Woman of War: Camp life becomes torturous

By Jennifer Lee Preyss

Eileen Aaron, 18, clenches a scanty tote of clothing and food, smiling as she recognizes the scattered faces at Rizal Stadium.

She's familiar with Rizal, near Santo Tomas University, where she believes Japanese imperial militia intend to keep her for three days.

It's the university she attends as a freshman - or had attended before the campus closed a month earlier - a campus she's visited regularly growing up in Manila.

Santo Tomas closed Dec. 8, 1941, when the Japanese invaded the Philippines.

Still shaken from her capture - she was seized hours earlier by armed Japanese soldiers - she is thankful others on the grounds appear to be safe.

It is an emotionally charged reunion of sorts, the first day of internment on Jan. 4, 1942. A confused Eileen allows herself to celebrate the arrival of friends, remaining hopeful her capture is temporary.

Prisoner of war

Eileen, her eldest sister, Jean, and her mother, Margaret, are informed, like the other thousands of internees, they are in Japanese protective custody. That's the word circulating through the crowds as they're shuffled through registration lines.

No one utters the words internment or prisoner of war.

Yet not everyone is not accounted for.

Eileen's father, John Aaron, her sister, Madge, and her newlywed husband, Earl Cobb, are nowhere to be found. Eileen's mother, Margaret, grows anxious. Are they alive or dead? The family has no way of knowing.

Finding a routine

With little understanding of what is happening around them, all the Aarons know is they are surrounded by Japanese soldiers, who had a month earlier bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, and are actively strafing their beloved Philippines homeland.

Once checked in, men and women are separated on the campus.

For two days, Eileen and her mother search for her father, sister and husband. They are elated when they learn John, Madge and Earl are also in the camp.

Those who can walk and are able-bodied are put on the higher dormitory floors of the university while the elderly and disabled are held on ground floors.

Eileen and former classmate Patty Stevens are placed on the third floor, where they share a room with 36 women.

In the chaotic first days, they sleep on the floor. Later, they get twin beds placed inches apart.

As the days pass, room leaders are appointed, who are responsible for each resident's needs, including beds, mosquito nets, clothing and other supplies.

Santo Tomas Quilt

A quilt showing the layout of the Santo Tomas internment camp.

Women with small children are taken to Holy Ghost convent. They're able to be ministered to by the resident nuns.

A group organizes inside the camp, calling themselves the Central Committee, which launches into action and begins assigning duties and responsibilities to everyone inside Santo Tomas.

Anyone able is assigned a job, and Eileen is put to work in the nursery with the children, as well as in the hospital and kitchens.

Patty is assigned kitchen duty.

The Central Committee sets up an internal government of sorts, establishing in a matter of days a hospital, day care, cleaning crew, latrine, school and cafeteria.

Adjusting to daily life

For the first few weeks, morale is high in the camp. Eileen and Patty enjoy being roommates, and they rise each morning before 7 to catch breakfast in the common area, which includes hearty stews, meat and rice and vegetables. It's not a lot of food, but it's frequent and satisfying.

In addition to being fed, internees are generally well-treated by Japanese guards. Outside the Santo Tomas gates, war rages. People are dying and bombs are exploding.

Yet inside the camp, internees host dances in the evenings and play music sometimes during the day. An occasional movie is screened, and women get together for card games and mahjong tiles. Eileen's grandmother, Lila Tyre, quilts a blanket using textile scraps found in the camp to keep busy.

"At night, if we were allowed, we went outside and sat in chairs or on straw mats to listen to the music," Eileen wrote in a speech she delivered about 20 years ago. "Sometimes, it seemed like a future didn't exist, and it was just a succession of days and nights."

The Central Committee successfully organizes the run of the camp with little objection from the Japanese guards.

Husbands and wives who were separated in the camps find ways to sneak dalliances when the guards aren't looking. If caught, or a woman becomes impregnated, the men are jailed.

Filipino friends and former employees of the internees stop by the camp to deliver supplies and money each day, which is used to buy and barter food and supplies from other internees.

