PFC Harold Gerhard Kurvers was the son of Nicholas Kurvers and 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 he moved in with his grandmother and resided at 359 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 in his sophomore year after breaking his leg. He went to work for the Great Northern Railroad in a freight warehouse alongside his father. On October 16, 1940, he registered for the draft when the Selective Service Act became law and listed his friend, Edward Wazlavick, as his contact person.
On April 14, 1941, 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. His training was done by the battalion’s doctors since there were no classes for medics and the Army believed the best type of training was hands-on training.
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 a Japanese occupied island, with a large radio transmitter, hundreds 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 13 at 7:00 A.M., and most of the soldiers were allowed off the 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, an unknown destroyer, and the U.S.S. Guadalupe a fleet replenishment oiler, 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 26, 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 15, they moved into their barracks.
The description of the barracks was that from the floor, the barrack’s walls were open with screening going up three feet from the bottom of the outside walls. Above that, the walls were woven bamboo that allowed the air to pass through them. Bathroom facilities appeared to be limited and a man was considered lucky if he washed by a faucet with running water.
The workday was from 7:00 to 11:30 A.M. and from 1:30 to 2:30 P.M. The belief was it was too hot to work after that time. After 2:30, the tankers took part in “recreation in the motor pool” which meant they worked to 4:30. Tank commanders studied books on their tanks and instructed their crews on the 30 and 50 caliber machine guns. The tankers learned to dismantle the guns and put them together. They did it so often that many men could take the guns apart and assemble them with blindfolds on. They never fired the guns because Gen. King could not get Gen. MacArthur to release ammunition for them. The medics received training from the battalion’s doctors during this time.
For recreation, the soldiers spent their free time bowling or going to the movies at the base theater. They also played horseshoes, softball, badminton, or threw a football around to pass the time. On Wednesday afternoons, they went swimming.
Activities off base were available and they also went to Mt. Aarayat National Park and swam in the swimming pool there that was filled with mountain water. The men were allowed to go to Manila in small groups. They also went to canoeing at Pagsanjan Falls in their swimsuits and described the country was described as being beautiful.
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 of the airfield. Two crewmen remained with the tanks at all times and received their meals from food trucks. Snuff and the other members of the medical detachment remained at the battalion’s compound.
According to the tankers, the morning of December 8, the sky was filled with American planes. The half-tracks were brought to the airfield after the soldiers heard the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor. At 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 and presumed they were American. As the tankers watched, “raindrops” fell from the planes. It was only when “the raindrops” began exploding on the runways that the Americans knew the planes were Japanese.
After the attack, the medics saw the carnage done by the attack. As they watched, the wounded – most with arms and legs missing – were taken to the fort’s hospital on anything that could carry them. It is not known if they offered aid to the wounded.
That night, most men slept under their tanks since it was safer than sleeping in their tents. They had no idea that they had slept their last night in a bed. They lived through two more attacks on December 10. On the night of December 12/13, the battalion was ordered to bivouac south of San Fernando near the Calumpit Bridge. Attempting to move the battalion at night was a nightmare, and they finally arrived at their new bivouac at 6:00 A.M. on December 13.
The battalion received 15 Bren Gun carriers on the 15th, and gave some to the 26th Cavalry, Philippine Scouts. They used the carriers to test the ground to see if it was solid enough to support tanks. They next were ordered to support the 71st Division in the area of Rosario on the 22, but the division’s commanding officer ordered them out of the area since he believed they would interfere with operations.
On the night of December 22/23, the battalions were operating north of the Agno River when they found that the bridge they were supposed to use had been bombed. On December 23 and 24, the battalion was in the area of Urdaneta and found the bridge they were going used to cross the Agno River was destroyed. The tankers made an end run to get south of the river and ran into Japanese resistance early in the evening, but they successfully crossed at the river in the Bayambang Province.
Later on the 24, the battalions formed a defensive line along the southern bank of the Agno River with the tanks of the 192nd holding the Agno River from Carmen to Tayong, and the 194th holding the line on the Carmen-Alcala-Bautista Road. Lt. Costigan – on December 25 – told the tankers that they were behind enemy lines and would have to fight their way back to American lines. During the withdrawal, they lost two tanks.
The tanks were near Santo Tomas and Cabanatuan on the 28 and 29. The tank battalions next covered the withdrawal of the Philippine Army at the Pampanga River. The battalion’s tanks were on both sides of the on December 31 at the Calumpit Bridge.
