OHASI POW Camp, c 17 August 1945 (Courtesy US Marines)
By George S. MacDonell
AUGUST 15, 2020
The Time: 12 noon on 15 August 1945
The Place: Ohasi Prison Camp in the mountains of Northern Japan
The Situation: Emperor Hirohito of Japan, had just announced to the
people of Japan by Radio that Japan had surrendered unconditionally to
the Allied Powers – the war was over!
To those of us at Ohasi, who had been Prisoners of War for nearly
four years, our first reaction was that we were free.
Now in negotiations with the Japanese Camp Commander we needed to
immediately learn what being “free” isolated in Northern Japan meant.
What did freedom mean to the 150 POWs in the camp including 68
Canadians? We may have won the war, but we were by no means free or out
of danger with the Japanese military still in command.
We immediately began negotiations with our Japanese Camp Commander.
What made these negotiations both dangerous and difficult, were several
factors. The first was the Japanese Military code of “Bushido”, which
demanded a Japanese Officer die fighting or commit Seppuku rather than
Secondly we knew our Camp Commandant, Lieutenant Zenishi, had written
orders to kill his prisoners “by any means at his disposal” if their
rescue by any Allied forces seemed imminent. And thirdly, we knew that
within a deep deserted mine shaft at the mine and some dynamite, he
could easily dispose of all of us under thousands of tons of rock
without a trace for eternity.
How would this Japanese officer accept defeat and surrender, and
would he obey his Emperor or not? We were soon to find out.
We were in a serious predicament isolated in the mountains of Japan,
with no access to a railway or a travelled highway, with no
transportation of any kind and unable to speak the language.
We knew that the Allied command was not aware of a POW camp in this
remote location and we had no idea of how to acquaint them with our
location or of our existence.
We had no legal standing, we had no money, and we had no agreement
that we could even remain in the camp.
Locked in the mountains we were nowhere near a Japanese residential
area, but there was a very small village located about a mile away.
Because of the devastating American bombing of the past six months,
Japan and its cities were reduced to rubble, its institutions were in
chaos, and millions of Japanese in urban centers were both homeless and
We had no guarantee of a food supply, our men after years were
already close to starvation, and in the camp we had food supplies, such
as they were, for 3 days.
The victorious American forces were nowhere in sight and still had
not landed in Japan. Despite the fact that our Japanese Camp Commander
was angry, felt dishonoured, and humiliated he appeared to be willing to
negotiate our status.
After some stressful hours we reached an agreement:
1. The Japanese guard and all their weapons would be dismissed from
2. The Kempitai, the much feared Military Police of the Japanese Army
would provide temporary Camp security.
3. We could temporarily occupy and live behind the walls of the camp,
4. The Camp Commander would stay in the camp in his office with us
for an indefinite period.
With these understandings under way we still had a massive problem.
We had an urgent need to find food for our men and at the same time try
to save those near death.
Despite the risk we decided we must find a way to feed our men. With
trepidation we looted the Japanese stores in the camp for boots,
clothing, soap, leather belts, unbrellas and a host of smaller items. We
then sent out two teams of five men each, under a Sergeant, to see if we
could barter our items for food with the local peasants. We feared this
could provoke a dangerous backlash.
To our delight, the Japanese farmers were not hostile and were happy
to exchange food for our items. But the result of these daily excursions
were not enough to feed the camp.
While this was going on, we realized a secret radio we had been
operating in the camp, might be our key to rescue. By careful monitoring
of our receiving set tuned into Tokyo, we were informed that the
Americans were going to conduct a grid search of the islands of Japan
for prison camps from the air. We followed the broadcast instructions
and immediately painted P.O.W. in eight foot letters in white paint on
the roof of our biggest hut. This appeared to be our only hope – but
could they find us in this isolated area of Japan buried in the
Two days later, at about 8 AM, with all of our food gone we heard a
murmur from the sea.
In a few minutes the murmur increased to a distant throb of a single
engined airplane flying at about 3000 feet.
Then suddenly we could see him high above us – a little blue navy
fighter plane with the white stars of the US Navy painted on its wings
Corsair Aircraft from USS John Hancock, c 17 August 1945
He was east of us and as he proceeded his engine noise began to fade
– he had missed us. Please, God, let him see our camp!
Then all of a sudden the fading engine sound changed its pitch and we
heard the roar of a fighter engine in a dive.
Around the adjacent mountain he came and then down the centre of the
valley where the camp lay with his engine bellowing wide open. At 100
feet, he flew over the centre of the camp.
