by André Sobocinski, U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery
On March 25th, 2021, Peter Breckinridge Marshall’s journey came to an end as he was laid to rest beside his wife Faye at the National Cemetery at Cave Creek, Arizona. Among those paying their respects were his family and friends, members of his beloved Hospital Corps, the Patriot Guard Riders, and local media.
The story of Marshall is one of humility, survival, and—to be sure—longevity. Living to be a century old, Marshall earned the distinction as the last of the Prisoners of War (POW) captured on Guam in World War II. His captivity lasted 1,386 days—the duration of the war. In the years after the war Marshall battled through pulmonary tuberculosis contracted at the prison camps, post-traumatic stress disorder and even a bout of COVID-19 before passing away at the Prescott VA Medical Center earlier in March 2021.
Marshall’s journey began in Long Lane, Missouri, 50 miles northeast of Springfield. This was not so much a town as a family farm situated along a long country road. He was the tenth of 12 children. His early childhood read like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, whose eponymous hero wandered the backroads of Missouri seeking adventure and fostering an active imagination.
Growing up he saw his older brothers enter military service—and in World War II, six of the 12 Marshall children served in the military. With a little wanderlust in his heart, in October 1939—at the age of 18—Peter Marshall enlisted in the Navy to expand his horizons and “see the world.” After basic training at Great Lakes, he attended Hospital Corps School in San Diego and then briefly served at the Naval Hospital San Diego where trained as an Operating Room (OR) technician (now known as a Surgical Technologist). Earning $54/month as a Hospital Apprentice First Class, his job was to provide nursing care in the operating room, safety, and support patients before, during and after surgery.
In January 1941, Marshall and two other OR Techs received orders for the Naval Hospital Guam, arriving in early February of that year. Navy Medicine has had a presence on Guam going back to the Spanish-American War. In the months leading to the war Naval Hospital Guam consisted of four 2-storied bungalow-type buildings—a main administration hospital and three principal ward buildings (containing 30 beds a piece). The four buildings formed a square with a courtyard in the center. The main building was used for administration, sick call and also contained the galley and storerooms. The average complement at the hospital before the war was six to 12 medical officers, one pharmacist, two to five nurses, and 30 to 40 hospital corpsmen.
On Monday morning, December 1941, Marshall was scrubbing in for the first operation of the day when the surgeon Lt. Cmdr Hubert Van Peenen entered the OR to announce that all operations were cancelled. Pearl Harbor had been attacked and Japanese planes were now overhead. As he spoke, the Marine barracks was being bombed and the hospital was strafed. Immediately, the hospital medical personnel went into action preparing triage wards and soon after received their first patients of the war. The next day, as they continued to tend to the wounded the hospital’s Commanding Officer, Capt. William Lineberry came by with some bad news. “He didn’t mince words,” Marshall later recalled. “He said by this time tomorrow we would all be prisoners of war or killed. I don’t think I slept a wink that night.”
1,386 Days and Nights
By the time Guam was attacked, all the medical personnel knew about the devastation in Shanghai and Nanking and at Pearl Harbor. When Guam surrendered on December 10, the Japanese came by the hospital compound and ordered Capt. Lineberry to limit his staff to 20 and move all patients and staff into a single ward. The other staff was to be moved to a nearby church. Marshall remained at the hospital working alongside Dr. Van Peenen and other hospital personnel.
On December 12th, the Japanese gathered 20 staff members including Marshall to the center of the hospital compound and lined them up in a row directly in front of a manned machine gun with another machine gun pointed at them on their right side.
“I had never been so scared in all my life,” Marshall remembered. ”I can truthfully say I know how it feels just before you are put to death. My heart was pounding. I could feel sweat running down my body.” Instead of being shot they were instead given a long-winded propaganda speech. The trauma of that event later caused Marshall “black out” and not remember anything for the next three weeks.
It was January 10, 1942 when Marshall and his fellow prisoners were finally removed from the hospital compound and gathered with other POWs from the island—including 300 American military personnel, 200 American civilians, five Navy nurses (including a future director of the Nurse Corps), a serviceman’s wife and her baby, and five Spanish priests. They were marched to the Piti Navy Yard and loaded onto Argentina Maru prison ship destined for Japan. The naval hospital Marshall had left ceased to exist at that point.
Arriving on the morning of January 15th, the prisoners were each given two slices of bread, ferried ashore without blankets or adequate clothing in the cold temperature and across the snowy landscape. The women and child were separated from the men who were photographed and then taken to Zentsuji prison camp, an old army barracks that had housed Russian prisoners during the Russo-Japanese War some forty years earlier. Officers were then separated from enlisted. Enlisted personnel (E-5 and below) were assembled into working parties and assigned to clear the land for planting crops and to work as stevedores loading box cars and ships. The Navy nurses were later exchanged for Japanese prisoners that year aboard the Swedish ship Gripsholm.
Marshall and 150 fellow POWs were relocated to Osaka in June 1942—first interned at the stadium quarters and then the notorious Osaka POW Camp No. 1. At that point, Marshall realized that he and the others were “in it for the long haul” and their plight was not going to be over soon. By the summer of 1942, he was one among 27,000 Americans facing forced labor, starvation, disease, and torture at Japanese prison camps. Forty percent of these American POWs never made it out of those camps.
