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POW's Suffering Didn't End When World War II Did

In 1945 President Harry Truman declared Sept. 2 as Victory Over Japan Day. Japan surrendered aboard the USS Missouri. It was the official end of World War II.

But the suffering wasn't over for Henry Chamberlain, who had been captured on the Philippines' Bataan Peninsula more than three years before.

When war came in 1941, Chamberlain was a young Army medic stationed at Fort George Wright in Spokane.

Chamberlain’s deployment overseas was the first time he’d seen the ocean. But after he reached the Philippines, things quickly turned awful.

“I was out on the Bataan Peninsula. That’s where the Japanese captured us,” Chamberlain said. “They moved us to Cabanatuan by cattle car. And when we got to Cabanatuan City, we had to march several miles to the main POW camp.”

Cabanatuan was the largest prisoner camp, but it wasn’t the only one that Chamberlain spent time in during his three and a half years as a prisoner of war.

Dying In His Arms

Conditions were grim. Food was scarce.

[asset-pullquotes[{"quote": "They were feeding us rice. But for every grain of rice there was a rice weevil.", "style": "push"}]]“They were feeding us rice. But for every grain of rice there was a rice weevil,” Chamberlain said. “I remember one of our doctors says, 'You just as well eat it, fellas, that’s all the protein we’re gonna get.' Eventually we did start eating it.”

Chamberlain says his captors were unspeakably cruel. He was physically beaten. Friends died in his arms.

In the summer of 1945, after the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, the allied forces declared victory.

“This Japanese commander said the emperor had told him that the war was over,” Chamberlain said. “As I recall that’s how they interpreted it to us.”

On Sept. 2, 1945, the surrender was made official aboard the USS Missouri in the Bay of Tokyo.

'So Skinny And So Diseased'

Chamberlain and his fellow POWs had been liberated, but they were traumatized and sick. “We didn’t want to go home yet," Chamberlain said. “We were so skinny and so diseased, and we didn’t want our parents to see us that way. Finally they did put us on a ship.”

Once they were repatriated, former POWs of the Japanese were sent to what was then called Madigan General Hospital in Tacoma. “At that time it was a big, old, wooden ramshackle affair," Chamberlain said. "But there were so many patients, they had to do something.”

Chamberlain recalls a caregiver from the Women's Army Corps who lived with them during their recovery.

“She was so dear,” Chamberlain said. “Some of the guys were pretty weak and she would work 15 to 16 hours a day. She was always there. And that time there was a song called 'Caledonia' and we nicknamed her Caledonia. And she liked it."

Chamberlain was awarded two Bronze Stars for his service and stayed in the Army until retirement.

Today he’s solid at 93. His hands are still dexterous enough to carve delicate wood objects for his grandchildren and duck decoys for his display cabinet.

After the war he married and had seven children with the love of his life, Dorothy. But he’s always wanted to thank that nurse in Tacoma for taking care of him.

“I’d like to know what happened to her. Oh, I’d love to take her out to dinner,“ Chamberlain said.

This report is part of the American Homefront Project, a partnership between public radio stations KUOW, WUNC, KPCC and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.