By Bob Hieronymus, 12th Flying Training Wing Public Affairs
Randolph Air Force Base TX (AFPN) — Most stories about American POWs tell of the experiences of military personnel captured during combat overseas.
A little-known tale of a teenage girl, now a grandmother in San Antonio, is also among the accounts deserving acknowledgement.
Liz Lautzenhiser Irvine has scrapbooks full of original documents and mementos of her three years of imprisonment in the Philippines. Her parents had been American school teachers there for almost 20 years when the war broke out. Ms. Irvine was born there, and was a 14-year-old high-school freshman in Manila in December 1941.
Within a 24-hour period, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Guam, Midway and the Philippines. After pulling his forces back to Bataan Peninsula and Corregidor Island on Dec. 24, Gen. Douglas MacArthur declared Manila an “open city,” hoping to preserve it as a designated neutral location. But three days later, the Japanese army occupied the city and immediately seized the campus of Santo Thomas University to use as a prison for “interned enemy nationals.”
“The Santo Thomas Internment Camp, or STIC as we called it, occupied the entire 60-acre campus of the 300-year-old university,” Ms. Irvine said. “The Dominican teachers there had built a concrete wall around it to make the campus a quiet place for study, but the Japanese saw it as an ideal prison.”
At one time there had been 6,000 students attending classes, but very quickly it became home for 4,000 prisoners including Ms. Irvine. “There were people from a dozen nations there,” she said, “some of whom just happened to be in the Philippines when the war broke out.”
Seventy-seven U.S. Army and Navy nurses were also prisoners in the camp.
For the first two years, civilians from the Japanese government ran the camp and living conditions were cramped but not harsh, Ms. Irvine said. Food was not plentiful, but the prisoners could buy fresh vegetables from Philippine vendors who were allowed inside the camp.
“The camp commander authorized us the equivalent of 35 cents per day per person, so we had two meals a day — watery rice, hard-tack bread made with rice flour and some kind of vegetables. Occasionally there was meat, too,” she said.
Ms. Irvine explained how her grandmother, Nancy Belle Norton, and other elderly foreign nationals were not imprisoned at first because of their age. Luckily, she was allowed to bring food and supplies to the camp.
After the war, President Harry Truman awarded Ms. Norton the Medal of Freedom for her courageous work on behalf of so many prisoners.
The former prisoner said they were allowed to have their own camp organization. “We had our senior officials who dealt directly with the Japanese commander,” she said. “There were several camp committees, including sanitation, recreation, health, religion, entertainment and education. Because he had experience in school administration, my Dad was a member of the education committee.”
“My dad convinced the Japanese to let us collect textbooks from what was left of schools in the city” she said. “We learned to write very small to conserve paper. We also had tests and even report cards. I still have some of mine in my scrapbooks. By the time we were liberated, I had completed my high-school work.”
In 1944, operation of STIC was taken over by the Japanese army and conditions became much worse, Ms. Irvine recalled. The Allies were advancing across the South Pacific, and the war was not going well for the Japanese. Food rations in the camp were cut down to about 1,000 calories a day. People were dying almost daily from various tropical diseases, often compounded by malnutrition. By early 1945, rations were reduced again to about 600 calories per day.
“They were so faithful serving in the camp hospital,” Ms. Irvine said. “They included a dietician who tried to monitor the food situation and make demands for specific medicines to help the sick.”
She recounted a time when three men escaped from the camp but were quickly caught. “The camp commander forced our senior officials to watch as the escapees were executed as a warning to the rest not to try any more escapes. By the time we were liberated, a total of 10 men had been executed.”
The prisoners were able to keep up with news about the war because some imprisoned engineers managed to get enough components smuggled in to build a radio receiver. It had to be taken apart every day and hidden in various places so the Japanese soldiers could not find it even though they searched for it repeatedly.
She remembered the best news as being when an American liaison plane flew low overhead and dropped a cryptic message to alert us that the U.S. Army was close by.
When General MacArthur's troops made their first landing on the island of Luzon on Jan. 9, 1945, about 100 miles north of Manila, he ordered them to make a dash to liberate the camp at Santo Tomas. He was concerned the Japanese might harm the prisoners there. A small element of the Army's 1st Cavalry Division was the first to reach the camp, smashing their tanks through the front gates on February 3.
Ms. Irvine recalled the excitement of seeing American Soldiers as they quickly set up their artillery to defend the camp, which was their most forward position. Artillery barrages and sniper fire continued for a month in Manila before the Japanese forces were finally defeated.
She remembered climbing up in a bombed-out building not far from the camp with a friend and watching artillery shells arcing through the air between the opposing forces. But the former POW's fondest memory was being liberated.
“The best part of being freed by the Army was having all that good Army food,” she said. The camp had only about three days' supply of food left when the Americans finally arrived. “We stuffed ourselves on C-rations that they brought in by the truckload,” she said. “In just a few weeks, I regained the weight I had lost.”
Carefully turning the pages in one of her scrapbooks, the former POW pointed to a picture of an American flag hanging from the front balcony of the main camp building. A Life magazine cameraman took it the day after the camp was liberated. “I was just over here to the left of where the cameraman was,” she said. The excitement still shows in her voice as she talks about that day.
Ms. Irvine and her mother were repatriated to the United States a year after they were liberated, but her father stayed on for another year to help the Philippine government rebuild its school system. Ms. Irvine went to Whitman College in Washington state the next year, where she met her husband, Walt Irvine. They were married in 1949 and raised four children.
(Courtesy of Air Education and Training Command News Service)