Pfc. Harold Gerhard Kurvers
Pfc. Harold Kurvers was the son of Nicholas Kurvers & Sarah O'Brien-Kurvers. He
was born on May 18, 1918, in Saint Paul, Minnesota. While he was an infant, his mother died. His father and
him moved in with his grandmother and resided at 223 Burgess Street in St. Paul. He was known as "Snuff"
to his friends.
Harold attended St. Bernard's School and Washington High School. He dropped out of high school his sophomore year after breaking his leg. He went to work for the Great Northern Railroad in a freight warehouse alongside his father. He was known as "Snuffy."
On April 14, 1942, he was inducted into the U.S. Army at Fort Snelling, Minnesota. From there, he was sent to Ft. Lewis, Washington, for basic training. During his training, he was selected to be a medic even though he did not want to be a medic. At some point, he was assigned to the 194th Tank Battalion as a medic.
On August 15, 1941, the 194th received orders, from Ft. Knox, Kentucky, for duty in the Philippine Islands because of an event that happened during the summer. A squadron of American fighters was flying over Lingayen Gulf when one of the pilots noticed something odd. He took his plane down and identified a buoy in the water. He came upon more buoys that lined up, in a straight line for 30 miles to the northwest, in the direction of an Japanese occupied island, with a large radio transmitter, hundred of miles away. The squadron continued its flight plane and flew south to Mariveles and then returned to Clark Field. By the time the planes landed, it was too late to do anything that day.
The next morning, by the time another squadron was sent to the area the next day, the buoys had been picked up by a fishing boat which was seen making its way toward shore. Since communication between and Air Corps and Navy was poor, the boat was not intercepted. It was at that time the decision was made to build up the American military presence in the Philippines.
In September 1941, the 194th, minus B Company, was ordered to San Francisco, California, for transport to the Philippine Islands. Arriving, by train, at Ft. Mason in San Francisco, they were taken by the U.S.A.T. General Frank M. Coxe , to Ft. McDowell on Angel Island where they received physicals and inoculations from the battalion's medical detachment. Those men found with medical conditions were replaced.
The tankers boarded the S.S. President Calvin Coolidge on September 8 at 3:00 P.M. and sailed at 9:00 P.M. for the Philippine Islands. To get the tanks to fit in the ship's holds, the turrets had serial numbers spray painted on them and were removed from the tanks. They arrived at Honolulu, Hawaii, on Saturday, September 13th at 7:00 A.M., and most of the soldiers were allowed off ship to see the island but had to be back on board before the ship sailed at 5:00 P.M.
After leaving Hawaii, the ship took a southerly route away from the main shipping lanes. It was at this time that it was joined by the U.S.S. Astoria , a heavy cruiser, and an unknown destroyer that were its escorts. During this part of the trip, on several occasions, smoke was seen on the horizon, and the Astoria took off in the direction of the smoke. Each time it was found that the smoke was from a ship belonging to a friendly country.
The ships crossed the International Dateline on September 16, and the date changed to September 18. They entered Manila Bay at 7:00 A.M., on September 26th, and reached Manila several hours later. The soldiers disembarked at 3:00 P.M., and were driven on buses to Clark Field. The maintenance section of the battalion and members of 17th Ordnance remained at the dock to unload the battalion's tanks and reattach the turrets.
The battalion rode buses to Fort Stotsenburg and taken to an area between the fort and Clark Field, where they were housed in tents since the barracks for them had not been completed. They were met by General Edward P. King, commanding officer of the fort who made sure they had what they needed. On November 15th, they moved into their barracks.
On December 1, the 194th was ordered to its position at Clark Field. Their job was to protect the northern half of the airfield from paratroopers. The 192nd Tank Battalion, which had arrived in November guarded the southern half. Two crew men remained with the tanks at all times and received their meals from food trucks.
All morning, the sky was filled with American planes. At exactly noon, the planes landed and the pilots went to lunch. As the tankers ate lunch, planes approached the airfield from the north. They were able to count 54 planes. Raindrops fell from the planes. It was only when bombs began exploding on the runways that the Americans knew the planes were Japanese. After the attack, the tank battalions were sent out to defend against saboteurs.
