The following article by Jan Thompson was taken verbatim on 17 Jan. 2012 from an archived version of a website that no longer exists:
It was published in Food and Memory. Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery 2000, ed. Harlan Walker (London: Prospect Books, 2001), pp. 273-86.
Prisoners of the Rising Sun: Food Memories of American POWs in the Far East During World War II
O God, O somber God in sunset dust –
Now I come Home
But I am nothing like
The green and hopeful thing that went away.
From Glory For Me by MacKinley Kantor, Coward-McCann, Inc.,1945.
While growing up, my brothers and I knew that my father had been a prisoner under the Imperial Japanese Army for three and a half years during World War II. He was reluctant to talk about his experiences and we rarely had the courage to ask. We understood how terrible his experiences had been and did not want to stir up memories of horrors. This was a common experience among children of former prisoners of war.
My father remained in the service after the war and made a career of it, so my brothers and I experienced ‘the military way of doing things’, as filtered through his wartime experiences. It was only lately that I discovered the orders that he would bark out, ‘Waka-roo! Waka-roo!‘ weren’t Tagalog, the Filipino language, but a rude form of Japanese, meaning ‘Understand! Understand!’
As the years passed, my father mellowed, and my interest in understanding his life grew. When my father’s father died his belongings were sent to his only child. Going through them at my parents’ house I found a large suitcase filled with family archives. The majority of the suitcase’s contents were wartime letters to and from my father and his parents. Amidst them there was a small wooden badge with Japanese lettering and numbers. It was his POW badge. It and other artefacts quickened my interest in the story of American and Allied ‘Prisoners of the Sun’.
Only then did I finally get the nerve to start asking questions of my father and his peers. I began to attend POW reunions around the United States and to interview many of the men and women who themselves had been prisoners. My goal is to produce a documentary on the subject – and I have been collecting information now for more than eight years. As I attended these reunions, I found other children of POWs who, during their childhood, had also walked wide circles around their fathers. Now they also are trying to learn more.
One of the unexpected aspects of my research has to do with food. Occasionally during the interview process the men would discuss something many of them did while prisoners: engaging in food fantasies and recipe collecting. While doing research at several archives, I was surprised to find menus and recipes in the men’s diaries. Not all men collected these; my father didn’t. Many men avoided the discussion of food because for them it was another form of torture. But many men, whether as a form of defiance or out of boredom, did discuss food, recipes and menus – sometimes to the point of mania.
Today, thinking back, they remember how they starved. Maynard Booth, a former first lieutenant of the Philippine Army, opened the doors to the extra two freezers in his garage, packed with frozen foods, and told me, ‘I’ll never go hungry again.’
Sixty years ago, while prisoners of war, they did go hungry. And their thoughts often turned to home, usually to their families, and of the meals they had eaten. ‘I wanted a meal from my maternal grandmother. I dreamed of her cooking all the time’ (Gene Boyt, Army). ‘I dreamed of the steaks at the Cattleman’s Restaurant in Fort Worth,’ remarked Jack Heinzal, a pilot with the Army Air Corps.
Let’s set the record straight, we didn’t dream, we flat fantasized day and night…Mom’s home cooking of Beef Roasts, Stews, Pork Roasts, Pork Chops, Swiss Steak, Roast Goose (on holidays)…M’s desserts always shared the spotlight at Fantasy-Time. Most memorable were Pumpkin Pie, Hot Mince Pie, Apple Pie Marble Cake and Bread Pudding. Strangely, though, one thing in particular always stood out (and still does) in my mind. At the butcher shop my mother used to buy economical Jowl Bacon, which came in squares and, when prepared, yielded copious amounts of hot fat. It was a pleasure of my father’s, and later, mine, to pour the hot, deliciously bacon-flavored, sizzling liquid onto buckwheat pancakes.
4th Marine Jorg Jergenson remembers growing up in rural Iowa.
The story of the POW has many layers: hunger and starvation, disease and brutality. But the strongest layer was that of food and memory. In the end, their means of survival would be their memories of family life and home cooking.
The majority of the men started captivity in weakened condition: they were already malnourished due to their rations having been cut to one third within the first two weeks of war. Many suffered from dysentery or malaria when they entered the prison camps scattered throughout the Philippine Islands.
