|Several hundred turned out today for Pleasanton's annual Memorial Day observance, sponsored by the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion and held at the city's restored Pioneer Cemetery on Sunol Boulevard.
Despite unseasonably cool temperatures in the morning, the crowds for the event were larger than usual. Cars entering the Pioneer Cemetery gate had to be routed to the adjacent Catholic cemetery, which also filled up quickly.
This year's service was dedicated to Prisoners of War (POWs) who died while in captivity and to those still Missing in Action (MIAs).
Bill Lowe, an Army corporal who was serving in the Philippines in 1941 when he was captured by the invading Japanese, was the keynote speaker for the ceremony. Lowe, now 87, told of his experiences, both as an army recruit before the war and about his experiences as a POW in Japanese prison camps.
The Memorial Day ceremony was especially colorful this year with the addition of the Pleasanton Community Concert Band and its medley of patriotic and marching music and the always-stirring color guards of the VFW and Legion and those from Pleasanton Scout Troops 941 and 998. Scout troops 911, 941 and 998 also gathered at both the Pioneer and Catholic cemeteries on Saturday to place flags on all veterans' graves.
Herb Constant, the VFW's senior vice commander, opened the ceremony, followed by Leo Walker and Joe Rose of the VFW, Susan Stout-Pierce, regent of the Jose Maria Amador Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and VFW's Jim Lyon as the emcee for the hour-long ceremony.
Taylor den Broeder of Troop 941 led the ceremony in reciting the "Pledge of Allegiance," followed by the National Anthem, and then the invocation by Chaplain Major G. Gentle of the Army's 75th Division at Camp Parks.
Mayor Jennifer Hosterman, who with Vice Mayor Jerry Thorne represented the City Council, paid tribute to soldiers who had died in battle and in prisoner of war camps and to the families of military men and women who were still missing in action.
With the clouds breaking and the sun finally bringing some warmth to the crowd, Lowe talked about his experiences. Born in Tecumseh, Okla., he moved with his family to Riverside in Southern California, where he graduated from Poly High School. To supplement his meager post-school income, he joined the California National Guard, earning $1 for each of the weekly meetings and for each of the 14 days of camp he had to be at in San Luis Obispo.
Following his brother's lead, and attracted by even more money and steady work, he joined the Army Air Corps at March Field Sept. 23, 1939 as an 18-year-old and was assigned to a crew on a B-17B as part of the 32nd Squadron of the 19th Bomb Group. On Oct. 6, 1941, the group left for the Philippines as part of the Far East Command.
Lowe was at Clark Field in the Philippines when the Japanese attacked Dec. 8 (Dec. 7 in the U.S.), which coincided with Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor that morning. Lowe's group lost 12 planes but quickly scrambled to cannibalize parts from the wrecked planes to put 20 in flying condition. Within hours, Japanese troops had landed, Luzon and Clark Field were about to fall, and Lowe and his group, armed and ready to fight, watched as Corregidor was bombed across the inlet from Camp Carbon Airfield on Bataan, where they were bivouacked.
As American forces moved back, Lowe was assigned to a general's guard detail at Bukidnon Plateau, where Del Monte had its pineapple plantation. His outfit was in charge of flying officers and technicians south to either Australia or New Guinea and later, after the Battle of the Java Sea, to fly into remote fields to pick up those left behind.
Looking for more action, though, Lowe swapped the general's guard detail with another soldier and wound up with a 100-man detail on the beach at Bugo, Mindanao. After fierce combat fighting, only Lowe and 17 others were left when the Japanese came ashore on May 1, 1942 and captured the group.
Lowe and his group were not involved in the Bataan Death March nor did they hear about it until later in prison camp. Like others in the U.S. military in the Philippines, he learned of General Wainwright's surrender order as the Japanese began assembling prisoners on a tarmac in Malaybalay, a prison camp being built at Mindanao.
"We thought there was a chance that military would come back to rescue us, but eventually came to realize that they had to use all their efforts elsewhere, especially in Europe," he said. "It was hard. I guess one of the toughest feelings is to be on a losing side."
Lowe said that at Malaybalay, there were ample stocks of supplies which the Japanese didn't have on Bataan. Prisoners were able to cook two meals a day and had beef, rice and sweet potatoes. Still, of the 1,200 American POWs there, many were in a state of hopelessness.
After spending several months in Mindanao, the Japanese sent prisoners in ships to Japan to work as slave laborers to supplement the work force so more Japanese could be drafted into the military. The prisoners left on June 6, 1944 (which was D-Day on the beaches of Normandy). They were tied, blindfolded and placed on the back ends of trucks to be taken to the post.
"It was a terrible feeling, you know, to be loaded in like animals," Lowe said.
Lowe's brother John, who had enlisted ahead of him and also served in the Philippines, ended up being in the same prisoner shipment to Japan, They were in a holding area deep down in the ship in tight quarters.
"We used to have to lay on each other in order to stretch out at all," Lowe said. "A head on one man's chest and his head on someone else's chest and then around the circle like that."
The prisoners could go up on deck a few at a time to use the latrines or to smoke, and also to fill their canteens with water.
Lowe and his brother were assigned to the Yokaitchi Prison in Japan, working in a cobalt smelter facility. They were drilled in basic Japanese since the Japanese they worked with knew no English. Their duties were to shovel ore into little carts and then run them to where they processed the ore. Along the way, prisoners made sure not all the good ore and cobalt made it through the processing center, "putting one in for Tojo and flipping two out through a window for Uncle (Sam)."
In addition to a typhoon while on a ship from the Philippines to Japan, Lowe endured a major earthquake on Dec. 8, 1944 that toppled the 100-meter-high brick chimney at the cobalt plant. With the Allies coming closer and nightly raids over the prison camp by B-29s, prison life became increasingly worse.
"We had a lot of tuberculosis; pneumonia was also prevalent and we had a lot of deaths in the prison camp that winter," Lowe said. "If you fell down, the guards would kick and beat you, I was down to 102 pounds. But it was only a minority of the guards that were really brutal and everything. The others just let it go by; they didn't get involved."
Lowe and his fellow prisoners knew something had happened in mid-August 1945 when they saw all of their guards gathered outside the commander's quarters, standing at attention, facing towards Tokyo and listening to a radio. It was the famous surrender speech that Emperor Hirohito gave to the nation."
After that, an American colonel who was chosen by the Japanese to be in charge of the U.S. prisoners learned that the war was over. The Japanese prison camp commander offered him his sword, provided food and cigarettes to the prisoners and agreed to put his guards on the outside of the prison camp fence to protect the Americans if there was an uprising nearby. There wasn't.
Lowe and others painted giant POW letters on the roof of the prison camp buildings since the camp was not on any designated list. Soon, U.S. troops came and rescued the group and Lowe and his brother were flown back to the States. Within a month, Lowe's weight had soared back up to his normal 170.
He returned to his home in Riverside, met up again with Marguerite, his girlfriend, and they married after a renewed courtship on Sept. 9, 1946. They have seven children, all college graduates.
Bill and Marguerite Lowe were guests of honor of the VFW over the weekend and stayed overnight free of charge at the Rose Hotel, compliments of the hotel and its owner Mike Madden.
- Jeb Bing
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