For the next four months, the tank battalions fought to slow the Japanese conquest of the Philippines. During this time, Harold was assigned as an ambulance driver. The Americans were underfed. Harold recalled , "We were hungry all the time. They were bombing us all the time. I saw guys who would kill a monkey to eat, but I just couldn't handle that." The soldiers regular meal consisted of two meals of rice each day.
On April 9, 1942, Harold became a Prisoner of War. "Finally word came that we had surrendered. I don't remember getting any other orders. It's hell just to be sitting there. You don't know what's going on or what to do." According to Harold, the medical detachment stayed in their bivouac for two days until the Japanese made contact with them. "One of the Nips came walking through, and he indicated he wanted my watch. He showed me he already had three or four on each arm. I showed him that I didn't have one. But then he spotted my ring and he took it right off my hand. My girlfriend had given it to me."
The POWs were ordered to move. They made their way to Mariveles at the southern tip of Bataan. It was from this barrio that Harold started what is now know as the Bataan Death March. Harold quickly learned that to survive he had to stay away from the guards. "It wasn't so much the march itself, but that we were in such bad shape before it began. I saw a lot of bodies, but I never saw anybody killed. I saw one body that was completely black. I don't know how that happened. I saw a lot of beatings. My Rice Street training took over, and I learned to march on the inside where the Japanese guards couldn't reach you."
Harold survived the march because he tricked the Japanese. When his POW group passed another group of POWs being given a rest, he looked to see if any guards were around. If not, and if he knew someone in the resting group, he joined that group and rested. During the march, he did this several times, so he really had no idea how long he was on the march. His guess was somewhere between six to eight days.
He also was in a group of POWs that broke from formation and took sugarcane from a field. For whatever reason, the Japanese did not shoot at them. He remembered he could feel the energy retuning to him as he sucked on the sugarcane. Recalling the march, he said , "I often wonder what kind of life I would have had without that."
At San Fernando, the POWs were packed into small wooden boxcars used to haul sugarcane. Each boxcar could hold eight horses or forty men. The Japanese packed 100 POWs into each car. The POWs were packed in so tightly that those who died remained standing until the living left the cars at Capas. From there, the POWs walked the last miles to Camp O'Donnell.
It was at this point Harold needed help. Harold Van Analstyne, another medic from the 194th, had been with Harold on the march. He and other POWs carried Harold six of the last ten miles of the march to Camp O'Donnell.
Camp O'Donnell was an unfinished Filipino training base that the Japanese put into use as a POW camp. There was only one water spigot for the entire camp. The death rate among the POWs increased the longer the POWs were in the camp. It reached the point that even the Japanese realized that something had to be done. He was sent to the new camp at Cabanatuan when it opened.
On June 1, detachments of 100 men were formed and marched out of the main gate of the camp toward Capas. Once there, each detachment was packed into steel boxcars with two guards. At Calumpit, the train was switched onto a track that took it to Cabanatuan. The trains arrived all day long.
Cabanatuan had been the home of the 91st Philippine Army Division before the war. Men who attempted to escape were beaten, while those who did escape and were recaptured were executed. It was at this time that the Japanese instituted the "Blood Brother" rule. Ten POWs formed a group, if one man escaped the other nine would be executed since they did not stop him. According to records kept by the medical staff at Cabanatuan, he was assigned to the medical detachment at on June 23, 1942. The hospital had been moved from Little Baguio, but it kept the name of Hospital #2.
At some point, he came down with dry beriberi. He recalled, "If I just brushed the mosquito netting over my feet, I would howl with pain." He remained in Cabanatuan from June 1942 until September 1944. During that time, he worked in the camp kitchen which meant he had enough to eat. One of the lasting memories that he had of the camp was the death of his friend George Grui. He recalled that Grui told him, "Snuff, if you make it back be sure to tell my parents that I tried and I didn't give up." It was one of the last things Grui ever said to him. On July 5, 1944, Kurvers was transferred to Bilibid Prison outside of Manila to work as medic.
Medical records show the Snuff was admitted to Hospital Building #11 from Division I, Building #23 on August 7, 1944. The records do not show why he was admitted.
On December 12, 1944, the POWs heard rumors that a detail was being sent out. The POWs went through what was a farce of an inspection. They were told cigarettes, soap, and salt would be issued. The POWs were also told that they would also receive a meal to eat and one to take with them. The Japanese stated they would leave by 7:00 in the morning, so the lights were left on all night. At 4:00 a.m. the morning of December 13th, the other POWs were awakened.
