Grant Recipient Details Captivityby Richard A. Long
In the early morning hours of 8 December 1941, the SS President Harrison was en route from Manila to Chinwangtao, China, to evacuate the North China Marines. She had been busy since mid- November. On the 27th of that month, she plucked the 2d Battalion and half of Headquarters and Service Company, 4th Marines from Shanghai and transported them to the Philippines. The remainder of the regiment boarded the Harrison's sister ship the following day. Hearing radio news reports that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor, the Harrison 's captain aborted his mission and turned to the southwest, off the mouth of the Yangtze River.Meanwhile, Marines of the Peiping and Tientsin garrisons awaited orders to follow their personal baggage to Camp Holcomb at Chinwangtao. Their wait was in vain as overwhelming numbers of enemy troops surrounded their compounds in the morning darkness and methodically took over their guard posts. The following morning, both garrisons were obliged to ingloriously surrender and were interned.
Encouraged by a Foundation Research Grant and assisted by staff members of the History and Museums Division, retired Marine MSgt Chester M. Biggs, Jr., of Hope Mills, North Carolina, recounts these and succeeding events in a highly- illustrated memoir, entitled "Behind the Barbed Wire," to be published by McFarland &, Company next year. Although the primary source for his memoir is his prodigious memory, he and a number of his fellow Marines did secretly maintain written records while in Japanese prison camps. These records, coupled with the contents of their sea bags and footlockers, which had been stored by the Swiss Embassy in Peiping during the war, detail the activities of these North China Marines.
Basing his memoir on these records, his own recollections, and those of other North China Marines, Biggs has compiled a more-or-less chronological narrative of occurrences in pre- war China, of the surrender, and of prison life as seen by a Marine enlisted man.
Biggs begins his account by recalling more pleasant times, his solid reasons for enlisting in the Marine Corps, his enlightening experiences at boot camp, the voyage to the Far East, and a description of the duties and recreational activities available to Marines on duty at the American Legation in pre-war Peiping.
With the coming of the war, he vividly describes the sadness of the guards' last Retreat, as the colors were lowered in the legation compound for the last time. "The American flag that snapped in the brisk breeze started its slow descent ... it ceased to snap and began to droop. At the halfway point, it hung limp, just as if it knew its fate. "
"As the last note of the music died away, [Field Music Carroll W.] Bucher lowered the bugle from his lips. He held the instrument momentarily in his hands. Then abruptly he brought the bugle down sharply against his right knee. With tears streaming down his face, he cast the bent bugle aside. The bugle, a symbol of our defeat, would never be used again."
North China Marines believed that they would be exchanged for Japanese in the United States in accordance with the terms of the Boxer Protocol of 1901. Their commanding officer, Col William W. Ashurst, surrendered the Peiping garrison with this understanding. However, it appeared that the State Department did not pursue this prerogative, and the North China Marines were interned as prisoners of war.
At first, they were quartered at Woosung, China, with a few of the surviving Marines, sailors, soldiers, and civilian construction workers from Wake Island. It was reported later that at Woosung, the North China Marines with their ample supply of winter clothing did not share their windfall with the scantily clad Wake Island Marines.
Biggs refutes this contention, stating that they did share, and that they themselves did not have access of their Japanese- stored surplus clothing except at the changing of the seasons.
Late in 1942, all Woosung prisoners were transferred a few miles south to the newly constructed Kiangwan Prison Camp. Here their captors allowed them to plant large vegetable gardens, but prevented them from enjoying the fruits of their efforts. Their primary task was to laboriously create a replica of Mount Fujiyama. The Japanese said that it would be used for recreational purposes, but it soon became apparent that it was to be a rifle range.
In the spring of 1945, after three years of internment in China, Biggs along with a majority of the other prisoners were transported overland and then by ship or ferry to mainland Japan. This was a ploy by the Japanese not only in China, but also in the Philippines, as allied forces drew near, not only to prevent the recapture of prisoners, but to provide slave labor for the home islands. On the whole, allied prisoners of war interned in China fared better than their Philippine and Southeast Asia counterparts, in not being subjected to the infamous "hell ships."
Biggs and his companions were routed through North China to Fusan, Korea, across Shimonoseki Straits to Hiroshima, and then through Kobe, Osaka, Tokyo, and eventually to the northernmost home island, Hokkaido. From the town of Akabira, their complement was split into small details, his proceeding another five or six miles into the mountains to the coal mining camp at Uteshinai.
Throughout his narrative memoir, Biggs treats the reader to detailed descriptions of living and messing accommodations, working conditions, and the treatment of American prisoners by their Japanese jailers.
Conditional freedom was granted Biggs and his fellow prisoners on 17 August 1945 when most of their guards melted away into the countryside. Marine Gunner John Hamas, of the Wake Island Marines, then assumed command of Biggs' group. Although the camp was marked with the large letters POW in white on the ground, Army Air Force B- 29's did not spot the camp until the 28th, when food drops were made.
Recovered Allied Military Personnel teams reached their area on 11 September to arrange for their evacuation. After three and a half years, Biggs had lost 65 pounds and as he said, "my ribs and hips stood out like those on a drought- stricken cow." Six days later, Biggs and his group began their way to the United States and freedom.
Note: Chester Bigg's book Behind the Barbed Wire has been published and is available at Amazon