Publication Date: Friday, May 28, 2004
Surviving the times
Surviving the times
(May 28, 2004) Recalling life as a young prisoner of war
by Teresa C. Brown
Jim Faggiano embraces life. It is fleeting, he said. He has grim recollections of a childhood with hunger and death as his constant companions when he was a World War II civilian prisoner of war, but he does not dwell on it.
"My mother was the driving force," Faggiano said of his family's survival at Santo Tomas Internment Camp in Manila, Philippines. He recalled it was her tough attitude and sense of humor that got his family through more than three years of captivity.
Born in San Rafael in 1934, Faggiano and his family were living in the Philippines, where his father was working for a shipping company, when Japanese forces invaded in 1941. The family was held at Santo Tomas, a university converted into a prisoner-of-war camp, until Gen. Douglas MacArthur's forces liberated them in February 1945.
Faggiano, who now trains police canines for Pleasanton and other Bay Area cities, was one of 4,000 civilians interned at Santo Tomas.
"Before the war, we had five servants, a cook, someone to do the wash, a driver. I thought all people lived that way," Faggiano said. Almost overnight, his family was pitched from a life of plenty into poverty and starvation.
The Faggiano family - father Eugene, mother Eileen, Jim and younger sister Jeanne Marie - had been living in Asia since Jim was 4 months old. "I spoke Chinese before English," he said, adding that he now speaks, although not fluently, five languages: English, Chinese, Japanese, Spanish and two Filipino dialects.
The family came to the Philippines by way of Shanghai, where Jeanne was born, and Hong Kong. Jim was 9 when Japan declared war against the United States and invaded the Philippines. All four had to submit to a Japanese war proclamation and surrender to the invading forces in January 1942. "We were told to bring provisions for three days - that turned into 37 months," Faggiano said.
Life in camp
"The first year or two, kids had school. We had a few classes a few hours a day," Faggiano recalled. "The last year, there was no school. My formal schooling ended at third grade," he said, explaining that he picked up school again during the last few weeks of fifth grade.
Men and boys, and women and girls slept in separate quarters. Everyone had daily chores, whether it was to be a cook, exterminator, doctor, nurse or teacher. "Lights were out at a certain time and the only people allowed up were the monitors," he said. One person in each quarter was designated to be a "monitor."
Among Faggiano's box of mementos from his family's ordeal are several age-yellowed, lined notebooks. The notebooks, handwritten in pencil, are filled with recipes.
"All of the prisoners focused on food," Faggiano said. The starving internees thought about food all of the time, and everyone passed the time writing recipes. The staple of their diet was rice boiled down to the consistency of a pasty soup. "If you found bugs in your food that was extra," Faggiano said.
Scavenging and stealing food was common. Faggiano still has memories of his sister and himself creeping into the Japanese guards' pig pen and scraping the animals' slop trough for something to eat.
One time he and some other children stole peanut oil from the Japanese guards. In their hurry to return to their families, the children were unaware that the oil was sloshing over the container's rim.
Tracking the guilty proved easy. The guards only had to follow the splashes of oil staining the ground. "Fortunately it was camp forces (who followed the oil trail)," he said, adding that they were not brutal. "They only scared the hell out of us."
On another occasion, his sister brought the family something extra to eat. "One time the Japanese had slaughtered a carabao (an Asian water buffalo). They had left the hide lying on the ground and everyone was trying to cut off pieces," he said.
His sister scrambled on top of a chunk of the hide and refused to budge, even though people were cutting off pieces all around her.
Eating the boiled hide was like chewing a gum eraser, Faggiano recalled with a smile; the more they chewed, the bigger it seemed to get.
Brutality and kindness
The Japanese forces were both brutal and kind. Faggiano recalled being witness to torture. On one occasion, an internee's failed escape attempt was turned into a horrifying example.
The man's hands were tied behind his back, Faggiano said, and he was forced to kneel. A bamboo pole was placed behind his legs to prevent him from sitting back. Using a tube forced down his throat, water was poured into his stomach until it was fully distended. The guards then beat the man's stomach until it ruptured.
