2nd Lt. Matthew Sidney MacDowell was born in Addison, New York, on August 22, 1912. As a child, he and his sister grew up at 612 South 21st Avenue in Maywood, Illinois. He was the son of Matthew D. MacDowell & Dorothy MacDowell and was called “Sonny” by his family. Matthew attended Proviso Township High School and was a member of the Class of 1931. After high school, he worked as a receiving clerk at a company that manufactured printer rollers.
On September 23, 1935, Matthew enlisted in the Illinois National Guard as a member of the 33rd Tank Company from Maywood. The company was federalized on November 25, 1940, for one year of federal service. At Fort Knox, he was “Sergeant of the Guard.”
One group of 17 soldiers left Maywood on Wednesday, November 27 at 7:00 A.M. in a convoy of one command car (or jeep), two trucks carrying supplies, and three private cars owned by members of the company. The trip was not easy since for 120 miles the road was covered in ice which cleared up near Indianapolis. They had dinner and spent the night at Ft. Benjamin Harris in Indianapolis. After showering and getting cleaned up, they continued the trip. As they got closer to Ft. Knox. the weather got warmer and the snow disappeared. During the trip one of the main topis was were they going live in tents or barracks. They reached the fort late in the day on Thursday and found they were housed in barracks for the night which they would not stay in.
Most of the soldiers made the trip to Ft. Knox by train on Thursday, November 28th. They marched down Madison Street to Fifth Avenue in Maywood and then north to the Chicago and North Western train station. In B Company’s case, they rode on the same train as A Company. In Chicago, the train was transferred onto the tracks of the Illinois Central Railroad which took them to Ft. Knox. Once at the fort they were met by Army trucks at the station which took them to the fort where they reunited with the men who drove. The soldiers lived in six-man tents which had stoves for heat since they were assigned to a newly opened area of the fort and their barracks were not finished.
When they arrived at the base they lived in six men tents with stoves that provided heat. They spent the first six weeks in primary training. During week 1, the soldiers did infantry drilling; week 2, manual arms and marching to music; week 3, machine gun training; week 4, was pistol usage; week 5, M1 rifle firing; week 6, was training with gas masks, gas attacks, pitching tents, and hikes; weeks 7, 8, and 9 were spent learning the weapons, firing each one, learning the parts of the weapons and their functions, field stripping and caring for weapons, and the cleaning of weapons.
1st/Sgt. Richard Danca – on December 26th – was given the job of picking men to be transferred from the company to the soon to be formed HQ Company. 35 men were picked because they had special training. Many of these men received promotions and because of their rating received higher pay. The men assigned to the company still lived with the B Company since their barracks were unfinished until February.
A typical day for the soldiers started at 6:15 with reveille, but most of the soldiers were up before this since they wanted to wash and dress. Breakfast was from 7:00 to 8:00 A.M., followed by calisthenics from 8:00 to 8:30. Afterward, the tankers went to various schools within the company. The classes consisted of .30 and .50 caliber machine guns, pistol, map reading, care of personal equipment, military courtesy, and training in tactics. At 11:30 the soldiers stopped what they were doing and cleaned up for mess which was from noon to 1:00 P.M. Afterwards, they attended the various schools which they had been assigned to on January 13, such as mechanics, tank driving, radio operating. The classes lasted for 13 weeks. In Jim’s case, he attended radio school.
At 11:30 the soldiers stopped what they were doing and cleaned up for mess which was from noon to 1:00 P.M. Afterwards, they attended the various schools which they had been assigned to on January 13, such as mechanics, tank driving, radio operating. The classes lasted for 13 weeks.
At 4:30, the soldiers called it a day and returned to their barracks and put on dress uniforms and at five held retreat and followed by dinner at 5:30. After they ate they stood in line to wash their mess kits since they had no mess hall. About January 12, 1941, their mess hall opened and they ate off real plates with forks and knives. They also no longer had to wash their own plates since that job fell on the men assigned to Kitchen Police. After dinner, they were off duty and lights were out at 9:00 P.M., but they did not have to turn in until 10:00 when Taps was played.
