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TRANSCRIPT OF INTERVIEW
Major John Perkowski
O-1688424, U.S. Army (Ret'd.)
As conducted by his Grandson,
John William Perkowski
1) John William ("Will") Perkowski interviewed Major John (NMN) Perkowski 19 January 2003. Will Perkowski is the paternal grandson of Major Perkowski. The Library of Congress Oral History format for taking oral histories of veterans was used.
2) Will Perkowski, when he interviewed Major Perkowski, was a 7th Grade student at Lakeview Middle School, Kansas City, MO. He interviewed Major Perkowski within the context of a specific assignment: "The Holocaust and the horrors inflicted by totalitarian regimes on their subject peoples."
3) Given (2) above, Will Perkowski’s interview of Major Perkowski emphasized the conduct of the Imperial Japanese Army as captors of the United States Army Forces, Far East.
4) This transcript is NOT a stenographic transcript:
a. The interview was not conducted strictly in the order of the LOC interview plan. Elements of the interview have been rearranged, en bloc, to conform with that plan.
b. Will Perkowski’s school assignment included converting this “first person” account to the grammatical Third Person. To help him, the transcribing officer stripped out pauses for thought and certain word usages of Major Perkowski.
Will Perkowski (WP): May I please ask your name?
Major John Perkowski, Army of the United States, Retired (JP): My name is John Perkowski.
WP: What war did you serve in?
JP: I went into the Army February 21, 1941 and I was in World War II.
WP: What branch did you join?
JP: I enlisted for the 59th Coast Artillery in the Philippines.
WP: What was your rank?
JP: Well, I enlisted as a recruit. I enlisted at Vancouver Barracks, Washington. I was taken by train to Fort McDowell, California, which was the overseas replacement depot, then I went on the United States Army Transport Republic from San Francisco to Manila. It took us 21 days to get there. We stopped in Hawaii on the way, of course, we couldn’t get off the boat in Hawaii, anyway, got to Manila and in Manila they put us on the ferry and they took us to Corregidor and I did recruit training on the tail end of Corregidor.
WP: Were you drafted or did you enlist?
JP: I enlisted. The draft was already in existence but I enlisted.
WP: Where were you living at the time?
JP: I was moving around the West Coast at the time. I was in Portland, Oregon and the recruiting sergeant stopped me on the street and said “Hey, why don’t you join the Army?” They sent me over to Vancouver Barracks which is right across the river from Portland and that’s where I was sworn in.
WP: Why did you join?
JP: Oh, lot of reasons. Some of my friends had joined, and some had been drafted, and it was a combination of things.
WP: Why did you pick the branch of service you joined?
JP: Because that’s what the recruiting sergeant had open. They were recruiting for that particular unit at that time.
WP: Do you recall your first days in service?
JP: Pretty much. I stayed in Vancouver for a week and we didn’t do very much. Then they put us on a train and they took us down to Fort McDowell, which is on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. We stayed there from February to the 1st of April. On the first of April I got on the Republic.
WP: What did it feel like?
JP: What, the Army?
WP: No, your first couple of days in the Service?
JP: Oh, there were quite a few of us, and we were just enjoying ourselves.
WP: Could you tell me about your boot camp training experiences?
JP: At that time they didn’t call it boot training, and they didn’t call it Basic Training. They called it recruit training. The recruit training was on Corregidor Island, on the tail of it, we lived in tents. We learned small arms, and how to march. We spent a lot of time marching on the tarmac down there. There was an old seaplane base there, this big tarmac, and we just marched, and marched, and marched. It was very hot down there. We learned all the other things people learned in what was later called Basic Training, but at that time was called recruit training. We were recruits.
WP: Do you remember your instructors?
JP: Not too many of them, not too many of them.
WP: How did you get through it?
JP: It was real easy. You just did your job. It was very hot, so in marching across tarmac a lot of guys passed out from the heat, because the temperature was over 100 degrees, and we were having to march around there. But for me, it wasn’t any problem.
WP: Were there any humorous events during your service?
JP: Oh, yeah, before the war, Willie, I had had one three day pass to Manila, and it was absolutely wonderful. In October, 1941, I was given my second three day pass into Manila, and I was in the dayroom shooting pool waiting to catch a little electric train than ran on Corregidor from Topside down to the dock on Bottomside. I was waiting for the One o’clock or the One-thirty train and the First Sergeant came in and said “Perkowski! Am I glad to see you. General MacArthur is on the island, and he wants to see Colonel Bunker’s command post.” (This was the Seacoast Command Post). So he gave me the keys and said “Go on down there and open it up and clean it up, and when the General gets there report that it’s open and ready for inspection.”