By 8:00, the POWs were lined up and roll call was taken of the men who had been selected for transport to Japan. The prisoners were allowed to roam the compound until they were told to "fall-in." The men were fed a meal and then marched to Pier 7 in Manila. During the march down Luzon Boulevard, the POWs saw that the street cars had stopped running and many things were in disrepair.
At the harbor, the POWs saw that American bombers were doing a job on the Japanese transports. There were at least forty wrecked ships in the bay. When the POWs reached Pier 7, there were three ships docked. One was a run down ship, the other two were large and in good shape. They soon discovered that one of the two nicer ships was theirs.
The POWs were allowed to sit. Many fell asleep and slept to around 3:45. About 5:00 P.M., the POWs were boarded onto the Oryoku Maru for transport to Japan. It is not known in which hold Harold was held in, but the sides of the hold had two tiers of bunks that went around the diameter. The POWs near the hatch used anything they could find to fan the air to the POWs further away from it.
The ship left Manila on December 14, at about 3:30 AM, as part of the MATA-37 a convoy bound for Takao, Formosa. By the swells in the water, the POWs could tell that the ship was in open water.
The POWs received their first meal at about 3:30 that afternoon. Meals of the ship consisted of a little rice, fish, and water. Three fourths of a cup of water was shared by twenty POWs. The prisoners had just eaten when they heard the sounds of guns. At first, they thought the gun crews were just drilling since they had not heard any planes. It was only when the first bomb hit that they knew it was no drill. The POWs heard the change in the planes' engines sound as they began their dive toward the ships in the convoy. Explosions were taking place all around the POWs. Bullets from the planes ricocheted in to the hold causing many casualties. In all, the POWs would have to sweat out five air raids. The one result of the raid was no evening meal.
Recalling the time in the ship's hold, Snuff said , "Down in the holds, temperature were 120 degrees,. People with dysentery were defecating everywhere. We were jammed back to back. men dying and going insane. It was worse than the march itself, because on the march, at least you could breathe. In there, we were suffocating."
At four-thirty in the afternoon, the ship experienced its worse attack. It was hit at least three times, by bombs, on its bridge and stern. Most of the POWs who were wounded by ricocheting bullets or shrapnel from explosions. Bombs that exploded near the ship sent turrets of water over it. Bullets from the fighters hit the metal hull plates at an angle that prevented most from penetrating. Somewhere on the ship a fire had started but was put out after several hours.
After the first air raid, the ship was left alone by "playing possum" in the water. The fighters went after the other ships in the convoy. The ship reached Subic Bay at 2:30 in the morning. It was a suitable landing place.
When the attack resumed, the ship bounced in the water from the explosions. The POWs in the holds lived through seventeen attacks from American planes before sunset. Overall, six bombs hit the ship. One hit the stern of the ship killing many. That night 25 POWs died in the hold, and the moaning and muttering of men who were losing their minds kept the POWs up all night.
Some time after midnight, the POWs heard noise on deck as women and children were unloaded. During the night, the medics in the ship's hold were ordered out by a Japanese officer to tend to the Japanese wounded. One of the medics recalled that the dead, dying and wounded were everywhere.
The ship steamed in closer to the beach and its anchor was dropped. The POWs were told, at 4:00 in the morning, that they would be disembarked after daybreak. It was December 15. The POWs sat in the hold four hours after daybreak when the sound of planes was heard. They would live through three more attacks. When the U.S. Navy planes resumed their attack, the attacks came in waves. The POWs noted that attack was heavier then the day before.
At 8:00 AM, a Japanese guard yelled to the POWs , "All go home; Speedo!" He also shouted that the wounded would be the first evacuated. He looked up and said , "Planes! Many Planes!" As the POWs were abandoning ship, the planes returned. The pilots of the planes had no idea that the ship was carrying prisoners.
In the hold the POWs crowded together. Chips of rust fell on them from the ceiling. After the raid, they took care of the wounded before the next attack started. A Catholic priest, Fr. Duffy, began praying , "Father forgive them. They know not what they do."
The POWs went over the side of the ship into the water, as they swam to shore, they waved to the American planes to show them that they were Americans. Four planes flew low over the men banked and flew over them again. This time, they were even closer to the water. The POWs waved frantically to them. Finally, the planes dipped their wings and acknowledged that the men in the water were Americans. They called off the attack until the ship was empty.