Filipinos deliver messages from the outside from friends and relatives and disseminate news of the war and updates on Gen. Douglas MacArthur's promised return with American troops to rescue them.

One man in the camp is even able to slowly build a radio from the supplies brought to him one piece at a time. The prisoners also get information from Filipinos who throw leaflets over the university's walls.

Some manage to smuggle in their pet cats and dogs, which roam the grounds.

But the comforts of prison don't last. As the war progresses, conditions worsen. People start dying.

The worst of times

As months pass, it becomes apparent to Eileen that she is not getting out of Santo Tomas.

Her brother-in-law, Earl, an American, reassures her that Gen. MacArthur will return. Earl negotiates work assignments outside Santo Tomas, such as gathering firewood to get opportunities to smuggle in canned food and other supplies. He is able to bribe some of the guards to bring in the supplies.

Earl keeps a secret stash of food in a shanty house he builds inside Santo Tomas, which later angers the family when they discover he isn't sharing. But Earl explains he fears the war could last 10 years, and he needs to be prepared for that.

Earl and Madge's son, Bayless, is born Oct. 5, 1942, in the camp. Pregnant only days before internment, she was allowed outside the prison walls for a few days to deliver her son at a more equipped hospital.

The Shantytown, or rows of shack houses, is built throughout time to give people more privacy and create a space for internees to spread out from the increasingly crowded dorm rooms. George Evans, Eileen's uncle, serves as mayor of Shantytown.

When too many people crowd Santo Tomas, the Japanese build an overflow camp, Los Banos, where about 800 young and single men are transferred.

Eileen's younger brother, Jack, and her uncle, Alexander Tyre, are among the first group to be sent over.

As supplies grow tighter and the Japanese begin feeling the heat of losing the war, meals become scant in the prison.

Servings of meat changes to horse, then buffalo, then eventually none at all.

Later, no vegetables are served. Food becomes single-colored mush. And soon after that, even the mush becomes sparse. The rice always is filled with what the prisoners call weebles, little worms that move. One camp prisoner's job is to go through the mush, trying to remove all of the weebles.

Later, the prisoners learn the weebles are a source of protein and start eating them, too.

Men, women and children begin dropping weight, and malnutrition and skeleton-like appearances become normal.

Elderly die at a rate of six to eight per day of malnutrition and illness, and Eileen suffers from wet beriberi, caused from a B-1 deficiency, which can lead to heart failure.

Some turn to eating the cats, dogs and mice on the grounds, creating meals known as pussy soup, among others. The prisoners' minds start to play tricks as they daydream about the food they will eat someday when they are free, often spending many hours flipping the pages of recipe books.

The drinking water also causes many of the internees to experience frequent bouts of dysentery and diarrhea.

Eileen's friend Patty gets so sick she loses 10 pounds in five days, landing her in the hospital.

Bed bugs run rampant, and internees begin contracting malaria and dengue fever.

The guards change from benevolently overseeing the camp to becoming vigilant with their control.

By December 1944, internees hold out hope for a Christmas liberation, which never comes. Gen. MacArthur keeps his famous "I shall return" promise on Oct. 20, 1944, on the island of Leyte, but the battle rages on. Most of Manila is reduced to rubble.

An American military plane manages to drop a Christmas card in the camp with a message of hope for the holiday season. Christmas services are somber and sad.

Death of a mother

Before the war, Eileen's mother, Margaret, suffered from breast cancer, which seemed to wane before internment. Even before the war, little treatment was possible in the 1940s, so Eileen can only watch her mother suffer while the cancer creeps up again in Santo Tomas.

Eileen spends hours by her mother's bedside in the camp hospital but despairs as her condition deteriorates.

In the final months of her life, Margaret has little time to spend with her grandson, Bayless, who was born in the camp. She returns to the camp from the hospital to spend her final days with her daughters and husband.

She dies June 11, 1944 and is buried in a British cemetery. She is 44 years old.

Guards won't let the family attend the funeral. Eileen never forgives the Japanese for robbing her of that closure.

Patty happens to see Margaret's body put on a horse-drawn cart and taken from the camp by the Japanese.

