Davao Internment Camp, Mindanao

Davao camp on the island of Mindanao was a fairly large camp — at approximately 280 men, women, and children, larger than Bacolod camp (148 internees), though not nearly so well documented in internee diaries or memoirs. One of the few internees from Davao to keep a contemporaneous letter-journal, Frank Carey, pointed out that, similar to those on Cebu, Davao internees were moved a number of times before settling in a real camp. First captured and moved in the “Foreigner’s Club” (and restricted to the library) on December 31, 1941, the Allied internees lived an “extremely cramped life.” This library room, though screened, was without rugs on the floor and had only four long wicker lounge chairs to use as beds. Most slept on the floor until they were move, on January 3, 1942, to a private residence. Cary says nothing particularly about this new residence camp, except that it was “just opposite a brothel!” and seemed to be in a line of cabarets, (Jane Wills identifies this place as the former “Happy Life Blues” dance hall. Whatever it nom de guerre, the camp itself was filthy and had to be cleaned up; internees had to dig toilets and also prepare a place for cooking.

This location was also rich with vermin of one sort or another, not just with the usual bebugs inside but with rats and snakes in the open around the buiding; explains Jane Wills, “There was a black cobra in the area, and I just hated to walk outside. I wouldn’t go anywhere in the dark for fear I’d stumble across it”.

Ultimately, the internees were moved again to yet another place, because, according to Cary, the Japanese officers wanted the private residence to live in themselves. The internees were taken back to a school compound in town.

Source: Captured: The Japanese Internment of American Civilians in the Philippines, 1941-1945, 2000, page 218-219, by Frances B. Cogan

The new compound turned out to be the Davao Central School, Davao City, which was the camp from April 1942 – December 1943. The internees are then transferred to STIC and 279 internees arrive there on January 2, 1944. 81-year-old internee Ezra J. Clement died during the trip.

Mindinao Island, Philippines

Mindinao Island, Philippines, showing camp at Davao (Courtesy of Google Maps)

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18 thoughts on “Davao Internment Camp, Mindanao

  1. Cecily Mattocks Marshall

    Re: Philippine Interment Camps. A great website. However, I think there is a correction in order concerning the information on the Davao Interment Camp (Happy Life Blues). It states that from 4/42 until 12/43 the camp was at Davao Central School, Davao City. I and my family who were from Zamboanga were interned in Happy Life Blues from February 1943 until December 24, 1943 and we were not in Davao City but in the HLB cabaret out in Matina. We were transferred from there to Manila Christmas Eve 1943 on the Shinsei Maru #1…a dreadful rat infested trip.My book “Happy Life Blues” recounts that trip and life in the interment camps.

    • You mention being transported on Christmas eve from Davao to Manila. I assume Santo Tomas? That would have been the same ship and time that my mother and her family, the Bresslers were transported on to Santo Tomas.

    • Cecily,

      Reading a little about you online, I think you and your family must have been with my mother and her family because they also were from Zamboanga and went up into the mountains to escape for awhile before they were captured. Did you end up in Dulawan first in the pineapple field? My grandfather was Rev. Ralph Bressler.

  2. I knew your grandparents who were my parent’s ages. I also knew Evangeline Bressler and I think she had a younger brother. I didn’t know her in Zamboanga prewar. We escaped to another mountain area from from the Bresslers…But we met up with them in Happy Life Blues. Evangeline was part of my group of friends in HLB.

  3. Hello, my grandfather Charles Eiselstein was an older civilian POW in Davao, only now have we learned he was the longest in captivity until his death, any info.?

  4. My father’s aunt, Naomi Skeeters, was a missionary teacher when she was captured and spent time in Davao. Records show she was there per reports from 6/23/45 – 07/30/45. She was a female civilian so maybe she was segregated into a different area I am guessing. I have no other info unless someone has a lead. Thanks. J. Skeeters

    • Dear J. Skeeters,

      I have appended some information sent to me by Cecily Mattocks Marshall who wrote an important WWII memoir titled Happy Life Blues: A Memoir of Survival. Her father was Rev. Henry Mattocks, whom your father’s aunt worked with in Zamboanga before the War.

      Following is the message from Cecily:

      “I was 10 when the war began…my best Zamboanga friend was Remy Trota (now Jose) whose father was the mission doctor. Remy is the mother of Rico Trota Jose (WW2 historian) and Ricky Trota Jose (UST archivist). In the mission there were four single ladies…Naomi Skeeters and her best friend Helen Boyle, principal of one of the schools. Helen Boyle via Japan. She was also one of the interpreters a the Davao Camp. The other two were Louise Goldthorpe, a nurse, and Betty Brushfield, the mission treasurer. We children were taught at home by the Calvert system so our contact with the four mentioned ladies was at church and at mission school functions. The four ladies lived at the nurses’ home next to Brent Hospital which was on the mission compound. I remember being fascinated by the name “Skeeters”….

      I am down at our place on Cape Cod now and don’t have my PI material. I am really reaching back but I seem to remember that Naomi might have come to the PI via Japan when the missionaries there were sent to the PI for “safety”. Since our family (with missionaries from another group) stayed in the mountains for a year most of the other Mindanao people had been rounded up were were already taken to Davao by the time we got there. We all left Davao for Manila on December 24, 1943 on the Shinsei Maru arriving at Pier 7 on January 2, 1944.