Harold climbed up a rope to the ship's deck. On deck, he realized that the shoreline was about 300 yards away. Since he didn't know how to swim, he didn't know how he was going to make it to shore. He said to himself , "Snuff, you play baseball. why not swim." He found some empty canteens, tied them to himself, and jumped into the water. When he got to the shore, he found that the canteens had come off. "If I knew that, I'm sure I would have drowned."
As they swam to shore, the Japanese fired at them with machine guns. This was done to keep the POWs from trying to escape. Once on shore, they were herded onto tennis courts at the former U.S. Naval Station at Olongapo.
While the POWs were at Olongapo Naval Station, a Japanese officer, Lt. Junsaburo Toshio, told the ranking American officer, Lt. Col. E. Carl Engelhart, that those too badly wounded to continue the trip would be returned to Bilibid. Fifteen men were selected and loaded onto a truck. They were taken into the mountains and never seen again. They taken to a cemetery and shot. After they were killed, they buried at a cemetery nearby. The remainder of the POWs remained on the tennis courts for five or six days. During that time, they were given water but not fed.
The POWs remained on the tennis court for nine days. During their time of the courts, American planes attacked the area around them. The men watched as the fighter bombers came in vertically releasing bombs as they pulled out of their dives. On several occasions, the planes dove right at the POWs, dropped their bombs, and pulled out. The bombs drifted over the POWs and landed away from them exploding on contact.
Since the POWs had no place to hide, they watched and enjoyed the show. They believed that the pilots knew they were Americans but had no way of knowing if this was true. But what is known is that not one bomb was dropped on them even though they could be seen from the planes.
The evening of December 16, the Japanese brought 50 kilo bags of rice for the POWs. About half of the rice had fallen out of the bags because of holes. Each POW was given three spoons of raw rice, and a quarter of a spoon of salt.
At about 8:00 AM on the morning of December 22, 22 trucks arrived at the tennis court. Rumors flew on where they were going to be taken. At about 4:00 PM, a Taiwanese guard told the POWs, in broken English ,"No go Cabanatuan. Go Manila; maybe Bilibid." The guard knew as little as the POWs.
On December 21, the POWs were taken by truck to San Fernando, Pampanga, arriving there about four or five in the afternoon. Once there, they were put in a movie theater. Since it was dark, the POWs saw as a dungeon.
During their time at San Fernando, Pampanga, the POWs lived through several air raids. The reason for the air raids was the barrio was military headquarters for the area. Most of the civilians had been moved out of the barrio. Many of the Americans began to believe they had been taken there so that they would be killed by their own countrymen.
December 23, at about 10:00 PM, the Japanese interpreter came and spoke to the ranking American officer about moving the POWs. The Japanese loaded the seriously ill POWs into a truck. Those remaining behind believed they were taken to Bilibid. The remaining POWs were moved to a trade school building in the barrio.
After 10:00 AM on December 24, the POWs were taken to the train station. The POWs saw that the station had been hit by bombings and that the cars they were to board had bullet holes in them from strafing. 180 to 200 were packed into steel boxcars with four guards. The doors of the boxcars were kept closed and the heat in the cars was terrible. Ten to fifteen POWs rode on the roofs of the cars along with two guards. The guards told these POWs that it was okay to wave to the American planes.
On December 25, the POWs disembarked at San Fernando, La Union, at 2:00 AM and disembarked. They walked two kilometers to a school yard on the southern outskirts of the barrio. From December 25 until the 26. The POWs were held in a school house. The morning of December 26, the POWs were marched to a beach. During this time the prisoners were allowed one handful of rice and a canteen of water. The heat from the sun was so bad that men drank seawater. Many of those men died.
The remaining prisoners at San Fernando, La Union, where they boarded onto another "Hell Ship" the Enoura Maru or the Brazil Maru . On this ship, the POWs were held in three different holds. The ship had been used to haul cattle. The POWs were held in the same stalls that the cattle had been held in. In the lower hold, the POWs were lined up in companies 108 men. Each man had four feet of space. Men who attempted to get fresh air by climbing the ladders were shot by the guards.
