This flag, on display in the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas, was made by prisoners of war held by the Japanese and is similar to one made by POWs held in Davao, Philippines, and Toyama, Japan, during World War II. (Photo by George Morris)
By George Morris
When people think of World War II, the famous flag-raising at Iwo Jima is one of the most memorable images. But there is another flag from that conflict, and a friend of mine, that you should know about.
J.S. Gray of Jonesboro, Louisiana, arrived in the Philippines around Thanksgiving of 1941. He was a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army Air Corps, and the Philippines had to seem like a pretty nice assignment — tropical weather, friendly populace. Little did he know.
On Dec. 8, Japanese forces hit the Philippines with the same fury they had unleashed on Pearl Harbor just a few hours earlier on the other side of the International Date Line. But, unlike Hawaii, the Japanese had territorial conquest in mind for the Philippines. With the American airplanes wiped out on the ground, thousands of Japanese soldiers poured ashore unopposed in northern Luzon. World War II for America had begun, and America was utterly unprepared. Japan was counting on that. Its goal was to take the Philippines in 60 days, then take New Guinea and isolate Australia from American forces.
It didn’t take long for American generals to accept a brutal reality: U.S. forces in the Philippines had no chance. With the naval fleet devastated, the Army and Marines could not be reinforced, resupplied or evacuated. They could only fight as best they could, as long as they could.
And the best place to do that was Bataan.
The Bataan Peninsula formed the northwestern border for Manila Bay, and by backing into Bataan, it prevented the Japanese army from attacking from more than one direction. The hills and jungle foliage of the peninsula would help the defenders. But that’s all the help they would get.
Without resupply, every bullet fired was one less available. Food supplies quickly dwindled, and men were put on half rations, then quarter rations. To keep the soldiers’ morale up, the official word was that hundreds of ships were on their way. Those ships, however, lay on the bottom of Pearl Harbor.
But American soldiers have never been fools. Though some looked out to sea, hoping for salvation, a poem written on the spot told the real story:
We’re the battling bastards of Bataan.
No mama, no papa, no Uncle Sam.
No aunts, no uncles, no cousins, no nieces.
No pills, no planes, no artillery pieces.
And nobody gives a damn.
They held on for 60 days — and then 60 more, throwing a kink into the Japanese timetable that may have kept the Pacific war from being effectively lost in the first four months. But, when April arrived, Gen. Edward P. King knew his forces were at the brink, and that a Japanese breakthrough could mean annihilation. On April 9, he surrendered his forces. When King requested humane treatment for his men, the Japanese told him: “We are not barbarians.”
History renders its own judgment.
American and Filipino soldiers were forced to empty their canteens and sent marching as much as 60 miles. Already malnourished and dehydrated, many fell along the roadside — and were promptly bayonetted. Japanese soldiers passing the opposite direction hit prisoners with rifle butts or slashed them with swords. The route took the prisoners past artesians springs, but those who broke ranks to drink from them were gunned down.
J.S. Gray was so thirsty that, as they were passing through a large puddle, he pretended to trip and, when his face hit the water, gulped down the fetid water, though a dead cow lay bloated in the water.
The journey reached Camp O’Donnell, which was as much a hell on earth as the concentration camps half a world away. Men died by the thousands. Those too weak and sick to move were sent to what pretended to be a medical ward, but the men called the Zero Ward, because those were considered one’s odds of emerging alive.
POWs were forced to carry dead comrades to a trench for burial, and the captors were not fussy about declaring someone deceased. Gray carried litters of men who could talk and had enough wits about them to know what was happening who would plead for help, but with a gun at your back, what can you do? Into the trench they went, where exposure or, after dirt was applied, suffocation finished what disease or wounds had begun.
Eventually, Gray was assigned to a prison camp at Davao, and there the Japanese soldiers presented the prisoners with a captured American flag with a single instruction — destroy it. One POW, however, had a razor blade, and the men cut out the 48 stars and arranged the flag so that they could not be seen when they burned it as ordered. The stars, they swore, would make it back home.