On January 1, conflicting orders, about who was in command, were received by the defenders who were attempting to stop the Japanese advance down Route 5 and allowing the Southern Luzon Forces to withdraw toward Bataan. General Wainwright was unaware of the orders since they came from Gen. MacArthur’s chief of staff.
Because of the orders, there was confusion among the Filipinos and American forces defending the bridge over the Pampanga River about withdrawing from the bridge with half of the defenders withdrawing. Due to the efforts of the Self-Propelled Mounts, the 71st Field Artillery, and a frenzied attack by the 192nd Tank Battalion the Japanese were halted. From January 2 to 4, the 192nd held the road open from San Fernando to Dinalupihan so the southern forces could escape.
At 2:30 A.M., on January 6, the Japanese attacked at Remedios in force using smoke which was an attempt by the Japanese to destroy the tank battalions. That night the tanks withdrew into the peninsula with the 192nd holding its position so that the 194th Tank Battalion could leapfrog past it, cross the bridge, and then cover the 192nd’s withdrawal over the bridge. The 192nd was the last American unit to enter Bataan.
On the night of January 7, the tank battalions were covering the withdrawal of all troops around Hermosa. Around 6:00 A.M., before the bridge had been destroyed by the engineers, the 192nd crossed the bridge.
The next day, the battalion was between Culo and Hermosa and assigned a road to enter Bataan on which was worse than having no road. The half-tracks kept throwing their rubber tracks and members of 17th Ordnance assigned to each battalion had to re-track them in dangerous situations. After daylight, Japanese artillery fire was landing all around the tanks.
The next day, a composite tank company was formed under the command of Capt. Donald Hanes, B Co., 192nd. Its job was to protect the East Coast Road north of Hermosa open and to stop Japanese tanks attempting to use it to overrun the next defensive line that was forming. While in this position, the tanks were under constant enemy artillery fire. The rest of the tanks were ordered to bivouac south of the Abucay-Hacienda Road.
When word came that a bridge was going to be blown, all the tanks were ordered out of the area, which included the composite company. This could have resulted in a catastrophe, but the Japanese did not take advantage of the situation.
The tanks bivouacked south of the Pilar-Bagac Road and about two kilometers from the East Coast Road. It had almost been one month since the tank crews had a rest and the tanks had maintenance work done on them by 17th Ordnance. It was also on this day that the tank platoons were reduced to three tanks per tank platoon. The men rested and the tanks received the required maintenance. Most of the tank tracks had worn down to bare metal and the radial engines long past their 400-hour overhauls.
It was at this time the tank battalions received these orders which came from Gen. Weaver: “Tanks will execute maximum delay, staying in position and firing at visible enemy until further delay will jeopardize withdrawal. If a tank is immobilized, it will be fought until the close approach of the enemy, then destroyed; the crew previously taking positions outside and continuing to fight with the salvaged and personal weapons. Considerations of personal safety and expediency will not interfere with accomplishing the greatest possible delay.”
The battalions were sent to cover the junctions of the Back Road and East Road with the Abucay-Hacienda Road on January 25. While holding the position, the 45th Infantry, Philippine Scouts, fought its way to the position at 3:00 A.M. One platoon was sent to the front of the column of trucks which were loading the troops. The tanks provided heavy fire so that the infantry could withdraw and inflicted heavy losses on the Japanese.
During this time, Snuff was assigned as an ambulance driver and recalled that the Americans were underfed. Snuff said, “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.
Later on January 25, both the 192nd and 194th held a defensive line on the Bakanga-Cardre-BaniBani Roads until the withdraw was completed at midnight. They held the position until the night of January 26/27, when they dropped back to a new defensive line roughly along the Pilar-Bagac Roads. When ordered to withdraw to the new line, the 192nd found that the bridge at Balanga, that they were supposed to use had been destroyed by enemy fire. To withdraw, they had to use secondary roads to get around the barrio and tanks were still straggling in at noon.
The tank battalions, on January 28, were given the job of protecting the beaches, while the battalion’s half-tracks were used to patrol the roads. The Japanese later admitted that the tanks guarding the beaches prevented them from attempting landings.
The tank battalions, on their own, took up the job of protecting the airfields at Cabcaban, Bataan, and Mariveles, since Japanese paratroopers were known to be available. The tanks and half-tracks were well hidden in the jungle around the airfields and different plans were in place to be used against Japanese forces. There was only one major alert in March when 73 Japanese planes came over.
