Lost in a Sea of Text: Remembrance and Recognition
“As I remembered that struggle and wondered at what had transpired since, I felt that in all probability it was only a short paragraph in some student’s history book - a paragraph that would be read by yet another generation, who would read the reference and go on.”1 Most historians consider foreign prisoners of war to be a more significant issue, but rarely do they consider American prisoners of war as something worth discussing. “I wondered how many would take the time to research the information deeply enough to understand the sacrifices made by Filipino peoples as well as this small group of American soldiers on this spot.”2 Only in some history books do we see much information about Bataan and the death march, which both American and Filipino soldiers were forced to endure by the Japanese units in the Philippines. Throughout this book, Bilyeu uses accounts of his experiences as an American soldier and then as a prisoner of war to show the truth of these events, as well as show the importance of this story. Not much attention goes into the history of prisoners of war under the Japanese, but the depiction of how disturbing these experiences were for those who experienced it firsthand shows how important the stories of these prisoners of war are to history.
As the story begins, we are faced with combat in Fort Hughes where Bilyeu’s unit is placed. This was, for the majority of the unit, the first time they were forced to try their hand in a legitimate fight. Through a first person perspective, the author conveys his feelings at the time as well the emotions he sensed from others and how the unit as a whole reacted to shooting and then being shot at. The terror of not knowing whether one is going to be bombed or not is very real, he explains: “I could feel the pressure behind my eyes as one bomb exploded on the edge of the barricade. My breath was forced out of me and I couldn’t get any oxygen; it seemed to have all been sucked out of the air. I found myself gasping, clutching at my clothing and throat. I was in complete panic.”3 He thoroughly depicts the terror of being barraged with bombs, not knowing if one would even survive, as death could arrive in an instant. Bilyeu’s unit is forced to move to Bataan to be put under a different command. Some American lines were being breached, and the existing units tried to monitor as much Japanese movement as possible. The unit in Bataan was ordered to do routine searches around the surrounding area for signs of the Japanese. This led to a Japanese ambush in a schoolhouse. In the meantime, Japanese forces had landed behind American lines, to everyone’s dismay. After being attacked yet again, Bilyeu remained without a unit and received treatment by medics who had discovered him wounded. He then joins a makeshift unit consisting of stragglers who had nowhere to go. Brutally attacked again in this unit, he is then discovered by some Japanese soldiers who, fortunately, treat him kindly and treat his wounds. He is able to escape into the wilderness after he has sufficiently healed. Without knowing what was in store and coming in contact with other Americans, he accidently fell in the line of the “death march of Bataan,” realizing the mistake he had made only after escape was no longer possible.
Those within the line had already fallen into the resignation that they were to become prisoners of war. During the march, food and water was a very big issue, and many people who lacked the strength to go on died trying. Filipino civilians watched helplessly and were severely punished if they were to help anyone taking part in the death march. Bilyeu was very weary during this trip, especially due to dehydration as he had two canteens and anyone could attack him at any time to wrestle the water from him. Every so often, the Japanese soldiers patrolling would say, “Only two more hours,” to help motivate everyone to continue walking. Later, everyone was ushered onto boxcars to be transported to a prisoner camp. The conditions in these cars were extremely hot and cramped, and many people did not survive the end trip. Only when the boxcars were actually moving did people find some relief, and even then, those in the middle of the cars were weakened immensely because of all the standing they had to endure. People who had weak stomachs and had ingested spoiled rations defecated where they stood, worsening the conditions. Entrance to the camp was in itself a gruesome sight: “The gate post on the left side of the entrance had the head of a Filipino solder, while the one on the right had the head of an American soldier.”4 In the camp, if you were able bodied you would work a detail, either inside or outside of the camp. Just so that he could get outside of the barbed wire for a time, and perhaps have a chance of escape, Bilyeu aimed for an outside-of-camp detail. This resulted in an extra ration of rice, but also the gruesome task of disposing the dead in mass graves. Later he and a few others were added to a diesel engine detail and were moved from the camp to another Japanese run fort. Fort Drum was a reprieve from all the hardships Bilyeu had faced, feeling almost like a heaven on earth for him. In this detail, the job was to restore the generators in the forts, which had been destroyed by the American forces before Japanese troops could overtake them. “Walking along the catwalk beside these monsters, I was pleased with the skill of our people in their efforts to render this equipment useless.”5 This fort was a haven in that there was also entertainment: “So we fabricated a hypothetical dog and named him ‘Bismarck’. When the Japanese were near, especially the very young ones, we would pet Bismarck.”6 Later, Bilyeu was moved yet again only to find out he had been recommended for execution, and then pardoned and taken in by an American officer. He worked several details and lived peacefully still, working a diving detail and then an American body counting detail. Befriending other American prisoners, Bilyeu then created an escape plan.