So, I did. I had to go down by Battery Wheeler, then there was a jungle path that led from Battery Wheeler down to the C-1 command station. So I went down there, and I opened the armor-plated windows, and there were termites on the window ledges, and I swept them out, and I made sure the depression position finder was oriented and level.
I waited there. Pretty soon General MacArthur, who had just been recalled to active duty as a Lieutenant General, and Major General Moore, who commanded Harbor Defense Command at the time, and their aides came down, and I reported “Sir, PFC Perkowski reports that the Seacoast Defense Command Post is open and ready for inspection.”
General MacArthur returned my salute with a big smile. He was wearing a Khaki unitorm with an open collar, he had on his service hat, the same hat he wore all through the war, and it was dirty then. He was smoking a corncob pipe, and so General Moore explained to him that this was Colonel Bunker’s command post. General MacArthur and Colonel Bunker had been classmates at West Point.
They chatted a little bit, and looked out over the South China Sea. It was a beautiful day, the sea was light azure blue, you could see ships out there going back and forth. General MacArthur told General Moore: “General, the Coast Artilleryman has it all over the Field Artilleryman.”
General Moore asked “How’s that, General?”
General MacArthur replied “Well, the Coast Artilleryman can at least see his enemy.”
General Moore said, “Well, that’s right. That’s really true”
General MacArthur’s aide-de-camp, a Major, jumped up on a semi-circular platform that was in back of the depression position finder. He started turning knobs and the Son-of-a-Bitch screwed up my level. Instead of using the traverse and elevating mechanisms, he used the leveling knobs. After the inspection party left, it took me ten extra minutes to get the DPF re-oriented and re-leveled.
I ran back up and the train was gone. The only way for me to get to the docks was to descend the “Golden Staircase,” a stair path that dropped six hundred vertical feet between the Topside Barracks and the Bottomside docs. I grabbed my bag and ran the Golden Staircase. When I got to the dock, the ferry, called the General Hyatt, was about three or four hundred feet offshore and I never got my pass.
WP: Which wars did you serve in?
JP: I was in World War II. During the Korean War, I was stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, and then Germany. I did not go to Korea.
WP: During World War II, where exactly did you go?
JP: The day the war started, the day Pearl Harbor was bombed, I was on duty in the Seacoast Defense Command Post on Corregidor. The message came in from Harbor Defense Headquarters “Japanese aircraft have attacked Pearl Harbor. Take all active and passive defense measures.” So we took that message and we passed it on down. That happened in the early morning hours of December 8, 1941, because we were on the other side of the International Date Line.
WP: Do you remember arriving and what it was like:
JP: I was already there when the war started, so the war came to me. The harbor defenses of Manila Bay consisted of four forts: The biggest one is Corregidor, or Fort Mills. It’s shaped like a tadpole. It’s about a mile across at the broad point, and three miles long head to tail. In addition to that, at the end of the tail there was another small island, Caballo Island. Caballo in Spanish means Horse. That was Fort Hughes. Fort Hughes was heavily fortified too. Halfway across the South Channel towards the Cavite - Batangas coast was Fort Drum on El Fraile Island, which had been made into a “concrete battleship.” It had two fourteen inch gun turrets on the top Each of those turrets had two guns. It also had two six-inch gun casemates on the side. When the war started it had a great big tower with a searchlight on top. It also had a barracks and a great big redwood water tank on top. As the war went on, all those things disappeared. Over against the Cavite - Batangas coast was Fort Frank on Carabao Island. It was about five hundred yards offshore. It was pretty close to where the Japs were.
On December 9th a flight of Japanese Navy bombers came in low over the Cavite-Batangas coast. They were heading for Nichols Field and the Cavite Navy Yard. They flew over Fort Frank, Fort Frank engaged them with anti-aircraft fire, and shot down a bunch of them. Nine of those bombers went into to bomb Nichols Field and Cavite Navy Yard. Some of those bombers dropped their bombs on Fort Frank. I was on duty in the C-1 station. It was just before daybreak. You could still see the tracer bullets from the machine guns and the bursts of the anti-aircraft fire. You could see the smoke of the bombs as they exploded onto the Fort.
WP: What was your job or assignment?