Jim spoke about how a tank was going down a trail when a Japanese soldier planted magnetic thermite on the tank deck along with the turret. The bomb burned through the steel deck and dropped into the ammunition tray. With shells exploding, the tank continued on its way for a short distance out of town and then stopped. The crew members piled out and no one was injured although the ammunition had completely exploded.
In March, the amount of gasoline was reduced to 15 gallons a day for all vehicles except the tanks. This would later be dropped to ten gallons a day. At the same time, food rations were cut in half again. Also at this time, Gen. Weaver suggested to Gen. Wainwright that a platoon of tanks be sent to Corregidor.
On April 3, 1942, the Japanese launched an attack supported by artillery and aircraft. A large force of Japanese troops came over Mount Samat and descended down the south face of the volcano. This attack wiped out two divisions of defenders and left a large area of the defensive line open to the Japanese. On April 7, the 57th Infantry, Philippine Scouts, supported by tanks, attempted to restore the line, but Japanese infiltrators prevented this from happening. During this action, one tank was knocked out but the remaining tanks successfully withdrew. C Company, 194th, was attached to the 192nd and had only seven tanks left.
It was the evening of April 8 that Gen. Edward P. King decided that further resistance was futile, since approximately 25% of his men were healthy enough to fight, and he estimated they would last one more day. In addition, he had over 6,000 troops who sick or wounded and 40,000 civilians who he feared would be massacred. His troops were on one-quarter rations, and even at that ration, he had two days of food left. He also believed his troops could fight for one more day.
At about 6:30 P.M., that tank battalion commanders received this order: “You will make plans, to be communicated to company commanders only, and be prepared to destroy within one hour after receipt by radio, or other means, of the word ‘CRASH’, all tanks and combat vehicles, arms, ammunition, gas, and radios: reserving sufficient trucks to close to rear echelons as soon as accomplished.”
At 2:oo A.M. April 9, Gen. King sent a jeep under a white flag carrying Colonel Everett C. Williams, Col. James V. Collier, and Major Marshall Hurt to meet with the Japanese commander about terms of surrender. (The white flag was bedding from A Company.) Shortly after daylight Collier and Hunt returned with word of the appointment.
Gen. King with his two aides, Maj. Cothran and Captain Achille C. Tisdelle Jr. got into a jeep carrying a large white flag. They were followed by another jeep – also flying another large white flag – with Col. Collier and Maj. Hurt in it. As the jeeps made their way north they were strafed and small bombs were dropped by a Japanese plane. The drivers of both jeeps and the jeeps were provided by the tank group and both men managed to avoid the bullets. The strafing ended when a Japanese reconnaissance plane ordered the fighter pilot to stop strafing.
About 10:00 A.M. the jeeps reached Lamao where they were received by a Japanese Major General who informed King that he reported his coming to negotiate a surrender and that an officer from Japanese command would arrive to do the negotiations. The Japanese officer also told him that his troops would no attack for thirty minutes while King decided what he would do.
After a half-hour, no Japanese officer had arrived from their headquarters and the Japanese attack had resumed. King sent Col Collier and Maj Hunt back to his command with instructions that any unit inline with the Japanese advance should fly white flags.
Shortly after this was done a Japanese colonel and interpreter arrived. King was told the officer was Homma’s Chief of Staff and he had come to discuss King’s surrender. King attempted to get insurances from the Japanese that his men would be treated as prisoners of war, but the Japanese officer – through his interpreter – accused him of declining to surrender unconditionally. At one point King stated he had enough trucks and gasoline to carry his troops out of Bataan. He was told that the Japanese would handle the movement of the prisoners. The two men talked back and forth until the colonel said through the interpreter, “The Imperial Japanese Army are not barbarians.” King found no choice but to accept him at his word.
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 Kurvers, 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. He didn’t know it, but Snuff had started what is now known as the Bataan Death March. He 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.”
The POWs started the march with what they had on when the Japanese made contact and carried what else they owned. He said, “But the further we got, you looked at what you needed least and pitched it.”
He said of the march, “We saw the dead along the road, bayoneted and shot. If they let us rest, it was in the sun, and they wouldn’t give us any food or water for four to six days on the way up.”
At one point he saw a Japanese soldier take a POW behind a clump of trees and heard a gunshot. “Nobody asked what happened to the GI. The Japanese soldier came back by himself.”
