(This is the conclusion of a four-part series on World War II veteran John Mims.)
The Bataan Death March marked the end of suffering for thousands of American and Filipino soldiers who perished while making the torturous 70-mile trek.
But for tens of thousands of survivors like John Mims, the nightmare of living as a prisoner of war was just beginning.
The Japanese were brutal captors and showed little mercy on their vanquished foes. Beatings, starvation, disease and executions were all common occurrences at POW camps in the Philippines.
Mims spent 28 miserable months as a captive at Camp O’Donnell, Bilibid Prison and Camp Cabanatuan. He witnessed the deaths of an untold number of friends and then helped carry their emaciated corpses to mass graves outside the prison fences.
One of those buddies was James Snyder, who walked alongside Mims during the Death March.
“He gave up,” said Mims. “He said, ‘I’m not going to try to make it.’ I saw a lot of them that just couldn’t take it anymore. They were hungry and out of their head. I’ve seen some jump off a cliff. I kept looking for my Lord to help me make it some way.”
The mass burial site was like a scene from Dante’s Ninth Circle of hell.
The Japanese would use a captured American bulldozer and dig a long shallow trench. The bodies would be haphazardly thrown into the hole and quickly covered.
During heavy rainfalls, some bodies would resurface, seemingly emerging from the mud in one last grisly attempt to escape that cursed place.
Yet, those rotting corpses rising from the earth weren’t nearly as disturbing as the sight of those half-dead prisoners who were prematurely sent to their graves.
Lying in the mud among a pile of the dead, the falling rain would slowly bring them back to consciousnesses. But as they began to stir and slowly crawl back toward the living, the Japanese guards added one last inhumane touch to the grotesque scene.
“They would bayonet them to keep them from getting out,” said Mims.
As terrible as such scenes were, the prisoners couldn’t afford to spend much time and energy mourning their comrades. They needed to harness every ounce of what little strength remained and stay focused on their own survival.
Keeping both their sanity and will to live intact wasn’t easy. The constant hunger was almost maddening and malnutrition plagued nearly every prisoner. Malaria, dysentery and a host of other diseases ran rampant through the camps and further weakened the already suffering prisoners. Although he was ailing, Mims was still considered one of the more healthy prisoners. So, after his captors learned that he could speak some Japanese and Spanish, they made him a “runner” and had him deliver messages to different camps throughout the area.
It was during this time that Mims was able to gain access to Japanese medical supplies and he promptly put his good fortune to use.
“I started stealing antibiotics from the Japanese and sneaking them to the prisoners,” said Mims.
But while he found ways to aid fellow prisoners with their ailments he was unable to help himself. Suffering from severe malnutrition, Mims began bleeding from his eyes, ears and nose before collapsing.
It took the guidance of a U.S. Navy doctor to bring Mims back from the brink of death. It was one of just many times that Mims would stare death in the face and live to tell the tale.
Throughout his time in the Philippines, Mims was able to secretly send messages about the prisoners’ ordeal to his future wife, Juanita.
Employed as a secretary by a Japanese general, Juanita was in possession of a shortwave radio and could contact Allied forces stationed in the Pacific. Facing certain torture and death if caught, Juanita bravely relayed messages from the POW camp to the Allies right up until the Japanese occupation ended.
For nearly three years, Juanita hid her radio in the one place she knew they would never look for it – at Japanese headquarters.
The Japanese suspected her involvement with the Filipino underground but eventually dismissed the notion.
“The general she worked for asked where her radio was and she told him she threw it in the trash,” said Mims, laughing at the idea of his wife calmly deceiving a high-ranking Japanese commander.
Mims also warned Juanita to keep her secrets tightly guarded.
“I told her never to trust her neighbors, no matter who they were,” said Mims. “She had nine sisters and every time a brother-in-law was killed I would say, ‘See, somebody ratted on him for helping the Americans. Don’t tell nobody nuthin.’”
While Juanita aided the Allies anyway she could, Mims gamely fought his own war against the Japanese.