B Company also moved into its barracks in January 1941. Most of the members of B Company were assigned to Barracks 53. The bunks were set up along the walls and alternated so that the head of one bunk was next to the foot of another bunk allowing for more bunks to be placed in the least amount of space. The one problem they had was that the barracks had four, two-way speakers in it. One speaker was in the main room of each floor of the barracks, one was in the sergeant’s office, and one was in the Lt. Donald Hanes’ office. Since by flipping a switch the speaker became a microphone, the men watched what they said.
The area outside the barracks was described as muddy and dusty most of the time. An attempt was made to improve the situation with the building of walkways and roads around the barracks.
He resigned as an enlisted man and was commissioned as a second lieutenant on February 11, 1941. It was also at this time that all the companies had 16 operational tanks and the first men from selective service were assigned to the companies. On January 10th, these men took their first tank ride and all of them had the chance to drive the tanks. They would permanently join the companies in March 1941.
During their free time during the week, the men could go to one of the three movie theaters on the outpost. They also sat around and talked. One group of soldiers became known as “The Chess Clique.” As the weather got warmer, the men tried to play baseball as often as possible in the evenings. Volleyball was also often played. At 9:00 P.M., when lights went out, most went to sleep.
On weekends, men with passes frequently went to Louisville which was 35 miles north of the fort, while others went to Elizabethtown sixteen miles south of the fort. Those men still on the base used the dayroom to read since it was open until 11:00 P.M.
At 7:00 A.M. on Monday, June 16th, the battalion was broken into four detachments for a three-day tactical road march. The most important part of this march was to train the soldiers in loading, unloading, and setting up the battalion’s administrative camps. It also prepared them for the Louisiana maneuvers which they were scheduled to take part in during September.
The battalion traveled with 20 tanks, 20 motorcycles, 7 armored scout cars, 5 jeeps, 12 peeps (later called jeeps), 20 large 2½ ton trucks (these carried the battalion’s garages for vehicle repair), 5, 1½ ton trucks (which were the battalion’s kitchens), and 1 ambulance. The battalion traveled through Bardstown and Springfield before arriving at Harrodsburg at 2:30 P.M. where they set up their bivouac at the fairgrounds. The next morning, they moved to Herrington Lake east of Danville, before returning to Ft. Knox on Wednesday, June 18th through Lebanon, New Haven and Hodgenville, Kentucky. While at the lake, they swam, boated, and fished.
A typical day for the soldiers started at 6:15 with reveille, but most of the soldiers were up before this since they wanted to wash and dress. Breakfast was from 7:00 to 8:00 A.M., followed by calisthenics from 8:00 to 8:30. Afterward, the tankers went to various schools within the company. The classes consisted of .30 and .50 caliber machine guns, pistol, map reading, care of personal equipment, military courtesy, and training in tactics.
At 11:30 the soldiers stopped what they were doing and cleaned up for mess which was from noon to 1:00 P.M. Afterwards, they attended the various schools which they had been assigned to on January 13, such as mechanics, tank driving, radio operating. At 4:30, the soldiers called it a day and returned to their barracks and put on dress uniforms and at five held retreat and followed by dinner at 5:30. After dinner, they were off duty and lights were out at 9:00 P.M., but they did not have to turn in until 10:00 when Taps was played.
He next took part in the Louisiana maneuvers of 1941. When the maneuvers ended, the tankers expected to return to Ft. Knox. Instead, they were ordered to Camp Polk, Louisiana. It was there that they learned they were being sent overseas in Operation PLUM. Within hours, most had figured out that PLUM stood for the Philippines, Luzon, Manila. Many men received furloughs home to say their goodbyes.
The decision for this move – which had been made during August 1941 – was the result of an event that took place in the summer of 1941. A squadron of American fighters was flying over Lingayen Gulf, in the Philippines, when one of the pilots, who was flying at a lower altitude, noticed something odd. He took his plane down and identified a flagged buoy in the water and saw another in the distance. 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 which was hundreds of miles away. The island had a large radio transmitter. The squadron continued its flight plan south to Mariveles and returned to Clark Field. When the planes landed, it was too late to do anything that day.