This was late spring of 1942. The odds against the stars were great.
At Davao, prisoners toiled on farms growing vegetables for the imperial army. Malnutrition and disease were constant. At one point, Gray was so weak he could not stand, so he was placed in the captors’ mess hall and handed a flyswatter so he would continue to work as fellow prisoners served the Japanese their meals. Occasionally, at great risk, a POW would secretly scoop a bit of food into his fingers and quickly stuff it into — not his own mouth, but into the mouth of Gray, who needed it more.
Every week or so, another POW died. To keep these desperate men from escaping, the captors put them in 10-man groups. If anyone from the group escaped, the rest were executed. For the most part, that prevented escapes.
As American forces moved west across the Pacific, in 1944 the Japanese began moving prisoners to Japan to prevent their liberation. This journey took place aboard what became known as “hell ships.” In Gray’s case, men were crammed into the hold of a ship where they sweltered in the heat and darkness. Some went mad. Some died, and the POWs moved these bodies to one end, where they continued to rot. Food would be lowered in buckets, the same method used to provide toilet facilities. Gray and company endured this for 60 days until arriving in Japan.
Now, a new enemy took its toll. Cold-weather diseases attacked men weakened by the tropical variety. Those well enough worked in factories. More men died.
Then, one day, they were marching from camp to work when Japanese civilians asked why they were still imprisoned. Hadn’t they heard? Japan had surrendered! They marched back, and the camp commandant confirmed it. Immediately, men took paint and painted “PW” on their barracks roofs so American planes might spot them. And, sure enough, one did, and sent back word of their location. Then, bombers appeared in the sky, but instead of ordnance, they dropped food and medicine attached to red, white and blue parachutes.
Can you imagine the joy, the delirium? But, even as the packages that meant salvation floated down, some of the men kept looking at the parachutes, and someone said: “Get the stars. We’re making a flag.”
Word went out, and men started bringing them out from inside their clothes, where they kept them hidden. There were 12 … 23 … 37 … 45 … 48! All 48 stars had survived starvation, survived malaria, survived executions, survived the hell ship, survived pneumonia, survived it all.
The prisoners had access to one sewing machine, with one needle, and they set about turning parachute silk into Old Glory. Seven red stripes, six white stripes, a blue field, and then the stars. About 40 of them were secured when the sewing machine needle broke. So, J.S. Gray went to the shop took a wire and, with a hammer, turned it into a hand-stitching needle. The last of the stars were secured, and everyone came out into the yard as the Japanese Rising Sun was lowered and the Stars and Stripes went up — all that was left of them. Of all American servicemen who began the Death March, only 42 percent survived the end of the war, and some of those in the prison camp at Toyama, Japan were so weak they couldn’t lift their hand to salute. So, as the flag went up, a comrade reached down with his free left hand, took his brother by the wrist and placed his hand over his heart so he, too, could celebrate the moment properly.
Soon, they would be on ships headed back to America. Gray returned to Louisiana, married his sweetheart, Alyne Swayze — appropriately enough, on June 14, Flag Day — and they settled outside Baton Rouge, where I met him when, as a newspaperman, I was writing stories about WWII veterans on the 50th anniversaries of their service. That’s how I heard his story, and we became lasting friends.
There was a point where I was trying to produce a book of these stories, and I was hoping to get it out in time for Gray to have a copy. (The book, for reasons too tedious to repeat, was never published.) But, on a Christmas day, Alyne called me to break the sad news that her husband, who had overcome so much, had finally succumbed to cancer.
Since childhood, I’ve sung a hymn, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” a verse of which says:
Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away.
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the break of day.
There are times the truth of that verse offends me, and I say, “This shouldn’t be true for him.”
And so, for Flag Day, I share his story. I hope that the next time you see our flag — at the Post Office, when you pledge to it at your Rotary meeting, wherever it is — you’ll remember that flag. I hope you’ll remember my friend, J.S. Gray, and not him only, but all of those who have given so much — and still give so much — that you and I might be free.