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Bilibid Prison

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Bilibid Prison

The Spanish constructed Bilibid Prison in 1865 as their central prison.  The Japanese used it as a clearing house and transfer point for prisoners.  In general, prisoners fared better here than at other locations.


Conditions at the prison are described here in a report written November 19, 1945.

Inside Bilibid Prison Picture taken in 1967

Report on American Prisoners of War Interned by the Japanese in the Philippines

 Prepared by Office of the Provost Marshal General  19 November 1945


Picture at left taken in 1967 when some members of ADBC went to Philippines


The prisoner of war camp known as Old Bilibid Prison Camp was located in the heart of Manila, not far distant from Santo Tomas University, where the Allied civilians were interned during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines.  Designed and built under the auspices of the United States Government during the American occupation of the Islands as a place of detention for Filipino criminals, Old Bilibid had, before World War II, been regarded as an extremely modern penal institution. 

It comprised approximately 11 long, low, one-story buildings, one large main building formerly used as a hospital, and, at one end of the prisoner grounds, a two-story administration building constructed partly of wood and partly of concrete.  Under the old administration, prior to the Japanese occupation, one of the small buildings had been set aside as an execution chamber.

The prison grounds were laid out in the form of a wheel, of which the high stone wall surrounding the grounds formed the rim, and the long, low buildings of the spokes.  The wall had entrances at three sides, and was topped by a walk on which guard towers were erected at certain intervals, manned by guards who were thus enabled to patrol the camp at strategic points.  From this description it may readily be seen that this prison was extremely well equipped, in the best modern manner, to insure that its occupants had scant opportunity to escape alive from within its walls.

When the Japanese entered Manila they took over Bilibid prison with the intention of using it as one of the prisoner of war camps they were establishing in the Philippines; and indeed, they did use it as an internment camp for those prisoner they took in the early days of the campaign, before the fall of Bataan & Corregidor.  Upon the surrender of the Americans, however, and after the Japanese had actually occupied all of the Philippines, this prison was used by them as a clearing house and transfer point for all prisoners of war who were being sent to other prison camps in the Philippines, or to Japan. 

As in the case of Cabanatuan camp, this prisoner of war camp will be discussed here with respect to its administration, sanitation, food, etc., during the years 1942-45, when it was in operation.  Since the Japanese failed or refused to notify either the Swiss Government or the International Red Cross of all the movements of the prisoners of war in and out of Bilibid during that time, however, our statistics as to those movements have had to be compiled for the most part, from the affidavits of escapees, liberated prisoners of war and from Military Intelligence reports, and are, in consequence, very meager, and in some instances at least, incomplete. 

In the latter part of May 1942, all of the American prisoners of war captured on Corregidor were marched through the streets of Manila to Bilibid Prison.  Here they were met by another group of prisoners who had been captured before the fall of Bataan & Corregidor, and who were now assigned to this camp as a permanent detail, to aid in its administration, and to clear the transient prisoners of war through it to other camps.

When the prisoners of war from Corregidor arrived at Old Bilibid their captors searched them and stripped them of all articles such as knives, forks, watches, flashlights, extra clothing and any other personal possessions which the Japanese deemed it unecesssary for prisoners of war to have.  Each man was allowed to keep only one uniform, a shelter half, and a blanket, as well as any mess gear he might have in his possession, including a spoon.  Many of the prisoners were unable to obtain a mess kit or water canteen, and had to utilize any kind of container they could find, such as cans, pieces of sheet metal, or even coconut shells, if they were to eat and drink.

They stayed at Bilibid only a few days, at the end or which time they were sent in groups, on successive days to the prison camp at Cabanatuan.  Several hundred volunteers were retained by the Japanese authorities to be used as permanent work details in and around the city of Manila.  These men were housed and quartered at Bilibid Prison, and together with the first prisoners already referred to, who were aiding in the Administration, constituted the initial cadre of Bilibid Prison Camp in Manila.

The sick and wounded from Corregidor were not transferred to Cabanatuan along with the other prisoners, but were kept in a section of Old Bilibid Prison reserved for patients.  They were joined later that summer by another large group of patients from Corregidor Hospital.  There was also a large influx of patients from Camp O’Donnell mostly men who had originally been confined in U.S. Army Hospital No. 1 on Bataan, and who had been taken when the stronghold fell.

