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WWII POWs recall striking back as saboteurs

Oct. 5, 2012 - 11:51AM   |   Last Updated: Oct. 5, 2012 - 11:51AM  |  
Erwin Johnson of Lacombe, La., reacts as he gets kissed on the cheeks from members of the Andrew Sisters-styled group The Victory Belles on Oct. 3 at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. Four survivors of a WWII prison camp, two captured at Bataan, two at Corregidor, and families of other Mukden POWs are holding their 29th reunion in New Orleans.
Erwin Johnson of Lacombe, La., reacts as he gets kissed on the cheeks from members of the Andrew Sisters-styled group The Victory Belles on Oct. 3 at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. Four survivors of a WWII prison camp, two captured at Bataan, two at Corregidor, and families of other Mukden POWs are holding their 29th reunion in New Orleans. (Gerald Herbert / AP)
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Robert Rosendahl, left, of Springfield, Mo., shares stories with World War II veteran volunteer Tom Blakey on Oct. 3 at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. Four survivors of a World War II prison camp, two captured at Bataan, two at Corregidor, and families of other Mukden POWs are holding their 29th reunion in New Orleans. (Janet McConnaughey / AP)

NEW ORLEANS — A huge prisoner-of-war camp in what was then Manchuria was set up to provide skilled workers at a factory complex that made tools and machine and airplane parts for Japan during World War II.

But survivors meeting this week say what the Japanese got instead at Mukden — now Shenyang, China — was motivated saboteurs of their war effort.

"We're pretty sure that none of the parts that we made was any good," said Erwin Johnson, 91, of LaPlace, La. Johnson, who was in the Army Air Corps, was sent to the camp after surviving the Bataan Death March in the Philippines in 1942.

He and three other men held at Mukden — another taken prisoner at Bataan on April 9, 1942, and two when the island fortress of Corregidor fell on May 6, 1942 — are holding their 29th reunion through Saturday in New Orleans. A visit to the National World War II Museum was the first thing on their schedule.

Johnson, Robert Rosendahl, 91, of Springfield, Mo., Ralph Griffith, 89, of Hannibal, Mo., and Randall Edwards, 95, of Lakeland, Fla., were among the first 1,200 Americans brought to the camp. Though most were Americans, there were also British, Australian, New Zealand and Dutch prisoners.

The Japanese attacked the Philippines at the opening of the war, but American forces under Gen. Douglas MacArthur held out until spring 1942. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's order to leave the Philippines sparked MacArthur's famous "I shall return" speech.

At its peak, Mukden and several satellite camps held 2,040 prisoners, said Linda Goetz Holmes, whose book about the camp was published in 2010 by Naval Institute Press.

The first Americans all were from the Philippine campaign. Rosendahl and Griffith were in the Army, Edwards was in the Navy.

The Japanese industrial company, today known for automobiles and consumer products, had asked the Japanese Army to supply skilled workers for a tool and die factory and one making airplane parts, Holmes said. Mitsubishi's A6M Zero fighter was feared early in the war, as it outclassed most American fighter aircraft.

"The sabotage stories from Mukden are the best ones I've ever heard, and I've been researching and writing about our POWs for 20-plus years," Holmes said. "One guy talked about being in charge of blueprints. He would just take that ruler and be a little off in that design."

Prisoners making lathes for machine-gun bullets sneaked iron filings into gear boxes so the machines would work for a bit, then seize up, said Edwards.

Sabotage was constant but cautious. Beatings for breaking minor camp rules were frequent. Getting caught in sabotage could mean death, Rosendahl said.

Nearly 300 men died during the first winter as temperatures reached 40 degrees below zero. Death rates at Mukden were much lower after that. And even the first winter's death rate of about one man in four was low compared to the 40.4 percent rate for all 27,465 Army and Army Air Corps POWs taken in the Pacific Theater.

German prison camps were less brutal: Army figures show death rates of less than 1 percent in the Mediterranean and 1.3 percent in the European Theater. In all, 130,201 Americans were taken prisoner during World War II; 116,129 returned home.

Rosendahl said he was too ill for factory work and had to strip bodies. Each man had two dog tags. One went to the camp commandant; the other was put into the dead man's mouth for identification, Rosendahl said.

In summer 1943, the POWs moved to a better camp that had a hospital.

Holmes said some Mukden POWs were subjected to experiments by doctors from Unit 731, a top-secret biological and chemical warfare project. Men described groups getting ill after eating oranges given them by doctors, she said.

Still, Edwards said, his postwar work with other ex-POWs convinced him Mukden was the best of a horrifying lot. "We had a decent place to work. It was clean, well-ventilated. We were not underground in a dirty wet coal mine or copper mine. We had soybeans to eat" — protein, not starchy rice.

The Mukden POWs got about half the 4,000 calories a day the U.S. Army considered the minimum but more than other POWs, said Gregory J.W. Urwin, a Temple University history professor and author of a book about the men captured on Wake Island early in the war.

"The Japanese didn't keep you healthy for fun," he said. At Mukden, they wanted work — and to look good for the Red Cross, which occasionally visited.

Only three men escaped before the Japanese surrendered in 1945, and they were quickly caught. "We were 800 miles from the Siberian border. They were three white men among umpty-thousand Chinese," Edwards said.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki were atom-bombed on Aug. 6 and 9, 1945, and Japan agreed to surrender on Aug. 14. The Japanese military had orders to execute POWs if Japan was invaded, so an Office of Strategic Services — predecessor of the CIA — team parachuted into the camp Aug. 16 to tell them the war was over.

Russian troops liberated the camp on Aug. 20, 1945.

Chinese local and national governments have turned the site into a museum dedicated to the POWs who died there.

Although POW camps were supposed to be clearly marked and away from cities, Mukden was unmarked and near several targets including an airport and an ammunition depot. When American B-29s bombed the area in December 1944, two bombs hit the prison camp, killing 19 and wounding 30, Urwin said.

Edwards said he helped carry a man who lost an arm and part of his skull into the hospital. The Japanese tried to use him for a propaganda interview and the man agreed to talk, he said. Lights and cameras were set up.

"He said, ‘Send 'em again. They're beautiful.'"

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