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Wartime Recollections

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Wartime Recollections

Elizabeth W. Moss

Elizabeth W. Moss was a Lieutenant in the United States Navy Nurse Corps during W.W. II. Her husband, Captain Robert A. Moss (retired), is a long-time subscriber to The St. Croix Review. The St. Croix Review will eagerly publish stories from our readership that reflect American history and the genuine American spirit.

There is a painting that hangs in our hallway. It will surely never hang in the Louvre, but I cherish it and rarely pass it by without being reminded, just for an instant, of the most moving and rewarding experience of my nine proud years in the United States Navy Nurse Corps.

The painting shows a pair of B-29s flying low over an austere Japanese landscape. There is a "rainbow" bridge in the foreground and a group of grim looking prison barracks. A dozen parachutes are drifting down into the camp; a few have already landed. They are cargo chutes attached to crates bound with steel straps. The crates contain food, cigarettes, and clothing. A close look at the painting shows that it is not done on canvas, but rather on what appears to be silk. The artist has written an inscription across the bottom:

War Is Over, August, 1945. Uncle Remembers Prisoners.
Sakai River, Tobata, Japan, Fukuoka Camp No. 3.
Miss Elizabeth from Sally

It was, indeed, August of 1945. I was a junior grade lieutenant, serving as an anesthetist in the Navy Hospital Ship USS Haven. We were part of an immense task force that was anchored in Pearl Harbor preparing for that final goal of the Pacific War - the invasion of the Japanese homeland.

Then suddenly there were the two atomic bombs and it was over. Hundreds of ships at Pearl erupted with whistles, flares, bells, and searchlights, but within hours Haven was ordered to join a task group bound for the devastated port of Nagasaki. Our mission was to release the Allied prisoners that were being held in the nearby Japanese prison camps.

Ten days later our force was cautiously standing into Nagasaki Harbor. I say "cautiously" because we had no idea how complete the surrender had been and how we would be received. We were escorted by the cruiser USS Wichita and some destroyers. Leading all of us was a flotilla of minesweepers, because the entrance had been heavily mined by the defending Japanese. Eventually we made fast to a wharf where there was a railroad spur and we got ready to receive our patients.

To this day, almost 69 years after the event, I am moved to tears - tears of joy, of compassion, of elation, of overwhelming emotion - when I reflect upon the scene that followed. The prisoners arrived in rail boxcars. They were of all nationalities - Americans, British (some from the fall of Singapore), Dutch, French, Malaysian, and Indonesian. As the trains rolled in we were all cheering. Bands from the Wichita and Haven played "Hail, Hail, The Gang's All Here," and "California Here I Come," and many of the popular tunes of the time. Everyone was crying. Yes, I mean everyone! I saw crusty Chief Petty Officers, who had seen four years of Pacific hell, with tears streaming down their grizzled cheeks.

As we got the prisoners off the trains - most were mere scarecrows - we got them into showers and de-lousing stations that had been set up on the pier. We separated those that were ambulatory from those that needed more immediate medical care, and we listened to them talking.

"Doughnuts? Doughnuts!" one of them exclaimed. "I forgot there were such things."

They marveled at the stuff in the magazines and newspapers we handed out. "Shirley Temple." one POW remarked upon seeing the young star's picture on a magazine cover. "They told us she was dead!"

But the most poignant and chilling talk dealt with their experience as prisoners. Some of these men had been on the infamous Bataan Death March and had endured unspeakable mental and physical suffering, and yet they would tell of their ordeals in the most matter-of-fact, almost detached, manner.

The lack of rancor in their delivery only served to enhance the horror of their words.

It was my custom to make regular visits to my patients for as long as they were aboard the ship. During these rounds I met a young Indonesian soldier who I knew only by his nickname, "Sally." One day Sally said to me:

Miss Elizabeth, before the war I was an artist, and if you could get me some paints I would like to do a picture for you.

The ship's Recreation Officer provided a paint set and so it was that Sally produced the painting that hangs in our hallway and still, after all these years, arrests my attention.

Why is it painted on silk, you ask? And what are those rust-colored stains on the painting? Well, you see, Sally didn't have any proper canvas upon which to paint, but he had saved a piece of one of those parachutes that had been brought to the inmates of Fukuoka Camp No. 3 - the first assurance that "Uncle Remembers Prisoners."

Sally was apologetic about the rust-colored stains:

I tried to find a clean piece of silk, Miss Elizabeth, but most of the parachutes had blood on them. You see, we prisoners were so eager to get into those crates that a lot of us got cut when we were tearing off those metal bands that were wrapped around the boxes.

A few days later Sally was moved to another hospital ship for the voyage back to his native Sumatra. I never saw him again. *

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