Administration—For the first few months after the contingents of American prisoner of war from Corregidor arrived at Bilibid, the Japanese were so much occupied with administering civilian affairs in Manila itself that they had little time to spare for establishing any definitive administrative policies in the prison camp.  The Japanese officers in charge of the camps seemed apparently quite content to restrict their efforts to seeing to it that the few hundred prisoners permanently assigned there were kept busy on the various clean-up and salvage details used throughout the city.  They kept almost no records, and left all routine matters concerning the new prisoners, such as roll calls, discipline and organization of work details largely in the hands of the American administrative staff.

The hospital staff was made up of physicians and medical corpsmen comprising the medical staff of the former Naval Hospital at Canacao, as well as few civilian doctors.  Most of the routine administrative tasks connected with management of the work details were performed by naval medical officers on this staff.

In Aug. 1942 an administrative force arrived from Japan to take charge of all the concentration camps, for prisoners of war and civilians alike, established in the Philippines by the Japanese.  Immediately upon taking office, the new commandant, Lt. Nogi, announced that he intended to run the prison in accordance with the rules laid down by the Geneva Convention, except that every American, whether officer or enlisted man, would be expected to salute or bow to all Japanese soldiers, regardless of their rank.  He told the prisoners that a set of rules was to be posted in each building for the guidance of all prisoners of war patients and duty personnel in Bilibid.  These rules, he warned, must be strictly adhered to.  He also promised that conditions in the camp would soon improve.

The lieutenant was as good as his word.  The promised regulations were posted, and a more rigid guard system was established to patrol the compound.  Within a very short time conditions, particularly in respect to food, sanitation and recreation, were much better.  A commissary officer was appointed to act as purchasing agent for the camp.  It was his responsibility to contract with Japanese and Filipino merchants for food items to be purchased by the prisoners of war.  A staff was also chosen to cook and issue food to the patients and working personnel.  This galley crew worked in the kitchen under the supervision of an American officer. A sanitation detail was designated to police the compound and make necessary improvements in latrines and urinals.  One Japanese and one American interpreter were detailed to the Japanese headquarters as liaison officers, and a number of the American prisoners were also detailed there as clerks and typists.

The increased efficiency of both the Japanese & American administrative forces at Bilibid was reflected in the marked improvement that soon took place in living conditions there, an improvement that continued through 1943.  The Japanese authorities made some attempt to keep careful records of the prisoners stationed at the camp, as well as those who came and went constantly on work details.  All in all, a great deal was accomplished this year for the welfare of the prisoners.  The food became much better, with the result that there were fewer prisoners ill, and thus more of the better grade men became available for administrative work.

The following year the Japanese sent some of the American army officers, who had been on the administrative staff to Cabanatuan, installing a group of Navy officers in their place. This new staff functioned very efficiently until Oct. 1944, when they, too, found themselves relieved of their functions and placed on the list of details to be sent to Japan.

Now an entirely new American administrative staff, made up mostly of doctors and medical corpsmen, was put in charge, and remained in control until the camp was liberated by the invading American forces on 4 Feb 1945.  During the period of their administration this last staff conducted extensive surveys of the conditions of the patients in the camp, and also increased the number of routine inspections.

Housing—The buildings in which the prisoners were housed at Bilibid were long, low concrete structures, approximately 200 feet long and 50 feet wide.  They did have a sufficient number of windows to supply ample light and air, even though they were barred.  But they were poorly insulated, and the concrete floors and walls remained damp for long periods of time after every rainfall, thus providing excellent breeding places for bedbugs, cockroaches and mosquitoes, with which the buildings were infested.

 In some buildings the roof had been damaged by bombs, and had been repaired with makeshift materials, such as strips of corrugated tin, or even cardboard.  During the period from Jan. to May 1942, Japanese soldiers had stripped the buildings of all furniture, as well as part of the plumbing and lighting fixtures.  When the American prisoners first came from Corregidor they were forced to sleep on the damp concrete floors.  This situation was remedied, however, when the new Japanese administrative staff took over in Aug. 1942.

The year 1943 saw considerable improvement in the housing situation, what with repairs, additions and changes that were made.  Some additional beds and bedding were brought in, showers were repaired and water facilities throughout the building were improved.

The next year, however, very few improvements were made in either barracks or quarters.  The wooden shutters on the windows began to show signs of wear from the typhoons and other adverse weather conditions of the two preceding years, and through the roofs of some of the buildings were in fair condition, some of them showed gaping holes.  The Japanese made no attempt to assist the Americans in their attempts to repair either the roofs or the windows.  They did, though, keep the electricians among the prisoners constantly on duty to repair and maintain the electric facilities of the camp.