Always a fighter and never one to bow down to any man, Mims routinely infuriated his captors with his lack of respect and repeated escape attempts.
The Japanese beat and tortured Mims repeatedly. Although they were able to break his body, they could never come close to breaking his spirit. During his captivity, the Japanese broke his back, neck and both of his legs and shattered many of the bones in his face. The beatings briefly left him a paraplegic on two separate occasions.
“I tried to escape a lot of times,” said Mims. “They tried to beat me to death a number of times. (On one occasion) they hung me by my neck until it broke in three places. My hands were behind my back and I couldn’t touch the cement with my toes. When they finally did cut me loose, the cement was so hot that when my knees hit they (cooked) like hamburgers. All the meat was gone from my bones. I don’t know how it healed.”
Not all the beatings were a result of escape attempts. One horribly violent incident was initiated after Mims was caught standing by a fire trying to get warm.
“They beat me until I couldn’t even open my mouth,” said Mims. “My buddies had to haul me away.”
In time, the Japanese began to respect Mims’ incredible strength and marveled at his ability to withstand pain.
“The Japanese used to say I was an angel because I wouldn’t die,” said Mims. “They would try to kill me, and they tried just about everything.”
As the fortunes of war swung strongly into the Allies’ favor, the Japanese began filling their manpower shortage at home with prisoners.
Prisoners were being shipped by the thousands to mainland Japan and forced to work in a variety of industries. The hours were long and the work was brutal.
Deemed to be healthy enough to work, Mims was shipped from the Philippines on August 15, 1944.
Stuffed into the hold of an infamous “hell ship,” Mims was one of 3,000 prisoners forced to make the trip in the most unsanitary conditions imaginable. By the time they arrived in Japan, only 500 prisoners were still alive.
Once in Japan, Mims was sent to Fukuoka on the island of Kyushu were he spent 10 to 12 hours a day working in a coal mine. The experience left him with black lung disease, an ailment caused by exposure to coal dust.
Despite working under such dreadful conditions, the Japanese still did little to improve the prisoners’ diet.
“If you worked a day, you might get a quarter of a biscuit,” said Mims. “We had potato vines for vegetable soup.”
Racked by hunger, one prisoner in Mims’s work detail stole some onions from a civilian garden that the group passed on the way back from the coal mine. Once the guards discovered the theft they demand swift retribution.
Although Mims claims he is no hero, he certainly played the role on this day. His action nearly cost him his life.
“A guy from Las Cruces, New Mexico, had gotten some onions out of a civilian garden,” said Mims. “They didn’t know who did it so they were going to beat all 150 (prisoners) unless someone stepped forward. Don’t ask me why, I wasn’t that brave, but when I saw him, he was just a little fellow and was shaking, so I stepped forward.
“They beat me until all life left my body. My soul was up above my body. I could see them beating me with sticks and it didn’t hurt. After they quit, (other prisoners) carried me back to the barracks.”
After nearly a year in Fukuoka, Mims could detect a change in the Japanese guards. The beatings ended and the prisoners began to receive more humane treatment.
Although Mims and the other 500 prisoners at his camp didn’t know, the Americans had recently dropped two atomic bombs on Japan and the war had finally reached its conclusion.
Mims believes he played a key role in saving the lives of all 501 prisoners in the waning days of the war. Although he was able to speak Japanese very well by this time, he kept overhearing the guards use a word that was completely unrecognizable.
A British major had a hidden Japanese dictionary and allowed Mims to use it. The word he was searching for turned out to be “unconditional.” It was at the moment he knew the Japanese were about to surrender.
But what Mims overheard next was a death sentence. The camp commander ordered the guards to take the prisoners to the mine, blow it up and then claim it was accident. With all the prisoners dead, there would be no witnesses to testify about the slew of war crimes that had been committed.
Mims decided to confront one of the guards.
“I told one of the guards what I knew and his eyes got wide and he said, ‘How did you find out?’ I told him a bird flew into the camp and told me and then flew back out.”
