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A VHP Mystery, Solved (Part 2)

The following is the second part of a two-part blog post on the George Pearcy and Robert Augur Veterans History Project (VHP) collections—you can read Part One here.

“Dear Mr. and Mrs. Pearcy: I am a friend of your son George and am one of those who have been liberated from the hands of the Japanese in Manila…”

On March 23, 1945, a young Army Lieutenant named Robert Augur composed this letter from his hospital room at Bushnell General Hospital, in Brigham City, Utah. Recuperating after three years as a prisoner of war (POW), and the loss of a leg during the Battle of Corregidor, Augur turned his attention to a difficult task: communicating with the family of his friend and comrade, George W. Pearcy. As I recounted in my previous blog post, prior to boarding a prison ship bound for Japan, Pearcy had asked Augur—who stayed behind at Bilibid Prison—to help transport his letters and papers homeward. After Augur’s liberation, he made good on his promise to his friend, mailing Mr. and Mrs. Pearcy their son’s papers and letters. At the time, neither Augur nor the Pearcy family yet knew that Pearcy had died in late 1944, when his ship was torpedoed en route to Japan. In December 2015, George W. Pearcy’s nephews donated these papers to the Veterans History Project (VHP).

Thanks to this collection, which includes an original diary, we know much of what Pearcy endured as a POW. But what of the experiences of Augur, who conveyed his friend’s papers homeward? For the answers, we turn to another POW diary—the one kept by Augur himself, donated to VHP in April.

Robert Augur's POW diary. Photograph by Michael Lloyd.

Robert Augur’s POW diary. Photograph by Michael Lloyd.

Like Pearcy, Augur was stationed on the island of Corregidor in Manila Bay in 1941; by spring of 1942, both soldiers’ units were engaged in bitter fighting to defend Corregidor from the Japanese. During combat in early April, Augur rushed into enemy fire to rescue wounded comrades. For this act of bravery, he received the Distinguished Service Cross, as well as injuries that would lead to the amputation of his left leg three days later. After nearly a month of fighting, the American troops were forced to surrender, and Augur was transferred to a prison hospital at Bilibid Prison in Manila, where he spent the next three years.

Augur’s original diary depicts how he coped with the deprivation and boredom of life as a prisoner: making lists of U.S. states and their capitals to keep his mind limber, recording the contents of the prison library (including Gone With the Wind, Treasure Island, and The Grapes of Wrath), and inventorying his personal belongings with an eye toward future war reparations. Augur also recorded the names of fellow prisoners—including George Pearcy—and the names and addresses of their next of kin. Alongside Pearcy’s name is the additional notation “Ltr + pprs,” presumably referring to those materials that Pearcy had given him to bring home.

Augur’s diary narrates his liberation in February 1945, in a series of poignant entries. As he was transported island-by-island toward the United States, he recorded a list of “firsts”: on Tarawa, he ate his first hot cakes, in Lingayen, “1st pie, beer, scotch, new clothes.” Finally, he was reunited with his family in Portland, Oregon. Carol Charnquist, one of Augur’s nieces, who was a child at the time, vividly remembers waiting for her uncle’s plane on the tarmac of the Portland airport, and her family’s joy at his arrival, mixed with the shock of seeing that his leg had been amputated.

Carol Charnquist also recalls seeing the adults in her family, one night at the kitchen table, poring over a strange set of papers that Augur had brought home: what appeared to be notes written on the back of tin can labels. When she asked about them, the grown-ups shooed her away. It would be 70 years until she learned of them again —mentioned in the Folklife Today blog post written by VHP archivist Rachel Telford, describing the recent acquisition of George Pearcy’s collection.

Robert Augur died in 2000 at the age of 90. According to his niece, he spoke little to his family about his experiences as a POW. While Augur and his wife had no children, they were beloved members of a large extended family. Seventeen members of the Augur family gathered in Portland in April 2016 to honor their “Uncle Bob,” and officially donate his materials to VHP.

Family and friends of Robert Augur examine his VHP collection at a donation event in Portland, Oregon, April 2017. Photograph by Michael Lloyd.

Family and friends of Robert Augur examine his VHP collection at a donation event in Portland, Oregon, April 2017. Photograph by Michael Lloyd.

Both the Augur and Pearcy collections are currently being processed by VHP and assessed for conservation needs. These two collections—and the connections between them—personalize the larger story of American POWs held in the Pacific during World War II. In addition to the vivid details contained in their mutual diaries, the letters exchanged between Robert Augur and the Pearcy family after his liberation stand as heartbreaking illustrations of the individual cost of war, and the agony that families endure when a relative is missing in action. Upon receiving Lt. Augur’s first letter, cited at the beginning of this post, Pearcy’s father, Claude Pearcy, responded with the following: “Mrs. Pearcy and I are more grateful than we can tell you for your fulfilling George’s wish that you send his diary… We have had no news from George since the fall of about 1943.” After asking a few additional questions, Claude Pearcy ends the letter, “We have been writing about our own son but we know that you have undergone great suffering… We would like to know about how you are…We would like to keep in touch with you.”

While the Pearcy and Augur families lost touch after the war, they have been connected once again through their VHP donations of these two soldiers’ materials. VHP is honored to serve as the custodian for these two collections, which tell the dual stories of George Pearcy and Robert Augur. It seems a fitting tribute to their friendship that their diaries are reunited at the Library of Congress, 70 years later.

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