After Oct. 1944 many patients were shifted from ward to ward, apparently because of the desire of the Japanese to concentrate them in a smaller area, for administrative reasons.

 Sanitation—When the naval officers from Canacao Naval Hospital took over the administration of the work details at Bilibid around June 1942 they found several hundred prisoners of war lying on the bare floors of the barracks covered with flies.  Some were dying, some suffering from uncared-for wounds, and many were ill from malnutrition or different tropical diseases.  Corpsmen were immediately assigned to the task of cleaning up the patients, washing the floors of the buildings, and generally improving sanitary conditions throughout the compound.

 The Japanese entered no objections to any improvements the Americans wanted to make, but they refused to cooperate to the extent of providing the necessary materials.  The men who went out into the city on work details every day, realizing the need for these materials, every evening would bring back to the compound any tin, wood, nails and other materials for construction that they could lay their hands on during the day.  With the materials thus obtained the sanitary detail installed several urinals and sanitary latrines, and devised a flush system for the latrines, consisting of a large gasoline drum suspended on a pivot at the end of each latrine.  Under this drum was placed a spigot connected to a water pipe running into the drum.  When the water from the spigot reached a certain height in the drum, the drum would tip to one side and the water in it would spill down into the latrine, thus flushing the contents in to a main drainage system that led outside the camp.

 The sanitary detail also put in a series of wash basins along the inside of the wall that surrounded the compound, and set up trench disposal units, consisting of enclosed ovens with wood fires underneath them, in remote spots throughout the camp.

 During 1943 a few slight additional improvements were made in the sanitation of the camp.  The Japanese issued some insecticides, which were very well received, and as the health of the patients improved under the slightly better food and indubitably better living conditions, individuals and groups alike took more pains to give better care to their clothing, as well as to the barracks and to hygienic conditions in general.

 Sanitary conditions in the camp remained virtually unchanged the next year, except that after Sept., the increased number of transient details arriving at Bilibid from Cabanatuan en route to Japan put something of a strain on the prison water supply.  This was only temporary, however, and soon readjusted itself after each contingent had departed.

 Food—Food was a serious problem for the prisoners of war at Bilibid during the early days of their internment.  Throughout the first year the normal amount of food issued by the Japanese consisted of about 90% of rice of the very poorest quality, and a small quantity of greens, which were used to make soup.  On rare occasions the Japanese also issued small quantities of meat or fish.  The average daily menu for the prisoners consisted of 1 cup of boiled rice for breakfast, another cup of rice and a bowl of soup made of vegetable greens for lunch, and the same for dinner.  A slight improvement was seen after the new Japanese administrative staff took charge in August 1942, for they authorized the establishment of a commissary under supervision of an American officer, who made contracts with Japanese and Filipino merchants to supply certain items of food to the prisoners.  This commissary proved to be a great benefit to all prisoners, either directly or indirectly.  Those who had money were able to buy such items as mongo beans, bananas and garlic to supplement the monotonous rice diet furnished by the Japanese.  They could ever purchase small amounts of tobacco from time to time.

In Nov. 1942 the Japanese began paying the American officers, non-commissioned officers and medical corps.  The purchasing power of the camp now rose to great heights.  Soon the demand far exceeded the supply, and prices began to soar.  A fund was established form contributions made by the paid personnel, to purchase additional food for the seriously ill patients who had no funds of their own and were not receiving pay.  The additional food obtained thus from the commissary was instrumental in saving the lives of many men who would otherwise have perished.  But even so, the food situation at Bilibid was never adequate, and many did die of malnutrition and starvation.  Of the approximately 1000 patients who were hospitalized at Bilibid during 1942, a quarter died during the first 6 months of their internment, many of them from malnutrition or starvation, or disease directly attributable to malnutrition.

 The arrival of Red Cross packages at the camp in Dec. 1942 caused considerable improvement of the food situation for the first few months thereafter.  Early in 1943 the Japanese also began to issue small quantities of meat and fish regularly, in addition to the customary daily issue of rice.  This increase in food rations, while it did not serve to reduce the number of patients already suffering from malnutrition, did help prevent any increase in the incidence of vitamin deficiency diseases.  The additional supplies obtained from the commissary were also of great help during the first few months of 1942 in keeping down the number of death and in preventing the outbreak of epidemics resulting from malnutrition.