During the night of December 30, the POWs heard the sound of depth charges exploding in the water. The ship arrived at Takao, Formosa, on December 31 and docked around 11:30 AM. After arriving at Takao, Formosa, each POW received a six inch long, 3/4 inch wide piece hardtack to eat. This was the first bread they had since receiving crackers in their Red Cross packages in 1942. During the time in the harbor, the POWs received little water. From January 1 through the 5, the POWs received one meal and day and very little water. This resulted in the death rate among the POWs to rise. On January 6, the POWs began to receive two meals a day. On January 8, the POWs from the Brazil Maru were transferred to the Enoura Maru and put in the forward hold.
The Enoura Maru also came under attack by American planes the morning of January 9, while the POWs were receiving their first meal of the day. The sound of ship's machine-guns was heard, and the explosions of bombs falling closer and closer to the ship were also heard. The waves created from the explosions rocked the ship.
One bomb exploded outside the corner of the forward hold, while another bomb came through the open hatch and exploded. The two bombs killed 285 prisoners. The surviving POWs remained in in the hold for three days with the dead. The stench from the dead filled the air. The Japanese looked down into the hold, so the POWs piled the bodies of the dead under it so they would be the first thing the Japanese saw and smelled when they looked into the hold.
On January 11, a work detail was formed and about half the dead were removed from the hold. The dead were unloaded from the ship, and a POW detail of twenty men took the corpses to a large furnace where they were cremated. These men reported that 150 POWs had been cremated. Their ashes were buried in a large urn. Later in the day, the survivors of the forward hold were moved into another hold.
On January 13, the surviving POWs were boarded onto a third "Hell Ship" the Brazil Maru. On the ship, the POWs found they had more room and were actually issued life jackets. The ship sailed for Japan on January 14th as part of a convoy and arrived in Moji, Japan, on January 29, 1945. During this part of the trip, as many as 30 POWs died each day. The ship also towed one or two other ships which had been damaged. Of the original 1619 men that boarded the Oryoku Maru, only 459 of the POWs had survived the trip to Japan.
When recalling the trip to Japan, he said , "Everyday something comes along that triggers it. all the aches and pains...The nightmares. Most of us talk about it and and think about it, but when you have to dream about it, it's tough."
After the ships arrival in Japan, Harold was taken to Fukuoka #17. The barracks for the POWs at the camp were 20 feet wide by 120 feet long. Each one was divided into ten rooms which were shared by four to six POWs each.
The POWs worked in a condemned coal mine. They worked bent over since they were taller than the average Japanese miner. At the mine, each prisoner was expected to load three cars of coal a day. The POWs worked 12 hour work days, with a 30 minute lunch, in areas of the mine which had cracks in the ceiling indicating a cave-in might take place. One area was known as the "hotbox" because of its temperatures. To get out of working, the POWs would intentionally have their arms broken by another POW.
He recalled one event he had with a guard , "One day I was drilling into the rock with my jack hammer. It weighed about 35 lbs., and that was a lot of weight for the shape I was in. This guard said something to me, and I didn't understand. I told him that in Japanese. He said it again, slower and louder, but, of course I still didn't understand. He came up from the floor with his fist and caught me on the side of the head. I remember thinking, You little son of a bitch, I wish I had you back on Rice Street." It turned out that the guard had wanted to measure the depth of the hole. He was also tired of the grease from the jack hammer hitting him in the face when he tried to do this.
A meal consisted of rice and a vegetable soup three times a day. Those POWs working in the mine received 700 grams a day, while camp workers received 450 grams a day. Officers, since they were not required to work, received 300 grams a day. Those working in the mine received three buns every second day since they did not return to camp for lunch. The meals were cooked in the camp kitchen which was manned by 15 POWs. Seven of the POWs were professional cooks. The kitchen had 11 cauldrons, 2 electric baking ovens, 2 kitchen ranges, 4 storerooms, and an ice box. To supplement their diets, the prisoners also ate dog meat, radishes, potato greens and seaweed. As they entered the mess hall, they would say their POW number to a POW at a board. He would take a nail and place it in the hole in front of the man's number. After all the POWs had been fed, the board was cleared for the next meal.
There were also bathing rooms in the camp with two bathing tanks that were 30 feet long, 10 feet wide, and 4 feet deep. The tubs were heated with very hot water. The POWs working in the mine bathed during the winter after cleaning themselves before entering the tubs. They did not bathe during the summer months to prevent skin diseases.