JP: I was a seacost defense observation station operator. That means I worked in the command post and I could operate an azimuth instrument, a depression position finder (called DPF for short). It took an azimuth and a range to a target. The DPF had a 25 power or a 30 power eyepiece on it. Usually we just used the 30 power eyepiece. There were plotting tables and telephones from higher headquarters to us and from us to subordinate headquarters. In addition to that, over on Fort Frank, there was a battery command post just below us, and we were connected by speaking tubes on the old ships. You would speak into the tube, and you could communicate that way.
WP: Did you see combat?
JP: I saw lots of combat. Mostly remote combat with artillery shells and bombs. I went from Corregidor to Fort Frank because they had mostly Philippine Scouts over there, and there was a communications barrier between people talking on the telephone and people with a Filipino accent. So they decided to send three of us over there, mostly to man the telephones, but we were all trained observers as well. The day I went over there, the Japanese first bombed Corregidor. There were these big flights, twenty-seven planes, they came wave after wave over Corregidor. They came in at a low altitude, about 20,000 feet. Corregidor’s anti-aircraft artillery had mostly powder-burning fuses, they lasted twenty-one seconds. They were able to get to 20,000 feet, they chopped up the Japanese bombers pretty well, they hit quite a few of them and knocked them down from the sky. After that, whenever the Japs came back, they did it from a higher altitude, up around 29,000 feet.
I was taken from Corregidor to Fort Frank in a little yawl. A yawl is a twenty-five foot boat with an in-board motor on it. Three of us were in that boat going over, and we were about a third of the way over there through the South Channel. We had a real good picture of the first big air raid onto Corregidor. We got to Fort Frank and the Colonel in charge hustled us into a tunnel because the action was still going on.
In addition to the, the Japanese set up artillery pieces on the Batangas side of the bay, because all the American troops had evacuated onto the Bataan Peninsula. The Japanese set up 150mm guns and howitzers as well as 240mm howitzers. Those pieces shelled Fort Frank and Fort Drum, but they also dropped shells onto Fort Hughes and Corregidor. We had twelve-inch mortars on Fort Frank and fired counterbattery onto the Japanese. The Philippine Scouts manned them.
WP: Did anyone pull rank?
JP: On Fort Frank, there was a Sergeant that had a separate detail. By then I was a Corporal, and I had a three man detail that worked in the Group Two command post. The Sergeant was in charge of a “Base End” station crew. One time, the Sergeant tried to pull rank on me. I told Colonel Stinnis about it, and Colonel Stinnis said “I’ll just have a word with that young man.” The guy never came back around.
WP: What did you think of your officers and fellow soldiers?
JP: I thought they were all great. Most of them were great people.
WP: Did you keep a personal diary?
JP: No. We were ordered not to keep diaries. Even so, a lot of officers kept diaries. The reason was the Japanese on Bataan kept diaries, and when we killed or captured them, our Intelligence officers got good information.
WP: Were there many casualties in your unit?
JP: On Fort Frank, we had a number of casualties. We had one 155mm gun battery that had Panama mounts. That meant they weren’t in enclosures. There was a railroad track that ran a full circle around each gun, and the trails of the gun rode that track. That battery was exposed, early on, they had about seven men killed and a bunch wounded there. Later on, most of our living quarters were underground in concrete tunnels. One day, a Japanese 240mm exploded in one of these big living areas. We had just received one hundred Philippine Army (not Philippine Scout) replacements. They were at the dispensary having their shots brought up to date. The 240mm shell came through the concrete ceiling and exploded in the room. Afterward, if you looked up, you could see a neat hole where the shell broke through, and pitting on the floor from the fragments of the shell. The explosion swept through the living area and killed about thirty Philippine Army soldiers and wounded forty to fifty more of them.
One day, I was up in the observation station and we were being shelled I was on duty with Lieutenant Colonel Stinnis, he was the executive officer. He told me to go downstairs and I said “Aw, Colonel, I’d rather be up here than downstairs. If one of those shells comes alongside. If one of those shells comes alongside I can be buried down there.” So I stayed up there with him. A little later, a banana shaped piece of a 240mm shell, jagged on the inside, bounced off the wall and hit Colonel Stinnis on the arm. He received a four inch wound, half an inch deep, on his forearm. So I put my field bandage from my first aid packet on him, then I told him “Colonel, when it slows down, you ought to have that taken care of by the medic.”
He replied “Oh, no, no, no.”
About an hour later, when the shelling did slow down, he said “Boy, this is beginning to hurt.” He called for relief, another officer came up there, and he went to the medics. The next time I saw him, he said “You were right. They put about six or eight stitches into that thing and put some sulfa on it so it wouldn’t get infected.”