The next day, when another squadron was sent to the area, the buoys had been picked up by a fishing boat – with a tarp on its deck – which was seen making its way to shore. Since communication between the Air Corps and Navy was difficult, the boat escaped. It was at that time the decision was made to build up the American military presence in the Philippines.
The battalion traveled west by train to San Francisco, California. Arriving there, they were taken by the ferry, U.S.A.T General Frank M. Coxe, to Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. At Ft. McDowell, they were given physicals and inoculated. Those men found to have a minor medical condition were held back and scheduled to rejoin the battalion at a later date.
The 192nd was boarded onto the U.S.A.T. Gen. Hugh L. Scott and sailed on Monday, October 27. During this part of the trip, many of the tankers suffered from seasickness. Once they recovered, they spent their time breaking down machine guns, cleaning weapons, and doing KP. The ship arrived at Honolulu, Hawaii, on Sunday, November 2 and had a two-day layover, so the soldiers were given shore leave so they could see the island.
On Wednesday, November 5, the ship sailed for Guam but took a southerly route away from the main shipping lanes. It was at this time it was joined by, the heavy cruiser, the U.S.S. Louisville and, another transport, the S. S. President Calvin Coolidge. Sunday night, November 9, the soldiers went to bed and when they awoke the next morning, it was Tuesday, November 11. During the night, while they slept, the ships had crossed the International Dateline.
During this part of the voyage, smoke from an unknown ship was seen on the horizon. The Louisville revved up its engines, its bow came out of the water, and it took off in the direction of the smoke. It turned out that the unknown ship was from a friendly country, while two other intercepted ships were Japanese freighters hauling scrap metal to Japan.
When they arrived at Guam, on Sunday, November 16, the ships took on water, bananas, coconuts, and vegetables before sailing for Manila the next day. At one point, the ships passed an island at night and did so in total blackout. This for many of the soldiers was a sign that they were being sent into harm’s way. The ships entered Manila Bay, at 8:00 A.M., on Thursday, November 20, and docked at Pier 7 later that morning. At 3:00 P.M., most of the soldiers were taken by bus to Ft. Stotsenburg. Those who drove trucks drove them to the fort, while the maintenance section remained behind at the pier to unload the tanks.
At the fort, the tankers were met by Gen. Edward P. King, who welcomed them and made sure that they had what they needed. He also was apologetic that there were no barracks for the tankers and that they had to live in tents. The fact was he had not learned of their arrival until days before they arrived. He made sure that they had Thanksgiving Dinner – which consisted of stew thrown into their mess kits – before he left to have his own dinner.
The members of the battalion pitched the ragged World War I tents in an open field halfway between the Clark Field Administration Building and Fort Stotsenburg. The tents were set up in two rows and five men were assigned to each tent. There were two supply tents and meals were provided by food trucks stationed at the end of the rows of tents.
The area was near the end of a runway used by B-17s for takeoffs. The planes flew over the tents at about 100 feet blowing dirt everywhere and the noise from the engines as they flew over was unbelievable. At night, they heard the sounds of planes flying over the airfield which turned out to be Japanese reconnaissance planes. In addition, the khaki uniforms they had been issued also turned out to be a heavy material which made them uncomfortable to wear in the tropical heat.
For the next seventeen days, the tankers worked to remove cosmoline from their weapons. The grease was put on the weapons to protect them from rust while at sea. They also loaded ammunition belts and did tank maintenance. Ten days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the reconnaissance plane pilots reported that Japanese transports were milling around in a large circle in the South China Sea.
Upon arrival at Fort Stotsenburg, Matthew was informed that he had been attached to the 194th Tank Battalion along with D Company from Harrodsburg, Kentucky, which was scheduled to be transferred to the battalion. Together the two battalions formed the Provisional Tank Group under the command of General James N. R. Weaver.
After the Japanese invaded the Philippines, Matthew and the other members of his company fought a slowing action to disrupt the Japanese time table of conquest. On December 12, 1941, Matthew and his tanks were ordered north toward Lingayen Gulf to cover the troop withdrawal. His company would play leapfrog with the Japanese until December 23rd. Near the town of Urdaneta, Matthew was transferred back to Company B, 192nd Tank Battalion and rejoined his old platoon. Matthew recalled that the men of the platoon loved to play jokes, get into fights, and drink beer.