The rule was: if you didn’t work you would receive half rations. Even if the men were sick and in the camp hospital, their rations were cut in half. There were three rations: ‘a working man’s ration, a non-working man ration and a sick person ration, so if you were sick and couldn’t work your chances of dying were 100 per cent,’ said Gene Boyt. It depended on the camp commander as to how the rule would be enforced.
The men were generally fed three times a day: rice and lugao. Lugao, a Filipino word, was typically served for breakfast. It was a watery rice gruel made with some kind of green vegetable. The ration was about 8 ounces, or a mess kit, and it contained about 160 calories. The noon meal was served to working men only.
Usually each man received 24 ounces. of cooked rice in his mess kit – only twelve grams of protein were supplied by this rice. Normally a man needs one gram of protein for each kilo of body weight, or about 70 grams a day. If the body does not get this it will utilize the stored protein in the muscles.1
John M. Cook, an Army Medical Corpsman, remembered a time when a Japanese officer allowed a detail to go to a Manila warehouse that had been bombed. There had been sacks of flour damaged and the detail would be permitted to sweep it up and bring it back to the camp to use. So the idea was to make good old fashioned doughnuts for breakfast:
…so we take rice and water into a five-gallon stainless pot to soak and ferment but had no sugar, but we had pralines that were fed to the Philippine Calesa horses. But they contained horse manure and straw so we put some in a pot with some water and made syrup and then had to strain this through a cloth so it could be used…we then mixed our items in a large mixing bowl for the project. All went well we had smell and the taste of donut batter…we started the next morning and used a can to cut the donuts and used a clean Proctoscope for the center hole, we had to improvise as you know since we were prisoners of war.
The doughnuts never made it to the chow line because the cooks were soon informed that the flour had been contaminated with plaster of Paris that had also been stored at the warehouse.
When the Japanese got some flour off of an American ship that had been sunk in the bay, I volunteered to make bread. We did not have any ingredients to really make bread… We did the best with what we had and the men were contented to have some nourishment. Two of us who were bakers worked a shift to feed about two hundred men a slice of bread. There were approximately one thousand or so men being given a slice of bread every fourth or fifth day. This flour lasted for about two months. To bake this bread we made an oven out of mud brick and all the scrap iron and metal we could find. It took about three weeks to build the oven. Our bread pans were made from sheet metal roofing. So many of the men worked on this project. The excitement of making an oven to have bread was a great incentive to keep many of the men going. Can you imagine the effort to complete this project? Bread was to the Americans as rice was to the Japanese. A staple of life.
Morris Lewis, Army Mess Sergeant.
It wasn’t long before the men began smuggling and eating anything that happened to crawl or fly into the camp. And with that came ‘quanning’.
Quan is a Filipino word meaning ‘what you call it or thingumajig’. Some time early in the internment, someone applied the word to something edible that was not part of the ration. The word not only gained acceptance, its application was broadened to refer to the act of preparing any concoction that was a mixture of non-rationed foodstuffs or non-rationed and rice.2As Jorge Jergenson defines quanning: ‘It pertains to preparing a makeshift meal over a makeshift fire, using makeshift utensils, much the same as hoboes did in the ‘30s.’
Quanning was an act of supreme pleasure in O’Donnell and later camps. No sensation was as thrilling. The joyful anticipation that was experienced as one mixed and, if appropriate, cooked a private melange of rice and a tasty smuggled ingredient cannot be expressed. The men often said that perhaps the greatest virtue of rice is that anything will improve it.3
The meals were cooked by prisoners inside the camps. Under intense scrutiny from those waiting in line these cooks were responsible for serving out the portions. Though some thought the best job in camp would be the job of cooking the food and distributing the rice, some men didn’t, as Wilbur Marrs related: ‘That was a hard job. That was the worst job you could get, because everybody wanted to get an equal amount and it was hard to do. You couldn’t make everybody equal.’
What I did is everybody had their number on the bowl where it couldn’t be seen underneath, then we’d line up all the bowls, fill the bowls…nobody was suppose to know who the hell’s bowl it was…it was a trust job. If you were chosen for that, you were considered to be pretty good.
