The Shoemaker of Los Barios
MARCH 01, 1992 by JOHN STULL
Mr. Stull, who retired from the United States Navy with the rank of Commander, later served in the California Assembly and Senate. He now lives in Missouri.
Each year, the Lions Club in our small southwestern Missouri town of Hartville (population 593) puts on a large fireworks display on the Fourth of July. The organization collects money from the community and, with a generous contribution of its own, has a show to which people come from far and wide. The club shoots off its display from crude mortars on a bluff directly below our house. This is almost the exact position of one of the cannon with which young Confederate General John Sappington Marmaduke shelled the town on a cold January day in 1863. Thus, the rockets’ red glare has some historic meaning in this community, and, this past year, there was the added fillip of President George Bush’s morning parade and speech in the nearby town of Marshfield.
Our front porch provides a ringside seat for the festivities, and we always have a barbecue prior to the show. Our guests sit in chairs or on the old stone steps. This year, I happened to be in the step group, and in the light of one of the star showers, I chanced to glance back. No child was showing greater delight than my friend Bill Detzer, age 93. It suddenly occurred to me that Bill must have a built-in, personal celebration of Independence Day, going on all the time. He was the only person in our group that night who had lost—and regained—his freedom. As Bill himself phrases it, he was a guest of the Imperial Japanese Army for three years, two months. He was made a prisoner of war less than a month after the Japanese invaded the Philippines in December 1941.
From the exultant look on his face, it was obvious Bill was enjoying the fireworks—and something more. It was more than a show to him, it was being there—something the rest of us took for granted. To use the words from one of George Washington’s speeches, Bill was exalting the just pride of patriotism and rejoicing in the name American.
It came to me that of all the people I know, Bill seems to enjoy life the most. He steps out smartly into his days, and his sense of humor is relentless and unimpaired. He lives now in Monterey, California, but he braved the bad weather and flew back here last Christmas alone. His godson, Oliver Max, accompanied him on the Fourth of July visit. Bill goes wherever he chooses to find the action he likes, age no issue.
After years of friendship, seeing that look of almost transcendent joy in Bill’s face made me really want to know his wellspring. Did he have this edge of enjoyment in spite of, or because of, the Imperial Japanese and his years of incarceration at bayonet point? In a day or two, following our July 4 celebration, we had a long talk, one-on-one, man-to-man. We talked about the way it was when everyday, common freedom was only a memory and forlorn hope to Bill. Fifty years has dulled the pain but not yet made it possible to talk about some facets of the ordeal; still he told me enough based on an acute memory.
Bill’s Philippine experience began in 1903. The liner on which he and his mother were traveling entered Manila Bay on Christmas Eve of that year. His father, Carl Detzer, was the fiber expert for International Harvester and was in the islands to secure the best hemp for the new self-binding machines to use in harvesting wheat and other grains. The Detzer family stayed in Manila for four years, and Bill attended the American School on Calle Nozalayta, where he learned Spanish along with English and a smattering of Tagalog.
Later, when his father was transferred, he studied at Kings College at the University of London. When war was declared in 1914, the family returned to the United States, and Bill attended the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, and subsequently graduated with a mechanical engineering degree. After this, he worked in a bank, invented a special type of centrifugal pump, acted as a rental agent for an uncle working in the Hollywood film industry, and he became very active in the Los Angeles Junior Chamber of Commerce, where he headed a number of important committees.
Finally, he realized that though he was making a lot of money, he wasn’t going where he wanted. He decided to take a job in the Philippines, of which he’d always had fond memories. With a new future facing him, he embarked on the Silver Teak, arriving in Manila on December 3,1933, almost exactly 30 years since his first visit. After several years working with a company who were agents for Bethlehem Steel, an opportunity came for Bill to work for Bethlehem Steel directly, and he became their Far East Representative. For seven years, Bill lived the exciting life of a man about the Orient, sometimes returning to the States on Pan American’s glamorous clippers, sometimes traveling in a more leisurely manner by ship. Business took him to Japan a few months before the war, when there was a great deal of antagonism toward Americans.
