Conduct Under Fire

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Four American Doctors and Their Fight for Life as Prisoners of the Japanese 1941-1945

In Conduct Under Fire, John A. Glusman chronicles the bloody battles of Bataan and Corregidor in the Philippines through the eyes of his father, Murray, and three fellow navy doctors captured on Corregidor in May 1942. The excerpt below is from the Prologue to the book.

Government Ravine has fallen off the map. None of the Filipinos we meet on this tiny tropical island has heard of it. My father remembers its general location, but it has been nearly sixty years since he was on Corregidor, bivouacked with the U.S. 4th Marines on the night before he became a prisoner of the Japanese.

We step through four-foot high talahib grass, mindful of the fact that we are in a natural habitat for pythons and vipers. We skid down a mud-slick embankment, grabbing onto eucalyptus saplings for support. I keep my eyes on exposed, gnarled roots, only to feel a dangling vine, as brown as twine, wrapped around my neck. The shade of the jungle canopy offers respite from the blistering sun. The trees are more mature, and we can make out remnants of an old dirt road at the top of a ridge that drops steeply to the sea. By his account, there should be a cave to the east where there was once a battalion aid station, but we have yet to find it. Perhaps he is mistaken after all.

They called it “the Rock”. A formidable maritime fortress in the mouth of Manila Bay, Corregidor endured 300 air raids and one of the heaviest artillery bombardments of World War II during a grueling siege. The surrender of Corregidor by Lieutenant General Jonathan M. Wainwright on May 6, 1942 marked the chilling defeat of U.S. and Allied forces in the Philippines and the culmination of a series of lightning Japanese victories in the Pacific, from the attack on Pearl Harbor to the capture of Guam, Wake, Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore, and the Dutch East Indies. With the fall of Corregidor, my father, one of nearly 12,000 men captured on the Rock, began his three-and-a-half-year odyssey as a prisoner of war.

We are in the Philippines to retrace a journey that began with hope and purpose in August 1941 and ended in the ashen ruins of Japan in September 1945. My father is eighty-six years of age and surprised by my interest. I am curious about a chapter of his life that in some ways is still being written. He comes to welcome my questions, a bridge between two men, two generations more than forty years apart, one of which has known war, one of which has not.

Like many former POWs he has spoken little with his family about his wartime experiences. An Army Distinguished Unit Badge with Oak Leaf Cluster. An American Defense Service Medal with Base Clasp. An Asiatic-Pacific Area campaign medal with one bronze star. A Philippine Defense Ribbon with one bronze star. A newspaper clipping from the New York Herald Tribune listing him as “Missing.” A photograph of the medical staff of the Kōbe Prisoner of War Hospital in Japan dated November 1944. These are the mementos of my father’s war.

As children, my brother, sister, and I glimpsed these artifacts as rarely as we heard the tales behind them. Shards of memories came to light and were then tucked away along with the Navy uniform he stored in a government-issue footlocker that we rarely saw open. Only one incident can I recall with any clarity: my father and his buddies were once so hungry that they killed, skinned, and ate a cat. It appealed to a boy’s delight in the grotesque, lent him a certain stature, and we inquired no further except to ask how cat tastes. “Gamey as hell,” came the reply.

In retrospect it is odd but understandable that we grew up knowing so little about World War II, the most devastating war in human history. Fifty million lives were lost. 2.35 million Japanese died. 406,000 Americans were killed, and 78,976 were listed as missing.

Between September 1940 when Congress enacted the Selective Service Act and August 1945, thirty-one million American men registered for the draft and sixteen million men and women served their country. The war mobilized civilian participation to an unprecedented degree. Nearly two million American women worked in defense factories. 59,000 women joined the Army Nurse Corps. Some 56,000 physicians volunteered for duty.

My father was not a combatant, he was a doctor whose battles were fought on the frontline of disease. A lieutenant (junior grade) in the U.S. Navy Medical Corps, he was stationed on Bataan and then attached to the 4th Marines on Corregidor. As battalion surgeon in a campaign led by the Army six years before the first Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) units came into being, his role was to help, not harm.

As if wars could ever be neat, clean, surgical operations, the war in the Pacific has been called a dirty war, a “war without mercy,” as historian John Dower described it. Many American soldiers were instilled with racial stereotypes of the Japanese as treacherous, savage, sub-human. Roosevelt and Churchill themselves vowed to crush the “Barbarians of the Pacific.” Such language bore a striking resemblance to the conception of Westerners propagated by the Japanese, who were, said the Japanese schoolbook, Cardinal Principles of the National Polity, “intrinsically quite different from the so-called citizens of Occidental countries.”

The Japanese viewed Americans in particular as soft, self-indulgent, individualistic. The Japanese, by contrast, belonged to the genetically pure “Yamato Race,” a tribe of “One Hundred Million” whose superiority lay in conformity. As shidō minzoku, the leading race, their goal, expressed as hakkō ichiu, or “Eight Corners of the World Under One Roof,” was the subjugation of all other Asians and the replacement of Anglo-American imperialism with a new world order. Under Emperor Hirohito, this became the essence of their kokutai, or national polity.

U.S. and Filipino troops fighting on Bataan and Corregidor suffered horribly from hunger and disease. “They were expendable,” to borrow the title of W.L. White’s book about John Bulkeley and Motor Torpedo Boat (MTB) Squadron 3 published in 1944. Sacrificed on the altar of hubris, they were the casualties of an American military strategy known as War Plan Orange-3 that was doomed to failure. They were promised that “Help is on the way” by General Douglas MacArthur when Roosevelt advocated a policy of “Europe First.”

Japanese soldiers on Bataan confronted similarly harsh conditions, but they had reinforcements whereas the American and Filipino troops had none. They were indoctrinated with the code of bushidō -- the way of the warrior -- and the belief that there is no greater glory than to die in the service of the Emperor.

The Pacific POW, said E. Bartlett Kerr, “underwent an experience unlike that of his millions of fellow veterans.” Of the approximately 193,000 Allied prisoners of the Japanese in the Pacific, 36,260 were American.

POWs were systematically deprived of food and medicine. They were humiliated, beaten, starved and, in the worst instances, tortured and executed. Their fate hinged on ingenuity, the “will to live,” as one American doctor put it, the occasional kindness of camp guards and commandants, and sheer good luck. It was a war in which absolute power was punished absolutely.

42% of the 25,580 U.S. Army and Navy personnel captured in the Philippines never returned. My father was one of the lucky ones. Like many prisoners of war, he could not have endured on his own. Fred Berley, George Ferguson, John Bookman and my father, Murray Glusman, were a group -- a team, as it were -- of four Navy doctors. From disparate backgrounds, they were dedicated to their professions, devoted to their patients, comrades in hardship and healing. All of them were decorated. As doctors, their perspective on war and captivity was unique, but none would valorize their experience. If they suffered under the Japanese, they also experienced moments of genuine compassion.

Three of them survived. One never made it home. The war defined them as young men, and while its imprint faded with time, it remained a palimpsest beneath the narrative of their lives. It colored their language, surfaced in their dreams, tempered their outlook, and sketched, however faintly, the world they created for their children. But they would rather bury their memories than exhume them.

“We did nothing extraordinary,” my father said with characteristic understatement. “We lived in extraordinary times.”

In Civilization and Its Discontents Freud wrote that one of the sins of contemporary education was its failure to prepare future generations “for the aggressiveness of which they are destined to become the objects.”

Excerpt: From the Prologue of Conduct Under Fire: Four American Doctors and Their Fight for Life as Prisoners of the Japanese (Viking, 2005) by John Glusman.