Bob Ehrhart, Marine Corps.
Army Medical Corpsman John M. Cook recalls a time when his assignment was the mess hall in Zero Ward, which was the staging area for those who were dying at the Camp Cabanatuan Hospital:
[I] was asked to come in early and help cook the Lugao. It would still be dark and only a 40 watt bulb at a distance and I could not see too well when we put the rice into the water. At about day break there were ten or twelve scrawny patients watching us work to see that we did not eat or steal anything, when I noticed something in the water or should I say Lugao, and it was a rat. I called the first cook over and he told me to flip the rat out the back window opening of the mess hall when he lifted the cover off the opening. He opened the cover and out went the rat cooked and tender. And you should have seen the fight over the darn rat. Those sick patients would have all made the skeleton in any Doctor’s office. In five minutes there was not a trace of the varmint.
It was said the first meat or protein issued in Camp O’Donnell were the knit worms found in the Lugao.
At the civilian camps, the internees were organized into cooking squads and took turns preparing the meals each day. Jane Fredrickson, a seventeen-year-old American, remembers her early days of internment on Cebu Island:
We cooked over open fires and we often used native foods where they were available, we had to buy all our food. In the Cebu Camps, not once in the months that we were interned there, did the Japanese give us a single centavo with which to buy food nor did they give us any food. Their policy was ‘the internees are responsible for feeding themselves.’ We relied upon our friends, Filipino and Spanish, for food. We pooled our money, most had no money. We gave money to our buyers, two young Filipino men, to buy food for us. And we formed a committee to oversee the expenditures for food. We pooled the food. We wrote IOUs…and some IOUs were written for money borrowed from the outside. Many friends came to the gate bringing us food and expecting nothing in return for what they gave. It was a fine example of concern and human compassion…we never knew from day to day whether we would have enough food, but what we did have we tried to prepare in appetizing ways. Our squad of women cooks (and the men, also) were creative cooks. None of us gained weight, but we were not starving then.
The rice was cooked in a variety of containers depending on the camp. On the Tabayas road work detail it was in wheel barrels. At Camp O’Donnell it was in oil drums; in other camps, especially those in Japan, there were woks:
…the type of pot your grandmother used to make soap or apple sauce. When you cooked rice in these containers it ends up with a half-inch layer of burnt rice on the bottom. They would scrape it out and parcel it out in a coffee can. It tasted like pop corn and it filled our belly.’
Gene Boyt, Army Air Corps.
We Americans had to learn to cook rice. Often we would burn the rice while cooking and we placed the burnt rice out as scraps available for anyone. Soon we had many men fighting over the burned rice and we later started issuing it out to a different barracks each day to share what was available. Through the course of time it was discovered eating the burned rice cured dysentery. Burned rice soon became the treatment for men with dysentery.
Mess-sergeant Morris Lewis.
Work details outside the camps provided opportunities for men to steal and smuggle food back into camp. John Hildebrand recalls a time, when out on a work detail, when he found a family of mice, a mother and four babies. ‘You know, that mother wouldn’t leave those babies,’ he recalled, teary eyed, 60 years later at a recent prisoner reunion. ‘I had to take them all, and I shared them with my buddies. We skinned them and then boiled them.’
Life in camp was monotonous. Some camps started classes of whatever subject could be taught. The civilian camps had children, so schools were set up. Men played cards, cribbage, chess and checkers. A portion of the library from the United States Embassy made its way to the Zentsugi camp (Japan), but not all camps had libraries.
Paper and writing utensils were scarce. But those that had them had a mental advantage. It was on paper that they could plan the rest of their lives.
It was on paper they could write down where to go and what to buy, once liberated and back in the States. And it was on paper they could write their favourite foods, recipes or menus:
‘During the forty three months that I was a POW I spent a lot of time just writing out food and holiday menus to keep myself somewhat sane and focused. I don’t know if I did this because I was craving food or to keep myself up to the task of being the Mess Sergeant… Imagine being asked by your soldiers to tell them what was going to be on the Christmas menu, all knowing that there would never be such a meal. But here we were with each soldier coming to me and asking if they could put their dish on menu. It did give us all a sense of what we were remembering most and the will to go on another day. We were planning more than meals, we were providing a sense of hope for what should be or would be again someday.
