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One of the 1st and Last American POWs of WWII

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
December 19, 2022 3:00 am

One of the 1st and Last American POWs of WWII

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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December 19, 2022 3:00 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Judith Pierson tells us the story of Navy corpsman Estel Myers and his story of survival in the WWII's Pacific theater.

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Our American Stories
Lee Habeeb
Our American Stories
Lee Habeeb
Our American Stories
Lee Habeeb

This is Lee Habib and this is Our American Stories, the show where America is the star and the American people. And we love to hear listeners' stories. Share them with us at OurAmericanStories.com.

They're some of our favorites. My father was a World War II veteran who never left you wondering where he stood on a topic. When he came to visit me in Phoenix after my mother died, I took him to an area antique store. When I was digging through campaign medals and old postcards, the store owner shared with me his most recent find. A collection of personal items belonging to a deceased veteran named Estelle Myers.

He spread the treasure across the counter. Myers' death certificate, his Bronze Star commendation, a handwritten letter, and a newspaper article, now fragile and yellowed with the passage of time. It told of a piece of World War II history I had never heard before. Most Americans know that the war began with the attack on Pearl Harbor and ended with the atomic bombs.

But the vast middle of the Pacific War isn't well documented in most history books. My father later shared his thoughts on that omission, peppered with colorful expletives. I found Estelle's brother, Ken.

He lived just 20 miles from my home. Over the course of the next two years, I spent hours poring over his family albums and listening to the stories of their sacrifices. I scoured libraries and archives. The result, which became my book, Belly of the Beast, a POW's inspiring true story of faith, courage, and survival, tells not just Estelle Myers' story. It's the story of all of the young men whose names and courage never made it to the history books.

Estelle came from a simple Kentucky sharecropping family. When times were tough during the Depression, the Navy offered an exotic and exciting life. Estelle joined up, landing in the Medical Corps. He was ultimately stationed in the Pacific's playground, Manila in the Philippine Islands.

Life unfolded like scenes from the movies, parties and booze, pretty girls, local customs mingled with American swagger. War was the last thing on Estelle's or anyone else's mind. Despite myriad warning signs now clearly seen in retrospect, Hitler's advances in Europe were what held the Western world's attention. Because of that, the Imperial Japanese Army's unmitigated attacks in December 1941 caught everyone by surprise. In addition to the infamous death and destruction at Pearl Harbor, Japanese fighter squadrons attacked six other sites across Asia. Malaya, Hong Kong, Guam, Wake Island, Midway Island, and Manila in the Philippine Islands. Bombs raining down, Commanding General Douglas MacArthur realized Manila could not be saved by the unprepared American Army.

He declared it an open city, military terminology meaning no retaliatory actions would be taken. Yet the Japanese onslaught continued. All able military personnel were evacuated. Some were sent across Manila Bay to the Bataan Peninsula, while others continued further south to Corregidor, a rocky island stronghold. From there, MacArthur and his team would make plans to retake the islands, but the Japanese military proved a powerful combatant, and MacArthur, against his wishes, was forced to flee to Australia for regrouping. The Manila hospital to which Estill Myers was then assigned was filled with wounded and dying men who could not be moved with the rest of the troops.

When the Japanese ships arrived filled with invasion forces on January 2, 1942, Estill became one of America's first prisoners of war. This dispute was not the only barrier between the American medical personnel and the conquering army. The Japanese Bushido Code was a centuries old belief that espoused willingness to die for one's superiors if necessary. Surrendering as the medical corps had done, and ultimately what those in Bataan and Corregidor would be forced to do, was considered cowardly under Bushido. The ceasefire the Americans asked for to spare more deaths only caused the Imperial Army to despise their captives even more. In their minds, those POWs were disgraced and unworthy of soldierly or humane treatment.