I want to tell you the story of General MacArthur leaving the Philippines. That’s a pretty impressive story. About March 10, 1942, we still had enough gasoline to run the generator for our seacoast defense searchlight. It would scan the ocean on the horizontal plane. You’ve seen searchlights that do circles in the sky. They are old anti-aircraft searchlights. This one just scanned the surface of the ocean. That night, we were told to keep the searchlight off, because four PT boats would be leaving Corregidor during the night. Colonel Stinnis was there and he found out General MacArthur was leaving to go to Australia. I was on the depression position finder and we could hear the roar of the big engines they had on those PT boats, and I picked up the phosphorescence of the wake as they came out of the north channel and I tracked that wake out into the South China Sea, until they passed beyond the headlands to the south. So I asked Colonel Stinnis “Colonel, Sir, do you think we’re going to get those hundreds of planes and thousands of men that General MacArthur promised us?” (He had promised those in a letter to all the troops in January of 1942).
Colonel Stinnis said “Not very soon, I’m afraid.”
SERVICE AS PRISONER OF WAR:
WP: Were you a prisoner of war?
JP: Yes, from May 1942 until the surrender of Japan. That was forty months long.
WP: Tell me about your experiences in captivity and when freed.
JP: On May 6, 1942 we were told that Corregidor and all the Philippine forces would be surrendered, including us. The Japanese had landed on Corregidor and were in a position to threaten the hospital tunnel and a lot of wounded people. Things looked hopeless, and General Wainwright decided to surrender. On May 6 we hauled down the American flag and hoisted a white flag of surrender.
We stayed there. On May 8 the Japanese came in a bunch of small boats, each with a 37mm gun on the bow, and all their men were in uniform. They lined us up on the dock and went through the ranks. If any of us had any valuable, the Japanese took them away from us. They put us on these boats and took us about 30 miles south to a place called Nasugbu. When we had retreated from there, our engineers had blasted a causeway to an oceangoing pier with explosives. There were tremendous holes, maybe thirty feet in diameter and four to six feet deep in the causeway for the whole length of it. At the base of the causeway, the Japanese had unloaded many truckloads of coral rock. They brought us to this pier, and they lined us up along this causeway, about 25 American troops from Fort Frank and 150 from Fort Drum, and from daylight to dark, in hot weather, we handed rock from one man to another, filling the craters. We did that with with practically no food and no water for about a week, until all those holes were filled. Guys were going nuts and going down and drinking seawater, and Jap guards would come and beat them with a bayonet and push them back in line. Some they took away and we never saw them again. At night they kept us in a big galvanized iron warehouse on shore.
The only water we had while filling the holes was from a farm tank well with a windlass on it. You dropped a bucket down into the well, hoist it with a windlass, pour the bucket out, and do it again. There we were, maybe two hundred of us in this warehouse, and they would only let us get water for an hour a day. Really, we almost never had enough water. A friend of mine, Quentin Cooper, he was in charge of the height finder, searchlight, and sound ranging detail from A Battery, 60th Coast Artillery, so he said “The Hell with this, I’m going to go over there and get some water.” So he gathered all of his canteens from his men, and went over there, and there was a Jap guard on the well, and the next thing you know, they were arguing, and then the Jap was hitting him with his rifle butt. Then more Japs came and they beat him and they hauled him away. The next morning, what we saw of Quentin Cooper was his head, chopped off, hanging from a signpost at the intersection of two dirt roads nearby.
That’s just an illustration of some of the treatment. The treatment was not good. We stayed there for another week or so in that barracks, with very little water and very little food.
They put on a little ship and took us into Manila Bay. They dropped us from the ship onto landing barges, which took us to Cavite. There they dropped us off in neck deep water, and we swam and waded ashore. There the Japanese formed us into a triumphal parade into Manila with the troops from Corregidor. They took us into Bilibid Prison and packed us into World War I “40 & 8” (40 men or 8 horses) little boxcars, about one hundred men to a boxcar. We had to stand up, we couldn’t sit down, and they moved us by train from Manila to Cabanatuan.
Guys were literally dying in those boxcars.
When we got to Cabanatuan, they kept us overnight in a schoolhouse yard that they’d made into a holding pen. The next day they marched us out to Cabanatuan.
While we were in Cabanatuan, I ran into a kid who was in my battery. He had been to Cooks and Bakers School in Manila, but had washed out of that. Anyway, during the fighting stage on Corregidor, when Corregidor was really getting shelled and bombed, the underground cables were getting cut. So, they made him a wireman, and he laid field wire between batteries and command posts and things like that. He was a very, very brave individual and he was wounded while he was doing that. He told me that he had seen enough of the Filipino people that he thought they would look after him, and he was going out under the fence that night. I went to sleep and in the morning he was gone. I didn’t see him again.