Marshall served alongside Americans, Australians, British, Chinese, Dutch and Indians at Osaka. He again was assigned backbreaking duty as a stevedore transporting cargo onto ships and unloading freight onto train cars and trucks. At the camp Marshall began suffering respiratory problems. To be sure, showing any weakness was never good and only a limited number of prisoners were permitted to miss work to recuperate. For a time, a Navy pharmacist’s mate second class (Clayton Atwood) ran a sick bay and held daily sick call for the prisoners. There was also a makeshift “hospital” at the stadium, but those who were sent there were often on their last legs and rarely returned. Among the prisoners it was believed that only ten percent of the patients sent to the hospital came back alive. When Marshall began suffering illness he tried to hide his condition as best he could for fear of being sent to the hospital.
It was only when his breathing became so labored that he could barely stand, he saw a doctor that had newly arrived at the camp. He was diagnosed with fluid in his pleural cavity and a partially collapsed lung. The doctor then took out a large needle and syringe and performed a thoracentesis to remove some of the fluid from his lung. This offered temporary relief, but Marshall would continue to suffer respiratory issues for years to come.
Repatriation and Return to Service
While on work detail on the morning of June 1, 1945, Marshall heard a loud droning overhead that caused the ground to shake. Looking up he saw a group of B-29 Superfortresses overhead that was soon followed by the dropping of bombs onto the camp. The bombardment lasted four hours. The camp was levelled and the surviving prisoners were rounded into temporary quarters for three weeks before being packed into a boxcar destined for the port of Fushiki with a bucket of rice and a single toilet to share. Marshall later remarked, “From the time we were taken prisoner there were two constants for me—hunger and humiliation. I think this was true for every American POW.”
At the new camp the prisoners were a mess and rations were even more meager than they had been. “People were dying all over the place, two or three a week from dysentery and other related diseases,” remembered Marshall. “I could hardly wait for a work detail just to get away from the camp.”
Again as a stevedore, Marshall began to work barefoot just to ensure that his shoes would last another winter. Fortunately that winter would never come. On August 16, 1945, the prisoners at Fushiki were informed that Japan and the Allies were discussing peace terms. They were supplied food and a radio when they learned through on an English station that prison camps were urged to draw a large “POW sign” for aerial spotting.
On August 23, an American plane dropped a bundle of cigarettes and a note stating that their camp has been spotted. Additional parcels containing K-rations and cigarettes “galore” were dropped on the camp in the ensuing days. Just over a week later, the first military personnel arrived at Marshall’s camp to repatriate the prisoners.
Life After Service
After being repatriated, Marshall returned to his family and to service. He and his wife Faye had two daughters—Cynthia and Beverly—both born after the war. And Marshall was happy to return the Navy that he loved and sought to “make a career” out of the Hospital Corps.
He attended laboratory technician “C” school at the National Naval Medical Center Bethesda and was assigned to the dispensary at the Marine Corps Air Station in Cherry Point, N.C. (the precursor Naval Hospital Cherry Point).
One day he began feeling run-down and was sent to the Naval Hospital Camp Lejeune for testing. They discovered that he had active pulmonary tuberculosis. Marshall was transferred to Naval Hospital St. Albans, N.Y., for advanced treatment before being medically discharged from the Navy in July 1948.
Marshall was in and out of VA hospitals over the next few years because of his TB and eventually underwent a pleurodesis to prevent future episodes of collapsed lung. He later became a serologist at a laboratory in Arizona where he specialized in work on Valley Fever.
In 1950, American POWs were compensated for $1.00 a day every day they were imprisoned. The money came from frozen wartime Japanese and German assets. That year Marshall received a check for $1,386—the most money he had ever received in his life up to that point.
Despite the many hardships as a POW, Marshall’s family said he was never bitter and held no ill-feelings towards the Japanese people—it was only the thoughts of those smirking soldiers that held him and his fellow prisoners at gun point that occasionally bothered him later in life. He rallied against the injustices the Japanese-Americans faced at U.S. internment camps during the war. In the 1960s, he became strong advocate for Civil Rights in Arizona, took part in marches on Flagstaff and fought for the hiring of minorities at the laboratory he worked at.
Like many World War II veterans, Marshall never shared his war experiences. Growing up, his daughters knew that he served in the war, but it was never a topic of discussion at the dining room table or anytime for that matter. Curiously though, when they were children he taught them how to count in Japanese, a skill they he learned when mustering at the prison camps.
It was in the 1990s—during the many World War II commemoration events—that triggered some of those “bad memories” Marshall had internalized all of those years. While he was in his seventies, he began to draft a memoir in order to deal with those painful experiences. Remarkably this was the first time his family and friends learned about his experiences as a POW. Over the last decades of his life Marshall began accepting interviews and speaking about his experiences proved cathartic for him.
For his daughters, Peter Marshall was more than a sailor who served as a POW.
His daughter Beverly spoke about his great sense of humor and playful nature. To entertain his children and his many nieces and nephews he would walk on his hands and clown around. In the mornings he would wake up his daughters by saying “reveille in the swamps” or “Get up now. The Rebels are coming.” And on Christmas morning—he was the biggest kid in the house—and would wake up his daughters two o’clock in the morning to open presents.
For Cynthia, there is sadness in the loss of a father who is the last of the 12 Marshall siblings. But more than anything she wants him to be remembered for a lifetime as a caring person who always had time for others and loved making people happy despite his own hardships.
“I want people to know that he was a kind man, and devoted to his family.”
- Hopkins, Cynthia and Beverly Doyle. “An Interview about Peter Marshall.” Interview conducted by A.B. Sobocinski, 18 March 2021.
- Jackson, Leona. Notes made aboard SS Gripsholm, 1942. Navy Department Library.
- Marshall, Peter. 1368 Day: An American POW in WWII Japan. Eugene, OR: Luminare Press, 2017.
- Patton, W.K. “Naval Hospital Guam.” A History of Naval Hospitals (unpublished), ca 1970. BUMED Archives