Local man recounts experience as prisoner of war
By Jack Kintner
“There were 1,500 of us in the hold of the ship, but when we got to Japan 62 days later there were only 800 left,” said former prisoner of war (POW) Ben Waldron last week.
The WWII army vet, in town to visit his niece Cindy Brandenburger, was speaking to Dave Fakkema’s U.S. history class at Blaine high school, describing how the Japanese transported U.S. soldiers to prison camps following the fall of Corregidor in the Philippines on June 6, 1942.
The Japanese put the American prisoners into the hold of an old Canadian freighter they’d captured that had been used to transport livestock.
The hay and manure had never been cleaned out of the hold, Waldron said, describing how some of the men had resorted to cannibalism and drinking blood to stay alive.
Waldron’s talk was not deliberately gruesome, just a somewhat dry and factual account of the horrors of war, of loss and surrender, of imprisonment and ultimately of rescue and repatriation.
To say that his audience of high school students was rapt is an understatement. Here was a man who was not just a veteran, he was in the thick of the fighting for months and survived years in conditions that killed people all around him.
Waldron’s stories are based on a daily diary he managed to keep from the time he left his home in Denver in 1938 to enlist in the service until 11 p.m. on October 6, 1945, when his troop ship full of returning POWs tied up in Seattle. In the five years he’d been out of the country, he’d spent three and a half as a prisoner of war.
Waldron’s description of the loss of Corregidor is appalling. The machine gun he was using to defend his position broke down almost immediately.
Men were given World War I surplus hand grenades to throw but only a third of them worked. When the island surrendered, men carefully lowered the American flag and a detail tri-folded it according to military regulations. As men in the detail were shot down others would get up to replace them, some giving their lives in making sure the flag never touched the ground.
Waldron was transported to the beach along with hundred of others by train in cattle cars so tightly packed that the men who died on the way didn’t fall over until the rest of the men left the car.
While working as a POW a U.S. Army officer saved his life, he believes, by beating him into getting up and trying to fight back. Eventually the Japanese began treating the prisoners better.
On August 19 a Japanese interpreter came in and told them the war was over.
“One American airplane fly over one Japanese city, drop one bomb and boom, no more city,” he said, adding that it was “the happiest day of my life.”
Waldron’s book, based on his diary, is called Corregidor: From Paradise to Hell, and is currently on order at the Blaine Library.