They marched us from Cabanatuan to a camp six miles away. It was an Philippine Army training camp, with bamboo barracks. Again, there was very little food and very little water. I had dengue fever. During one formation, everything went black. I couldn’t see anything. I said “Boy, I’m blind, I can’t see anything.” There was a medic around, who had a couple of aspirin, and he gave me a couple and told me to go to sleep after the formation. The next morning, I came to, and had my sight back, but I still had the high fever.
On that trip from the schoolhouse to the camp, there were four troops that decided to take off and escape. The Japs caught them, and brought them into camp. There was a ravine between two parts of the camp. The guards made them dig graves for themselves, then they beat them, and then firing squad shot them. The troops fell into their graves. Then a Jap officer came along and administered the “coup de grace” to each of them.
WP: Coup de WHAT?
JP: Coup de grace. He shot them. He made sure they were dead. Then they organized us into groups of ten. If one guy escaped, they would kill the other nine guys. That was their method to keep us from trying to escape.
The treatment was terrible, people had dengue fever, malaria, beri-beri. There was very little food.
We stayed there for about a month, then they moved us down to a camp called Cabanatuan Number Three. At the same time, they were moving prisoners who were caught when Bataan surrendered into Cabanatuan Number Three too. The conditions were horrible. Forty or fifty guys died every day from disease, malnutrition, and what have you. We would dig these long graves. We could only dig them about three feet deep, because it was the rainy season and the water table was very high. We’d put the bodies in the graves and then cover them up. Sometimes the graves were not deep enough. The Filipinos had a bunch of wild dogs running around there. The dogs would dig up and pull off body parts. The smell of that rotting flesh from that graveyard, when the wind was in the right direction, was absolutely horrible. Sickening. The most horrible smell you ever smelled in your life.
The Americans finally got organized. Our guys convinced the Japs that they needed better drainage, so they got people to work to dig drainage so the rainwater would drain off and there wouldn’t be so many mosquitoes.
Eventually some Red Cross Parcels arrived. Things were a little bit better after that.
A few months later I went down on a work detail. They put us on trucks and took us to Nichols Field. Nichols Field is in Pasay, just south of Manila. There the Japanese were building a third runway. The Americans had built the runways in an L shape. The Japs decided to have a diagonal runway too. They brought in some miniature railroad construction trains. We would move earth from a high point to a low point. Slave labor. One guy had problems there. The Japs took him out and chopped his head off.
Then I went back to Cabanatuan. There was an Air Corps lieutenant named Jones, they called him 'Farmer Jones'. He convinced the higher-ups they should go to the Japs and get some seed. There was all this land out there, and we should try to grow some of our own food. So, the Japs did come in with hoes and shovels and things like that, and so we had a farm there. A lot of guys didn’t like that farm, but it actually did a lot of good, because the Japs took a lot of the better vegetables that we raised out there and sold it off on the Philippine market, but we did get quite a bit of it into camp. So in addition to getting some exercise, we also got some needed nourishment.
WP: Did you get that food openly back into camp, or did you spirit it back into camp?
JP: It was both, and if you got caught spiriting food back into camp, you got a really bad whipping. Most of it was brought back in and spread out amongst the various field kitchens.
WP: What was your weight when you took your first Army physical?
JP: I was probably one hundred fifty-five pounds. I had a friend of mine tell me “John, you ought to weigh 175 pounds with that big frame of yours.” TRANSCRIBER NOTE: Major Perkowski’s wartime low weight was 90 pounds, either at the Cabanatuan camp or Pasay School. At liberation Major Perkowski was 110 pounds.
WP: What was the food like?
JP: When they first started giving us rice, the rice they gave us was wormy. We didn’t eat the first meal. On the next meal, we picked the worms out and ate the rice. Shortly after that, when we saw a worm, we said “Well, here’s my protein ration,” and ate everything. Our food was mostly rice. When we got to Japan, our rice was mixed with millet. It’s a grain, kind of like a barley, except it’s red colored.
We also got a very thin soup. We got very little meat, and when we did, our cooks cooked it into soup. You got a measure full of rice, the servers had bamboo cups so everyone got the same amount. In addition to that, there was a ladle full of this very thin soup, with a few vegetables in it, and that was what the food was.
WP: Did you have plenty of supplies?
