Charles Heffron has neither an explanation nor a clear understanding of why or how he survived one of World War II's most infamous crimes against humanity 70 years ago. He says simply he lived through 1,278 days as a Japanese prisoner of war after the fall of Bataan and Corregidor, where he was assigned to Gen. Douglas MacArthur's staff and was present when the general left the Philippines ahead of the defeat of the important islands. Although he was not on the Bataan Death March in 1942, Heffron suffered through a longer march from Corregidor one month after the fall of Bataan. He endured the Hell Ships, lived through working in a steel mill and then walked out to freedom through the atomic-bombed wrecked city of Nagasaki in 1945.
although he says his legs give him trouble and are brittle from 3 1/2 years of captivity in which he received little protein, fruit or adequate vegetables, and no medical care. Most days in captivity, his meals consisted of one rice ball in the morning and one in the evening. The rice ball fit in the palm of his hand. Heffron, who lives in Athens with his wife, Frances, continues to suffer from the trauma of his imprisonment. He has post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and is on 100 percent disability from the Veterans Administration. The COPD, he says, is the result of working in a Kyushu, Japan, steel mill where he was forced to make railroad cars and castings for hand grenades. He also had to climb inside of hot furnaces to clean out steel slag.
Heffron was among the estimated 8,000 American soldiers, sailors and marines and 5,000 Filipino troops and civilians captured at Corregidor. These prisoners were first sent to an area called 92nd Garage, which was a motor pool for the 92nd Coast Artillery. Some 12,000 Americans languished there before being herded into boats for the trip to Manila and then to Cabanatuan, one of the more infamous Japanese POW camps on Luzon, largest of the volcanic isles in the Philippines. Cabanatuan (KA-ba-na-TWHN) was known as “The Rock.” Its name means “place of rocks.”
How Heffron arrived at The Rock is the story of a trip to hell and back. In 1941, after enlisting in the U.S. Army, he was trained in the new science of radar and was then sent to the Philippine islands. As a sergeant, he was put in charge of a crew on Iba, on the cost of Luzon, 60 miles north of Manila, on the edge of the South China Sea. On the same day Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Japanese fighters and bombers strafed and bombed Iba, killing five of Heffron's men. With the fall of Bataan imminent, Heffron went to Corregidor, about three miles across from the peninsula, and was assigned to MacArthur's staff where he encoded and decoded messages for the general's headquarters. In a controversial decision, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered MacArthur to leave Corregidor. Heffron and other staffers escorted the general and his wife and daughter to a waiting PT boat in the dead of night. “It was a very dark night,” says Heffron. “And the general left.”
Bataan fell to the Japanese April 9, 1942. The Japanese 14th Imperial Army found itself with close to 100,000 prisoners, which included American and Filipino soldiers and Philippine citizens. The Japanese were neither prepared nor capable of feeding, housing or caring for that many prisoners. Corregidor capitulated about a month after Bataan, which began the “death marches.” About 12,000 soldiers, sailors and marines were captured on Bataan. Another 60,000 Filipinos were also rounded up and marched from Bataan north to POW camps. Along that march, prisoners were shot, bayoneted, starved and left to die in the heat. After helping MacArthur and his family escape, Heffron says he went to an area near Malinta Tunnel, which served as a hospital and as MacArthur's headquarters.
Here, Heffron waited for the inevitable. The Japanese infantry took him prisoner, along with about 8,000 other soldiers and 5,000 Filipinos and secured them in the 92nd Garage.
Heffron was wounded by a piece of shrapnel just before Corregidor fell. The inch-long gash hadn't healed and there was no medicine. But, there were larvae from a blizzard of blowflies, which had infested the makeshift latrines that quickly overflowed with human waste. “I got some of that larvae and put it in my wound,” he says. The maggots ate the dying flesh and actually helped the healing process. “It itched when they ate,” says Heffron. Soon, with the tide turning in the war, Japan was running short of laborers. POWs were herded aboard “Hell Ships” bound for Japan. Heffron found himself in the hold of a Hell Ship for about three weeks. One bucket of food a day was lowered into the hold where men were suffering from diarrhea, dysentery, malaria and sweltering heat. The Japanese transport ships were unmarked and constantly attacked by American submarines. Heffron says he heard two of them “break up.” Each Hell Ship carried about 1,000-1,500 prisoners. He was taken to Kyushu to a steel factory. He had to shovel iron ore, which he says was very heavy, dirty work. During the time he labored in the mill, he said a Japanese woman running a large crane and bucket tried to drop the heavy equipment upon the American soldiers. His POW camp was about 50 miles from Nagasaki. When President Harry Truman decided to end the war with atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Heffron says his “guards disappeared over night.” When he was liberated, he weighed 92 pounds.
The POW's in the Philippines experienced a mortality rate of 40 percent, with approximately 11,107 deaths out of the total 27,465 internees in the Philippines. The latest figures from the American Ex-Prisoners of War organization, shows that as of 2003, roughly 4,400 ex-POWs from the Pacific theater were still alive. He spent seven months in a U.S. hospital recovering from his ordeal at Bataan and Corregidor. Later, he went to Cornell University on the GI bill and earned a degree in electrical engineering. Heffron went to work for Westinghouse developing color television. He and his wife teach ballroom dancing at a McMinn Senior Activities Center.”We dance twice a week,” says Heffron. [Source: Knoxville News Sentinel Fred Brown (email@example.com) article 12 Feb 2012 ++]