Mess-sergeant Morris Lewis.
Morris Lewis wrote out a Thanksgiving menu in camp, saved these 60 years:
Thanksgiving Dinner Menu
Creamed tomato soup w Oyster soup
Virgina Baked Ham w Fried Rabbit
Fresh Ass. Fruit & Grapes
Cramberry [sic] Sauce w Apple Sauce
Raisin Dressing w Gibblet Gravy
Snowflake Potatoes w Candied Sweet Potatoes
Buttered Sweet Corn w French Peas
Green String Beans w Fried Egg Plant
Buttered Asparagus Tip w Green Stuffed Olives
Sweet Mix Pickles w Sliced Tomatoes
Lettuce w Mayonaise [sic] Dressing
Pineapple & cottage salad
Bread, whole wheat bread, Graham bread, raisin bread, Hot Rolls
Assorted Cookies w Fresh butter & Ass. Jams
Fruit Cake w Devil Food Cake
Coconut Layer Cake w Strawberry Short Cake w Whipped cream
Mince Meat Cake w Pumpkin Pie
Fresh Apple Pie w Chocolate Merangue [sic] Pie
Assorted Nuts w Assorted Candies
Assorted Ice Cream w Malted Milk w Fresh Milk
Fruit Punch w Coffee
Cigarettes w Iced Cold Beer w Cigars
Many of the men would spend entire days chasing down recipes and compiling recipes on every scrap of paper they could find…to an extreme… I never allowed myself to do it, I wanted to keep my mind off it…towards the end I tried to find the BEST recipes by the gourmet experts so to speak…from different nationalities…
Gene Boyt, Army Air Corps.
I never wrote out recipes or menus but we had a number of POWs in our barracks that held conferences about concocting food, which would drive me crazy!!!
Jim Hildebrand, Navy.
The men could not stop thinking about food. Gene Boyt used to fantasize:
I went to sleep many nights and use to go to bed dreaming about a sandwhich with two Hershey bars with crisp bacon in between. I couldn’t understand why nobody had manufactured this years before and sold it, because it would be a world beater. Must have been because of the two things we were lacking in our diet: fat and sugar. But, ohooo, that sounded to me best possible thing you could conjure up. I never did try it.
Food-fantasizing was a group act only. I don’t remember ever, solitarily, fantasizing about it; only with other ‘buddies’. In any case, the recipes that I can recall, were oral and started with someone wishfully thinking about, say, Swiss Steak swimming in dark brown gravy with chunks of onion, etc. Someone else would add another ingredient or dimension, etc., until, were it physically possible, we would had salivated or climaxed or both… Afterthought: perhaps it was just our rundown physical conditioning, but, after the first year and a half or so, in general, girls and femininity did not, any longer, enter into the POW’s thought process.
Then there was Frenchy, The Rock…he was always dreaming of blueberry pie. And he used to diddle with his food. A lot of guys did. They didn’t want to eat it all right a way, and they’d mix tea leaves in with it and they’d pat it down…well a lot of us, we were not all there any more. After eating nothing but rice and then getting your brains beat, you weren’t in good shape.
Bob Ehrhart, Marine.
Jane Fredrickson wrote in her diary:
In Spanish class we held a conversation about food. One lady, explaining a favorite dish, suddenly broke out in enthusiastic English, ‘You put the meat on top of the potatoes so the juice runs down and through them!’, she said.
On New Year’s Eve 1943 the men in Lt. Colonel Jones’s barracks composed a song describing each of its members.
An earnest room leader called Scottie An American Welshman called Jones
Developed a tongue that was spotty Would speak in the loudest of tones
When asked to explain He grew a long beard
He replied, ‘it’s the strain, And the use soon appeared
Of controlling a room that’s gone dotty.’ Was to filter the stew from the stones.
As our conversations grew around the holiday menu planning we would always turn toward remembering home and what we would do when we got back home. We always seem to try and sort out the next Thanksgiving, Christmas or birthday with our families. It seems to me the conversation would always be ‘if I’m free by next…this what I want to do.’
