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Collection Spotlight: George Washington Pearcy

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The following is a guest post by Rachel Telford, archivist for the Veterans History Project.

Black and white photo (full length) of man in full military uniform and helet as he stands outside near foliage.
George Washington Pearcy in uniform in the Philippines, 1940. Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/100245.

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.

Contemporary photo of hand holding open handwritten journal and photos.
Items from the collection of the late Lt. George W. Pearcy are donated to the Veterans History Project, December 11, 2015. Photo by Shawn Miller.

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.

Contemporary photo of people gathered around the Veterans History Project table with materials on the table.
Family members of the late Lt. George W. Pearcy donate collection items, December 11, 2015. Photo by Shawn Miller.

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.

Comments (6)

  1. I am married to Carol Smith Charnquist. Carol is a niece of Robert F. Augur, mentioned in the Collection Spotlight on George Washington Pearcy posted on the LOC website February 23, 2016.

    When Capt. Augur (U.S. Army, retired), passed away in Oregon on March 5, 2000, at the age of 89, my wife became the caretaker of his personal posessions. Augur and his wife, Anna. who predeceased him, had no children. Carol is the eldest of his 15 nieces and nephews, most of whom live in Oregon.

    While the family knew of his heroism in the defense of Corregidor in 1942; of his 30 months as a Japanese prisoner in Old Bilibid in Manila; of losing a leg in the late stages of Corregidor’s defense, of the fact that General Wainright presented him with the distinguished service cross just days before the island fell, and was given broad recognition in the U.S., after being liberated, little was known in any depth. Like many WWII veterans, Bob Augur never talked about his experiences.

    That’s why the family was overwhelmed following is passing by the huge collection of documents, papers, letters, photos and library of books on the war in the Pacific, and particularly where it involved the Philippines.

    I am a retired journalist who spent my last 20 years as historian and archivist for the Portland Trail Blazers of the NBA. Recognizing the historical significance of Capt. Augur’s collection, I worked with the family to organize and secure the collection.(While for sure not at the LOC level or archiving, it is in much better condition than it was originally, stuffed into three boxes.)

    In 2004, when the Army named a new rail deployment facility at Ft. Bliss, Texas, for him, 17 family members including spouses, were there for the dedication. I had the important pages of his papers in an archival binder and took the binder with me. While there, I met with an Army historian at the Ft. Bliss Museum. He was excited by the significance of the collection. He spent the next day having the entire collection professionally scanned. Carol authorized having it further shared in official government historical collections as the Ft. Bliss curator saw fit.

    I’m fairly sure nothing else has been done with it in the past 12 years.

    As a teaser, here are some of the contents: A copy of the official radiogram sent by General Wainright two days before Corregidor fell authorizing the awarding of the distinguished service cross; a 94-page “Black Book” Lt. Augur started writing in early in the war then was amazingly allowed to keep and continue to make entries during his 30 month imprisonment; extensive typed letters he wrote home to his parents — the last of which was on the last Clipper flight out of Manila before Dec.7. (Augur had among other possessions, his own car and his typewriter, when he arrived on Corregidor 10 months before the war started; numerous photos of prewar Corregidor Bob took with his own camera and sent home with his letters.

    Is this collection something worthy of interest to the Veterans History Project?

    If there is interest, please let me know how we can help.

    Chuck Charnquist
    [email protected]

    • Dear Mr. Charnquist, yes! My colleagues and I are incredibly excited to hear about this material. I will send you a more detailed email under separate cover momentarily.
      All best,
      Megan Harris

  2. Dear Mr. Charnquist

    My uncle, George Washington Pearcy and Captian Augar must have been close friends during their POW days.

    It would interesting to explore their relationship for a better understanding of them and “Greatist Generation”.

    George B Pearcy
    [email protected]

  3. I would be interested in hearing from anyone connected with Sgt Wm J Briggs (aka John Lord) or Sgt Charles Avedon, Army journalists who worked at the “Midpacifican” in Honolulu during WW II.

  4. John Contreni — I had a second cousin named Charles Avedon (we called him Chic)who served in WWII. Wondering if this is who you are seeking… His brother Herbert also served (in PsyOps). Both have passed. Chic never married so there is no other family (sadly). You are welcome to email me – it would be nice to learn more of Chic. Thanks.

  5. I just realized I never added my email address. Mr. John Contremi, if still interested in speaking to anyone about Charles Avedon. Reach me at [email protected]

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