 In the latter part of the year, however the food situation again became critical.  During these months the diet consisted of almost entirely of rice and soup made from greens, varied only occasionally by a tablespoonful of dried fish.  In Sept. the Japanese ordered that individual purchases through the commissary be limited to 7 pesos per month.   But they also allowed any person who wished to do so to contribute a few pesos to the general mess fund.  With these new regulations, and with the price of commodities soaring, it became almost impossible for the commissary officer to have sufficient funds on hand to purchase any great quantities of food for the camp.  Indeed, almost the only articles that could be obtained through the commissary at this time were mongo beans, garlic and tobacco.  Soon the commissary was, for all practical purposes, practically nonexistent.  Once again the arrival of Red Cross supplies, this time about three boxes for each man, proved to be the salvation of the starving prisoners.

 For the first few months of 1944 the Japanese steadily cut down the amount of food issued to the prisoners of war.  The Red Cross packages that had arrived late in 1943 supplemented the rice diet as long as they lasted, but from Feb. on the Japanese themselves issued nothing but rice to the prisoners, except on very rare occasions when they gave them a little meat or dried fish.

 A diet kitchen separate from the general mess where food was prepared was set up under the supervision of an American doctor for those who were seriously ill.  However, the amounts of canned milk, vegetables and fruits issued to this kitchen were so small that the patients never received large enough quantities of this supplementary food to show any visible beneficial effects from it.

 By August 1944 the food situation was well-nigh disastrous.  From that time on for the next 4 months the daily issue of food for each person amounted to only 200 grams, 100 grams of dry rice, 50 grams of soy beans—of the variety that is impossible to cook and make palatable—and 50 grams of dried corn.  Because of shrinkage and theft, however, as well as for other reasons, the actual issue was not 200 but 170 grams.  At 8 a.m. each prisoner received 1 canteen cup of rice boiled in so much water that it was actually a thin rice gruel.  His second meal, at 8 p.m. was the same boiled rice, only this time cooked to a very thick consistency.  Occasionally a few greens were boiled and made into a greenish colored soup for the men.  The only exception to this horrible diet was made on Christmas Day of 1944, when the Japanese issued some extra vegetable, a little sugar, and a few soy beans.

 Under this starvation diet the prisoners grew emaciated and ill.  Soon their average weight dropped to less than 120 pounds.  The death rate began to rise rapidly.  (The average number of men buried each day varied from one to four.)

 When the American invasion forces arrived on 4 Feb 1945 the prisoners of war had reached such a point of starvation that none of them could have survived much longer.  Many of them had fallen victim to tuberculosis, dysentery, beriberi and other tropical disease, and practically all of them were suffering from malnutrition or acute starvation.  What the coming of their rescuers meant to the prisoners at this camp can scarcely be imagined by one who has never himself been in a similar situation.

 Clothing—When the American prisoners of war came to Bilibid in 1942 they had with them only the clothes they were wearing when they were captured.  As time wore on these clothes became torn and ragged, and since no replacements were available except a few blue dungarees from the American quartermaster depots, the men had to patch their old garments as best they could with any kind of material they could lay their hands on.

 During the first year of their internment their captors issued to them some 1500 pairs of cotton socks of Japanese manufacture, and a few “G-strings” made of strips of very thin cotton cloth about 12 inches wide and 30 inches long, which the prisoners wore tied about the waist and pulled up between the legs.  No shoes were issued to them, and since most of their own shoes were worn out they had to rely on home-made wooden shoes (clacks).

 Toward the end of the year the clothing shortage was alleviated somewhat by the distribution of a few items that had come in with the Red Cross supplies in Dec. some felt hats, woolen garments and a few pairs of socks.  But still there were no shoes.

 In Jan. 1943, Commander Sartin reported that a survey revealed that there were 100 men in the camp who were without any shoes at all, and that there were 275 pairs of shoes that were too worn out even to be repaired.  Five hundred of the men, the report went on to say, were in need of trousers, and 200 had no undergarments at all.  The Japanese installed a cobbler’s shop and a tailor shop in the compound, under the directions of pharmacist’s mates.  But this apparently helpful move did little good at first, for they neglected to supply the materials with which repairs could be made.  By March, 150 of the men were without shoes, and those shoes that had not completely worn out were in too sad a state to be repaired.  Then at last the Japanese did issue some leather, nails, thread and other materials with which the men could repair their clothing and shoes.  In April 1943, 101 pairs of shoes were distributed, and a few more the following month.  Thereafter, however, the only shoes that were issued were old ones turned in by the prisoners themselves, which were repaired at the cobbler’s shop and reissued at the rate of 50 a month-just a drop in the bucket, in the light of the great need.