Snuff 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 returning 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 Snuff needed help. Harold Van Alstyne, another medic from the 194th, had been with him on the march. Van Alstyne and other POWs carried him six of the last ten miles of the march to Camp O’Donnell which was an unfinished Filipino Army Base that the Japanese put into use as a POW camp on April 1, 1942. They believed the camp could hold 15,000 to 20,000 POWs.
When the POWs arrived at the camp, they were searched and anyone found with Japanese money was separated from the other POWs and sent to the guardhouse. These POWs were accused of looting the bodies of dead Japanese soldiers. Over several days, gunshots were heard coming from southeast of the camp as they were executed.
The Japanese also took away any extra clothing that the POWs carried with them and refused to return it. Since there was no water to wash their clothing, the POWs threw away soiled clothing and stripped the dead of their clothing. Few of the POWs in the camp hospital had clothing.
Of arriving at Camp O’Donnell, he stated, “I was 130 pounds when we were first surrendered and when we reached the camp I was 90 pounds. I looked like the pictures of Auschwitz.”
There was only one water faucet for the entire camp and men stood in line from 2½ to 8 hours waiting for a drink. The Japanese guard in charge of the spigot would turn it off, for no reason, and the next man in line would have to wait up to four hours for it to be turned on again. Water for cooking food had to be hauled three miles to the camp. Mess kits could not be cleaned.
Of the food in the camp, he said, “Breakfast was the only meal we enjoyed because in the mornings it was dark so we couldn’t see the worms.” He also said, “Thee-and-one-half years of rice, three times a day.”
Since most of the POWs had dysentery, the slit trenches overflowed which resulted in flies being everywhere in the camp including the camp kitchen and in the food. The camp hospital had no water, soap, or disinfectant which also caused diseases to spread. When the ranking American doctor presented a letter with the medicines and medical supplies they needed to treat the sick, the camp commander, Captain Yoshio Tsuneyoshi, told him never to write another letter. He also said that the only things he wanted to know about the POWs were their names and serial numbers after they died.
The Philippine Red Cross sent medical supplies to the camp and the Japanese confiscated them for their own use. The Archbishop of Manila sent a truck full of medical supplies to the camp, but the Japanese refused to let it into the camp. When a representative of the Philippine Red Cross told a Japanese lieutenant that they could set up a 150-bed hospital for the POWs, he was slapped in the face by the lieutenant. Medicines sent to the camp by the Red Cross were confiscated by the Japanese for their own use.
The Japanese were so afraid of contracting an illness that they put a barbed wire fence up around the camp hospital. The POWs in the hospital lay elbow to elbow on the floor and operations were performed with knives from mess kits. Only one medic – out of every six medics assigned to treat the sick – was healthy enough to perform his duties.
Each morning, the POWs walked around the camp and collected the bodies of the dead and placed them under the hospital building. To clean the ground and stop the spread of disease, the POWs moved the bodies to one area, scraped the ground, put down lime to sterilize the ground, and moved the bodies back to the area. They then repeated the process where the bodies had been. It took two to three days to bury a man after he died.
Any POW, if he could walk, went out on a work detail for the day such as the one collected wood for the POW kitchen. Some POWs went out on work details which lasted for months to get out of the camp. The worse detail a man could be put on was the burial detail. On this work detail, two POWs carried a dead man to the camp cemetery. Once there, they put the body in a grave and held the body down with a pole, since the water table was high, and covered it with dirt. The next morning, when the burials resumed, the dead were often sitting up or had been dug up by wild dogs. The Japanese finally acknowledged that they had to do something to lower the death rate, so they opened a new POW camp.
During May, his parents received their first letter from the War Department.
“Dear Mrs. S. Kurvers:
“According to War Department records, you have been designated as the emergency addressee if Private First Class Harold G. Kurvers, 37,026,126, who, according to the latest information available, was serving in the Philippine Islands at the time of the final surrender.
“I deeply regret that it is impossible for me to give you more information than is contained in this letter. In the last days before the surrender of Bataan, there were casualties which were not reported to the War Department. Conceivably the same is true of the surrender of Corregidor and possibly other islands of the Philippines. The Japanese Government has indicated its intention of conforming to the terms of the Geneva Convention with respect to the interchange of information regarding prisoners of war. At some future date, this Government will receive through Geneva a list of persons who have been taken prisoners of war. Until that time the War Department cannot give you positive information.
