Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Palawan Massacre December 14, 1944

Palawan Grave 1945
In May 1945, Acting Secretary of State and former US Ambassador to Japan Joseph Grew protested to the Japanese government “the brutal massacre of one hundred fifty prisoners of war at Puerto Princesa, Palawan, Philippines Islands, by the personnel of Ogawa [Toru Ogawa, a company commander in the 131st Airfield Battalion] Tai Construction Corps.”

He angrily charged, ”Such barbaric behavior on the part of the Japanese armed forces is an offense to all civilized people.” His reprimand barely captures the awfulness of the Palawan Massacre in the Philippines on December 14, 1944.

So graphically horrific was the Palawan Massacre that it is the opening scene for movie The Great Raid. Japanese troops are shown drenching American POWs with gasoline and then setting them afire in air raid dugouts. As the men inside burned, the Japanese threw in hand grenades and gunned down or bayoneted any man trying to escape from the burning shelters.

Nevertheless, a lucky few did escape. Their descriptions of the Palawan Massacre confirmed intercepted Japanese cables that contained orders to kill all surviving POWs before American troops advanced. The orders stated:
(a) Whether they are destroyed individually or in groups or however it is done, with mass bombing, poisonous smoke, poisons, drowning, decapitation, or what, dispose of them as the situation dictates.
(b) In any case it is the aim not to allow the escape of a single one, to annihilate them all, and not to leave any traces.
At Palawan, the commanding officers did what they could to obey the order. Though the exact numbers of murdered POWs and survivors may never be known, the best estimates are that 139 men were killed and 11 men survived. Lorna Nielson Murray, the daughter of a Palawan Massacre survivor, has compiled a roster of the victims and survivors, along with the names of 8 men whose status is unclear. This year (2011), POW researcher Jim Erickson has refined the roster of those on Palawan.

News of the Massacre prompted the U.S. to hastily organize a series of rescue missions in 1945 to liberate both military and civilian prisoners held by the Japanese on the Philippines. The Great Raid of Cabanatuan POW camp was one of them. An elite squad of American Rangers and Filipino guerillas (Alamo Scouts and members of the 6th Ranger Battalion) cooperated with local Filipinos to liberate 489 POWs and 33 civilians. (492 Americans, 23 British, three Dutch, two Norwegians, one Canadian, and one Filipino).

Previously, in 1943, reports of the desperate, sub-human conditions at Japan’s POW camps had prompted the U.S. and other Allied Nations to secretly transfer millions of dollars to a Swiss bank account for Japan to care for the POWs. Tokyo, however, ignored the agreement and used the interest in the account to buy Swiss cannons. Strangely, the Japanese count the return of these Allied funds as part of their reparations for prisoners of war.

Many from the 59th U.S. Army Coast Artillery who helped defend Corregidor died on Palawan. Others were from the 4th Marines who also fought on Corregidor. One was a member of the Janesville 99 and had survived the Bataan Death March. They were all part of 300 POWs brought to Palawan in late 1942 to build an airfield. The POWs suffered years of disease, hunger, and emotional and physical abuse at the hands of their captors before their murder.

Shortly before he died in 2004, Palawan survivor Marine Corporal Glen McDole released a book called Last Man Out recounting his experiences as a POW and his escape from the Palawan Massacre. This first-hand account provides a stunning narrative about the horrors and abuses suffered by POWs at the hands of the Japanese, as well as his eye-witness account of the massacre itself. An oral history by Mr. McDole is HERE.

He describes watching in hiding five or six Japanese soldiers torture with their bayonets a wounded American:
I could see the bayonets draw blood when they poked him. Another Jap came up with some gasoline and a torch, and I heard the American beg them to shoot him and not to burn him. The Jap threw some gasoline on his foot and lit it, and the other Japs laughed and poked him with their bayonets. Then they did the same thing to his other foot and to his hand. When the man collapsed, the Japs then threw the whole bucket of gasoline over him, and he burst into flames.
In 2009, a monument to the victims and survivors of the massacre was erected in Palawan, listing the names of the U.S. POWs and recounting their tragic story. The top of the monument is a sculpture of an emaciated American man in chains rising from a fire, symbolizing the oppression of the POWs and the miraculous escape of the 11 survivors.