Soon after Margaret's death, a despairing Eileen says goodbye to more family.

Her eldest sister, Jean, and their father, John, petition to transfer to the overflow camp, Los Banos, where her younger brother, Jack, is held. They want to try to help him, reasoning Eileen, Madge and Earl can watch out for each other and baby Bay.

"He was the youngest and had no other family to care about his well-being," Eileen later wrote.

Lessons in bowing

In the beginning, nightly roll calls at the camp account for everyone's attendance. These are friendly, almost like a teacher taking attendance.

As the war stretches on and conditions worsen, guards become demanding and, at times, cruel.

Roll calls increase to twice a day and, on some days, go on for hours while everyone is forced to stand.

A curfew is enforced and entertainment of any kind is prohibited.

Japanese guards demand Eileen and the other internees bow to guards when they pass or greet them. If a prisoner forgets to follow the Japanese custom, she is struck. The prisoners learn quickly.

Many of the Americans and British try to make a mockery of the bowing rule, over time, even attempting to out-bow the Japanese as they walk by.

As the prisoners become hungrier and thinner people, the guards get more aggressive. Although they always eat first, the guards also are affected by the food shortage.

A few of the internees try to escape. They usually are caught and executed. First, they are forced to dig their own graves, then beaten and killed.

Even if a prisoner manages to escape, the war on the outside of Santo Tomas and Los Banos is in full swing. There is nowhere to run.

Eileen and Patty console each other as they hear the screams of war outside the camp, and the men, women and children being shot dead each day. They also hear reports of women being raped, and homes and businesses pillaged.

During the bombings and strafing, Eileen often balls up under her twin bed to comfort herself.

The guards begin preventing Filipinos and other civilians from visiting the camps, making it more difficult to bring in supplies.

Even with rampant weight loss, an average of 37 pounds per man, and the worsening conditions of camp, the prisoners hold on to hope American troops will return. They tell themselves they just have to hold on a little longer.

Liberation day

On Feb. 3, 1945, five American planes fly over the Santo Tomas camp and drop a pair of goggles with an attached note: "Roll out the barrel, your Christmas will be here today or tomorrow."

The note also tells the internees to stay inside and not come out for any reason.

Eileen runs to her dorm room and hides under her bed.

She hears the tanks rumbling and bullets flying. She believes, at first, it is the Japanese military arriving. Rumors circulate the "Japs" plan to kill the internees before the war is over, before they can be liberated.

They learn later that these rumors were true. Had the war progressed, the Japanese planned to execute all of the internees.

But the bombing Eileen hears from under her bed is the American First Cavalry approaching Santo Tomas.

They arrive that night in two tanks - Battlin' Basic and Georgia Peach of the 44th Tank Battalion - which drive through the prison gate, allowing the American First Cavalry to follow them through the walls. Marine aviation provides support from the sky.

The Japanese flee to the education building with 213 men and four female nurses.

Fighting continues for two days and two nights before the Japanese surrender the camp.

The camp is liberated Feb. 5, 1945.

On liberation day, Eileen runs to the top of Santo Tomas' main building rooftop and waves at and cheers the soldiers below.

Three more weeks

War continues between American and Japanese fighters for next three weeks, and Santo Tomas remains a target for sniper fire and counter military attacks.

Outside the camp, 20,000 Japanese soldiers continue fighting in Manilla.

When Gen. MacArthur arrives at Santo Tomas on Feb. 7, 1945, the internees - having been forced and brainwashed to bow to authority - bow in appreciation of his arrival.

MacArthur salutes in return.

The Japanese are defeated in the Philippines on Feb. 27, 1945. An estimated 100,000 civilians are killed in Manila.

Manila was the second most bombed city in the war, behind Warsaw. The devastation was seen everywhere.

About 500,000 to 1 million civilians die across the Philippines during the occupation.

Thirty-seven months have passed since Eileen and her family were first taken.

She is free. But her homeland is destroyed.

She has nowhere to go, and no home to return to.

Continue Reading: Woman of War: Eileen finds love, faces deportation