“The War Department will consider the persons serving in the Philippine Islands as “missing in action” from the date of surrender of Corregidor, May 7, 1942, until definite information to the contrary is received. It is to be hoped that the Japanese Government will communicate a list of prisoners of war at an early date. At that time you will be notified by this office in the event that his name is contained in the list of prisoners of war. In the case of persons known to have been present in the Philippines and who are not reported to be prisoners of war by the Japanese Government, the War Department will continue to carry them as “missing in action” in the absence of information to the contrary, until twelve months have expired. At the expiration of twelve months and in the absence of other information the War Department is authorized to make a final determination.
“Recent legislation makes provision to continue the pay and allowances of persons carried in a “missing” status for a period not to exceed twelve months; to continue, for the duration of the war, the pay and allowances of persons known to have been captured by the enemy; to continue allotments made by missing personnel for a period of twelve months and allotments or increase allotments made by persons by the enemy during the time they are so held; to make new allotments or increase allotments to certain dependents defined in Public Law 490, 77th Congress. The latter dependents generally include the legal wife, dependent children under twenty-one years of age and dependent mother, or such dependents as having been designated in official records. Eligible dependents who can establish a need for financial assistance and are eligible to receive this assistance the amount allotted will be deducted from pay which would otherwise accrue to the credit of the missing individual.
“Very Truly yours
J. A. Ulio (signed)
The Adjutant General”
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.
Snuff remained at Camp O’Donnell to treat the sick and dying until on June 23, 1942, when he was sent to Bilibid Prison. There he was assigned to the medical staff which had kept the name of Hospital #2.
In July 1942, the family received a second letter. The following is an excerpt from it.
“The last report of casualties received by the War Department from the Philippines arrived early in the morning of May 6. Through this date, Private First Class Harold G. Kurvers had not been reported as a casualty. The War Department will consider the persons serving in the Philippine Islands as “missing in action” from the date of the surrender of Corregidor, May 7, until definite information to the contrary is received.
“Efforts to secure prisoner of war lists from the Philippines have not been successful to this date due to the lack of communication and the fact that the Japanese Government has not yet given permission for the Swiss representative and the International Red Cross delegates to make visits to prisoner of war camps in the islands. When the lists of prisoners are received, we will clear the name of your son and send you any additional information that we may have.”
At some point, he was sent to Cabanatuan and 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.
At the end of February 1943, his parents received a message from the War Department stating he was a Prisoner of War. This was the first news that they had of him since the two letters they had from the War Department in 1942.
REPORT JUST RECEIVED THROUGH THE INTERNATIONAL RED CROSS STATES THAT YOUR SON PRIVATE FIRST CLASS HAROLD G KURVERS IS A PRISONER OF WAR OF THE JAPANESE GOVERNMENT IN THE PHILIPPINE ISLANDS LETTER OF INFORMATION FOLLOWS FROM THE PROVOST
ULIO THE ADJUTANT GENERAL.
– Within days of receiving the first message, his wife received the following letter:
“The Provost Marshal General directs me to inform you that you may communicate with your son, postage free, by following the inclosed instructions:
“It is suggested that you address him as follows:
“PFC Harold G Kurvers, U.S. Army
Interned in the Philippine Islands
C/O Japanese Red Cross, Tokyo, Japan
Via New York, New York
“Packages cannot be sent to the Orient at this time. When transportation facilities are available a package permit will be issued you.
“Further information will be forwarded you as soon as it is received.
“Howard F. Bresee
“Chief Information Bureau
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 a 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. on the morning of December 13, 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 streetcars 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 dives toward the ships in the convoy. Explosions were taking place all around the POWs. Bullets from the planes ricocheted into 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, the temperature was 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.
Sometime after midnight, the POWs heard a 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 on 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 the attack was heavier than 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 chaplain, Fr. John 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 were 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.
On 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 the 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 schoolyard on the southern outskirts of the barrio. From December 25 until the 26. The POWs were held in a schoolhouse. On 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 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 think about it, but when you have to dream about it, it’s tough.”
After the ship’s 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 workdays, 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 jackhammer. 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 jackhammer hitting him in the face when he tried to do this.
Snuff also said that another thing that kept him alive was something he had learned on Rice Street. “You learned if you can’t take’em, don’t mess with them.”
A meal consisted of rice and 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 icebox. 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 and another POW put a nail in a hole in front of the man’s number on a wooden board. 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 the 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 kneel 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. Afterward, 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 – on September 21 – 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.
When he was asked how he survived his time in the camps, he said, “I always say it was God and prayer. Sometimes, it was your own prayers; sometimes, it was somebody else praying for you.”
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. Every day 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.