 No new clothing was issued to the prisoners in 1944.  Late in the year 2 details, each compromising more than 1500 men, who had come to Bilibid from Cabanatuan in Aug & Oct, respectively, were sent to Japan.  Before they embarked they were given woolen Japanese uniforms, and their castoff clothing was distribute among the prisoners who remained at Bilibid.  Aside from this unexpected and not altogether satisfactory addition to their clothing stores, the men at Bilibid continued to go around in their old patched and motley rags—that is, those who had rags did so; for by this time the rags were beginning to wear out.  And when the American invasion forces arrived there in Feb. 1945, they found many of the men stark naked.

 Medical supplies—The Japanese furnished the hospital at first with approximately 3 or 4 hundred wooden bunks with straw mattresses, and toward the end of the year they also supplied an equal number of mosquito nets and a few blankets.  The mattresses proved to be quite a problem, for with the constant use to which they were subjected they became more and more soiled; and since there is no way of cleaning them they were soon filthy and crawling with vermin.

 Absolutely no medicines at all were issued by the Japanese for the care of the sick and wounded prisoners during the first few months of 1942.  The only medicines available then were those that the prisoners themselves had brought with them and had been able to hold on to after they were captured.  And these were, understandably, very few.  In June 1942 the hospital die receive several thousand quinine tablets for the malaria patients, and thereafter the Japanese issued a quantity of quinine to enable the hospital staff to treat the current cases of malaria.  But there was never enough for prophylactic treatment.  The only other medicines available were a little bismuth and 9 bags of powered charcoal—both utterly useful in dysentery.  Later, a little emetine, carbazone, and yatren were issued at irregular intervals, but never in sufficient quantities to permit the men to receive the full therapeutic dosage.  When the United States Army unit from Corregidor arrived in July they brought with them some surgical supplies and a small amount of vitamin synthetic, all of which were thankfully received by the hospital staff.

 Again in Jan. 1943 some medical supplies were issued to the camp, from the Red Cross shipment that had arrived the previous Dec.  But even with these reinforcements there were never enough medicines available for every one who needed them.  The precious medicine had to be saved for those who were most seriously ill; and even in those cases it had to be rationed out in adequate dosage, if all we needed it were to receive even the minimum treatment they required.

 In 1944, the situation as regards medical supplies was somewhat better than it had been before.  The Red Cross shipment of late Dec. 1943 contained a large quantity of vitamin pills, sufficient to enable every man in the camp to receive 2 pills per day throughout the entire year.  Of course, even 2 vitamin pills a day cannot make up for the vitamin deficiency resulting from a highly inadequate and completely unbalanced diet, particularly when it had been continued over any great period, as was the case with the American prisoners at Bilibid.  But even so, they derived some psychological benefit, at least from these pills.  And who can say to what extent they were actually helped physically by them, also?  In the Red Cross supplies was also a limited amount of blood plasma, which the Japanese officials issued to the hospital staff.  In view of its scarcity this life-saving plasma was used very sparingly by the medical offices, who gave it only to those patients who were really dangerously ill.  This year the amount of quinine and sulfa drugs, as well as of bandages and other medical supplies issued to the Americans was quite sufficient to care for their needs, in contrast to that of previous years.  Some small quantities of fish oil were also turned over to the American doctors for patients suffering from visual disorders resulting from malnutrition.

 There was always adequate surgical equipment available for the use of American surgeons, but the facilities for its use were so limited that the medical officers were unable to take much advantage of the instruments.

 If the medical provided for the prisoners left much to be desired, still less could be said for the attention given to their dental needs.  The first year of their internment at Bilibid almost no provisions were made for dental care.  In 1943 the situation improved slightly.  The Japanese assigned to 2 dental officers to do any dental work required by the prisoners, but they furnished so little equipment and such limited facilities for the work that the dentists were able to make only minor repairs.  The main handicap under which they labored was the lack of proper materials for fillings, a lack of which became increasingly pressing as the Japanese began to demand that the dentists care for their officers; teeth as well as those of the American prisoners.  Under the stress of emergency the dentists and their assistants scoured the compound in an endeavor to salvage silver or any kind of metal, which might be used to fill cavities.  Silver pesos were in especial demand, since they could be melted down and used thus.