Mess-sergeant Morris Lewis.
They were the memories of home. These memories of home, with their loved ones gathered at the dinner table during the holidays. The menus were memories of childhood holiday gatherings. The recipes were from their mothers’ kitchens. These memories helped the men survive their ordeal. The family fabric was strong back home because they had endured a similar situation during the depression. The family may not have had enough food but they had each other for comfort.
The Red Cross Parcel
Eventually Red Cross Parcels were distributed to the camps. Each camp’s distribution of parcels would be based on location and the individual camp’s commandant. At some camps men received their own individual parcels but this rarely happened. At camps such as Zentsugi, a model camp used for propaganda purposes, and the camps that held the senior officers, such as Generals Wainwright, King and Percival, packages were regularly received.
John Hildebrand remembers: ‘There was enough food for seven days if eaten normally. I used my tooth powder to sweeten the rice.’
I remember it was an 11 pound box, they were all alike, with a few important distinctions… We would take it back to the bunk area and would open it excitedly to see what the few differences were… The box contained a big box of cubed sugar, a can about a pound of powdered milk, a small can of powdered coffee, 1-2 cans of jam or jelly, strawberry, apricot various kinds. Once you opened those, there was trading market and fellows began to trade…the Camel cigarettes traded at 20 while the others, Chesterfields or Lucky Strikes were worth 22, because the Camel had more tobacco in it…it contained a one pound box either dried raisin or prunes. And HERE was the discrepancy; oh you wanted the raisins you didn’t want the prunes. Because they had seeds in them…there was a D ration chocolate bar. I saved that and would make it last days and days and days. And just break off a small chunk after lights out and I was in bed, and your heart would begin to pound because of the rich sugar in your system.
Gene Boyt, Army Air Corps.
The men became very creative with their Red Cross parcel contents. Colonel Richard Jones kept several journals while a POW. Of ten separate journals, five were collections of recipes in very precise detail. He wrote down over 800 recipes, of which 64 were original masterpieces using the contents of their Red Cross Parcels. Often these dishes were augmented by drawings showing how each layer of filling should be applied. The majority of the recipes were for cakes or pies, and during the last year of captivity thoughts of sweets kept them in a frenzy of creation. John Cook remembers:
In 1944 I cooked a Chocolate-Prune pie with rice flour crust. Tasted good at the time, but when I came home and made one, it tasted like, you know what! We made rice pudding and got oil of cloves from the Dentist to season it…
Gene Boyt remembers how he and a buddy saved their rations of rice to make a cake:
…we saved sugar, chocolate, milk and butter. We built a cake. When the people found out that butter, sugar and milk if you beat it would be whip cr�me. So there were many inventions of beaters in prison, to gain a mechanical advantage to make whip cream with. The whip cr�me wouldn’t win any prizes back home but it was considered the nectar of the Gods. So we designed out of rice a big castle with the engineers insigna on it… Of course the rice was cold. But we finished a real work of art. A couple of months ahead of that, we got hold of a glass pop bottle and took some raisins and prunes and made a mixture with water. From the kitchen we got a start of yeast, the kitchen had this because the Japanese had our cooks baking sweet rolls for them, so they had bread facilities. We got the riser and corked it. We made a hydrometer, a vial that we put air in. We put the bottle in the sunshine and it would bubble and work and if the vial sunk too much, we had too much pressure, we’d take it out of the sun. We were in the process of making champagne. On the day of March 17 we built the cake, sat there in front of 28 men and gorged ourselves. No sharing. Washed it down with the sorriest champagne, but it was a glorious celebration.
Gene Boyt, Army Air Corps.
There was always trading going on, never more prevalent than when a new shipment of Red Cross packages were distributed:
It was a madhouse, like an oriental fish market trying to trade jellies and jams and prunes and raisins. Also five sticks of gum was in there – I have hated gum ever since. I thought that was ridiculous but all in all a wonderful package, and Red Cross did a super job of designing it, it was the best thing to send to starving men.
Gene Boyt, Army Air Corps.
