The following is a guest post by Rachel Telford, archivist for the Veterans History Project.
Some of the most harrowing stories the Veterans History Project holds are those of prisoners of war (POW). Illness, inhumane treatment, and lack of sufficient food were common, but as prisoners endured the seemingly unendurable, many recorded their experiences and kept their minds active by writing in journals or diaries. While our archive contains several thousand stories of veterans who were captured by the enemy during World War II, and a small number of those collections include diaries of men held in the European theater, until recently, we did not hold a single original diary from a veteran held as a POW in the Pacific theater. But late last year, we received an exciting new donation that includes original diaries kept by George Washington Pearcy, while he was held in Japanese prison camps in the Philippines.
Pearcy was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Army in 1940, after completing his law degree and taking ROTC training at Washington University. He applied for active duty, and served at Camp Robinson, Arkansas, and Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, before shipping out to the Philippines in January 1941. He initially served at Corregidor with the 60th Coast Artillery, and then Clark Field, where he trained as an aerial observer with the 2nd Observation Squadron of the Army Air Forces. In July 1941, Pearcy was reassigned to the Army Air Forces, and was later transferred to Nichols Field, where he was stationed at the outbreak of World War II.
From his entrance into the Army until the outbreak of war in December 1941, Pearcy wrote to his parents regularly, sending long, detailed letters describing his living conditions, job duties, thoughts on life in the Philippines, and his plans for the future. In November 1940, he wrote, “Mother I hope that you are saving these letters and putting them in the lower drawer of my desk as I want to keep them as a record of my time in the Army.” These reminders appear frequently in his correspondence, and at one point he mentions the possibility of writing a book about his experiences. Unfortunately, this goal would not come to pass.
At the outbreak of World War II, Pearcy served as an infantry officer at Bataan and Corregidor. But in May 1942, he was taken prisoner by the Japanese, and held for 29 months at Bilibid Prison, Cabanatuan Prison, and Davao Penal Colony. Though he was imprisoned, and suffering a variety of ailments, including malaria, dysentery and beriberi, Pearcy’s efforts to document his experience continued. Using any scrap paper he could find—canned food labels, hospital forms, maps—Pearcy kept diaries with brief notes about his experiences, rosters of men in camp, and plans for the future. This was surely a risky move, as diaries were generally forbidden in Japanese prison camps.
In 1944, despite poor health, Pearcy was forced to board the Arisan maru, a prison ship, for transport to Japan. Prior to his departure, Pearcy secretly gave a portion of his papers to Lieutenant Robert F. Augur, a fellow prisoner at Bilibid Prison, who was confined to the prison hospital and would not be making the trip to Japan. Augur agreed to return the papers to Pearcy after the war, if possible. According to Pearcy’s nephews, family lore suggests that Pearcy divided his papers into two parts, and gave half each to two prisoners who were not to be transported to Japan, with the hope that they would eventually be able to return the papers to him.
Sadly, on October 24, 1944, Pearcy was killed when the Arisan maru was torpedoed by a U.S. submarine. But the following March, while recuperating at a hospital in Utah, Lt. Augur kept his word and mailed his half of the papers to Pearcy’s parents, who had yet to learn their son’s fate. Seventy years later, during an emotional ceremony, the Pearcy family donated his diaries and correspondence to the Veterans History Project. Though George Pearcy was never able to write the book he had planned, his family has ensured that his story will be preserved for generations to come.