On March 23, 1949, Toru Ogawa, a company commander in the 131st Airfield Battalion who was charged with abusing 300 POWs and causing the death of 138 prisoners by ordering subordinates to massacre them by surprise assault and treacherous violence, and killing them by various methods, received his sentence of two years' hard labor, reduced by 9 1/2 months for time served.

Palawan was eventually liberated by U.S. forces in March 1945, where the Americans found evidence of the massacre, including the burned dugouts, charred remains, and mangled skeletons. In 1952, the remains of 123 of the victims were moved to a mass grave at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery near St. Louis, Missouri.


  1. Sharon Jones TrussellFebruary 19, 2012 at 9:55 AM

    For the families of those killed at Palawan the memorial and books are sometimes the only link they have left to their loved ones memory.
    My father never forgot his cousin James Pitts who was a POW at Palawan and was killed there.
    Although I never had the honor of knowing James Pitts I will always honor his memory and that of all the men lost at Palawan. They deserve they deserve the highest honors for the sacrifice of their lives.

  2. I salute all those who died and survived in this tragedy.
    Filipino Attorney

  3. our maternal uncle, S1C Waldo Stedam Hale was a POW on Palawan, he had escaped the dugout & was shot trying to swim to the next island on Dec. 14, 1944 per an eyewitness account, he is one of the 123 men buried at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in the mass grave. One of his brothers was in the rescue detail that arrived on the island & witnessed the bodies of the burned soldiers, he was never the same after that day......he never talked to us kids about this but I can only imagine his pain.......

  4. My Great- Grandfather is one of the estimated 11 who survived. He escaped his dugout, made it down the cliff, God from the Japs till nightfall and the made the swim to the next island. On his way to the island he stopped to take a break and was attacked by a shark only to be saved by dolphins. He barely made it to the shore.
    His name was Rufus Smith. I never met him.

    The story of Palawan needs to be told. There are too many people who don't know about it. It is overshadowed by the Bataan Death Match and the Holocaust pushing this horror to the after thought. The numbers may have been small but these were people friends, brothers, husbands, sons. They deserve recognition and solemn honor from the people of America.

    1. I agree with you. The story needs to be told. I just now read about it myself. I did not know the extent of the violence, brutality, and atrocities that went on. They should never be forgotten.

  5. My Great grandfather was a survivor of Palawan. He escaped the dugout, hid until night, and swam across to another island. On his journey to the island he stopped for a test and was attacked by a shark only to be saved by dolphins. He barely made it to shore.

    His name was Rufus Smith. I never knew him.

    Palawan is an undertold horror of WWII. Overshadowed by the horrors of the Holocaust, Bataan Death Match, and Stalin's various atrocities. The story of Palawan should be told in the same light as these others. It may have been on a smaller scale but it doesn't take away from th e great evil th at occurred there. I encourage everyone to spread the word of this ordeal.

  6. My dad was at Palawan but was sent back to Manila and put on a hell ship to go to Japan to be a slave laborer for Mitsubishi. There was always a resignation about him due to the Palawan Massacre. He lost so many friends.

  7. I went to see this place, I had a red, white, and blue hat on, all the Pilipino people looked at me, and touched me, and took my picture.
    As I walked to see all the signs, they moved away for me,to see, they respected my being an American.
    I sat and asked them, do any Japanese come here?
    No, never they said.

  8. My father HENRY CLAY HENDERSON US NAVY SUBMARINER was one of the lucky ones that was transferred that morning out of this camp. I tell his great grandchildren, grandchildren and my children that we are all fortunate to have been born. I wanted all of them to know who he was and to keep his memory alive.

  9. Glenn McDole is my uncle. He admired all who served with him. Know that even through all the horrors they faced together, He had fond memories of his fellow prisoners. Each and every life,every event, every moment,all are a testimony to the horrors of hatred and war. Let us never forget those who gave so much. Let their legacy be both a lesson and a warning. May we never see one more American life lost or forgotten. May all their souls stand proud an the Great Parade Ground above. And may their souls have Eternal Peace.


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