However, Bill believed, in spite of stringent U.S. sanctions against Japan, that the situation would be resolved and wouldn’t escalate into shooting. He learned how wrong he was when a friend phoned at 4:00 A.M. on December 8, 1941, to tell him about Pearl Harbor. The attack on the Philippines came just hours later. There was a great deal of frustration and bitterness as everyone began to realize an invasion was just a matter of time.
With the quixotic idea of preserving some property belonging to a friend, Bill declined to take a Navy cutter ferrying people to Corregidor. This probably saved his life, as after the fort surrendered, the large group of which he would have been a part was put on an unmarked ship and, en route to Japan, was sunk by Allied bombers.
Manila was soon declared an open city, and on January 2, Bill and the other Americans, British, and remaining Allied nationals were rounded up and listed as “enemy aliens.” Several thousand men, women, and children were herded together at the Royal and Pontifical University of Santo Tomás, founded by the Dominicans in 1611.
Fighting for Survival
The long fight for survival began for Bill Detzer at the Santo Tomás Internment Camp. Although he went through hell, he was one of the lucky ones. The “In Memoriam” list compiled after the war is long for those who entered the camp. It isn’t even complete because the Japanese buried bodies in vacant lots, backyards, even the sea, with no record.
The situation was appalling from the start. A few days after arriving in Santo Tomás, the prisoners were horrified to find a large sign: “INTERNEES IN THIS CAMP SHALL BE RESPONSIBLE FOR FEEDING THEMSELVES.” Told to take a few days’ supply of food when they left for the camp, the prisoners were soon depending on friends on the outside, foodstuffs put up for sale in the camp, the Philippine Red Cross, and what they could grow themselves. After six months, the Japanese began to make a minimum food allowance. At 6 feet 1 inch, Bill weighed 190 pounds when he went to Santo Tomás and 123 pounds when he was freed in February 1945.
On May 14, 1943, the Japanese moved 786 single men and 12 Navy nurses 70 kilometers away to the Agricultural College at Los Banos. The reasons given for the move didn’t seem valid. Speculation was that so many unattached men posed a threat. The war had definitely turned against the conquerors, and they were jumpy.
The day the men and nurses were to leave, they were awakened at 5:00 A.M. as the loud notes of “Time to Get Up” blared throughout Santo Tomás. The deportees were loaded on trucks as the loudspeakers resounded again—“Anchors Aweigh” and “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” The songs, of course, were supposed to be an added humiliation to people transported like cattle.
After arriving at Los Banos, Bill embarked on the most remarkable events of his captivity. Although a prisoner behind two high fences with coiled barbed wire in between, under constant surveillance of vigilant guards, he contrived to meet the Bethlehem Steel payroll. He knew exactly what he was risking—torture and death.
It came about this way. On the strangely effective, but maddeningly spotty grapevine that twisted from the outside through both Santo Tomás and Los Banos prisons, Bill heard that his former company staff was in dire straits, on the verge of starvation. The much touted Japanese Co-Prosperity Sphere and the Orient for the Orientals didn’t include most Filipinos. Bill was horrified to learn that working for an American company had made them doubly suspect. He resolved to help these people as best he could.
But what could he do? The answer came through his new profession—camp shoemaker.
The opportunity had presented itself when Bill suffered heat prostration while working in the garden at Santo Tomás. He was assigned to inside work and, after talking it over with friends, decided shoemaking had the greatest possibilities. He began at Santo Tomas and continued at Los Banos. The work was done under the crudest conditions with old fire sidewalls, the material provided. Of five shipments sent by the Red Cross, only one reached the prisoners. Fortunately, this included a few items that made Bill’s new vocation a bit easier.
If shoes were beyond prison repair but could be salvaged with better equipment, the Japanese would let Bill send them out to a Filipino cobbler shop. The shoes were inspected both going out and coming back. Nevertheless, through the shoes, Bill sent and received messages and dispersed large sums of money.
