Share This Article

The battle began on the tiny Philippine peninsula of Bataan. For a Montana cowboy taken prisoner by the Japanese, it ended only after he had endured—and recorded—the horrors of life in captivity.

Malaria had turned the blood in his brain to sludge, and he was unconscious for long periods of time. His beriberi was advancing rapidly; he looked like a swollen grotesque, his body so filled with fluid that his organs were drowning. A puncture wound in his right foot had given him blood poisoning and was suppurating. Doctors thought they detected the first signs of gangrene. During a moment of lucidity, he was sure he heard one of them say, “You could lose that leg, you know? You hear, soldier?” His lungs were gurgling and his temperature was spiking, sure signs of bronchial pneumonia. He still had dysentery and he was jaundiced, a liver infection, doctors said. All in all, he was dying, a miserable specimen of a man lying on a cotton pad on the concrete floor of Manila’s Bilibid Prison Hospital during the late summer of 1942.

Pvt. Ben Steele of Billings, Montana, serial number 190-18-989, most recently of the 7th Material Squadron, 19th Bombardment Group, U.S. Army Air Corps, had thought he was going to make it home alive.

He had been under the bombs at Clark Field on December 8, 1941, when, some eight hours after the raid on Pearl Harbor, Japanese attack squadrons destroyed Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s Far East Air Force in the Philippines.

He had lived through the 99-day Battle of Bataan that followed, America’s first major land clash in World War II and an exercise in starvation and slaughter that became the country’s worst military defeat ever, with the surrender of 76,000 men on April 9, 1942.

When those Filipino and American prisoners of war were rounded up and set walking under an incendiary sun 66 miles to a railhead and prison camp—the infamous death march that left more than a thousand bodies along the way, bodies for the dogs and crows and night lizards—he kept going, one foot after the other.

In Camp O’Donnell, a pestilent charnel house on a patch of steaming grassland surrounded by barbed wire and watchtowers, his comrades died: 20, 30, 40 a day. He stayed alive by working, mostly on the camp burial detail, stacking the bodies of the dead four and five deep in mass graves.

One day, bent on improving his chances, he volunteered for a work detail outside the camp. Forty-eight hours later he found himself 150 miles south of Manila on the rugged, rain-swept Bicol Peninsula with 300 other POWs, hacking a road—Tayabas Road—out of the jungle: sick and starving men trying to move hills and mounds of mud by hand with hoes and picks, shovels and wheelbarrows.

Their Japanese overseers beat them, of course. That was nothing new. Kimitachi wa meiyoaru horyo ja nai, the Japanese commandant of O’Donnell had told them. “You are not honorable prisoners of war; you are captives! So don’t expect to be treated well.”

To a modern army with a medieval mindset, captives were no better than chattel, draft animals. At night on the road detail, the Japanese made the POWs sleep in the rain on a riverbank of rocks and gravel with the jungle looming at their backs: nothing over them but a monsoon sky, nothing under them but a bed of stones.

Ben Steele had assumed that his upbringing would once again help him get through. He’d been raised on a ranch in the Bull Mountains on Montana’s eastern plain, a cowboy’s son accustomed to the broiling heat and bitter cold of a Montana homestead. He had come out of that hardscrabble boyhood a patient and optimistic man who got on well with everyone—the lean, gentle ranch hand with the soft brown eyes and big smile.

But by their third week at Tayabas Road, the 300 Americans on the work detail were starting to die in bunches. As he had lain on the rocks shaking with malaria—they were all sick with something—the optimist in him had started losing heart. The army he had been part of had fought a last stand on starvation rations in a steaming jungle. They had gone into captivity ill and enervated, and the death march and long pestilent weeks in Camp O’Donnell had left them even weaker. Twice the Japanese had sent trucks filled with the sickest of them back to Manila and Bilibid Prison, an old crumbling lockup that the Japanese had turned into a transit center and hospital for prisoners of war. By the last week of July 1942, more than a third of the men on the detail were dead, and none of the 100 men left were able to work.