The platoon was constantly on the move which resulted in the chow truck not being able to find them at times. Despite this, the men of the platoon always seem to eat well. The one thing Matthew never did was ask where the food came from. His platoon’s job at this time was to guard the beach against a possible Japanese landing. It was at this time that the platoon met up with a Self-Propelled Mount outfit which had a good supply of canned food. Matthew and his men ate well once again.
It was during this time that Matthew and his platoon had to go through the town of Gapan. After they got through the town, they were informed it had been held by the Japanese. Matthew could never figure out how the Japanese had missed them.
On January 1, 1942, somewhere near Baliug, there was a bridge that Matthew’s platoon and the platoon of Lt. Bill Gentry of Company C were ordered to hold. The two platoons saw movement on the other side of the bridge and opened fire. Later they learned that they had knocked out several Japanese tanks. Matthew’s platoon was ordered to Bataan leaving Lt. Gentry’s platoon holding the bridge.
On January 3, Matthew’s platoon arrived in a bivouac area but had to move three days later when the Japanese got too close. His platoon was then sent to Mariveles and would not see the other tankers of the 192nd until the fall of Bataan. Matthew was told to camouflage his tanks and cover the beach and the airstrip. His platoon did such a good job of hiding their tanks that when Col. Ted Wickord came looking for them, he could not find them.
Around February 5, Matthew and his men befriended two engineering officers who knew a Chief Petty Officer from the sub-tender Canopus. One night the CPO asked Matthew and his men aboard the ship for supper. Matthew recalled the meal was magnificent. The men had a complete steak dinner from food that had been meant for the submarines which were long gone.
In a letter dated February 27, 1942, Matthew encouraged his mother not to worry about him. In the letter he said.
“There isn’t an awful lot that I can say because of strict censorship of mail. I don’t know when you will get this if you get it at all, but please don’t worry about me as it won’t do any good. Now, if you don’t hear from me, it’s all right because under these conditions it is hard to get mail and of anything should happen to be you’ll be notified.
“I took out some government insurance, making a total of $10,000. So I’m O. K. in that respect.”
He commented on possessions he left behind at Clark Field.
” Gee, when I think of all that stuff I more than likely lost, it makes me feel pretty bad. And then when I think of having to buy it all over again I feel downright sick. It must be my Scotch blood.”
He also commented on the life of a soldier on Bataan.
“This outdoor life isn’t so bad, but I’m afraid it will kill my taste for picnics.”
He closed the letter with these words:
“Well, I guess this is all for now, so will close. Give my regards o everyone you see and to the family I send love.
Your loving son,
In another letter dated March 13, 1942, Matthew once again attempted to assure his family not to worry. He said:
“Just a few lines to let you know I’m O. K. You aren’t worrying about me?”
In his third letter dated March 26, and written on a postcard, Matthew talked about running out of smoking materials:
” I’m out of paper and this will have to do. Not much that I can say.
” Cigarettes are hard to get, although I manage to get enough. Pipe tobacco and cigars are just impossible to get. I started out with one pipe, broke it, and got another and lost that. Finally, got one more but now I have no tobacco.
“I save my butts and smoke them. Had a box of cigars when the war started but in the past few weeks, or rather the last two months, I have had three. Will have to start another pipe collection when I get home.
“Gee, I wish I knew how you were. I hear we have mail someplace. Hope to get it soon. Also, I have a package with pipe, tobacco, cigars, and something to eat in it.”
He also joked about the drinking:
“I haven’t had a drink since he first week in January. Am I reforming! I am growing a mustache. Wonder how you will like it? Well, this is all for now. Write soon, and if you wish, send me some of my pipes and some tobacco. Hope you are all well.
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. The tanks repeatedly were sent into areas to stop Japanese advances but often could not reach them because the roads were clogged with retreating troops and civilians.
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.
