Encounters with STIC Guards, by Martin Meadows

[The following article was originally distributed by Maurice Francis to his WWII Philippine Internment Email List. If you would like to be added to his list, please send a message using the Comments form. Following the article, I have recapped the previous contributions by Prof. Meadows.]

Encounters With STIC Guards (or, “Nippon” at My Heels)
by Martin Meadows

INTRODUCTION. Whenever anyone asks me what life was like during more than three years in Santo Tomás Internment Camp (STIC) in Manila, one question in particular is sure to arise. That question, usually a follow-up to the most obvious ones about food and housing conditions, concerns the treatment of internees by the camp’s Nipponese guards. When that once again came up during a recent radio interview, it prompted me to decide to provide as detailed an answer as memory would allow (certainly one far too detailed for any sort of interview). This is a purely personal account, one which should not be considered as necessarily applying to the experiences of STIC internees in general. In the following discussion, I distinguish between what I call “routine” and “non-routine” encounters with guards. The former deals with “normal” or every-day kinds of encounters, meaning the type that most internees would have undergone; the latter covers a limited number of interactions which were not “normal,” in the sense that very few other internees would have experienced them. And, to be properly pedantic as befitting a former professor, I further divide (and sub-divide) each of those two major kinds of encounters.

I. ROUTINE ENCOUNTERS. In this classification I distinguish between two types, which I call “random” and “non-random.”

    A. The random category includes, as might be expected, the numerous times when internees happened to randomly cross paths with Nipponese guards. In my case, these instances almost always occurred somewhere on the STIC grounds — that is, not within a building. On such occasions, having been suitably warned as to the required behavior, I made sure to bow correctly — from the waist rather than merely with a nod of my head. The guards for the most part simply ignored me, looking straight ahead as they walked; if and when they did react, it was usually with a head nod. Rarely did a guard actually bow from the waist, and even then only slightly so. Never (that I can recall) did I observe any of the guards bow “properly” in return (nor did internees expect them to do so).

    B. The non-random category includes two kinds of encounters.
    (1) One kind involves regularly-scheduled encounters, meaning specifically the twice-daily roll-calls, in which the residents of each room would, at the direction of the room monitor, bow in unison as guards strode past. (I do not know if this was the procedure in the Annex building, where mothers with younger children were housed.) Precisely because such encounters affected almost all internees, and were routine as well as non-random/regularly scheduled, normally they would require no further elaboration, except of course in the case of an out-of-the-ordinary event, one example of which is discussed as a “non-routine” occurrence (see II. A.).

    (2) The other kind has to do with non-scheduled but non-random encounters, by which I mean the occasions when guards at the STIC main-entrance guardhouse checked internees who had received passes permitting them to leave the camp, whether for the day or for longer periods. In my case, these included the following instances.

      (a) Dr. Lindsay Fletcher (who, incidentally, had been our pre-war family doctor) gained permission to transport me to a city hospital (name not recalled) in order to use its fluoroscope, so that he could properly set a complex fracture and dislocation of my left elbow. (Following that painful procedure, during which I probably disturbed the whole hospital, Dr. Fletcher placed a wrist-to-shouder cast on my arm, utilizing hospital equipment and material).
      (b) My father and I were allowed to leave STIC for my bar mitzvah at Temple Emil, the Manila synagogue on Taft Avenue. (Only one parent could accompany me.)
      (c) My mother and I received passes to see our pre-war Filipino ophthalmologist (Dr. Sevilla), so he could treat my case of conjunctivitis.
      (d) My mother and I were allowed to visit uninterned (non-enemy alien) friends (the Sharuff family) for a week, ostensibly to recuperate from various health problems (or so Dr. Fletcher claimed in his recommendation supporting the application for passes submitted to the commandant’s office).
      (e) I was among a small group of youths allowed to leave STIC for a weekend visit (possibly because it coincided with Halloween) with an American missionary family (if I recall correctly, that of Dr. Hugh Bousman, one of dozens of missionaries who had been released for a time from STIC).

In concluding this account of guard-house encounters, three points should be highlighted. First, although all such inspections were strictly routine in my case, obviously this may not have been true for every other internee who received a pass. Second, while I classify these cases as routine — as they were, for the guards — they were not entirely routine for me, for it was hard to be fully at ease while being reviewed by guards who (I thought) might arbitrarily decide I had committed some infraction of the rules. Third and most significant of all, it should be emphasized (unnecessarily, for ex-internees) that all of these occasions occurred during 1942-1943, when civilian commandants were in charge of STIC; none took place after the Nipponese military took over in February of 1944.

II. NON-ROUTINE ENCOUNTERS. These were, as might be expected, much fewer in number than the routine ones. And each one — as the “non-routine” designation almost by definition implies — affected at most only a small number of internees other than myself. Here too, still being overly pedagogical, I distinguish between two varieties, which for want of better terminology I call “hybrid” (in that the example I cite, though non-routine, might have occurred more than once) and “limited” (meaning that these were highly unlikely to have been duplicated).