 Work Details—The Bilibid Prison Camp, as has been said before, was supposed to be not only a base hospital for prisoners of war who were seriously ill, but also a transfer point and clearing stations for details of American prisoners who were being moved from camp to camp within the Philippines, or from the Philippines to the Japanese homeland.

 Of the prisoners who were not ill, a work detail of several hundred enlisted men and a few officers were permanently assigned from the prison camp to the Manila Dock Area in June 1942, to work as stevedores.  The rest of the healthy prisoners at Bilibid were classified for labor, and were subsequently used as truck drivers and construction workers by the Japanese Army.  In many instances men from other prison camps in the Philippines were sent to Bilibid to be assigned to the work details there.  A number of the men in the camp were detailed to the Japanese headquarters to serve as typists, clerks and orderlies for their captors.  The prisoners in these work details received fair treatment from their guards, who, on occasion, showed themselves not at all loath to accept bribes in return for extra food and medicines, and often allowed the prisoners to make contacts with friendly Filipinos.

 As the second year of internment approached, the prisoners found that except in the case of the scant few hundred assigned to outside work details in the city of Manila, the only work required of them was for such details as cooks, medical corpsmen, sanitary details, or administrative work.

 By 1944, the incidence rate of disease among the prisoners was so high that they were only about 100 out of 1,000 left who were able to carry on the regular work of the camp, such as administration, cooking carrying of supplies and general police duties.  Only occasionally did the Japanese call upon a few of the men for special work outside the prison camp—usually some kind of technical work connected with the Japanese war effort.

 Brutalities and Atrocities—In general there were few instances of affirmative mistreatment of prisoners at Bilibid, and almost nothing that could be construed as actual brutality or atrocity, during the entire 3 years of their imprisonment, although one former prisoner of war among the Americans at Bilibid reports a rumor to the effect that many political and military prisoners there were summarily executed by the Japanese for security reasons during the month of Dec. 1944.  Some few of the men were slapped and sometimes beaten by the Japanese guards for failing to comply with the regulation concerning the saluting of Japanese officers, in the enforcement of which they were particularly zealous.  Occasionally a prisoner would be forced to stand at roll call for a half-hour in the pouring rain, as a punishment for some misdemeanor or some minor infraction of rules.  In general however, the treatment accorded to the prisoners, though far from ideal, was as good as could be expected in any Japanese prisoner of war camp, and far better than in most.

It must be said though, that unlike many of the American prisoners in other camps, who irritated at their unaccustomed lack of freedom, did everything possible to antagonize their captors, and willfully disobeyed their every order, the prisoners here probably did much themselves to ease their existence by forcing themselves to ease their existence by forcing themselves to comply automatically, as far as possible, with all the rules laid down by the Japanese, thus minimizing the possible cause of friction.  One cannot judge, of course, how different the fate of the prisoners in other camps might have been if they had pursued the same law abiding, peaceful, “non-belligerent,” so to speak of course.  Perhaps they, too, would have found their lives easier if they had done so.  Who knows?   On the other hand, there is ample evidence that in many camps even those prisoner who did nothing to antagonize their captors—indeed, sometimes even those who definitely went out of their way to pacify them—were treated worse than were prisoners who carried on planned resistance campaigns against the Japanese authorities.  One is inclined to believe that here, as in many other affairs of everyday life, the whole thing goes back to a matter of individual differences.  The prisoners at Bilibid were not tortured, or even mistreated, as were those at Camp O’Donnell or Cabanatuan—that much is known.  But whether that was because they were more obedient—which is doubtful—or whether—and this is far more likely—the Japanese administrative officers at Bilibid were perhaps a little higher up on the scale of human intelligence, and somewhat more freely endowed with the spirit of decency and fairness—that we will never know for certain.  The only thing we do know is that the prisoners at Bilibid were comparatively well treated—in fact, very well treated, when one considers the treatment to which their fellow prisoners in other Japanese prison camps in the Philippines area were exposed.

Recreation—The prisoners at Bilibid displayed considerable ingenuity and cleverness in the devices they chose to provide entertainment and relaxation for themselves during their confinement.  These devices took many forms.

