April 1943 would become a landmark month in the history of prisoners of war (POWs). In Stalag Luft III, a Luftwaffe-run POW camp in Lower Silesia, Germany, Squadron Leader Roger Bushell of the RAF began formulating plans for what would be called “the Great Escape” in March 1944 – a tunnel breakout of 76 POWs in which three succeeded in reaching freedom and 50 were executed by the Gestapo. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, at Davao Penal Colony on the Philippine island of Mindanao, after months of meticulous planning, 10 American POWs conducted their own Great Escape on April 4 by openly walking out of the front gate of the Japanese-run POW camp. The War Department would call their action the “greatest story of the war in the Pacific.”
The men knew that, if caught, they faced a death sentence. But it was a risk all were willing to take because they wanted to tell the world about Japanese Army atrocities being committed against POWs.
The tragic story of Japanese mistreatment and murder began in early April 1942, following the surrender of as many as 80,000 American and Filipino servicemen (estimates vary) on the Bataan Peninsula. The Japanese 14th Army was unprepared for such a large number of POWs. Worse, the Bushido (Way of the Warrior) code that dominated Japanese military thinking equated surrender with treason and effectively rendered prisoners as something subhuman. And, having been indoctrinated by a system of institutionalized and hierarchical corporal punishment unique to the Japanese military, Japanese junior officers and enlisted men believed they had free rein to brutalize their charges during the journey to Camp O’Donnell, where most would be incarcerated.
“We must tell the world what the Japanese are doing in the Philippines. We must make the horrors of O’Donnell, Cabanatuan, and Davao a matter of record.”
– Maj. Stephen Mellnik
The POWs were forced to walk in the sweltering heat without rest and little or no water or food. Those who collapsed along the way were run over by trucks, shot, bayoneted, beheaded, or buried alive by fellow prisoners forcibly impressed to do so under pain of execution. Those who managed to remain upright endured arbitrary beatings and bayoneting. It’s estimated that up to 10,000 Filipino and 650 American POWs died in the 80-mile trek to Camp O’Donnell, called the Bataan Death March. At O’Donnell and at another POW camp on Luzon, Cabantuan, the horrific treatment continued.
Lt. Cmdr. Melvyn H. McCoy of the U.S. Navy; Maj. Mike Dobervich, Capt. Austin Shofner, and 1st Lt. Jack Hawkins of the Marine Corps; Maj. Stephen Mellnik, Lt. Leo Boelens, and Sgts. Paul Marshall and Robert Spielman of the U.S. Army; and Capts. William “Ed” Dyess and Sam Grashio of the Army Air Corps were among the men who witnessed and survived the atrocities of the Bataan Death March, O’Donnell, and Cabanatuan. While at Cabanatuan, Japanese authorities issued a call for 1,000 healthy men to work at a new camp. Deciding that any place was better than Cabanatuan, they signed the list. On Nov. 7, 1942, they were among the 1,000 POWs who arrived at Davao Penal Colony – Dapecol – tucked in a remote section of Mindanao.
Originally part of the Philippine prison system, Dapecol was a maximum-security prison along the lines of France’s Devil’s Island and America’s Alcatraz. But instead of water, Dapecol’s barrier was an impenetrable malaria-infested swamp containing headhunters, poisonous snakes, crocodiles, and other menaces. Containing about 140 square miles, Dapecol possessed fruit and nut orchards, vegetable and grain fields, and a mahogany forest worked by the prisoners. Upon conquering the Philippines, the Japanese Army took over operations, to the benefit of their war effort.
The Japanese had every reason to believe escape was impossible. In the 10 years of Dapecol’s existence, no prisoner had escaped. In addition, roughly 1,300 miles of ocean separated the POWs from Australia. But escape is exactly what these 10 men planned. Initially there were two independent escape teams, one led by McCoy and the other by the Marines. They learned of each other and joined forces when the Marines approached McCoy seeking his help in piloting a boat once they reached the coast.
From the middle of February to the end of March 1943, and with the help of a couple of sympathetic locals, the men secretly smuggled out the items they’d need and buried them at the agreed jump-off site. No one else in the camp knew of their plan.
On Sunday morning, April 4, with musette bags filled with last-minute items slung over their shoulders, the men assembled into their work details. As a guard checked them off on a chalkboard, the men marched through the gate, ostensibly on their way to their assigned fields.
As they did so, Frank Carpenter, an officer friend of Mellnik’s shouted out jokingly, “Hey, Steve! Your toothbrush is sticking out of the back of your musette bag. Are you planning to escape?”
To be continued