions so that others may benefit from them.  My hat goes off to these men. Their lives were truncated both in quality and length; those sacrifices need to be remembered and honored.

Another group of scars are more subtle; the latent damage done to our young bodies.  Most of us recovered to live normal and productive lives, at least for a while, because we were young, resilient and otherwise healthy men. Several decades would pass before the full impacts of the starvation, sickness, brutality, etc. would manifest themselves; then we learned that our physical ages exceeded our chronological ages by several decades. During our “middle age” years we learned to live with the infirmities of ‘old age”. The Veterans Administration began to learn about our needs and eventually responded to them. Many of our men died while quite young. Most of us adopted a pragmatic view and “the price of being an American” took on a new meaning; a few fell into self-pity and some lived to prosper. As one would expect, in a group of this size there would be a wide variety of ways of coping with the latent and more subtle effects of our POW days.

Yet another kind of scar would have profound effects on the lives of all of us who survived our POW experiences; emotional scars. These are so subtle that we weren’t aware of them at the time of the damage. Little did we know that we returned home as “damaged goods” I remember being so relieved and euphoric to have survived that it never entered my mind that I would spend the rest of my life dealing with the emotional scars. I remember being proud that “the <expletive deleted> Japs couldn’t hurt me”; how unrealistic could I have been?

The accrual of emotional damages actually began as soon as the war began; we soon discovered that our lives were expendable; in fact, we were told that fact in a radio broadcast. For the next 44 months we would be under frequent attack by either the Japanese, by the Americans, by sickness or by deliberate efforts to eliminate all evidence of maltreatment and abuse. These conditions bred a sense of hopelessness, which in itself could kill a man. And frequently did!

My purpose in writing this is not to document the many atrocities, bungled decisions, etc. which would leave us damaged; rather, I want to identify some of the damage and discuss some of the ways we/I have dealt with it.

While it is easy to blame the Japanese and, to a certain degree, our own military for inflicting unnecessary hurts upon us, some of our hurts lie in our own personal failures, real or perceived. These may be the most painful for us to face openly and truthfully. Here are a couple of these: (1) defeat in battle. There are plenty of reasons and excuses for having surrendered the Philippine Islands to the Japanese, the truth of our defeat doesn’t set well with our own understanding of being a soldier, sailor or Marine; that is not what the military is trained to do and, no matter how we rationalize it, our surrender was the culmination of many failures. There is plenty of blame to go around but, if one is honest with one’s self, each of us questions his own performance in his own role. Each of us was a failure in some small way. (2) guilt for having survived. An unspoken question must be, “Why did So-and-So die while I lived through it all. Was So-and-So doing more to fight the Japanese than I was? Did I shirk my duties, and so live? I can remember opportunities to fire my Springfield bolt action rifle (Serial #7954) at a low-flying airplane buzzing my position, but I didn’t fire. I wonder if my not firing was because I doubted my ability to bring down the airplane, or was I unwilling to real my position to the enemy?  When I had the chance to kill did I lack the “killer instinct”? Would my firing have changed the course of the battle? Nobody told me to fire and, yet, nobody told me to not fire. I cite these moments as times, when viewed through the binoculars held backward,  raises difficult performance of duty. Or personal failure; did I live because I didn’t fight hard enough when I had the opportunity?

So we carry the scars of doubt, both about ourselves, our leadership and about the Japanese. These scars are usually never seen by others, especially not by our fellow men-in-arms, as they might be interpreted as weakness of character. Perhaps a loved one will be trusted with an occasional expression of self-doubt, but even those moments would be rare and selectively chosen, for fear that I be thought to have failed.

How do we make sense of all of this emotional baggage that follows us the rest of our lives? One obvious way is to ignore the scars, getting on with life as if nothing has happened, hoping that time will cause those memories to fade away; this happens quite well in many cases, but it amounts to avoiding the problem, rather than solving it. Sooner or later we are reminded of those scars and the feelings become fresh and real again.

Another way is to enter therapy, led by mental health professionals, who are trained to pick off the scabs from those old scars, re-exposing us to the original hurts in the hope that they can be dealt with once and for all. I cannot pass judgment on this method but I have reservations about it; most of my friends who have participated in these sessions seem to pick up new problems: having their emotional scars re-validated and made dependent on the therapy for their emotional well-being.