Faggiano's father was once tortured. It was forbidden to even look up at airplanes, and the elder Faggiano was caught cheering for an Allied aircraft. A Japanese soldier smashed him in the head and forced him to the front gate. Usually if a prisoner went to the front gate, he never came back, Faggiano said, and the family feared for his life. As punishment, the guards forced his father to stand at attention the entire day and watch the sun as it passed overhead before releasing him.
In contrast, Faggiano recalled kindness. One Japanese soldier often visited the women's quarters and asked for Jeanne, who was escorted to the door by Faggiano's mother.
Perhaps intrigued by the little girl's curly, blond hair, the soldier would give food to Jeanne and he would insist that she eat it in front of him, ensuring she benefited by the food he brought.
One day, in his broken English, he told mother and daughter he was leaving and would not be back. That was the last time they saw him.
Another time, Faggiano's father met a Japanese conscript at the camp. The soldier, he learned, was born and raised in Los Angeles. He had been visiting Japan when war was declared, and he had been forced to join the Japanese military.
Regardless of guard treatment, death was a constant presence in the POW camp. "I watched people being hauled out," Faggiano said, recalling the sight of long-limbed Caucasian bodies stuffed into coffins made for the smaller island natives. "Many died of despair; they gave up."
Faggiano's father almost joined the ranks of the hopeless. Once he told his wife, "I can't take it anymore." Faggiano said she retorted in her no-nonsense manner: "b--- s---," adding that he would not leave her with two small children.
With the poor living conditions and scarce food, all of the prisoners were susceptible to illness. Malnourished, Faggiano had repeated bouts of anemic dysentery and dengue fever.
Death prospered outside the camp as well. Faggiano recalled watching an American bomber, a B-24, being shot down. "I saw a formation of bombers flying overhead and saw a puff of smoke by one. It peeled away from the formation and suddenly the two wings spun off and the tail spun away."
Moments later, Faggiano saw parachutes blossom against the sky. Shots pattered - the floating parachutes folded and plunged to the earth.
In early February, internees received a cryptic message from an anonymous source. A pair of goggles was tossed into the camp with a message wrapped around it: "Roll out the barrel. Christmas will be Saturday or Monday."
"We had a feeling something was happening," Faggiano said. That day, only a token group of Japanese soldiers guarded the camp.
On Feb. 3, 1944, Faggiano heard machine gun fire and suddenly a tank burst through the camp's front gate. Then 11 years old, Faggiano watched a man get out of the tank. The helmet he wore did not look familiar. Internees suspected the man was German - until he spoke. There was no mistaking the Texan drawl.
The camp was rescued, literally, by the cavalry. The 1st Cavalry Division had fought its way through the Pacific Islands and had reached Manila that day.
'Free at last'
"That was the first time I was afraid - of being re-attacked and taken again," Faggiano said, recalling the immediate days after their liberation. Rumors shot throughout camp that the Japanese, who had retreated from the advancement of the Allied forces, were regrouping.
Camp life was still dangerous in the days following. A 15-year-old friend of Faggiano's was killed by shrapnel, and a friend of his mother's was disfigured when her nose was severed by a mortar round. "There was lots of shelling still going on," he said.
But their freedom was permanent. By late April, after a 17-day voyage on the USS Admiral W.L. Capps in the dangerous waters of the Pacific, Faggiano and his family returned to the Bay Area. The first welcoming site he saw after entering the San Francisco Bay was Ghiradelli chocolate factory.
These days, for Faggiano, those grim memories are neatly boxed. He has numerous mementos from his life as a POW: meal ration tickets, newspaper clippings, certificates and his hand-scribed recipe books.
Among his souvenirs, if anything else came from those three years imprisonment, it may have been his outlook on life. He lives by his own sage advice: "Time is a fleeting thing. Spend it enjoying it."
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