His first step was to contact a Chinese friend, Yu Khe Jin, owner of Yutivo Sons Hardware in Manila. Mr. Yu was the largest buyer of steel in the Philippines and the best customer of Bethlehem Steel. Mr. Yu made approximately five million Philippine pesos available to Bill. With this money, Bill paid the Bethlehem staff, including the office boy, as though they were still working. It was a tricky, harrowing enterprise, and Bill was fearful not only for his own sake but for everyone else involved in the operation. After the war, from the meticulous records kept by Bill, Bethlehem Steel reimbursed Mr. Yu for the full amount.
Santo Tomás was liberated early in February 1945, but Los Banos still was behind enemy lines. There was a strong rumor that before giving up this camp the Japanese planned to massacre the Los Banos prisoners. By then, these numbered over 2,000. Acting on the rumor, General MacArthur authorized a daring raid. On February 23, 1945, in a coordinated effort, paratroopers of the 11th Airborne, amphibious tanks, and Filipino guerrillas led by American officers converged on the camp.
The attack from land, water, and sky was a complete surprise, and 250 Japanese were eliminated within minutes. Miraculously, none of the prisoners received more than a few superficial wounds. However, both rescuers and rescued were still behind enemy lines, so it was important to get out of the area as fast as possible. That night, Bill slept on the hard stone floor of the old Mutinglupa National Prison outside of Manila, on the featherbed of freedom.
The horrors Bill experienced have not completely receded and, of course, never will. However, when I asked if there were any benefit from living in hell, Bill thought for a moment and replied: “Oh, yes! A special kind of friendship.” Bill keeps in touch with Yu Khe Jin and his children in Australia and Vancouver, as well as with the surviving Bethlehem Steel employees he paid via the shoes. Until their deaths, he stayed in close contact with the three men who shared his quarters at Los Banos—Abbott Shoemaker, Henry S. Carpenter, and Steve Arick—all of whom went on to successful business careers. After a year and a half of recuperation in New York City, Bill returned to the Philippines for Bethlehem Steel, where he remained until retirement.
It is no wonder that Bill Detzer enjoys each moment. He learned the art at the hardest possible school. What impressed me the most in my long talk with him was his bold use of the slight freedom he had enjoyed while in prison, and the far-reaching results. All he had were the shoes, Mr. Yu, and the cobblers. I asked if he had tried to bribe the Japanese guards, and he replied, “No, they were incorruptible.” The collaborators had to be silent and totally circumspect, since the window of opportunity was minuscule and might be shut at any minute, with appalling ramifications. However, even a minuscule amount of freedom sometimes will serve if not to solve a situation, at least to ameliorate it.
From talking with Bill, it seems clear that many prisoners survived the camps because of the use they made of the marginal amount of freedom permitted by the Japanese. Even when so appallingly diluted, this freedom was strong enough to make a life-or-death difference in the whole conduct of the camps. By applying their freedom, the prisoners rose above the order imposed by Japanese bayonets, and were able, in large measure, to avoid chaos and its resulting despair. Through a group-appointed prisoner committee, the internees were allowed to govern themselves within Japanese rules. Although the rules were often outrageous, grim, and encompassed every facet of life, this mere trace of self-determination maintained self-respect and the hope and dignity engendered by self-respect.
The prisoners were ill-used, ill-housed, ill-clothed, ill-washed, plain ill, and so ill-fed that before their rescue, they came to look like scarecrows. Nevertheless, their own self-government kept the majority of them from falling into complete helplessness, total despair, or unthinkable barbarity, preying on each other. Bill says there is no way to describe the titanic efforts made by the Internee Committee, nor is it possible to count their accomplishments, fabricated almost solely by determination and zeal. Several of the leaders had been top executives in prestigious companies before they met this ultimate test of their management skills by using every small niche left open by their captors. The freedom of the small clefts grew to a maintained and definite identity, and with this identity, thousands of internees found the will to survive as human beings.