My preference for dealing with emotional scars, naturally, proceeds from my training as a priest. We are trained to recognize that humanity has lived in an impaired state ever since the  Creation; we call that condition “Sin”, which is defined as being in a broken relationship with God.

Once one accepts that premise one can acknowledge one’s own shortcomings by whatever name one wants to call them, such as “Sin”. Such an admission is a healthy step toward recognizing that during our POW experience, everybody erred and strayed from the perfect relationship that God intended for us. There is plenty of blame to go around and war has brought out the worst side of each of us.

Furthermore, holding onto old grudges and hatreds is harmful to our souls; it will corrupt our souls. It can keep us prisoners of the POW experience for all of our lives. Without letting go of those hatreds we cannot be totally free of the Japanese who treated us so abominably. Here is where forgiveness enters into the picture. Since we, too, are in need of forgiveness, we are called to forgive others. God assumes that we also offend each other and He holds us accountable until and unless we forgive those who have offended us.

This is not to be seen as a “Quid Pro Quo” approach to human relationships; forgiveness cannot be purchased, but it is freely given to God’s people who forgive others’ offenses. Our forgiveness is based on Christ’s gift of Himself for our Salvation; all we must do is apply for it by forgiving others. This doesn’t trivialize the scars that we bear, either physical or emotional, but it lifts from us the burden of a life of hatred toward those who caused our scars. Jesus forgave those who scarred Him during His Passion.  The price for our forgiveness has been paid on Calvary’s Cross; can we not forgive our transgressors?              

Can we do any less?

Forgiving others for their transgressions doesn’t imply that those things never happened; nor does it imply that they will be (or should be) forgotten. Shame on the child who throws dirt in my face; shame on me if I let him throw dirt in my face a second time; it is my responsibility to insure that the child doesn’t have a chance to repeat that dirty trick.

Forgive, that we may be forgiven, but do not forget.; hold no grudge, but work to prevent recurrence. “Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavily laden, and I will refresh you”. Invite God into the most hurtful parts of our lives and ask Him to refresh our souls through His most perfect Love.

How can Japan become a World Power?
Denial of their atrocities helps nobody

I write this piece because I would like to have the best possible outcome from the history of the past 70 years. Japan has so much to offer the world in addition to its technical excellence; yet, I fear the full potential of Japan will never be realized because of a large shadow of mistrust that hovers that island nation.

Post WW II Japan has been a wonderful example of recovery from rubble to, literally, riches; I am proud that the United States was compassionate and wise to be a sponsor of this recovery and I recognize that it was important for us to have Japan as an ally during the Cold War. Nevertheless, a byproduct of our assistance was the overlooking of those atrocities, dating from 1931 and continuing until 1945. After all, one doesn’t make good friends by emphasizing old grudges and sins. Hence, National truth and honesty were compromised in both Japan and the United States. The killing of millions of innocent civilians and the deaths and maltreatment of hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war were largely forgotten. Until recently.

About ten or fifteen years ago during an interview by an independent Tokyo TV company I shifted the discussion away from my personal experiences; I felt I had a message for the Japanese viewing public, and the message was about themselves. I contended (and still contend) that Japan could again do what it had already done 1931-1945. I understand that my interview was never actually broadcast because that viewpoint was unpalatable. I can understand that, and it demonstrates my point that Japan could do it again. At that time Japan had not experienced any economic setback postwar; everything was upward and better and two generations of Japanese people had not experienced adversity. The United States insured that would happen. Even the Koreans knew about this new, soft Japanese generation; my friend, Col Han, gave me the word they used for it: “apré”, from the French word “after”. Softened up by several generations of the “good life”, the Japanese people are vulnerable to being whipped up into a frenzy.

I pointed out that resistant minority groups who were not satisfied of the current Japanese society, of which the Red Army in 1970's was one example, were in place and just waiting for a time when the Japanese people would be vulnerable for manipulation into a 1941 mentality; they would likely play the sympathy card when times became tough and they would work toward a misplaced sense of Japanese nationalism and pride. Three weeks after my interview those same underground cells turned loose a deadly gas attack on the subway of Tokyo. Against their own people! I felt vindicated for my harsh assessment.

