A father’s final gift

A picture of the liberation of the Hirohata POW camp in Japan in 1945 (Roger Mansell collection Courtesy of Hoover Institution Library & Archives); also an image from one of my Dad’s hand-written manuscripts; an Army portrait and telegram announcing his release

After my Dad died, I wished I had learned more about his past, especially about his experience in World War II. Thanks to an unusual turn of events, I got some of those questions answered many years later.

I knew my Dad had been a prisoner of war in Japan, and had heard a few of his stories. He ate rancid whale meat for protein, hauled bags of pig iron as part of hard labor. A pal of his could beat the Japanese guards in sumo wrestling even though he was emaciated.

Yet a lot of things he didn’t talk about. Perhaps he didn’t consider it appropriate when we were kids. And when he died suddenly in 1986, most of that history died too. Or so it seemed. It came as quite a shock to discover 27 years later a cache of memoirs and writings he had kept, someplace for years and donated to the U.S. Army archives.

The file at the U.S. Army Heritage Center in Carlisle, Pa., contained some 200 pages of materials. One folder (marked ‘open carefully’) contained several scraps of paper from cement bags on which he had written, in pencil, a radio play, “The New York Popular Homicide,” performed by the HRP — the Hirohata Radio Players.

In his letter to the Army, he said: “I had been writing sonnets on and off and finally tried my hand at a short play… I had to filch and sneak past shakedowns cement sack paper, scribble the material with the stub of a pencil (I don’t know where I scrounged it).” Somehow the plays got typed up — and performed on the public address system. I saw one of the scripts he kept on Japanese onion skin, the thinnest paper I have ever seen.

Apparently, his work had an impact. The camp’s gunnery sergeant became upset “because it implied a career in military service was undesirable.” Dad looked over what he wrote years later and said he discovered “plot and character defects” in his work, as if that mattered. At the time, though, “anything was entertaining besides the rigors of the camp,” he noted.

I photographed the materials with my digital camera and tablet. Oddly, note-taking at the research center could be done only by pencil. Dad had sent various memoirs, skits, sonnets and some other materials he wrote after the war. The materials contained far more detail about Dad’s military career and early life than I had known.

He recounted his capture in Bataan and being among the “twenty truckloads” of men sent ahead to build the first camp where he was interned, Camp O’Donnell in the Philippines. He was beaten by a Japanese soldier with a rifle-butt because he was too weak to carry the stones that had to be moved for one project. Another story focused on a guard from Taiwan, dubbed “Many-Many” by the prisoners, a member of Japan’s “second-class army of provincial mercenaries.” Dad made it clear that writing about him did not mean he sympathized with Many-Many: “He had his choice to become an obedient well-behaved soldier — he chose to go further and become an ambitious, brutal slave-driver to curry favor with his Japanese overlords.”

I knew Dad enlisted in 1940 believing that by choosing his assignment, he would avoid the war that America was bound to enter. He wanted to get far away from the war in Europe, ending up in Bataan. I didn’t know he was rejected by the Navy because of poor eyesight; or that he had requested to be assigned to Hawaii but was “persuaded” to try the Philippines.

I could imagine the rigors of POW life but learned more from the memoirs. He was hospitalized in the Cabanatuan camp in the Philippines where disease reigned, and he desperately sought money to buy peanuts. He entered a poetry contest (yes, that seems strange in the middle of a war) with a $5 prize — and won. By the time he received the prize, it was only $3, and all the peanuts were gone. “The moral victory was not very nourishing,” he wrote.

I had heard stories of meager rations, but his writings contained vivid details. In the early days in the Philippines, the rice was watery and sometimes mixed with camotes (sweet potatoes). Once the prisoners were served rice with “carabao guts which nobody could eat.” Sometimes, they received Red Cross packages, but the Japanese appropriated many items. The quartermaster at Hirohata, an iron mill works near Osaka, was a “master embezzler and a wizard at juggling the ration so the men actually believed he was doing his best to feed them.”

I found plays, poems and short stories that, presumably, he had written after the war, based on POW life. The only hint I got about the timing was included in his March 1986 letter to the army, just a month before he died of a heart attack. He said the items were sitting around for 30-odd years and he thought they might be of interest to the Army archives.

I tripped upon these papers accidentally when I Googled my Dad’s name, seeking to discover some details or POW records, with the surprising result: “Max Lever papers 1942–1949.”

The stories were enlightening. But I also felt a bit cheated. Why didn’t he share them with me and my sister? Did he think we didn’t care?

It’s hard to feel bitter or angry now. It was only after my Dad died that I started to grasp fully all the obstacles he had overcome in life. It must have been some effort to raise two kids pretty much single-handedly after my Mom died when I was 2.

Maybe he believed I would scoff at his stories or throw them out (I wouldn’t have). Or that the papers would be more appreciated in the archives. I don’t think he would have imagined I would ever discover these writings or that I would find satisfaction in learning about parts of his life I never knew.

This, of course, doesn’t answer all the questions I would still like to ask Dad, but it’s something. I’ll take it as a long-delayed gift — intended or not.