On the morning of April 4, 1943, two POW work details made up of Lt. Cmdr. Melvyn H. McCoy, U.S. Navy; Maj. Mike Dobervich, Capt. Austin Shofner, and 1st Lt. Jack Hawkins, U.S. Marine Corps; Maj. Stephen Mellnik, Lt. Leo Boelens, Sgt. Paul Marshall, and Sgt. Robert Spielman, U.S. Army; and Capt. William Edwin Dyess and Capt. Sam Grashio, U.S. Army Air Corps, began their trek through the compound of Davao Penal Colony. To the Japanese guards, it was just another morning watching two groups of POWs on their way to tend the fields and orchards that supplied Dapecol, as it was called, with its food and income. From inside the fence, POW 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?” Mellnik pretended not to hear. Though Carpenter didn’t know it, that’s exactly what the men were doing.
Thirty minutes later they rendezvoused at a plower’s shack where they had secretly hidden supplies. At 10:30, they rendezvoused with two local Filipinos who had agreed to guide them through the impenetrable swamp around Dapecol. The men began cutting through the thick vegetation with their bolos. After months of secret preparation, the Great Escape of the Pacific Theater was on.
At 6:00 p.m. the POWs assembled for the evening roll call. The guards began counting. Then they did a recount – then a third counting. Bafflement gave way to a stunning realization. The unthinkable had happened – 10 American POWs had escaped!
The furious Japanese commander threatened the POWs, whom he accused of aiding the escapees, with death. The guards beat the POW commander, barracks leaders, and POWs who had bunked beside the escapees in a vain attempt to extract information.
Don’t you think Sam ought to lead us in a little prayer?”
—Capt. Edwin Dyess to Capt. Austin Shofner
The first two days in the swamp were hell for the weakened escapees. Despite having a compass, initially they got lost and found themselves going in circles. Better progress was made when they worked out a relay system where two men would hack away at the underbrush with bolos before being relieved. Compass readings taken at regular intervals ensured they maintained a northeasterly course.
But, on their second day of freedom, as evening approached, the morale of some of the exhausted men, some sick and delirious, collapsed. Dyess, as one of the original instigators, knew he should say something to restore the situation, but felt the better person for that was the most religious member of the group, Sam Grashio. Dyess asked Grashio to lead them in prayer. Grashio, a Catholic, went to his knees and began reciting the “Memorare,” a prayer to the Virgin Mary, pausing after each sentence, allowing the others to repeat it:
Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, never was it known that anyone who fled to your protection or sought your intercession was left unaided. Inspired by this confidence I fly unto you O Virgin of virgins, my Mother; to you I come, before you I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in your mercy and kindness, hear and answer me. Amen.”
In his book, Escape from Davao, John D. Lukacs wrote, “To a man, the effect of Grashio’s words was instantaneous, calming and curative. None of them would ever be able to explain just what had happened that night … But Grashio knew.
“‘I thought a miracle had occurred,’ he would say. ‘I felt now that God would save us.’”
Four days later, they arrived at the village of Lungaog and met friendly Filipino guerrillas who agreed to help them get to Australia. From that point on in their roughly 300-mile journey on Mindanao and until they were taken by submarine to Australia (Leo Boelens remained to help the guerrillas), at each village along the way the Americans were feted like celebrities. Years later, Grashio would recall, “After 12 months of brutality, starvation, and degradation, an abrupt change to such hospitality left us midway between tears of gratitude and utter bewilderment.”
At Australia, Dyess, McCoy, and Mellnik met theater commander Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who pinned Distinguished Service Crosses on them. After hearing their story, he said, “The Japanese will pay for that humiliation and suffering.”
The first story of the POWs’ ordeal was released on Jan. 28, 1944, followed by accounts in other publications. They aroused such fury in the American public that the government’s Europe First policy was imperiled. On Jan. 29 at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Margaret Truman, Missouri senator Harry Truman’s daughter, expressed the feelings of her fellow Americans when she said as she christened the battleship USS Missouri, “May this great ship be an avenger to the barbarians who wantonly slaughtered the heroes of Bataan.”