That evening, Major Nelson, of Gen. Weaver’s staff, came and told Matthew and his men that Bataan was going to be surrendered. Matthew and his men had a meeting. They destroyed their tanks, took their Tommy-guns and all the ammunition they could carry into the hills.
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 driver was from the tank group and the white flag was bedding from A Company.) Shortly after daylight Collier and Hunt returned with word of the appointment. It was at about 6:45 A.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.”
The tank crews circled their tanks. Each tank fired an armor-piercing shell into the engine of the tank in front of it. They also opened the gasoline cocks inside the tank compartments and dropped hand grenades into the tanks. Most of the company waited in their bivouac for the Japanese to make contact, while others attempted to reach Corregidor which had not surrendered.
Gen. King with his two aides, Maj. Wade R. 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.
Matthew and his men made their way to the beach and found an old tugboat. On it, they made their escape to Corregidor. It should be mentioned that when his parents heard the news of the surrender of Bataan, his father suffered a heart attack and died.
How they made it through the minefields was something that Matthew could never explain. When they reached the dock, they were met by Col. Carlos Ramouls and were sent to a cave. The next morning Matthew was attached to the Fourth Marines and sent topside to take over a defensive position. He would remain there until May 6, 1942.
Matthew recalled that all the men on Corregidor sat and waited for the end to come. There was no place for them to go and it was just a matter of time. M/Sgt. Ralph W. Pope, from the engineers, found a seagoing tugboat that they stocked with food and fuel. The men spent their time getting it ready to leave the island. The day before the men were to leave, the Japanese bombed Corregidor and sank the tugboat. Matthew had a good cry that night.
The Japanese landed on Corregidor on May 5, 1942, the next day Matthew and the other men were informed that it was all over and that they were Prisoners of War. Matthew recalled that the men did not know what to expect from the Japanese. They were ordered to report to the Radio Tunnel. The Japanese came and ordered the Americans to bury the dead and take their dog tags.
After the surrender, Matthew and the other prisoners remained on Corregidor for two weeks. During this time, the POWs worked a detail collecting the dead. Matthew recalled that the Japanese combat soldiers were a lot more respectful to the American soldiers. He told of how he watched a Japanese soldier make a cross for the grave of a Marine, place a jug of water in it, and step back and salute. When the detail ended, Matthew and the other prisoners were placed on landing barges and made to jump off the barges near the shore off Manila.
It was after the surrender of Corregidor that his parents received this message in May or early June 1942, from the War Department.
“Dear Mrs. D. MacDowell:
“According to War Department records, you have been designated as the emergency addressee of Second Lieutenant Matthew S. MacDowell, O, 404,975, 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”
The POWs marched to Bilibid Prison where they were able to get equipment like mess-gear, clothes, and blankets. They were taken to San Fernando and stayed in an old schoolhouse for two days.
Next, the POWs were loaded into boxcars and moved to Cabanatuan. The camp was actually three camps. Camp 1 was where the men who captured on Bataan and taken part in the death march where held. Camp 2 did not have an adequate water supply and was closed but later reopened and housed Naval POWs. Camp 3 was where those men captured on Corregidor were taken.
In addition, men from Bataan who had been hospitalized when the surrender came were sent to the camp. Camp 3 was later consolidated into Camp 1. When this was done, Matthew met the survivors of the death march. The death march survivors told them of the brutality shown to the Filipino and American soldiers as they made their way from Bataan to Camp O’Donnell. They also learned that all full-colonels and generals had been sent to Tarlac.
Once in the camp, the POWs were allowed to run the camp. The Japanese only entered if they had an issue they wanted to deal with. To prevent escapes, the POWs set up a detail that patrolled the fence of the camp. The reason this was done was that those who did escape and were caught were tortured before being executed, while the other POWs were made to watch. It is believed that no POW successfully escaped from the camp.
In July, his parents received a second letter from the War Department. 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, Second Lieutenant Matthew S. MacDowell 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.”
In the camp, the Japanese instituted the “Blood Brother” rule. If one man escaped the other nine men in his group would be executed. POWs caught trying to escape were beaten. Those who did escape and were caught were tortured before being executed. It is not known if any POW successfully escaped from the camp.