 Early in their stay at Bilibid the American prisoners set about establishing some form of organized athletics for the men.  The only space available for such activities within the compound were the small triangular areas between the main buildings, radiating from Chapel building.  As for equipment, there was none at all at first.  However, on canvassing the possibilities, Dr. Wanger discovered to his surprise that some of the pharmacists mates had managed to bring with them to the camp a volley ball net. And when the sea bags were explored further, a volley ball and basketball turned up.  There was plenty of lumber around that time, and within a very short while the men had rigged up a volleyball court and one basketball net.  A volleyball “league” was organized first, complete with teams, timekeepers, referees, and assorted officials.  There were 8 or 9 teams in the league.  A number of the men soon began to evince an interest in basketball, and another basket was erected, a court laid out, and a basketball league composed of 8 teams was organized.  The Japanese prison officials, representatives of a race, which manifests a somewhat self-conscious and artificial enthusiasm for athletics, appreciated the significance of the limited athletic program at Bilibid, and once it was under way encouraged it with a few gifts, among them another volleyball net and a few balls.  Most of the equipment, however, was purchased by voluntary subscriptions from the prisoners themselves. Eventually, though, the rising wartime prices made replacements impossible, and the games had to be stopped for lack of equipment.

 Food for the minds of the prisoners was provided by the library, or, rather, libraries; since there were 2 of them, one a medical library for the staff officers, and other a general library for the rest of the prison population.  The medical library contained a number of medical textbooks salvaged by individual doctors among the possessions brought in by the prisoners on their arrival.  Several other medical books had come in with the supplies from Corregidor.  All of these the Japanese doctor collected together and put into a room in the Fort Bldg., which he christened the “Medical Library.”  Here the medical officers could read & study, to the profit of both themselves and their patients.

 The general library was of more accidental origin.  The principal source of books for this library was again the private stores of individual prisoners who had been fortunate enough to be able to being a book or two with them when they came to the camp.  A short while after the library was established, the first Japanese camp-commander, Kusomoto, took three American pharmacists mates with him on a “tour of duty” to Manila.  On their return from this tour the Americans brought with them a large part of the very excellent library of the University Club in Manila, as well as a number of books, which they had salvaged from the abandoned apartments of interned American citizens.  This now comparatively well-stocked library was housed in the small building between Wards 1 & 2.  The original stock of books was augmented from time to time by miscellaneous gifts and donations from the Japanese.  In July 1943 the Japanese ordered all privately owned books to be surrendered for censoring.  These volumes were later turned over to the library.  Of the miscellaneous nature of the books in the library Lt. James Robb, one of the American prisoner of war at Bilibid, has this to say:

 …It was peculiar—almost a bizarre—collection of between 75 (at its lowest) and 600 (at its highest) books, ranging through all the gamut that anybody has ever written about.

 Nevertheless, this library, miscellaneous and ill chosen though it might have been, provided many a prisoner with the reading matter he craved so much, whether simply to while away the weary hours, or to satisfy his need for information on serious subjects.

 Another educational project, far more ambitious in nature than the library, was the one known unofficially as “Bilibid College,” the “brain child” of Lt. James Robb, whose comment on the library was quoted above.  Since it had never received the official approval of the Japanese commandant, it was forced to operate clandestinely, not to say furtively.  In spite of its “underground” nauture, however, Bilibid College was a complete success while it lasted.  Started in Jan. 1943, by Feb. it occupied three classrooms and was offering instruction in 15 subjects, among them Spanish, German, Public Speaking, Biology, Parliamentary Law, Materia Medic, Astronomy, Bible Study and Chinese.  Classes went throughout most of the day, and one class met at night.

 But it was too good to last.  After only two months its life was snuffed out by order of the Japanese commander.  Says Lt. Robb in explanation of its sudden demise:

…Unwittingly, the enterprise ran afoul of the interpreter.  This individual, together with the Headquarters interpreter, had been conducting a class of the Japanese language four nights a week.  For want of anything better to do, something like a hundred of the prison inmates had been taking the course, but when Bilibid College started, attendance of the Japanese classes fell off sharply and continued to dwindle until, finally, the two interpreters were lecturing to an audience of about ten men.  This was a loss of face that the Japs could not endure.  The net result was:  All classes of instruction were banned, including the Japanese classes.  The official reason or excuse was that, allegedly on advice from Tokyo, the Japanese Government disapprove of nay instruction of prisoners of war on the ground that it ‘tended to improve the efficiency of the enemy!  At the same time, various restrictions were imposed on group assemblies:  prisoners could meet only for “religious, athletic or entertainment purposes.”  That was the end of Bilibid College.

