(The following story was written by Mark Hartsell, editor of the Library of Congress staff newsletter, The Gazette.)
Before he boarded the ship carrying prisoners of war across the ocean to a forced-labor camp, George Washington Pearcy divided his diary and gave the pieces to two comrades staying behind.
If he didn’t survive the journey, Pearcy hoped, his story somehow would. Pearcy, a POW held by the Japanese during World War II, never made it home to his family. His diary eventually did and, more than 70 years later, found its way to the Veterans History Project (VHP) at the Library of Congress.
Three of Pearcy’s nephews – George, Glen and John Pearcy – donated the diary, along with photos and family letters, to VHP in December.
The diary is a most-rare item: Such journals were common among POWs in German stalags but much less so at the brutal Japanese camps, where they were kept at risk of death.
“He’s representative of a much larger group that did not leave something behind for us to preserve,” VHP archivist Rachel Telford said. “So many prisoners didn’t keep diaries that they could get home to their families. We’re preserving his place in history, but he’s also a stand-in for so many other men who didn’t make it home.”
War in the Pacific
In June 1941, Pearcy graduated from Washington University law school, joined the Army and was assigned to the 66th Coastal Artillery on Corregidor, an island bastion protecting Manila Bay in the Philippines.
Following their attack on Pearl Harbor that December, the Japanese invaded the Philippines. American forces surrendered at Bataan in April 1942 and at Corregidor in May.
Second Lt. Pearcy was taken prisoner and held in a succession of Japanese camps – mostly at Cabanatuan, the largest in the Philippines. Some 9,000 Americans eventually were held at Cabanatuan. Thousands would end up buried just outside the camp’s fence.
While there, Pearcy documented his experiences on whatever scraps he could find – old maps, hospital forms, labels peeled from food cans. He recalled the “mental daze of the men” after Pearl Harbor, the fighting on nearby Bataan, Corregidor’s fall. He made lists: things he remembered on Bataan, diseases he’d suffered and treatments he’d received, a glossary (“toad-stabber=bayonet”), things to do when he returned home (make wine, build up a stock of food, collect veterans’ stories). He recounted everyday life in camp – the attempted escapes, the beating of prisoners, the thieves’ market.
“Two aspects of it were profound to me: the cruelty imposed upon the prisoners and the need to survive, the turning of American prisoners upon each other for food and medicine to survive,” nephew George Pearcy said. “They’re all on death’s doorstep and if you turn your back on your food, it was gone. If you turn your back on your medicine, it was gone.
“They had to protect themselves amongst each other, to a certain extent, as well as against the Japanese.”
And Pearcy recorded the terrible things he saw. He noted that a Japanese sentry had been decapitated, evidently by a Filipino. A few days later, the Japanese paraded into camp carrying battle flags and a Filipino’s head on a pole – a warning against future attacks on their soldiers.
“I have seen pictures of [Japanese] beheadings in China but never expected to see such a barbaric display – especially carrying a human head at the head of a company of troops,” Pearcy wrote.
‘Hell Ship’ Voyage
In 1944, with Gen. Douglas MacArthur moving to retake the Philippines, the Japanese began to evacuate some POWs aboard “hell ships” – freighters known for their terrible conditions.
On Oct. 20, Pearcy and nearly 1,800 other Allied prisoners sailed from Manila Bay aboard the Arisan Maru, packed into cargo holds not nearly big enough to hold them.
“From the outset, the journey was a horror story,” Manny Lawton wrote in “Some Survived: An Eyewitness Account of the Bataan Death March and the Men Who Lived Through It.” “Men were so tightly crowded together that there was scarcely room to lie down. With the hatch covers closed there was no way to get fresh air, and the humid, sweltering 120-degree atmosphere soon became fouled with the stench of unwashed bodies and human waste.
“In their frightening, helpless condition, many men panicked. Some went mad.”
The ship was headed to Japan or one of its territories, where POWs worked as forced laborers. They never made it. On Oct. 24, an American submarine torpedoed the unmarked Arisan Maru, sinking her. Only nine prisoners survived – Pearcy wasn’t one of them.
On the Homefront
Stateside, Pearcy’s family wasn’t sure what had happened to him. His mother wrote him letters, but all came back marked “return to sender.”
The only communications they received during his captivity were a few postcards that mostly allowed Pearcy to choose among preprinted choices: “My health is – excellent; good; fair; poor.”
But Pearcy, fearing the worst before he boarded the Arisan Maru, took a gamble to ensure his story reached home. Figuring his diary had a better chance of survival if it remained behind, Pearcy split his papers between two POWs considered too sick to travel.
The gamble worked. After Pearcy’s death, half the diary got back to his family, in care of a soldier from Utah.
“I don’t know if he presented it or mailed it,” George Pearcy said. “But he got it to them.”
And now it has a permanent place at the Library of Congress.
“We thought it was a story larger than just the Pearcy family,” Pearcy said. “We thought this was the best vehicle to allow the story to be told about what I feel is not just the Pearcy story, but the story of that generation and thousands upon thousands of people that experienced the same doggone thing.”
The story of Pearcy’s diary was also posted on the Folklife Today blog in February in which it garnered quite the interest. One of Robert Auger’s relatives contacted VHP in April with an offer to donate Auger’s POW diary to the Library. You can read more about it here.