JP: No supplies, no supplies. I have some pictures, I’ll send you a picture of a group they took when they were at Nichols Field. Maybe you can recognize me without me telling you. I’ll send you a copy, you will see what kind of supplies we had. What we did was we took boards and made clogs out of them. When we got to Japan, they gave us little black sneakers, they were real funny because the big toe was separated from the rest of the toes. Usually, those sneakers were pretty worn down most of the time.
WP: Why did the Japanese treat their prisoners so badly?
JP: That generation of Japanese were just bad people, Willie. They not only treated the Americans and the Filipinos badly, they also had invaded and taken over quite a bit of China, and they treated the Chinese very harshly. There are some books out. One is called The Rape of Nanking. The Japanese literally massacred the people and raped the women
They had done the same thing in Korea. They did the same thing down in Singapore, and Malaya, and Indonesia, then called the Dutch East Indies. They did the same thing down there. They had captured all these places. I don’t know if you ever saw the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai.
JP: If you ever get a chance to see it, at least part of it is true: The part before they decided to cooperate with the Japanese on building that bridge. They took a lot of the Dutch living in the Dutch East Indies and the English and Australians they captured in Singapore, Malaya, and Burma. They put them on building a railroad through Burma, and many, many, many of those people died. They died from disease, starvation, and overwork. They were just mean people. It was the mental set of that particular generation of Japanese. I’m sure Japanese today aren’t like that. The Japanese of the 1930s and 1940s were raised to answer to the Shogun. He was the chief military leader to the Emperor of Japan. The Emperor was considered a God. The word from up above was to demean their captives.
The Japanese were mean to each other, too. The Lieutenant would slap a Sergeant, and the Sergeant would slap a Corporal, and the Corporal would hit a Private. That was the usual thing. They weren’t mean just to everyone else, they were mean to themselves, too. They were mean people.
WP: How did you get them?
JP: You mean after the war? Some were presented to me personally, some were given to me when I re-enlisted and the recruiting sergeant got them for me, and other different ways.
WP: Would you share some more war stories?
JP: Sure. We were back at Cabanatuan. There was a Swedish ship by the name of Gripsholm that was used to exchange diplomatic personnel between Japan and the Allied countries. The Gripsholm came in, and she was loaded with Red Cross supplies, both from Europe and the United States. Some of those Red Cross supplies were specifically packaged for the prisoners of war, and some of them actually made their way into the prison camps. They were heavily laden with protein like milk powder and Spam and corned beef and things like that. Once we got those packages, things eased up, we were terrifically short on protein. At one point in my captivity, I weighed ninety pounds. I was in good shape compared to others, who were worse off than I was, but I was literally a walking skeleton.
Things got a little bit better for that.
WP: How did you stay in touch with your family, if you did?
JP: I had one postcard. The Japs gave us postcards to write to our families. I had one postcard that got through. I got nothing from my family.
WP: Did you feel pressure or stress?
JP: I would call it stress. I would call it pressure. Absolutely. Big pressure, big stress.
WP: Was there anything special you did for good luck?
JP: I didn’t, but I know a lot of other people that did. Some people managed to have little pocket Bibles that they carried with them, and some people had a Crucifix or something like that. I didn’t.
What we did, Willie, we lived from holiday to holiday. We adopted slogans like “We’ll be free in Forty-Three,” and “Tell me more in Forty-Four.” There’s another way of saying that, but I don’t want to say it. I forget what the one was for 1945. We lived from holiday to holiday. If you could make it to Christmas, if you could make it to Easter, and from Easter if you could make it to the Fourth of July, and from the Fourth of July you could make it to Labor Day, and from Labor Day you could make it to Thanksgiving, and from Thanksgiving you could make it to Christmas again. It’s all to look forward to, was making it for another two or three months.
WP: Be alive in Forty-Five?
JP: YEAH! “Still alive in Forty-Five.” That’s it.
WP: How did people entertain themselves?
JP: In the big camp, at Cabanatuan, that’s the only one that had any entertainment. The Japs finally got together some instruments that were taken from when the American bands and band members were captured, and they brought some instruments into camp. So, they formed a band with people that could play. They put on shows, actually. The Japanese would come and watch these shows that these guys put on. Cabanatuan was the only place where there was any entertainment. There wasn’t entertainment in any of the work camps, there was no entertainment in Japan at Camp 17, there was absolutely no entertainment on that Hell Ship. There just wasn’t any.
WP: Were there any entertainers?
JP: Well, just the G.I.’s themselves. There were a lot of people who were talented. Some of them were musicians, and some of them were comics, things like that.
WP: Did you have leave?
JP: No leaves.