      I will check material when I get home at the end of August…I have a history book of the Episcopal Church in the PI…and a section on the Southern PI.
      I will also check Terry Wadsworth Warne’s book, “Terry”….it is very detailed as she had her father’s copious notes to work from. At one point she sent me a book called “Gussie” which was about Helen Boyle’s dog… Helen was allowed to keep it in Davao camp and it went on the boat with us to Manila. I will ask Terry to check it out and see if there are references to Naomi in the book. Terry sent me the book to read and I sent it back post haste…not wanting anything to happen to it.

      I mention Remy because she visited me here last September with her son Ricky. She has a great memory and she may be able to come up with some facts.

      There were very few Americans/British in Zamboanga….we all knew each other.

      You can sent this along to J Skeeters…”

      • Our family was at Happy Life Blues and as an 8 year old I wove coconut fronds for siding for Helen and Naomi’s shack which was two up from ours along the fence.
        We arrived Aug. 23 ’42 from the Del Pilar Girl’s Seminary after being held in Zamboanga. We kept in touch with Helen until her death.
        They were with us on the Maru to Manila (but can find no record of one by the name given by Cecily) an in STIC.

    • Your great aunt was in camp with us in Davao and at the age of 8 I was paid to weave coconut fronds for the shack she shared with Helen Boyle. I remember stories she told me of surviving a sinking and swimming in oil covered water
      On the boat trip to Manila she, Helen, two other older ladies and our family of five slept side by side like sardines on an upper wooden platform.
      I lost track of her at Santo Tomas..
      I have published our experiences and mention Naomi in my 2021 book Rescue Raids of Luzon under my full name Joseph C. Huber, Jr. which contains a drawing I had done of the Happy Life Blues Camp.]
      Joe Huber, Jr.

  5. My great aunt, Pearl Spencer, was also at Happy Life Blues and was moved to San Tomas in the same time frame. Her internment began in the Dansalan area with about 60 others and after moving several times were taken by boat via Zamboanga to Davao. She would have been in her late 50s at the time. I know there were many people there but wondered if anyone remembered her. She had been a teacher and was a principal at a private mission school at the time.

    • Anne, thank you for your post. I will try to circulate it to members of the civilian ex-internee group. Most of the surviving members would have been school-age at their time of internment. I will also look through some of my resources to see if her name appears. Regards, Cliff

      • Hello Anne, I have responded direct to Cliff, who forwarded me your question. I have also sent it out on my circulation email list of some 100+ people (ex-internees, their relatives. researchers, etc.) with whom I exchange any information that comes to light. I am sure that Cliff will be back to you in the near future regarding information that he finds plus any responses Kind Regards Maurice Francis, Worcester, England

    • Hi, Anne, my colleague, Maurice Francis, recently forwarded the following message from From Cecily Marshall: “I do remember a Pearl Spencer. She was in Davao Internment Camp. (Happy Life Blues) a teacher in the “school”…only two sections in the “school”…junior/senior…..at 11 I was a senior. Then after we came up from Davao (on the rat ship) we settled in at the STIC school up on the top floor of the Main Building she became the 7th grade English teacher…no nonsense. I don’t know whom she replaced, but there must have been a previous 7th grade English teacher. We didn’t have a text book so you really had to pay attention.”

      Cecily is the author of Happy Life Blues: A Memoir of Survival. The book, which details her family’s experiences in both the Davao and Santo Tomas, is still available. There are also a couple of short newspaper articles which mention her:

      Mentioned in The Boston Globe (Boston, Massachusetts) article of 7 February 1945 titled “Board of Foreign Missions Awaits News of Internees.” “MRS. PEARL F. SPENCER,wife of Ralph S. Spencer, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and sister of W.E. Fees, Iola, Kan., and Mrs. Frank G. Richard, Partridge, Kan.”

      Subject of The Iola Register (Iola, Kansas) article of 2 March 1945 titled “Writes of Thrill at Being Freed from Japanese.”

      If you haven’t seen these, I’m happy to send them to you. Best regards, Cliff

      • Cliff,
        Thank you so much. I am just finding this information online my email may be blocking messages which I will fix now! I so appreciate your efforts. I have read Cecily’s book which was amazing. I would love to have the articles from the Iola Register and the Boston Globe. My grandfather, W.S. Fees kept all his correspondence during the war as he was trying to find where his sister, Pearl, was interned. I have these letters now and feel so privileged. Pearl returned to Mindanao and lived to the age of 101. She was forever a teacher. Thank you again!

        • Hi, Anne, thanks for your message and comments. They are much appreciated. I will send you the two articles which mention Pearl Fees Spencer. Best regards, Cliff

  6. Cecily,
    I just saw that you have written a book about Davao. I have just purchased a copy. I honestly don’t know a whole lot about what Happy Life Blues was like, as mom talked more about Santo Tomas, so I am looking forward to reading this. I think it must be HLB where my mother and her family and the Hess family shared what they called the Bress-Hessler complex and had a small garden?

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