Thus began an ugly chapter in human history. Estill and the rest of the medical corps, along with the patients who were still alive, were moved to Manila's decrepit bilibid prison, where they set up a makeshift hospital. It was here that the survivors of the Bataan Death March arrived. After their three-month battle trying to hold the Philippines, the 70-mile forced march had begun with 80,000 American and Filipino POWs.

They had depleted their own supplies defending the peninsula, and the Japanese had no food or water to give them. In addition, they were tortured and brutalized, all of which resulted in the death of nearly 20,000 men. The men who lived to the end of the march were in deplorable condition. Those the Japanese deemed useful as laborers were transferred to nearby prison camps. The others became bilibid patients.

The filth and lack of food and medical supplies made treating them nearly impossible for Estill and the other corpsmen. And the unspeakable atrocities continued. And you've been listening to Judy Pearson telling us the story of a POW in the Pacific theater, and we learned, we got some insight into why our soldiers, our POWs, got treated so poorly and had to do with that honor code of the Japanese warriors. Surrender just wasn't an option. So they looked at our soldiers like they were cowards. Of course, this is the Geneva Convention. Why we surrender is because there's honor in surrendering, and the alternative is just so horrible and inhuman.

But the Japanese soldiers saw our soldiers as less than human, as cowards, and thus treated them terribly. 20,000 of our boys and many women too died in the Bataan Death March. And when we come back, more of this remarkable story, Estill Meyer's story, here on Our American Stories. Lee Habib here, the host of Our American Stories. Every day on this show, we're bringing inspiring stories from across this great country, stories from our big cities and small towns.

But we truly can't do this show without you. Our stories are free to listen to, but they're not free to make. If you love what you hear, go to OurAmericanStories.com and click the donate button.

Give a little, give a lot. Go to OurAmericanStories.com and give. And we continue with Our American Stories and the story of Estill Meyers, a World War II enlistee in the Naval Medical Corps, and one of the first prisoners of war in the Second World War.

We continue with Judy Pearson. As was the case with citizens in Europe under Nazi rule, the majority of the Japanese people were completely unaware of the brutality of the Imperial Japanese Army against their captives. Even today, these stories are omitted from Japanese history books. And then things got worse. As the tide of the war started to turn and the Japanese military began using kamikaze tactics, they found themselves without sufficient workers. Increased war production was needed in their factories and mines.

They realized the wealth of labor they possessed in the form of POWs, 78,000 of them across the Pacific Ocean. They began transporting these already weakened and tortured men to the Japanese homeland in what came to be known as hellships. Prisoners were crammed into cargo holds of huge tankers. They had little air, food, or water for journeys that lasted weeks. Many died from asphyxia, starvation, or dysentery.

They went mad from the cramped quarters and some even drank the blood of those who had died. Worst of all, these prisoner transports were unmarked. Allied submarines and aircraft targeted them as enemy ships, firing on them. Eight hellships had sailed for Japan. All were attacked to a greater or lesser extent. One sank with their hold still filled with POWs, nearly 1,800 of them.

Only five men who had been on deck at the time survived to tell their story. On December 13, 1944, after years of physical and psychological torture, Estelle Myers and 1,620 other American captives marched aboard the ninth and final Japanese hellship, the Oryoku Maru. Before she even left Manila Bay, American bombers attacked the unmarked ship. Still able to maneuver, she made her way to Subic Bay on the west side of the Philippines' main island of Luzon, where the continued strafing finally sunk her. Nearly 300 POWs died from the conditions, the bombing, or having been shot by the Japanese as they tried to escape.

But Estelle Myers survived. Corralled and unprotected on a tennis court for several days, more men died from lack of water and the elements. Ken Myers had joined the Navy shortly after his brother had been captured. In an unbelievable irony, Ken, now part of MacArthur's return to liberate the Philippines, stepped onto the island just as Estelle and the other POWs were loaded into two more tankers to continue the journey to Japan. Further unimaginable deprivation awaited those prisoners. When they arrived in Taiwan to refuel, they were again attacked by Allied fliers. One of the ships was disabled and more prisoners died in the attack. With a smaller number of men, only the remaining ship was needed. By the time it finally arrived in frigid Japan on January 29, 1945, weeks overdue, only 549 of the original 1,620 remained.