JP RECOUNTS BEING TAKEN TO JAPANESE HOME ISLANDS:
In 1944, as the American offensives were getting closer and closer to the Philippines, the Japanese decided to evacuate the American prisoners of war to Japan. On July 1, 1944, I was put on an old freighter along with 1,500 other prisoners of war. We were placed in the two forward holds of an old Japanese freighter. We were literally packed in there like sardines. We had very little water. We had a couple of five gallon gasoline cans with the ends cut out of them to use as our toilets. The guys had dysentery and diarrhea and it was just a horrible situation.
We started out of Manila Bay about three or four times, and each time we returned to the Bay. Finally, we were able to get out of the bay and join a convoy on its way to Formosa.
Our (US) submarines were operating in that particular area, and they attacked a number of ships in our convoy. We could hear the explosions of the Japanese dropping depth charges. The guys in the forward hold swear up and down they heard a torpedo brushed alongside our ship and kept going.
There were a number of these “Hell Ships” that didn’t make it. There was one that had 1,500 prisoners on it. There were five American survivors the submarines picked up afterwards. Another ship sunk had a couple of hundred survivors recovered.
There were a lot of Americans, British, Australians, lost by the Japanese moving prisoners in unmarked ships. The submariners did not know there were prisoners of war aboard.
We stopped in Formosa to take on a load of salt. The Japanese let us on decks to use a hose, so we got pretty well cleaned up. Then we went to another port on Formosa, then we sailed to Moji, Japan. We were on that ship for sixty-two days, Manila to Moji. When we got to Moji, we were in pretty bad shape. They sprayed us with DDT or something to delouse us, and put us on a train, and we went to Omuta. I was placed in Fukuoka Camp 17 at Omuta. It was one of the biggest POW camps in Japan. We had Dutch from Indonesia, British from Singapore and Malaya, and about 750 Americans in this camp.
The Americans and the Aussies worked the coal mine, while the Dutch worked the zinc mill and the docks. The Air Corps came in and bombed the zinc mill, those guys didn’t have to work, and the Navy came in and bombed the docks so those guys didn’t have to work, but the coal mine: Everybody bombed the coal mine. The Air Corps bombed the tipple mills, and they dropped napalm on the coal plows, and they couldn’t put it out of action. When they dropped napalm, we didn’t know what is was, so we called it jell-gas. As we went from the camp to the mine, we could see these open canisters along the road. The stuff in them looked like jelly, but the air smelled like gasoline, so we called it jell-gas.
I worked in that coal mine for about a year, and it was hard, hard, hard work. You were tired when you went to work, you had to put in a full 10-12 hour shift, because the job had to be done before they let you out. You were even more tired when you got out. When you got back to the barracks all you wanted to do was get the meal they were serving and go to sleep.
Most of the time I was in that coal mine I weighed not more than one hundred ten pounds. The Japs weighed us about every month or so, so we knew how we were doing.
A lot of the Americans in that coal mine maimed themselves to get out of work, sabotaging the Japanese war effort. People would break their arms. They had specialists: Guys who would break an arm, or a leg, or a hand, or a foot. You would put your foot on a rock. Someone else would pick up a great big rock and drop it on your foot. That would get you out of the mine for several months. I would say a fifth to a quarter of all the Americans in that coal mine maimed themselves at one time or another, because the work was so hard.
I was out of the mine at the time the Hiroshima bomb was dropped. Up until that day, the Japs were trying to get the last ounce of coal out of that mine. That day, when they went to work, they had no job assignments. They went down underground. The overseers told them to lay down and go to sleep. So, they took off their lamp helmets (and the lamp batteries strapped on their backs), put them down, and went to sleep. At the end of the shift, the overseer came along, woke them up, and sent them back to the surface. After that, there was no more work.
The day that Nagasaki was bombed, the prison camp was right on the edge of the bay. There was a fog bank that day, about five hundred feet or so above the ocean. There was that sort of an overcast between us and Nagasaki. There were four of us out there talking, and one guy said “Jesus Christ! Look at Nagasaki!” We looked over there, and above this overcast, there was this tremendous flash of white light. It was just there for a couple of seconds, and then it was gone.
Another guy said “Jesus Christ, I wonder what happened there?”
“Well, they must have hit an ammunition ship or an ammunition factory.”
Yeah, you know, after World War I there was an ammunition ship that went off on the Saint Lawrence River, in Halifax somewhere, and it just blew the whole town down.”