In her book, “Courage to Remember”, Kinue Tokudome refers to the Japanese people as followers. When I read that I felt doubly vindicated for my harsh appraisal of the Japanese people.

One of the men who was both witness and victim of the vicious treatment accorded us at times was Dr. P. Curtin. Dr. Curtin was a British Naval Surgeon, captured by the Germans in the Indian Ocean and turned over to the Japanese for imprisonment; he became the Camp Doctor in my camp in Kawasaki. He suffered mightily at the hands of the camp permanent personnel as he sought to save lives from sickness and malnutrition and to repair injuries that happened at our work places. When he petitioned camp officials for better food or medical supplies he was beaten severely and put on reduced rations. (As was U.S. Navy Lt. Jack Schwartz.) “Doc” was a hero to us; he knew the enemy and he was unbowed. Many years later when Audrey and I were living in England we visited “Doc” at his home in Cheltenham.  Naturally, the conversation turned to discuss our days in Kawasaki, and “Doc’s” eyes looked off into the distance for a long time and then he slowly said in a sad voice, “They would do it again”.

It is this concern for a possible “Do it again” that prompts me to write this article. The combination of ignorance of or denial of the previous crimes against humanity, the latent willingness to be whipped up into another action and “apré” softness caused by 60 years of economic successes, all create a tinder box which is just waiting for a spark.

Today Japan seeks to take its place along with the other great nations of the world, working toward the common good and to be a humanitarian nation. Its potential is there but may never be realized because of the lack of trust and respect derived from its vicious exploits of the period from 1931 - 1945.  The world can see that the only reason Japan stopped its vicious behavior was its defeat in 1945; the viciousness would still be happening if it hadn’t been defeated. So the logical conclusion is that, given another opportunity or perceived need, it would again resort to military exploitation of its neighbors to the south. I couldn’t blame its neighbors for feeling that way.

As a criminal who doesn’t express remorse for his actions, Japan continues to deny any wrongdoing. The world is right to not trust Japan, which continues to lie to its own people by perpetuating false history of the period in question. (Including America’s use of the atomic bombs to bring about an end to WW II.)  So how can Japan be trusted to be honest on the international scene when it falsely cast itself in the role of the victim? Let them “get real”.

That shadow of mistrust needs to be lifted if Japan is to assume its place among the world leaders. For this to truly occur,  three things need to happen:

An expression of true remorse, including a correction of all false versions of the history of that period. Japan’s own conscience need to do this.

Asking forgiveness of those whom it brutalized. This would be a cathartic move and would benefit both Japan and the rest of the world; it would say that Japan’s true intentions for the future are honorable. Actual forgiveness by its victims is for them to work out.

Some kind of restitution should be made. This would help convince the world that Japan is sincere in coming to grips with its viciousness of the past. I leave it others to suggest the form and amount of such restitution; my point is that it must be made.

I pray that these words may help others work toward a better world in which Japan can participate to its fullest potential. There is no room in my heart for vindictiveness or hatred for the inhumanities and abuses I suffered at the hands of the sons of the Rising Sun; I hope that my views will be heard in the same light as they are being written.

In the Faith,
Fr. Robert W. Phillips, SSC+

Father Robert W. Phillips in a recent photo


In Response to POW Story by Father Robert W. Phillips

Hiroo Sekita

Prof. Emeritus of Aoyama Gakuin University
Pastor affiliated with the United Church of Christ in Japan

First I was impressed by the fact that this experience of you Honorable Rev. Philips is written as a mini-story. Unforgettable experience of pain, faith in the forgiveness of Christ that heals the wound, and suggestions made through his experience to rebuild Japan, the former enemy, the content is a true Ministry of a Catholic priest.

I offer my heartfelt apology as a Japanese for the treatment given to you by the inhumane Japanese Army, as told in part one. The period from 1931 to 1945 was when the control and invasion of Asia by the Japanese Imperialism was at its highest. Japanese soldiers of ordinary level were never taught about the Geneva Convention on the treatment of POWs. “Do not receive humiliation of being captured alive as POWs” was an article in Senjinkun, the Imperial Japanese Army’s Field Service Code, written by Hideki Tojo, who was the Prime Minister and Army Minister at the time Japan went into the Pacific War. The Japanese soldiers were indoctrinated with the idea that it was the utmost shame for an Emperor’s soldier to become a POW at the battlefield. Rather, choosing to die was the way to express loyalty to the Emperor. 