    A. Hybrid.
    My only example of this happened during one of the daily roll calls, for which we — meaning in this case the occupants of room 43, on the third floor of the Main Building — would line up in two rows in the hallway outside our room. At the order of our room monitor, Henry Pile, we would all bow together as the guards passed. On one such occasion, someone in the front row bowed so low that his head struck the saber of one of the passing guards. The startled guard swung around toward us as he placed his hand on the saber. Quickly realizing that the bump had been accidental, he unsmilingly resumed stride with the other guards, presumably unaware of our barely concealed mirth.

    B. Limited.
    (1) One such instance turned out not to involve me directly, though initially I feared that it might. I was in the camp hospital as a result of my aforementioned broken elbow, and my bed was near the end of the ward in which I had been placed. One day I heard a commotion at the entrance to our ward, and I looked up to see several guards heading in my direction. As they approached, naturally I wondered whether they might be coming for me. But they wanted the man in the last bed of the ward, two beds from mine, and they quickly got him up and took him away. I never did find out why he was removed; I asked nurses about the matter, but they claimed to know nothing about it.

    (2) I was among five or six youths passing near the commandant’s office when several guards motioned to us to follow them. We were led to a grassy area of the camp grounds and instructed — with grunts and arm gestures — to cut some overgrown grass, which was to be used to feed the commandant’s nearby carabao (water buffalo). For the task, guards thoughtfully and kindly provided us with very rusty and extremely dull scythes — so dull that several strokes were required to hack off each handful of grass, which was then tossed into a straw basket. (Note: Toward the end of our internment, guards killed the carabao for food, whereupon a number of internees [not including my family] were able to scavenge bits and pieces of the carabao’s tough but no doubt flavorful [?] hide.)

    (3) One of my STIC pastimes was to observe — and tamper with — the activities of the red ants that covered much of the trunk of one of the trees on the front grounds of the camp, about midway between the front gate and the Main Building. On one such occasion, a guard walking along the roadway toward the gate saw me and came over to see what I was doing. My impression was not that he was suspicious but, rather, that he was merely curious. After bowing, I motioned up and down at the ant-covered tree; he glanced at it, nodded expressionlessly, turned and resumed his walk toward the gate, thus apparently confirming my impression.

    (4) By far the most noteworthy, interesting, and amusing non-routine encounter took place while I was among about a half-dozen teens taking turns casually shooting a basketball — we were not playing a game. We were at the south end of the outdoor earthen basketball court, located in a grassy field on the front grounds of the camp. On the day in question, I saw a lone guard walking along the driveway from the guardhouse at the camp entrance toward the Main Building. Upon seeing us, he left the roadway and headed in our direction. When he reached the court, he motioned for us to toss him the basketball. He then proceeded to attempt perhaps 15 shots, all while standing about 12-15 feet from the basket. Wearing the usual uniform with jacket and heavy boots, and with his saber swinging at his side, he missed badly on every heave, though he did hit the rim a few times. He cackled loudly the whole time, clearly enjoying himself, while we tried to limit ourselves to weak smiles along with gestures of approval. He soon wilted under the hot sun and, without a word, he abruptly turned away and resumed his walk.

CONCLUSION. This has been as complete a record as I can recall of my various encounters, routine and non-routine, with STIC guards. With regard to the question posed at the outset — concerning treatment of internees by the guards — I have recounted no personal mistreatment (rusty and dull scythes notwithstanding). Indeed, with regard to STIC commandants (of the civilian variety, of course), the various passes I received to leave the camp could be viewed as evidence of leniency. On the other hand, three points should be emphasized in the latter connection — points that potentially could be used to modify any claim on behalf of leniency.

First, it is worth repeating that this is a purely personal account; it does not mean to imply, nor should it be inferred, that any conclusions based on my experiences are applicable to STIC internees as a whole. Second, my personal account is based almost entirely on encounters with guards that occurred before the Nipponese military assumed total control of STIC in February 1944; at that time, for example, passes to leave the camp became virtually non-existent (certainly that was so in my case). It is conceivable, therefore, that treatment of internees by the guards might have worsened at that juncture, but I probably would not have noticed such a change, not only because I did not leave the camp after 1943 but also because I had no close contacts with guards of any kind that would have enabled me to notice any change in guards’ attitudes. Finally, this account deals only with direct — meaning observable — encounters; it does not cover what might be called the indirect effects of the role of the guards (and their superiors). To be specific, I am referring to their function in maintaining and enforcing the kind of treatment that caused and/or intensified internee malnutrition, starvation and death, as well as many other health problems. And that is to mention only the most obvious, most deleterious and most egregious consequences of STIC internment, all under the auspices of, and thanks to, the solicitous Nipponese Empire’s benevolent Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. — Martin Meadows (2/14/2017)

Hyman, Dacha and Martin Meadows in Oregon, 1945

Hyman, Dacha and Martin Meadows in Oregon, 1945

Martin with his daughter, Sally, and his granddaughter, Rachel, in Sacramento, California, 2018

Martin with his daughter, Sally, and his granddaughter, Rachel, Sacramento, 2018

Other articles by Prof. Meadows:

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