So one morning, the Japanese had told them they were shipping everyone back. Maybe Ben Steele heard the news, maybe he didn’t. He had been on his back, delirious for weeks. All he could think about was getting a drink of water. He had pulled himself slowly across the rocks to the river and lowered his face into the current. He didn’t remember much after that: being lifted into a truck, then some hard jolts, then nothing.

The trip from Tayabas Road had been long and rough, a day’s travel across bad roads. When a truck hit a rut or pothole, the men in back would bounce and moan, and Ben Steele would come to for a moment and think, “I’m all but dead.”

In the yard at Bilibid Prison someone slipped arms under him, lifted him up, and set him down on a stretcher. How did he feel? one of his bearers asked. He would be okay now, they said. They’d take care of him.

They carried him across an open area and into a building. The first thing he thought was, “I have a roof over my head.”

They set the stretcher by a wall, spread a cotton pad on the concrete floor, and rolled him onto it.

“How about some soup?” one of the corpsmen asked.

The soup tasted good.

“Thank you,” Ben Steele said. “Thank you.”

Then, he began to weep.

The trucks from Tayabas Road had arrived around 5:45 p.m. on July 28. Among the doctors and corpsmen waiting in the prison yard that evening was Lt. Comdr. Thomas H. Hayes, Bilibid’s chief surgeon, who noted the event in his diary:

Eight big truck loads…. It was the last of the [work detail]…. Two lasted long enough for us to lay them out on stretchers under a mango tree where they immediately expired. Another dozen in extremis we laid out on the ground until the Japs would release them to us for bedding down. The rest, horrible walking creatures, like Haitian Zombies, the living dead dirty, bewhiskered, hollow cheeked, sunken eyes, some too weak to stand. Others still up on their pins, fighting to the last ditch to carry their few remaining articles…. Pitiful broken human hulks.

Pharmacist’s Mate Clarence Shearer, standing nearby, started to catalog their condition: “All very pitiful…. With [our] food issue [here at the hospital] scarcely more than sufficient to prevent starvations; with the supply of anti-dysentery and anti-malarial preparations meager and uncertain, it is going to prove extremely difficult to save the majority of these individuals.”

In the annals of war penology, Bilibid Prison was unique. Part of it served as a transit center for groups of prisoners of war who were being shuttled between the various POW camps and work details in the Philippines or being readied for shipment to Japan as slave laborers. Another part was a kind of prison within a prison, a mysterious domain where the enemy sent “special prisoners”: men who had attempted escape and, for reasons no one could explain, had not been executed.

The rest of Bilibid, roughly half the prison—nine one-story adobe-and-concrete cellblocks and a handful of dormitories with bare windows—was given over to a POW hospital.

The adobe façades were gray and ocher, streaked with soot and grime. The prison occupied five city blocks in the center of Manila and, before war broke out, had been used as a government storehouse. The roofs leaked, most of the pipes and electrical fixtures had been purloined by the locals, and almost everything else inside the crumbling buildings was rusted and rotting.

Not long after the surrender, the Japanese moved a group of American army doctors into the derelict compound and ordered them to set up the hospital.

Those particular doctors, however, were disorganized and badly led. Overwhelmed by the number of patients, they did little but warehouse the sick, making the hospital more a pitiful way station than an infirmary. That changed in July 1942 when the Japanese brought in a group of navy doctors and corpsmen led by Comdr. Lea B. “Pappy” Sartin and his chief of surgery, Lt. Comdr. Thomas H. Hayes.

Sartin took one look at the filthy and degrading hellhole and immediately ordered his 26 doctors, 11 dentists, and 165 corpsmen, pharmacist’s mates, and orderlies to scrub it down and make repairs. Using supplies they had secreted in their pockets and under the blankets of the patients they brought in with them, the navy men established wards, treatment rooms, and a space for surgery. Pappy Sartin set down the rules, but Tom Hayes was the hospital’s real ramrod.