Consequently, that idea was reflected in their treatment of POWs of the enemy countries. The beastly attitude of the Japanese soldiers of those days could rightly be traced there. The Edict to the Soldiers written by Emperor Meiji contained a sentence that said, “Orders given by commanding officers should be observed as my orders.” It worked as the controlling principle of the military hierarchy. Soldiers of lower ranks had to obey orders atrocious to POWs given by their superior officers, who had absolute power over them. Carrying out orders was proof of the loyalty to their superiors, and eventually to the Emperor, which caused the incomprehensible brutality in the treatment of the POWs. In short, there was the Emperor at the center of the power structure of the Great Japanese Empire of the day, and the absolute obedience to the Emperor was the ethos of most Japanese. Japan’s history of invasion of Asia since the end of the 19th Century was shouldered by the Emperor, and the leaders of the Army and Navy, who constantly vowed their loyalty to the Emperor.

If I could dare to say, General Douglas McArthur, the Supreme Commander of Allied Powers, made in his occupation policy of Japan a most serious mistake. He didn’t condemn Emperor Hirohito, but rather preserved the emperor system. Here lies the foundation for the suspicion that “Japan will do it again,” which you honorable Reverend have warned.

In the Epilogue, I’ve realized it must be beyond description the depth of the pain you had to bear.  I presume it is termed as “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)” in today’s mental care. Living with the scars, trying to make sense of the experience; it must be a heavy burden that you and your comrades had to carry and still carry today. I can’t help but feel deep sympathy. To get aged while young, labeled as “damaged goods,” “emotionally damaged,” all of which lasted decades, must even change former POWs' personality. Sense of humiliation to be held as POWs as a result of surrender, sinful awareness of having survived while others were killed in war, in addition, desperation in everyday inhumane treatment by the Japanese soldiers. What awful torment it must have been to all of you. As a Japanese I feel strongly responsible for that.

However, you have chosen the way to be a clergy, in which you have met the forgiveness of Christ. I learned that you were totally set free from the bad of past, and have restored yourself through the act of forgiving the enemy, Japanese soldiers, as the one who was forgiven by the Lord. It moves us all to know that happened. I believe that the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer must be the only way to create a new history. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” It will benefit not only Christians but people in all the international conflicts, confrontation between the races, and social classes, as they try to overcome hatred. Forgiving is by no means the same as forgetting. As you have rightly said, through keeping our memories alive we can maintain the nobleness of the act of forgiving.

In the last part of your essay, you talk about how Japan can become a world Power, and denial of the atrocities helps nobody. Your words are correct. However, Japan has no need to be a world power. She only needs to be a country that can get united with other countries in friendship and trust. In order to realize that, Japan must repent the crimes of invading Asian countries, which she had committed even before WWII. She must admit the responsibility for the atrocities to POWs, forcibly taking people for heavy labor, and evil deeds to local people, which is represented by using them as Comfort Women. As early as possible, Japan must compensate them all. I wholeheartedly agree with the three suggestions you make at the end of the essay: Correction of all false versions of the history, asking forgiveness for those whom she brutalized, and adequate restitution. Considering the fact that the victims are in advanced age and passing away, this delay can be condemned as the second war crime.

The problem is the current policy of the Japanese Government, and the awareness of most people of Japan, who agree to that. This is responsibility of the Japanese themselves and the task for those who have conscience and wisdom, however few they might be. The United Church of Christ to which I belong, publicized an announcement at Easter of 1967, titled ‘The Confession on the Responsibility of the United Church of Christ in Japan in the period of WWII.’ According to it, the three tasks, which you have mentioned, have been the major elements of our mission, as we have tried to carry out reconciliation and life together with countries of Asia. On the first Saturday of every August, we hold a memorial service at the British Commonwealth War cemetery in Hodogaya, Yokohama-city, for all the Allied POWs of the Japanese. We have prayed for world peace. It has included the prayer for the rebirth of the Japanese Government and people of Japan as a peaceful country that will never go into war. May God bless forever your ‘Ministry.’