The escape plan that Bilyeu and others had created could not go into effect, and instead most prisoners were moved to the old Bilibid Prison, used mainly to house those who were too sick to work hard labor details. At this camp, he came into contact with an old friend, Joe Blair. From Bilibid, prisoners were yet again loaded onto boxcars but experienced better conditions, as no one was close to dying when they boarded and were relocated in Clark Field. After recovering, he took a sand digging detail and also found some friends of his that he had known before he was captured. Within Clark Field was an execution area called ‘the pits’. This was for those who attempted escape or broke rules. Numbers were placed on everyone in a detail so that if one escaped, the five numbers surrounding the prisoner were also executed. Bilyeu recounts his experience witnessing a large American man called ‘Tony the Greek’ standing in the pits without fear: “They were caught off guard when Tony showed absolutely no fear. Instead, he sneered at them at the bottom of the stairs. Every muscle in his body flexed as he opened those big hands, then closed them into large fists.”7 Some of the men from Clark Field were then moved back to Bilibad, Bilyeu included. He was assigned to a driving detail. With rumors of MacArthur’s return, everyone was hopeful that this would be the last move. At Cabanatuan, Bilyeu came in close contact with execution, as someone close in number rank with him tried to escape and the five person rule was still in effect. To add onto that shock, he witnessed a delusional American soldier kill and eats a domestic cat, thinking it was a rabbit. Shortly after, every prisoner was told they were to leave the Philippines and were promptly boarded onto a large Japanese ship. Conditions were about as bad as the first boxcar to Camp O’Donnel with the buildup of a disgusting latrine area and an increasing dead body count in the occupied areas of the ship. Because the ship was not labeled as carrying prisoners or a large number of people, many passengers were left dead after an American air raid on the ship. Still, there were also many survivors who swam ashore as the boat sunk to its doom. Rounded up again by the Japanese, American and Filipino survivors marched yet again to board yet another train, with the Japanese hasty to get the prisoners onto their home soil. Boarded on yet another ship, conditions were slightly better than the previous vessel, and food and water rations become more orderly. Yet another air raid by the Americans ravaged the ship and people had no choice but to go over the sides to swim for land. Survivors were yet again gathered together to await another ship.
The third ship was much better, boosting the morale of all the prisoners on board. Finally towards the end of a three month journey, there was another attack on the ship, but everyone was able to escape safely and find themselves on Japanese soil. They were greeted with hot showers and new clothes. The next day, everyone was assigned to a different group and unfortunately Bilyeu was separated from Joe Blair, who had been by his side since Bilibid Prison. “But I made a strong resolution to never again, as long as I was a prisoner of war, become close to another human being.”8 They are then moved to a camp containing both British and American prisoners. Coal mining was the main detail in this camp, but it posed serious dangers to every prisoner’s life. “At spots were pieces of timber wedged between the steel beams and the surface, presumably for holding the stone in place or preventing the loose stuff from falling on the people who passed on their way to and from work.”9 A few months into this detail, Bilyeu and his group get trapped for a minimal amount of time when there is a cave in. This left many, including him, very disturbed. “Each time any coal broke loose from back in the great hole and cascaded down the slick rock, I saw every head turn in that direction. There was no need for them to say anything. Each of us knew what was going through our minds. We sure as hell didn’t need any more coal.”10 With a collapsed lung, Bilyeu remained in camp for recuperation and then was back out on detail. He stole a cabbage from one of the Japanese victory gardens and was severely beaten. Still, the knowledge that America was closing in on Japan helped ease stress for both him and everyone else in the camp. Because there would be regular bombings on the camp by the American air force, prisoners were forced to dig bomb shelters and were ushered into them during every attack. All prisoners felt the reverberations of the atomic bomb dropped on August 6, 1945 that evaporated Hiroshima, though they were not aware of it at the time. Fortunately, soldiers in the camp received word straight from the American rescue forces that they would air lift food to them such as clothes, canned food and tobacco. There was also a promise that they would be rescued soon. September 2, 1945 is when they were finally completely liberated. Bilyeu accomplished his wish of kissing the first American woman he saw, and was able to eat hot American food and get serious medical attention.