The barracks in the camp were built to house 50 POWs, but most had between 60 to 120 POWs in them. The POWs slept on bamboo slats, without mattresses, bedding, or mosquito netting. Many quickly became ill. The POWs were assigned to barracks which meant that the members of their group lived together, went out on work details together, and would be executed together since they were Blood Brothers.
The POWs were sent out on work details to cut wood for the POW kitchens. The two major details were the farm detail and the airfield detail which lasted for years. A typical day on any detail lasted from 7:00 A.M. until 5:00 P.M.
Rice was the main food given to the POWs fed to them as “lugow” which meant “wet rice.” During their time in the camp, they received few vegetables and almost no fruit. Once in awhile, they received bread.
As a prisoner in Cabanatuan, Matthew worked in the rice fields planting and cultivating rice plants. Since clothing was a major concern of the prisoners, when a POW died, they would strip him of his clothes and wash them in hot water. They would bury the dead prisoner naked. The POW as a person was almost forgotten by his fellow prisoners who were concerned with dividing up his belongings so that they could continue to live. Matthew wondered what the people back home would think of him and his fellow prisoners and how hard and cynical they had become as human beings.
On October 27, 1942, he was taken to Manila. The next day, October 28, Matthew was sent to Davao, Mindanao, in the southern Philippines on the Erie Maru. During the voyage, the ship stopped at Hoilo and Cebu before arrived at Lasang, Mindanao. The trip was rough and the prisoners spent most of it locked in the hold of the ship. When they arrived at Lasang, the POWs had to march to Davao. The prisoners were worried after hearing the stories of the death march. As it turned out, this fear was unfounded. The worst part of this march was the fact that the POWs had to keep moving. The camp Matthew was sent to had once been a prison for political prisoners.
After he arrived at Davao, Matthew entering a barracks and recalled falling asleep fully clothed. It was there that the prisoners were told that if one man escaped, ten POWs would be killed because the man escaped. This was the beginning of the “Blood Brother” rule.
At the camp, the POWs were housed in eight barracks that were about 148 feet long and about 16 feet wide. A four-foot-wide aisle ran down the center of each barracks. In each barracks, were eighteen bays. Twelve POWs shared a bay. 216 POWs lived in each barracks. Four cages were later put in a bay. Each cage held two POWs.
The camp discipline was poor. The American commanding officer changed frequently. The junior officers refused to take orders from the senior officers. Soon, the enlisted men spoke anyway they wanted to, to the officers. The situation improved because all the majority of POWs realized that discipline was needed to survive.
At first, the work details were not guarded. The POWs plowed, planted, and harvested the crops. The sick POWs made baskets. In April 1943, the POWs working conditions varied. Those working the rice fields received the worst treatment. They were beaten for not meeting quotas, misunderstandings between the POWs and guards, and a translator who could not be trusted to tell the truth.
By now, Matthew had lost about forty pounds due to the lack of food, not having proper medication, beriberi, yellow jaundice and several attacks of malaria. About this time the POWs began to receive better treatment. The food also improved and they did receive some medicines.
The prisoners were also informed that they would be paid if they worked. The pay was ten pesos or five American dollars a month. The Japanese did open a commissary where the prisoners could buy things. Matthew would buy tobacco by the handful and was taught by a Filipino how to roll cigars. He became pretty good at rolling them.
In November 1943, his mother received two POW postcards from him. In both cards, he indicated he was a POW at Camp #2.
As the American forces got closer to the Philippine Islands the Japanese began to send as many POWs to Japan or other occupied countries as possible. On June 6, 1944, the Japanese sent the POWs to Lasang, Mindanao, by truck. Once there, the POWs were boarded onto the Yashu Maru and held in the ship’s front holds for six days before it sailed. The ship sailed on the 12th and dropped anchor off Zamboanga, Mindanao. for two days before sailing for Cebu City arriving on June 17th. The POWs were taken off the ship and held in a warehouse. The POWs were returned to the dock and boarded an unnamed ship and arrived at Manila on June 25.
During the trip, the POWs spent the entire time in the hold of the ships. Some of the men died days before their fellow prisoners knew that they were dead. The prisoners arrived in Manila on June 17th and were returned to Cabanatuan where they found that there was no food or medical supplies.