A day or two after he arrived, on July 4, 1942, Hayes visited each ward to see what was waiting for him, then made an entry in the secret notebooks he had started to keep:

A walk thru the length of the wards, each holding about eighty cadaverous animals that once were men, is one of the most desperate, heartrending sights conceivable…. At best many must die. In this prison the war is not over.

Hayes was impatient and impolitic (“outspoken” and “aggressive” in official reports), but he was such a good doctor and medical administrator that he thrived at every post ashore or at sea. He grew up by the ocean, in the Tidewater region of Virginia, and after graduating from George Washington University’s medical school, he joined the navy and was commissioned in 1924. By May 1941, he was a lieutenant commander, the chief surgeon at the Cavite Naval Base Hospital, eight miles from Manila. On December 10, 1941, the first day of air raids on Cavite, Tom Hayes proved to be the right man at a critical moment. He kept three operating teams working continuously, treating more than 1,330 casualties; then, under fire, he helped organize the evacuation of the hospital, moving the wounded to clinics in Manila.

On the afternoon of July 28, 1942, Hayes was standing in the prison yard seething as the derelicts from Tayabas Road were taken slowly and carefully off the trucks:

All the bitterness and the hate that has kindled and built up in me in these past two months of captivity seemed to well up within me at that moment. At no one other moment in my life have I ever hated with [such] intensity…. I swore and vowed that I would never be satisfied nor content on earth until every vestige of Nippon was destroyed—until I have personally known the feel of ramming a bayonet into their guts, starving them, looting them of all they hold dear…. Until I die, every one of them is my avowed eternal enemy. Goddamn ’em.

Some days Ben Steele knew he was alive, some days not. One dim day a priest appeared: Father William T. Cummings, a short, plucky Maryknoll brother who had served his order in the Philippines before the war and, after the Japanese attacked, had volunteered for service in the army.

Father Cummings opened his Mass kit, took out a prayer book, rosary, and tin of holy oil. He dipped his thumb in the oil and made the sign of the cross on Ben Steele’s eyes, ears, nose, and mouth.

“Through this holy anointing, may the Lord forgive you whatever sins you have committed…. Amen.”

Ben Steele lay very still. His eyes were closed, his senses swimming, but he could hear the voice and recognized the prayer, the last rites. (Along the death march and later in O’Donnell, he had watched priests kneel at other men’s sides and absolve them of their sins before death released them from their misery.) Now he felt neither fear nor joy, just sick— heavy sick, as the doctors called it—and tired.

“I’m ready,” he thought.

He survived the week. His edema got worse, though. He was hideously swollen now. Then he went into a coma again, and Cummings returned with his rosary and tin of oil.

“Okay, Ben,” the priest said, “why don’t we try this again?”

To the men who had been on the death march, then in O’Donnell, then on grueling work details, the gray stone walls of Bilibid Prison seemed warm and enfolding. The doctors and orderlies, however, hated the place. The circumstances of their capture and early custody had not been nearly as harsh as that of their patients. Accustomed to the white, antiseptic chambers of a hospital, the navy men were appalled by Bilibid’s sooty squalor. To them Bilibid was no sanctuary; it was a bastille, a melancholy tomb.

[Hayes, July 30] All day rain. Raw damp & cold. Held a [leadership] council meeting tonight [with five senior doctors]. Things look a little desperate. Information from the outside plainly indicates [extra] food becoming almost unobtainable…. There isn’t a chance in a million of any Red Cross Relief ship or any thing of that kind…. There is every reason to believe that as far as we are concerned, our country has scratched us off the list and charged us up to loss.

Around eight every morning, doctors would begin their rounds, two or three to a ward, roughly a dozen wards crowded with 80 to 100 men, some on pads on the concrete floor, others on old iron-and-spring cots or sleeping platforms cobbled together from scraps of wood.