The camp went wild! Our prayers were answered. Contact at last – now
maybe we had a chance!
He gained altitude to about 7000 feet, and he circled above us – we
assumed he was radioing our location to his base.
Then once again around the mountain he came to fly over the centre of
the camp with his canopy back, his wheels down and flying as slowly as
he dared, he threw out a silver tin box on a long streamer that landed
in the centre of the camp.
In the box were fluorescent strips of cloth and a handwritten note.
The note read “Lieutenant Claude Newton (Junior Grade), USS Carrier John
Hancock. Reported location.”
The written instructions for the cloth strips were simple:
“If you want Medicine, put out M”
“If you want Food, put out F”
“If you want Support, put out S”
We put out “F” and “M”.
Once more he flew over the camp to read our signals on the ground and
waggling his wings, he headed straight out to sea to his floating home –
The Carrier John Hancock.
USS John Hancock, c 17 August 1945
(Courtesy USS Hancock Society)
We were joyous beyond belief and also stunned – now what’s going to
happen? Was that all? What’s next?
Seven hours later at about 3 pm that afternoon, 14 airplanes
approached the camp from the sea. They were blue with white stars on
their wings. While still flown from the Aircraft Carrier Hancock, these
were much larger carrier planes called Torpedo Bombers.
They each made two parachute cargo drops in the center of the camp
and left us with a ton or more of food and medicine. There was a wide
range of items in these supplies from powdered eggs to tins of pork and
beans and there was a large quantity of it.
Some of the medicine was called “Penicillin” with special
instructions for its use since our doctor had never heard of it. This
miracle drug and the food came just in time to save our sick. That night
we had a feast and a mighty party. Despite the doctor’s warnings, the
influx of calories nearly killed us.
Now life had taken a turn for the better. Our men were gaining weight
and the extra food and the new drug was rapidly removing our sick from
the life endangered list.
Also we could see a pathway now to rescue and freedom. Command knew
of our existence.
Time passed until one sunny morning we had another visitor from the
sea. A little blue fighter plane with the familiar white stars on his
wings circled the camp and dropped a note. The note read “Goodbye from
Hancock and good luck. Big Friends Come Tomorrow.”
The plane then flew over the camp once more waggling his wings as he
headed never to return, out to sea to his floating home.
The next day at about 10 a.m., to our amazement, three giant B29
bombers flew in from the sea. Now we knew what “Big Friends” meant, and
they were gigantic.
They circled the camp, flew up-wind a couple of miles and at a very
low altitude began their run. We saw their giant bomb bay doors open and
suddenly a wooden platform – upon which was loaded a number of 60-gallon
oil drums – was dropped. To each oil drum was attached a coloured nylon
chute, and each was packed with tinned rations and supplies of every
kind including new uniforms and footwear. Soon the air was filled with
60-gallon oil drums, swinging leisurely beneath their chutes, coming to
earth over an area of a square mile or so. In one pass they dropped
several tons of food and supplies of all kinds. In the eyes of the
nearby Japanese villagers, we POW’s had gone from starvation and poverty
to wealth beyond measure. It soon occurred to us that, since our new
found wealth was scattered all over hell’s half acre, we should ask the
Japanese civilians in the village to find and bring our oil drums to the
camp. They were happy to do this if we let them keep the nylon chutes for
their women and some of the food as payment. Our bounty was delivered by
our hungry neighbours.
That night, we had another big party, only now everyone was dressed
in a new uniform of his choice: Navy, Army, Marine. The next morning,
promptly at the same time, three lumbering four-engined giants from the
Marianas Islands made their run and again deposited tons of supplies on
Ohasi. Again the industrious Japanese dutifully, with much bowing,
delivered the aerial bounty to their conquerors. By now the camp was
beginning to look like an oil refinery, with unopened 60-gallon oil
drums stacked on the square.
The next day dawned bright and clear, but with a high wind blowing
from the sea. The bombers appeared on time, but this time when they
dropped, some of the parachute lines were snapped in the high winds and
the oil drums fell straight down as deadly missiles. Several hit the
camp, went through the roofs of the huts, hit the concrete floor of the
hut in question and exploded. One such drum was packed with canned
peaches, and I can assure you that when it was over, you could not find
a surface not smeared with peaches anywhere in that hut! There were
several very near-misses of ours and Japanese personnel and several
Japanese houses in the nearby village were damaged. On the next drop,
the same thing happened and as I was fleeing for safety from the camp to
a nearby railroad tunnel, I looked up to see that I was right under a
cloud of falling 60-gallon oil drums now free from their parachutes. It
was a terrifying moment. Was I to be killed after all? Not by a hated
enemy, but by the clumsy kindness of my well-meaning American friends?