During the last year of the war the food supplies getting to the camps began to dwindle, especially to the civilian internees in the Philippine Islands:
Oct. 13, 1944: we are so hungry – so desperately hungry. ‘How long?’ we asked fifty times a day. We are starving… I feel so weak and depressed – I weighed myself – 92 lbs, and I’m still losing. My insides are practically ruined. Besides, I don’t have an appetite anymore…when I go to sleep at 9:30, I can’t sleep on my back since my vertebrae ache. I usually waken in the middle of the night – usually from a bad dream.
Jane Fredrickson, diary.
If food was the number one subject on the men’s minds, then number two subject was liberation, and then what to eat when they got back home. Colonel Jones also wrote in his journal what he wanted to eat once he returned to the United States. He wrote it menu-style:
desired meal for first day back in the states
Dry Martinis ¥ Canapes
Green Olives ¥ Ripe Olives ¥ Small Onions
Celery ¥ Gherkins
Hard Rolls ¥ Napkin Rolls ¥ Orange Rolls ¥ Poppy Seed Rolls
Rye Bread ¥ Dark Bread
Split Pea Soup
Top Sirloin (Large) Medium Rare
French Fried Spanish Onions ¥ French Fried Shoestring Potatoes
Baked Idaho Potato, Hollandaise
Corn on the Cob
Heart of Young Imperial Lettuce
Large Serving Fresh Green Apple Pie
Wisconsin Sharp Cheese
Camembert Cheese ¥ Hard Crackers
Santa Fe Biltmores ¥ (Gran Marniere)
As much as the men had been warned by their officers, they did gorge. And many paid the price:
So our Commander had told us before that when supplies did come, to gather it up and bring it to the kitchen so the doctors could prepare quantities that our stomachs could handle. Well, there were hundreds of drums and in front of every drum the prisoners built a fire and started cooking a meal. Well, my buddies and I did so too. Everyone had a fire going frying spam or corn beef, it was delicious and it was great, and it made us very sick. So we’d get sick and come back and cook and eat and this went on for several days.
Gene Boyt, Army Engineers.
I have been like a mad dog in a meat house, not knowing what to bite first, the past week with so much good food; which we haven’t had under the Japs. To eat and so little capacity. Peaches, fruit cocktail, meat, cocoa, gum, cigarettes, etc… Things we use to take for granted before the war and which no one fully appreciated until forced to do with out.
Medical Corpsman Robert E. Thompson: letter to his parents, September 1945, Mukden, Manchuria.
Jane Fredrickson, now age twenty, weighed herself the week before she was liberated and weighed in at 78 pounds. Most of the men lost an average of 40-60 pounds during their imprisonment. It was usually more evident on the taller men. It was not unheard of that some men weighed 80 pounds or less. The average weight gain was about one and a half pounds per day once the camps received the food drops.
Studies of POWs reveals that while one per cent of American prisoners of war in Europe died, 57 per cent of those imprisoned in Asia died.4
When the men were asked why they were able to survive, they all mentioned they had family waiting for them at home. Those thoughts of home often focused on family meals and dishes made at special times: holidays and mother’s pies and cakes. There seems to be another factor almost all survivors had in common: the majority were farm boys who had had to cope with hard scrabble farming during the tough years of the 1920s, and especially the Great Depression. Their rigorous childhoods, with diets often of rice, red beans, corn and pork fat, fitted them to cope with even harder times. And when the family cooked for the holidays or harvest time, many watched and helped the womenfolk in their work. That is why so many could reconstruct dishes in their minds when they thought of home and dreamed of feasts.
1 Olson, John E. (1985) O’Donnell, Andersonville of the Pacific, self-published.
2 Curtis, Colonel Donald, Let’s eat, unpublished document in the collection of Brigadier General Donald Curtis USMC, Personal Papers, Archives Branch Marine Corps Research Center, Quantico, VA.
3 Keene, R.R. (April 1992) ‘Murder on Bataan’, in Leatherneck magazine.
4 Permission from Mrs Lillian Jones and family for all information and excerpts from Lietenant Colonel Richard Jones’ unpublished journals.
The other quotations are either from personal interviews or are answers to a questionnaire that I had given out or mailed. They are all from men and women who are alive today.