Of all the diseases the doctors encountered, none frustrated them more than those brought on by a simple lack of food, because diseases born of starvation respond to a simple cure—give a swollen or emaciated starveling the food he needs and his improvement will be marked and dramatic. And that knowledge, that ancient and obvious medical certainty, left the prisoner-doctors of Bilibid frustrated and depressed. For want of a few vitamins and minerals, simple sustenance, men were dying of beriberi and other “deficiency” diseases. Every week a burial detail quarried fresh graves in the boneyard by the back wall.

And in their early months in prison there was little that Pappy Sartin, Tom Hayes, or the other 40 clinicians at Bilibid could do to stop the digging.

[Hayes, August 24] Our dysenteries and beriberis still die. We have improved the general mass of the sick but even at best, with our supplementary [food bought from merchants at the gate] we are not able to produce a planned ration. None of us will ever be really well.

Their diet was rice, rice, and rice. The rice tasted moldy, musty, dirty, soggy, like raw dough, like wallpaper paste, like dishwater. All were hungry all the time. If a dog, cat, snake, or rat wandered into the compound, it ended up in someone’s cook pot. The Catholic chaplains had contacts outside the walls who from time to time smuggled in peanuts and chunks of crude horse sugar, and for a while an unusual number of Bilibid’s patients expressed an interest in converting to the Church of Rome. “Son,” Father John E. Duffy finally told a would-be convert, “you don’t want to be a Catholic. You’re just hungry.”

That November Ben Steele turned 25. He was still sick with malaria, beriberi, dysentery, and jaundice, but after three months in Bilibid he seemed on the mend. A spike of protein from a duck egg and some mongo beans had activated his kidneys, and the terrible swelling that had distorted his body had slowed. He was still an invalid, but against all his doctors’ expectations, he had survived. As they say in Montana, he’d been near enough to hell to smell the smoke and was happier than a kid pulling on a dog’s ears just to be breathing.

But he was going a little insane. Lying there on a pad on the concrete floor day after day, he thought, “I’ve got to find something to do or I’ll lose my mind.”

His thoughts naturally drifted back to Montana and the homestead ranch where he’d grown up. One day, lying on the floor, he pulled himself over to the cook fire in the ward, picked a piece of burnt wood from the ashes and, using it like a stick of charcoal, started to scratch black lines on the gray concrete.

He had always been fascinated by art, the process of rendering a three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional plane. When he was a boy growing up on the homestead, the family would often spend time in the nearby town of Roundup, where in summer itinerant artists would set up their easels on street corners and dash off one watercolor after another to sell to the locals. Montana in 20 minutes.

“Magic,” Ben Steele had thought.

A few years later, working as an errand boy in Billings, he met the well-known artist and author Will James. Even got to watch him work in his studio. The boy was fascinated. He had sketched some in school—his teachers were impressed—but with all the chores to do for the Old Man, as he called his father, there was never time for art.

Now he had nothing but time. And every day behind bars he would sketch something on the floor. His scratches didn’t look like much at first, just rough black lines on the gray concrete. This drawing business was difficult; more to it than he had thought.

“I have to make something that looks like something,” he told himself. Finally, after weeks of scratching, a memory started to take shape—a horse straining against a halter in a corral. Every day after that, after bango (count-off) and breakfast, he would settle down to draw.

He drew in the morning, he drew in the afternoon, he drew under the dull yellow lights. Horses, cows, sheep, ranch buildings, his beloved hills at the homestead at Hawk Creek. Since he knew nothing of the geometry of composition, his renderings were all surface, pictures on one plane. Then one day a POW who was an engineer talked to him about “perspective” and “vanishing points.” He listened, learned, and suddenly one day his scratches looked like, well, magic.

[Hayes, January 2, 1943] We stand bango long before day break…I am reminded that this is 1943, and as I recall, the year Mr. Churchill had decided upon as when Britain would make her offensive. The greens, the water lilies and pechay [Chinese cabbage] are still shoveled out of a truck on delivery to our galley. And they still stink and are cluttered and mixed with egg shells and other debris that plainly tell its source as being some slop chute or hotel garbage barrel. It makes no difference if we refer to it as “greens in the garbage” or “garbage in the greens” it is still garbage, but they are still greens—and we eat it.