In rags and shivering in below freezing temperatures, Estelle was among them. The men were sent to a collection of prison camps in Fukuoka, Japan, and put to work under brutal guards. The Nazis surrendered in Europe on May 7, 1945, but for Japan, the war raged on. Then, on August 6, 1945, unimaginable destruction fell from a clear blue sky. 10,000 pound Little Boy, the world's first fully detonated atomic bomb, fell on Hiroshima, Japan. If the Japanese didn't surrender, the U.S. promised it would drop another bomb.

Fat Man was ready with a short list of targets. Just 44 miles from the Fukuoka prison camps where Estelle was working, the city of Kokura was first on that list. The morning of August 11, 1945, not a word had come from the Japanese military nor the Emperor. A second American B-29 took off from Tinian, prepared to drop its jumbo bomb. But unlike five days earlier, over Hiroshima, the sky over Kokura was obscured by smoke and haze, so the pilot flew on to a secondary target, Nagasaki, and dropped his payload.

A great towering mushroom effect could be seen going higher and higher and reaching into the stratosphere. Because the bomb was exploded high above the ground, the greatest part of its harmful radioactive material was dissipated in the stratosphere. As a result, the area under the explosion was relatively free from radioactivity. Persons entering Nagasaki shortly after the explosion to do rescue work sustained no ill effect or injury. In an area of a little more than three square miles, there was very severe damage by blast and fire. Most buildings were reduced to rubble.

Still recognizable from the air are the skeleton remainders of the Mitsubishi plants, the large steel and arms works, and the ordnance factory devoted to the manufacture of torpedoes. Had the bomb fallen onto Kokura, it would certainly have destroyed the Fukuoka camps. After all they had been through, Estelle and the other prisoners would have died. Even 95 miles away, they all witnessed the blinding light from Nagasaki. It wasn't until two weeks later, after the camps had been liberated and the prisoners were boarding the awaiting Allied hospital ships, that they learned how the war ended and how narrowly they escaped.

By that time, the original Oryoku Maru group was down to only 372, Estelle still among them. After having been one of America's first to be captured, he was finally going home, among the last POWs to do so. The prisoners were in horrible physical and emotional condition. They suffered from all manner of diseases and had lost nearly half of their body weight. When Estelle finally sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge on October 6, 1945, most of the post-war hysteria that had rocked a grateful nation months earlier had ended.

Estelle didn't care. He reunited with his brothers, including Ken and his sister, married the sweetheart he had left behind, and fathered five children. He moved his family to Phoenix in 1959, but physical problems, no doubt caused by his horrific experiences, plagued Estelle the rest of his life. He had three heart attacks before the age of 50, and was then diagnosed with lung cancer.

On September 12, 1973, Estelle Myers died of his fourth heart attack at just 53 years old. I made certain the items my friend at the antique store had acquired were returned to his family. For them, they were true treasure. Probably the most precious thing was the letter Estelle had written to his children several months before he died.

His ending words speak volumes about the man. Believe with all your heart in God, country, and family. Be truthful. Be loving, patient, and forgiving with your spouses and children. Give an honest day's work in whatever you do. Believe in the Golden Rule. Be loyal and honest to your country.

Be a good American and thankful that you are one. I love you all. Remember Papa.

Papa. And thanks to Judy Pearson for that story, and thanks to Robbie for doing such a great job producing it and bringing it to us. And again, that was the Estelle Myers story, a POW story, and we tell these World War II stories for a reason. Not to bring you down, but hopefully to inspire you, and also to remind us all that so many did so much for future generations. These stories are real and are a fundamental part of all of our stories. Estelle Myers' story, here on Our American Stories.
Whisper: medium.en / 2022-12-19 11:37:22 / 2022-12-19 11:43:30 / 6

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