In September 1944, Matthew was sent to Bilibid Prison in Manila. He recalled the entire trip was by truck and that he stood the entire way. By the time he arrived at Bilibid, his legs were swollen because he was suffering from wet beriberi. At the same time, he began running a fever due to another attack of malaria. Matthew was very sick and now weighed only 102 pounds and had a total of fifteen malaria attacks during his time in captivity.
At Bilibid, Matthew was assigned to a work detail at a warehouse. He was smoking a cigarette when a Japanese guard ordered him to carry a bucket of water across the warehouse. The POWs were not allowed to smoke in the warehouse, so Matthew put out the cigarette but kept it since cigarettes were hard to get. An enraged guard pulled the butt from his hand and stuffed it, ashes still hot, in his ear. “My first reaction was to throw the water at him. It’s lucky I didn’t. I would have been shot on the spot.”
One of the most difficult things for Matthew was the soldiers who went blind because of the lack of vitamins. The American doctors had no idea if they would regain their vision when their diets improved. He recalled that on Navy chaplain spent his days reading to these POWs. Matthew held this chaplain with high regard.
When the Japanese got ready to ship the prisoners to Japan, a Japanese doctor determined that Matthew was too ill to be sent to Japan and that he would not last much longer. He was admitted to the hospital ward with dengue fever and was not discharged until November 11, 1944. As it turned out, this medical decision would save Matthew’s life. The ship that Matthew would have been on was the Arisan Maru. On October 24, the ship was torpedoed by an American submarine resulting in the deaths of nearly 1766 POWs.
It was also at this time that his mother received news from the War Department that a shortwave radio broadcast had been heard which stated that the POW talking was 2nd Lt. Matthew MacDowell. In the broadcast, he said he was well and that he had received a package from home. He also stated that many of the members of the battalion had been sent to Japan.
Matthew would remain in Bilibid until he was liberated by American troops in February 1945. Before the Japanese abandoned the prison, the commanding officer warned the POWs not to leave the prison. Early in the morning, the wood that was covering one of the windows was smashed in. The prisoners saw men in strange uniforms. They thought these soldiers were Germans. It was only when they spoke that the men realized that these were American soldiers.
Matthew was one of the first members of Company B to be freed from a Japanese POW camp. When he was liberated, he was carried from the prison on a stretcher. During his time as a POW, he had beriberi and malaria. He recalled that after American troops had entered the prison, “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”
After he was liberated, his mother received a telegram from the War Department.
“Mrs. Dorothy McDowell: The secretary of war has asked me to inform you that your son, 2nd Lt. Matthew S. McDowell was returned to military control Feb 4 and is being returned to the United States within the near future. He will be given the opportunity to communicate with you upon his arrival if he has not already done so.
“E. F. Witsell
“Acting Adjutant General of the Army”
After liberation, Matthew was sent to Australia to recuperate. During his stay, on May 22, 1945, that he was promoted to 1st Lieutenant. He was next sent to a Veterans’ Hospital in California where he had the chance to call home. He kept asking his mother if he could speak to his dad. Not wanting to tell him that his dad had died from a heart attack on April 6, 1942, she kept changing the subject. She finally told him his dad was dead. To her surprise, Matt told her that he has had men die in his arms and at his feet, and he was now able to take almost anything.
After returning to the U.S., Matthew asked to be sent back to the Philippines to fight the Japanese. He said, “We did a lot of catching. Now, I want to do some throwing.” When the announcement of the Japanese surrender was made on August 15, 1945, he said, “I’m awfully glad it’s over, but for many, it will be filled with heartbreaks. Many folks have been living in hopes that their ‘missing son’ will turn up alive. Now they may find that he has died.”
Matthew remained in the army and rose in rank to Captain. He served in the Korean War and retired from the military in 1960. Matthew married, raised a family and spent the rest of his life in Hillside, Illinois.
Matthew S. MacDowell passed away on December 31, 1985, in Hillside, Illinois. He was buried at Mount Emblem Cemetery in Elmhurst, Illinois.