That was what we were able to compare the explosion to. We only had our own memories to explain it. A couple of weeks later, there was a Swedish consul and a Swiss consul that came to our camp. They said it was a two-pound atomic bomb. Well, now we know it was more than a two pound bomb. It might have been two pounds of plutonium on that one.
WP: Do you recall your Liberation?
JP: I was a Japanese prisoner of war in Japan, and I was liberated by a newspaperman from one of the Chicago newspapers. On August 15, 1945, all of our guards disappeared. We tore down the fences and wandered around the town of Omuta, where our camp was located…On about the last day of August 1945 a newspaperman from one of the Chicago newspapers came into our camp. He told us the only place on Kyushu (the southernmost of the Japanese Home Islands) where the Americans had occupied was at Kanoya Airfield, near the town of Kagoshima.
That afternoon there were thirty-five of us down at the train station. We had to go north up to Moji, then take another train down south. It took us almost all day to get to Kagoshima. In Kagoshima we commandeered a truck and it took us out to the air base. There they greeted us with open arms, they fed us, cleaned us up, and the next day they flew us to Okinawa. On the flight to Okinawa they flew us over Nagasaki, and we saw the devastation, and we flew over our camp, and some of the guys dropped parachutes to the guys still in camp, telling them what we had done and how we were going. We stayed on Okinawa for a few days, then we went to a Replacement Depot in the Philippines. We stayed there for a couple of weeks, then they put us on a troopship to return us to the United States.
I landed in the United States at Seattle sometime in October of 1945. There they put all of us ex-prisoners of war into Madigan Army General Hospital.
WP: What did you go on to do as a career after the war.
JP: I stayed in the Army. I retired from the Army in May of 1961 after twenty years. I went from recruit to Private to PFC to Corporal to Sergeant to Staff Sergeant, then an OCS Candidate, then a Second Lieutenant, then a First Lieutenant and Captain and I retired as a Major.
After I got out of the hospital, I took recovery leave, and then I re-enlisted.
I was first assigned to Fort MacArthur, California, where I served on funeral details. From there, I went to Fort Benning for the Paratrooper course, and then went to Fort Bragg.
From there, I was sent to Italy and the Italian-Yugoslav border. The 88th Division guarded one side of the border, and 18 Yugoslav divisions guarded the other side. When the peace treaty was signed, we turned in our heavy weapons and guarded an Air Corps depot at Marina di Pisa, Italy.
When my enlistment expired, six or seven months later, the Army returned me to the States.
I took a couple of weeks off, re-enlisted, and went to the Submarine Mine Operations Course at the Coast Artillery School, Fort Winfield Scott, on the north shore of San Francisco Bay, California. Then I decided to go to Officer Candidate School. I went to OCS at Fort Riley, Kansas, where I met your grandmother. We were married the day after I was commissioned.
As an Army officer, I first went to Fort Bliss, Texas, where I rejoined my wartime regiment, the 59th. It was now the anti-aircraft artillery school regiment. From Fort Bliss I was sent to Fort Hood, Texas, with the 1st Armored Division and its anti-aircraft artillery battalion. I was not sent to the Korean War, but went instead to Germany, to an armored field artillery battalion, from 1952 to 1955. When your grandmother and I came home, we went to Los Angeles, back to Fort MacArthur, where I spent five years at a Nike surface to air missile site. My next to last assignment was to the Taiwan Republic of China, on Formosa in the Western Pacific, in 1959 and 1960. Then I returned to Fort MacArthur until my retirement in 1961.
WP: Were you awarded any medals or citations?
JP: Almost all American troops captured by the Japanese had the Bronze Star Medal awarded to them. I have the Purple Heart, and lots of Service Medals (TRANSCRIBER NOTE: These include the Asiatic-Pacific Theater of War Medal, the Army of Occupation Medal for Japanese service, and, later in life, the Prisoner of War Medal. His regiment, the 59th Coast Artillery, also received the Presidential Unit Citation).
TRANSCRIBER NOTE: Post-retirement, Major Perkowski graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles a Bachelor of Science in Accounting in 1964. He worked for the Internal Revenue Service and the United States Board of Renegotiation from 1965 to 1979. Major Perkowski left the civil service in 1979, relocating to Nevada and opening his own private CPA practice. Major Perkowski sold his practice about 1994. He is currently a commercial property developer in Garndnerville, NV.
"MAJ John Perkowski took ill while attending the 2011 American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor Survivor's Group annual meeting. He passed away of his illness on July 26, 2011. He will join his wife, Jean, when he is buried in Arlington National Cemetery."
John W. Perkowski
LTC, USAR, Ret