They had been prisoners of war, most of them, for more than half a year now; like all convicts across time, they had come to accept what Dostoevsky called the “drab, sour and sullen aspect” of life behind bars and barbed wire. They lived on hope because hope was all they had. And they sat around all day speculating about the date of their deliverance, composing rhythmic epigrams to cheer themselves.

We’ll be free in ’43.

Mother’s door in ’44.

Men lost hope, of course. In the squalor of prison life and throes of disease, a number of the sick just gave up. Irwin Scott of Dallas, Texas, could see it in their eyes: “dull eyes,” he and other patients used to call it, eyes that went “blank.” Once a man had lost his will to live, he usually surrendered his life. “Three days,” Scott discovered. “Every damn one of them dies in three days.”

Twice while Ben Steele was in Bilibid, the POWs received small Red Cross packages of food, a little relief delivered by the neutral Swiss. The men tried hard to make these parcels of biscuits, chocolate, cigarettes, dried fruit, meat, sugar, and soap last as long as they could, but after a month or so, they would be right back to their cups of verminous rice, spoiled fish, vegetable peelings, and a handful of peanuts in the cup of sewer water they called soup.

Still, Ben Steele was happy. There were plenty of prisoners, Tom Hayes among them, who thought Bilibid was hell on earth, a place of “doubt, depression, disappointment, diversified disease, hunger, hate, heat, pestilence, poor prospects [and] pauperized prisoners.” Not Ben Steele. He didn’t mind the dank adobe and dim barracks, the foul emanations of his bedfellows, the clock on the watchtower whose hands never moved. He was doing all right.

Most of his swelling was gone. The rest was just a matter of time. He was still weak, sick, and hungry all the time—who the hell wasn’t? But, on balance, he thought, “Bilibid is the best damn prison I’ve been in.” Roof over his head, wooden bunk, guards more annoying than anything else. And the doctors, the doctors had brought him back to life. All Ben Steele had to do now was live day to day until the day the war was over. Wait, that was the thing, just wait.

In January 1944, doctors reclassified Ben Steele from convalescent to well. He was shipped north on Luzon to a prison camp called Cabanatuan, where he worked as a farm hand in the camp fields growing vegetables for Japanese mess tables. Then, in the fall of 1944, he was put on a draft of POWs for shipment by boat to Japan as a slave laborer. He ended up in Omine Machi, a mining town on southern Honshu where, along with some 600 British and American POWs, he worked as a slave laborer in a coal mine.

The work they were forced to perform was grueling, especially for men so malnourished: picking and shoveling and hauling and loading in a labyrinth of damp laterals, long diagonals, and cramped coal drifts a half-mile underground. They worked sick, they worked hungry, they worked hurt. They worked and waited. Then, in August 1945, the mine was liberated; by Thanksgiving Ben Steele was home on leave in Montana.

He kept sketching, sketched himself into college: the Cleveland Institute of Art, where he got his undergraduate degree. Later he landed a position at Montana State University in Billings as a professor of art and built a career there.

Tom Hayes was also put on a boat to Japan, the most infamous of the “hell ships,” the Oryoku Maru. The 1,619 men in that December 1944 draft included most of the navy doctors and corpsmen from Bilibid Prison Hospital. Hundreds died en route from suffocation, starvation, or dehydration. Hundreds more lost their lives when American aircraft bombed the unmarked vessel carrying them.

When the ship finally reached Moji, Japan, in early 1945, only 425 prisoners, one-quarter of the group, were still alive. Tom Hayes was not among them.

Ben Steele thinks of Tom Hayes as his deliverer, one of the doctors who helped save his life. But he also considers Hayes his comrade, one of the hundreds that come back to him in waking and sleep, sometimes as figures on a page, sometimes just as ghosts, but all as companions he knows he must never forget.


Originally published in the September 2009 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here