My dinner with a Prisoner of War

Thu, 09/12/2013 - 2:00pm

In 2007, I shared my first dinner with a former prisoner of war. A gray-haired gentleman smartly dressed, from Great Britain, who was in his late 80s. He traveled by jet to Boston the week before, invited as the guest of honor at a gathering of U.S. World War II veterans. He journeyed across the Atlantic to say thank you to a group of U.S. servicemen who participated in the evacuation of prisoners of war in September of 1945 after years of brutal treatment by the Japanese. None of the former crewmembers that week from USS Block Island, CVE-106, recognized him. It was not that Mr. Cecil Clarke was 62 years older that caused confusion, it was the fact that the only time they met Cecil he weighed under 100 pounds.

The Dinner

On the night before he returned to England, Mr. Clarke and I finally spoke in private. Over the week of activities, which included day trips to Battleship Cove in Fall River, Boston, and American Legion Post 36 on Block Island, Cecil had been reunited with the men who had helped him on his first leg of his journey home. After ordering our seafood dinner in our Boston airport hotel, he told me his experience.

Mr. Clarke heard of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 as he was cruising on a troop ship rounding the Horn of Africa. As a member of the British Army [Royal Engineers], he and his unit were being sent to Singapore to help defend the Empire against the Japanese. His time serving the Empire overseas was less than a month, as British forces in Singapore surrendered to the Japanese just weeks after his arrival on Feb. 15, 1942. His time in uniform was brief so far, but his war was just beginning.

As my blackened tuna arrived at our table, Mr. Clarke continued his tale. For three and a half years he ate nothing more than one bowl of rice for a meal. He and his fellow prisoners labored in the copper mines of Formosa (modern day Taiwan). They walked over a mountain top every morning and then scaled down a dangerous tunnel nearly a mile inside the earth. With inadequate tools, and with temperatures soaring over 120 degrees with no ventilation, they labored harvesting copper for the Japanese war effort. In the months of labor that followed, they quickly lost all physical connection to Britain as their clothes issued by the British Army soon deteriorated to mere rags. However, they retained something British that would not deteriorate in these brutal conditions. They sang songs together to keep their spirits up. One that was composed by the prisoners contained a hopeful chorus, “The Yanks are on the way!”

Imprisonment meant more than just working as slaves. They experienced beatings at the hands of their Japanese guards. Cecil not only witnessed a fellow prisoner who had given up (and watched him die the next day), but had to bury friends in shallow graves on a hill near the camp. After years of captivity and losing nearly half his body weight, the Japanese guards told Cecil that the war was nearly over. Japan was in its final push of victory over the United States.

However, in the skies above the camp a sign of hope arrived. A U.S. Navy plane was spotted in the spring of 1945. He and his fellow prisoners were filled with so much joy they overlooked the fact that the plane’s pilot shot at them thinking they were Japanese troops marching.

With no connection to the outside world, these prisoners from Britain, Australia, the Dutch East Indies and the U.S. had no idea of the massive Allied campaign in the Pacific. Battles waged on small Pacific islands where thousands of troops from a host of Allied nations had died on islands they could not find on a map. Unknown to them, toward the end of August 1945, most major cities in Japan lay in ruins. Raids of American Boeing-built B-29 bombers had firebombed most of the wooden structures in the major cities. Unknown to these prisoners was that two Japanese cities witnessed destruction from the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Not only were these emaciated service members about to leave the wilderness and re-enter a world that contained atomic weapons, they were about to see the first free Americans they had sung about for three years.

The prisoners knew something was happening in the middle of August 1945. Most of Japanese guards simply left the camp, disappearing. The war had officially come to a conclusion with the signing of surrender in Tokyo Harbor on the deck of the USS Missouri, BB-63, on Sept. 2, 1945. While the firing stopped, across Asia and Europe the true scale of the inhumanity was still being calculated.

As our server cleared our main courses and presented the dessert menu, Cecil was speaking of his first encounter with a member of USS Block Island, CVE-106. A carrier-based Avenger aircraft circled their camp and then landed on a nearby airstrip. The normal load of weapons absent, the craft ferried humanitarian aid. Medical staff from Block Island quickly unloaded supplies and sought out those prisoners in the worst condition, as the Avenger’s radial engine fired back up to life and the plane returned to CVE-106 for another load of food and medical supplies.

When Cecil surrendered in Singapore in 1942 he weighed 160 pounds. On this day, three and a half years later, he was a mere 80 pounds. He and his fellow prisoners were shuttled to the coast in trucks and trains. Once they arrived at Keelung Harbor, American destroyer escorts shuttled them to the escort carriers, USS Block Island, CVE-106 and the USS Santee CVE-29, and transported them to their first ticket home. As Cecil and over 400 human skeletons climbed on board the carriers, the ship’s band welcomed them, playing God Save the King and Rum and Coke-A-Cola. Up to this point, for five years, I had been interviewing USS Block Island veterans from both carriers, CVE-21 & CVE-106. Many spoke of horrific experiences, including surviving the sinking of CVE-21 in the Atlantic. However, very few would, or could, talk about seeing Cecil and his fellow POWs. One veteran could only tell me one line, “They were alive, but that was about it.”

As we passed on dessert and the check arrived, Cecil completed his story. I asked him what he did in his free time on his long journey home. His reply: “eat.” In the four months to get home, he put on nearly a pound a day. After transport to Manila on the carrier, he faced a troop ship to Canada’s west coast, train ride across North America, and one final sea voyage to England. Once he was back on British soil he was again 160 pounds.

As I paid for the dinner (thanks to the Block Island Lions Club), I thought his journey was finally over, for he was home. However, it was not, he had one more challenge, which brings to mind both the inhumanity and the humanity seen in those who experienced World War II. Walking up to his mother’s home in England, he knocked on the door. A stranger answered, telling him he had resided in the house for quite some time and had no contact information for his mother.

Cecil found a neighbor, who informed him that his mother, thinking him dead, had moved to a new town. Luckily he had the address, and Cecil completed the final leg of this four-year trip around the world by embracing his mother. He had survived hell, and went on to lead a life filled with kids, grandkids, and great-grand kids. He traveled across an ocean at nearly 90 years old to say thank you to those who led him on his first leg of his journey back to freedom. Today, six years after the reunion in 2007, I’m still not sure who experienced the greater amount of appreciation, Mr. Cecil Clarke being able to say “thank you” or the Block Island veterans who said “you’re welcome.”

I think it was a tie.

Thanks to Interstate Navigation for the donation of the passage of a 135 members of the USS Block Island Association, both to and from the island, on the high-speed ferry on May 31, 2007. Special thanks to the Block Island Lions Club and those individuals who donated funds to allow for Cecil Clarke’s visit in 2007. These donations were made in honor of the following World War II veterans: Edward J. Blane, Joseph Wadsworth, John R. Lewis, Warren R. Fyre, Charles D. Fyre, John S. Oller Jr, Harry Dionisi, John J. Carlone, Maurice R. Cullen, William D. Connelli, and Joseph A. Nastasi.

The exhibition on the USS Block Island, CVE-21 & CVE-106,” Valor & Courage”, will be on display for the month of September at Juice and Java on Dodge Street.