Again the camp was hit by drums full of food, clothing and even
toothpaste. Something had to be done. We now had tons of food and
supplies enough for months, and more was arriving.
Was there no limit to their generosity? The aerial supply chain that
had saved us was now a menace. The camp had begun to look as if it had
been shelled by artillery. So we immediately painted two words on the
roof: NO MORE!
The next day, the big friends came from the Marianas and as we
watched with bated breath from the safety of the nearby railroad tunnel,
they circled the camp and, without opening their bomb bay doors, flew
back out to sea, firing off red rockets. It was great fun while it
lasted, but it was getting to be too much of a good thing.
The immediate, organized action to drop so much food, clothing and
medicine into the camp was typical of Americans. When you consider the
cost of the delivery system and the amount of aid they provided and the
speed with which they delivered it, you can only wonder. This generous
and timely response to our needs and to countless other prisoners of the
Japanese, saved many lives and it says a great deal about the values of
our American allies and the mighty civilized nation that stood behind
them. No Canadian, as he gazed in wonder at our American ally’s rescue
efforts, will ever forget their concern for us and their timely
Now we settled down to caring for our sick and to some serious
eating. We began to gain a pound a day.
OHASI POW Camp, 15 September 1945 (Courtesy US Marines)
At about this time, I decided to go back to the mine where we had
worked so long. I especially wanted to say goodbye to my fatherly old
foreman of the machine shop who had been kind to me on a personal basis.
It was both a joyous and sad meeting between the old man and the
departing soldier. We were happy that the war was over and we Canadians
could go home and yet we were sad at the knowledge that this would be
our last “Sayonara.” I promised my old Japanese foreman friend that I
would take his earnest advice and return to school as soon as I got
“Hancho, you go Canada now.” These words of explanation whispered to
me on August 15, the day the Emperor spoke, will never be forgotten, nor
will the good will of the old man who spoke them! I developed no hatred
for the people of Japan. Most of them were as kind to us as they could
be under the rules of their brutal military dictatorship. The Japanese
lost 2,900,000 servicemen and civilians during the war. Millions more
were left starving, homeless and wounded.
At every level the war had been a unmitigated disaster for Japan.
The common people of Japan and their loyal soldiers were unwitting
cannon fodder for their cruel and evil rulers who forced them to act out
their crazy dreams of the military conquest of East Asia and, as usual,
it was not just the Chinese, Philippianos and Allied soldiers, but also
the common people of Japan who paid the terrible price for the military
imperialism of their ruling elite.
We also visited the camp graveyard and sadly said one last goodbye to
our comrades who had found their last resting place so far from home. It
seemed to me an unjust reward for such brave young men.
On September 14, a naval airplane flew in from the sea and dropped a
note to inform us that an American naval task force would enter the
nearest harbour to evacuate all prisoners on the following day.
September 15 was a beautiful, clear, warm fall day in Japan. Early in
the morning, an American fleet anchored in a nearby harbour. Large
tank-landing craft beached themselves and in haste disgorged a force of
Marines and their armoured vehicles. Soon, a motorized column of Marines
arrived inland at the Ohasi camp. They were led by a Marine colonel and
they were armed to the teeth. These were veterans of the long Pacific
campaign. They had survived many terrible encounters with the Japanese
in their march across the Pacific and they looked the part. I never saw
a more comforting sight. After our captain saluted the colonel, they
embraced. The colonel then told us how he planned to evacuate us, and
gave specific orders as to how this was to be done. After he issued his
orders, he asked, “Are there any questions?” Our captain said, “Yes, I
have one. Sir. What in the hell took you so long to get here?” That
brought a smile to those tough, weather-beaten faces.
And then we mounted up, said “Sayonara” to Ohasi and after four
years, began the glorious journey home to our loved ones.
From the rear of the last vehicle in the departing column, I saw a
forlorn figure standing in the centre of the empty camp – it was Camp
Commandant Lieutenant Zenichi.
75TH ANNIVERSARY VICTORY IN JAPAN
AUGUST 15TH 1945-2020
OHASI POW Camp 65 Surviving Soldiers of C-Force, George MacDonell back row, forth from left.
15 September 1945 (Courtesy US Marines) (Click for larger view)
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