The camp hospital was a building of ten rooms that could each hold 30 men. There was an isolation ward for 15 POWs usually men suffering from tuberculosis. The POW doctors had little to no medicines or medical supplies to treat the ill. Dental treatment consisted of removing teeth without anesthesia.
In addition, the sick were forced to work. The Japanese camp doctor allowed the sick, who could walk, to be sent into the mine. He also took the Red Cross medical supplies meant for the POWs for his own use and failed to provide adequate medical treatment. Food that came in the packages was eaten by the guards. Those POWs working in the mine were given more Red Cross supplies than the other POWs.
Corporal punishment was an everyday occurrence at the camp. The guards beat the POWs for slightest reason and continued until the POW was unconscious. The man was then taken to the guardhouse and put in solitary confinement without food or water for a long period of time.
The Japanese interpreter in the camp refused to perform his duties resulting in the POWs receiving beatings because they could not explain the situation. He also would inform the guards of any alleged violations of camp rules which resulted in the POWs being severely beaten. This happened frequently at the mine with the interpreter usually the person responsible. He also, for no reason, slapped and beat the POWs.
On one occasion in November 1944, shirts had been stolen from a bundle in a building. The Japanese ordered all the POWs to assemble and told them that they would not be fed until the shirts were returned. The men returned the shirts anonymously, and the POWs received their meal at 10:00 P.M.
During the winter, the POWs were made to stand at attention and had water thrown on them as they stood in the cold, or they were forced to knee on bamboo poles. It is known that the POWs were made to stand in water and shocked with electrical current. At some point, Jim recalled, two POWs were tied to a post and left to die. This was done they had violated a camp rule.
On August 9, 1945, some of the POWs saw the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Those who saw it described that it was a sunny day and that the explosion still lit up the sky. The pillar of smoke that rose from the bomb was described as having all the colors of the rainbow. Afterwards, the POWs saw what they described as a fog blanketing Nagasaki which seemed to have vanished.
Harold was working in the coal mine when the atomic bomb was dropped . When he came out of the mine, another POW who had witnessed the bombing said to him , "Snuff, whatever they were looking for they got. That was really enormous."
The POWs went to work and talked to the Japanese civilians who spoke about how those, who had survived the blast, would touch their heads and pull out their hair. They stated these Japanese died within days. They also told of how they heard about a detachment of Japanese soldiers sent into Nagasaki to recover victims and how its members suffered the same fate.
When the POWs came out of the mine, they found that the next shift of POWs was not waiting to go to work. That night, the POWs were made to stand at attention for two hours. They all had their blankets because they believed they were going to be moved. Instead, they were returned to their barracks. The next day, when it was their turn to go to work, they were told it was a holiday, and they had the day off. They knew something was up because they had never had a holiday off before this.
Finally, the POWs were gathered in the camp and told that Japan and the United States were now friends. They were also told to stay in the camp. They also found a warehouse with Red Cross packages and distributed the packages to the camp. One day, George Weller, a reporter for the Chicago Daily News entered the camp. He told the POWs that there were American troops on Honshu. The camp was liberated on September 13, by a POW Recovery Team and on September 18, at 7:09 A.M., the POWs left the camp and were taken to the Dejima Docks at Nagasaki, where they boarded a ship and were returned to the Philippines.
Harold returned to the United States, on the U.S.S. Tryon , arriving at San Francisco on October 24, 1945. After returning home, he was hospitalized at Glen Lake Sanatorium with tuberculosis. Harold's medical records show that while he was a POW he suffered from scurvy, pellagra, beriberi, dengue fever, malnutrition, hookworm, and malaria. He was released and discharged in December 1945.
Harold returned home and married Dorothy in 1946. The couple had three children and resided in St. Paul where Harold worked for the U.S. Post Office. They remained married for fifty years until Dorothy's death in 1996.
Harold reflected on his time as a POW by saying , "I often wonder what kind of life I would have had without that. Everyday something comes along that triggers it. All the aches and pains .....The nightmares. Most of us can talk about it and think about it, but when you have to dream about it, it's rough."
Harold Kruevers passed away on March 29, 2013, and was buried at Fort Snelling National Cemetery in St. Paul, Minnesota.
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