After that, all the guards who had mistreated the prisoners soon disappeared from the camp and the plan to blow up the mine – along with 501 Allied prisoners – was abandoned.
Many prisoners of war can vividly recall the day Allied troops arrived to liberate their camp. It is a feeling of jubilation and freedom that is difficult for them to put into words.
For Mims and his fellow prisoners, the complete opposite is true. Their liberation was totally anticlimactic.
“We liberated ourselves in Japan,” said Mims.
The Japanese simply told them the war was over and pretty much gave them the keys to the front gate as they all left for home.
The prisoners began signaling American planes flying overhead and soon the planes began dropping supplies. Like gifts from heaven, crates of pork, sugar and canned cream began raining down on the malnourished men.
“I weighed 67 pounds when I got out of there,” said Mims. “I weighed about 190 when I went into the Army.”
Incredibly, except for those pilots flying overhead, the prisoners would not see another American in person for several more weeks. It took that long for the logistics of the prisoners’ transportation to be finalized.
The prisoners began to wander into the nearby town and were treated with kindness by the civilians. Bitter enemies just days earlier, the Japanese and former prisoners coexisted for weeks without any problems.
“We went to the town next to the camp and they went out of their way to be nice to us,” said Mims. “I don’t think any prisoner of war ever mistreated any of those (civilians) and I wouldn’t have liked it if I heard about it.”
The prisoners eventually were transported to an Allied base to begin the long awaited journey home. But first they had to make a stop back in the Philippines.
“The Red Cross greeted us and they put us on a hospital ship,” said Mims. “Boy, that is the best thing that ever happened in my life. They gave me everything I wanted until we got back to the Philippines.”
Back on Luzon, Mims hitched a ride to Manila and a reunion with Juanita. He was surprised when he spotted his old buddy John Freeman walking alongside the road.
Discovering that all is fair in love and war, Freeman readily admitted that he went to Manila to visit Juanita, the girl that Mims had told him so much about.
“But she told him, ‘I’m waiting for John Mims,’” said Mims with a big smile. “She (told me) he had been hanging around there about a month, drunk mostly.”
Freeman led him to the factory where Juanita was working.
“She jumped over (a small barrier), ran to me and hugged me,” said Mims. “It was out of this world.”
Just a few weeks later, John and Juanita were married in Manila. They remained together, raising five sons, until Juanita passed away in 2003.
The years directly following the war were difficult as Mims struggled to cope with his wartime experiences. Juanita also had her share of nightmares and flashbacks from living under Japanese occupation for more than three years.
“You bet I had a difficult time trying to adjust,” said Mims. “When I came back from over there I was wild. I had lost so much time I figured I had to go 24 hours a day to catch up. I was scared sometimes to sleep (in the same bed) with my wife because I would have flashbacks. She knew what they were because she had them, also.
“But it scared me to death because I was afraid I would kill her and not know what I was doing. I still have them. I could look at something on TV and, just like that, it will all flash back. I have to be careful.”
The physical effects of the war continue to haunt Mims as well. To this day, he still suffers from the numerous beatings he received as a prisoner.
Mims is always amused when he participates in a veterans’ ceremony and has people compliment how healthy he looks.
“I probably look perfectly normal,” said Mims. “Just like some of the generals that I stand tall in front of, they tell me ‘You look great for all you’ve been through.’ But they don’t know what’s under the skin. It’s badly damaged. I’m in pain all the time. My neck and my back are my biggest hurts.”
Of course, Mims also realizes that with all he has been through, he probably should have died decades ago in a prison camp on Luzon.
Even though he admits he can’t answer why he survived such horrors, he believes with all his heart that he and Juanita were simply playing roles in much grander scheme.
“I don’t understand it either,” said Mims. “All I can say is the Lord has something for me to do before I go. My wife and I both saved a lot of people’s lives. I don’t regret any of it.”
An angel, indeed.