“It was not easy to put down on paper the events of World War II that took place in the First Battle of the Philippine Islands and the horrors of three and one-half years in prisoner of war camps. But it has, in my opinion, been necessary. Many of the happenings of that war have been forgotten.”11 Bilyeu’s words go in conjunction with his previous statements, showing that this book is a first person account to emphasize the importance of this specific event in World War II. As Bilyeu states, many memories of the war in general will be widely forgotten by the public. Just as he felt this would only be a small page in someone’s textbook earlier in his book, he took the opportunity to create something that would hopefully bring remembrance into the minds of the usually apathetic. Not only was he able to show us the details of what prisoners of war experienced, as well as those in combat, but he was also able to convey the emotions and psychological sludge all those men were forced to face.
Though this is the only book he wrote, Bilyeu later served in the Korean War, though it had no effect on his stance in this book. He was just nineteen years of age at the beginning of the story. At such a young age, he saw things through the eyes of someone lacking higher education. He usually referred to any one Japanese soldier as a “son-of-a-bitch”, showing his negative bias against the Japanese, which was shared with many Americans at that time. In terms of historiography, Bilyeu would be categorized as a Progressive historian, this school of history being used to help adjust to industrial urbanization at the end of World War II. Americans during this time did not have a very positive opinion about the Japanese, as they were part of the Axis powers, and the Second World War as well as the rise of social sciences shaped general views. This shows itself in the way Bilyeu and others saw and interacted with the Japanese.
This book really sucks the reader into the story. Throughout the entire duration of the book, he or she was right in there with it. Along with the mention of the rice rations that they got as prisoners, there came an urge to eat rice. Looking up from the book and realizing one’s reality was also quite a shock. The text was extremely effective in combining first person views with memorable history, immersing readers regardless of social class or personal experiences. Both terrifying and engrossing, the reader can’t help but sympathize with the suffering evident in this book.
Bilyeu would definitely agree with the stance that the 1940s was a watershed in American history. Being dragged into World War II, it affected both him and America in a significant way, leading to more alliances, as well as changes in economy and culture. In his case, he was personally acquainted with the troubles of war, and that in itself was a watershed for him. “For three and one-half years I had been lost in action, but at last I had been found.”12 This shows how much suffering he had endured and gave him the voice of a changed person.
Due to the book’s first person perspective, those who read the book will definitely feel sympathy as well as an appreciation for this part of the war. This is an effective call to remembrance for those lost in action through death or through imprisonment: “…but at last I had been found.”12
1. Bilyeu, Dick. Lost in Action. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 1991. 97.
2. Bilyeu, Dick. Lost in Action. 97.
3. Bilyeu, Dick. Lost in Action. 9.
4. Bilyeu, Dick. Lost in Action. 99.
5. Bilyeu, Dick. Lost in Action. 120.
6. Bilyeu, Dick. Lost in Action. 121.
7. Bilyeu, Dick. Lost in Action. 163.
8. Bilyeu, Dick. Lost in Action. 241.
9. Bilyeu, Dick. Lost in Action. 282.
10. Bilyeu, Dick. Lost in Action. 282.
11. Bilyeu, Dick. Lost in Action. Foreward.
12. Bilyeu, Dick. Lost in Action. 343.