Jim Atwell was born on July 25, 1919 and he graduated from high school in Kansas City, Missouri and went to glass-blowing school, after which he went to South America for one year to teach Colombians what he had learned about making neon signs. While there, he learned Spanish.
Atwell enlisted in the U.S. Army on June 3, 1941. He was a Staff Sergeant of the 28th Materiel Squadron, a division of the 20th Air Base Group, when Bataan fell on April 9, 1942. Not wishing to become a prisoner of war, Atwell and five of his friends decided to escape to Corregidor. They came upon a DeSoto sedan with the keys still in it, and Atwell began driving it away, but they were soon facing Japanese troops. The enemy confiscated their valuables, and when Tanaguchi, a Japanese general, arrived, he was pleased to acquire the vehicle and ordered all but Atwell to begin walking. Tanaguchi employed Atwell as a driver for the next ten days as he laid the groundwork to fire on Corregidor.
After driving through a small stream, Atwell realized that the brakes were wet and refused to continue driving. When he was finally able to convey the problem, Tanaguchi, who had been very angry, thanked him and offered to give him his young daughter in marriage after Australia and the United States were captured.
However, Atwell was determined to escape. One day, some of the Japanese soldiers used him for bayonet practice, coming close to injuring him, when General Tanaguchi arrived and reprimanded them. He gave Atwell a pass ensuring that he would not be harmed. Thus Atwell put an extra can of gasoline in the sedan and took off. The left rear tire blew out halfway to Manila, and a troop of Japanese soldiers pulled alongside him, but when they saw his pass, they gave him food and helped him change the tire.
When Atwell reached Manila, he was exceeding the imposed speed limit and burst through the Z-patterned entrance, landing at the Manila Hotel, where he convinced the clerk to give him a room. Atwell obtained civilian clothing and posed as a Spaniard. Then, at the suggestion of the Filipinos working at the hotel, he went to Ateneo of Manila, a Catholic college under the direction of Jesuit priests, during the night. There he adopted priest's clothing and lived for two months until he regained his strength. He also found a Marine by the name of Rollins who was also masquerading as a priest, and the two decided to leave together.
They walked for three days to Laguna de Bay, from which they were taken by Filipinos to Marcus Augustin, a Philippine Scouts corporal who went on to become a general in the underground and Chief of the Philippine Internal Defense Force. Augustin and Colonel Hugh Straughn were establishing guerrilla forces. Colonel Straughn, Jim, and four other Americans set up headquarters on the first mountain range south of Manila. They remained there for about a year, gathering information on Japanese forces and sometimes ambushing Japanese supply trucks, until one of the Filipino runners was caught and tortured until he disclosed the hideout's location. The Japanese attacked and killed the four Americans, but Atwell and Straughn were able to escape in time.
A month later, another runner was similarly taken captive and endured unspeakable torture until he finally gave the Japanese the information they sought. The enemy again attacked, and although Atwell and Straughn began to flee, the Colonel fell in the mud and was taken prisoner; although tortured, he would not provide any information, and he was shot with ten other American guerrillas. Atwell escaped, and he and General Augustin moved headquarters into the mountains east of Manila. Augustin promoted Atwell to colonel, and they were aware of all Japanese activities. Atwell maintained a radio contact with the head of guerrilla forces on Mindanao, Wendell Fertig, who had direct communication with General MacArthur.
Atwell relocated his headquarters even further into the mountains, in the vicinity of the Dumagots, a nearly extinct tribe of Negritos who were very loyal to Atwell. Receiving few supplies due to his remote location, Atwell began going barefoot and had to eat native fauna such as pythons, wild pigs, and pelicans.
In July 1944, Atwell was prepared to receive the landing date of a submarine carrying supplies, but Fertig was forced to abandon his own hideout in search of a safer environment and thus Atwell missed the submarine's visit. Other guerrillas instead benefited from what was deposited. Finally, Fertig sent word that MacArthur was returning, and that the guerrilla forces were to stand by to prevent any downed pilots from being captured. Five days later, shortly after dawn, dive-bombers and fighter planes appeared, targeting Manila. The guerrillas were largely successful in rescuing the pilots who were shot down.
Late in October 1944, Atwell was taken aboard the U.S.S. Nautilus. He had lost 94 lbs. and now weighed 86 lbs., and he had beri-beri, malaria, and dysentery. He recovered in an Australian hospital and returned to the United States, where he married and fathered three children. In 1950, he contracted polio, which paralyzed his legs but not his spirit. He served as an officer in the American Ex-Prisoners of War, Inc. and ran his own business. He died on May 27, 1983.