 Another class of instruction, which met the approval of authorities, and continued to meet even after Bilibid College had bee disbanded by official order, was a “Navigators Bible Class,” which met at intervals to study the Bible.

 In lighter vein was a program consisting of nine variety acts, including band numbers, called “The Bilibid Follies,” which was presented for the first time on an improvised platform in one of the buildings on 12 Nov. 1942.  A week later the show moved outside where everyone could see it.  Dr. Nogi (the commandant) attended the performance in person, accompanied by his staff, thereby setting the official seal of approval of the Japanese Army on the venture, and awarded cigarette as prizes for the best numbers.  This variety show was the first of a long series of Saturday night programs.  But the Bilibid Follies was not abandoned even after two performances.  It was soon moved into the old hospital building, where a stage had been erected, and was gradually expanded until it became a rather pretentious affair, considering the time and place.  On Christmas night of 1942, for example, the program consisted of 11 members, and the band, which had grown to seven instruments, sounded almost professional.

 The Japanese gave a party in Aug. 1942 to celebrate the first anniversary of their occupation of the Philippines.  According to one prisoner’s report, Commander Sartin & Dr. Joses were invited to attend this affair, along with two other American prisoners, chosen because of their “exceptionally good conduct.”

 The great American passion for movies went unsatisfied in 1942—there were none shown—but in 1943 the Japanese, prompted by the suggestion of the Propaganda Corps that the American prisoners of war should not be denied the opportunity of being educated in the benevolent war aims of the Japanese nation, and the blessings that were to come from the establishment of the New Order in East Asia, began a systematic program of Japanese propaganda pictures, interspersed with some American “shorts,” mostly comics, and some other very old American films.  The first program, presented 0n 21 Jan. 1943, was not too bad, in fact, this offering compromising a “Mickey Mouse” short, two Japanese propaganda news reels and the Marx Brothers in “Go West,” was never equaled thereafter.  The propaganda film showed Japanese warships plowing through acres of Chinese corpses, Japanese warplanes blasting invisible enemy positions, etc., with fairly good Japanese dialogue.  The second offering a month later was a full-length picture entitled “The Fall of Bataan & Corregidor.”  This as not so well received, although the prisoners sat through it good-naturedly enough.  These first two performances set the pattern for subsequent programs.  These were usually two or three Japanese newsreels, an old American “short,” and a full-length Japanese propaganda picture.  Once in awhile an ancient Hollywood feature would be substituted—usually a comedy.  Weather permitting; the pictures were exhibited on an improvised screen in the open.

 Religious services—At first the prisoners at Bilibid were unable to receive the spiritual consolation of religion except by stealth, since the chaplains were not permitted to hold services openly.  After a few months, however, they were told that they would be allowed to conduct any religious services they desired.  Thereupon the men set about to build a chapel, fashioned form four old 2 x 4’s they found within the compound and covered by a metal roof.  Within the shed—for such it actually was—they placed a small altar which some of the men had constructed for the chaplains to use.

 During the first few months of the “Navigators’ Bible Group” met regularly to study the Bible and some of the chaplains also held Bible study classes.  Early in 1943, however, the ban placed by the Japanese administrative officers on group meetings, which grew out of their discovery of the existence of the Bilibid College project, put a stop to the Bible study groups.  The regular religious services, though, continued throughout the year.  Religious supplies, such as altar wine & bread, candle sticks and candles and other religious articles, were obtained through the Japanese interpreter from the Filipino religious associations which were still functioning in Manila.  The Japanese authorities scrutinized all such supplies carefully whenever they were brought into the camp, to insure that no forbidden material was smuggled in to the prisoners.  As time went on these supplies became scarcer and much harder to get, but by practicing rigid economy the chaplain were able to keep enough on hand to enable them to continue their formal religious service throughout 1944.  It is the unanimous sentiment of all the prisoners at this camp that the chaplains, by virtue of the services they held, to say nothing of the spiritual in maintaining the morale of the half-starved, despairing men at high level throughout the difficult day of this last year at the camp.

 Correspondence—No mail of any sort was received by prisoners the first year, although in Nov. each man was permitted to send one postal card to his next of kin at home.  The card contained only a statement as to the sender’s state of health and place of internment, and a brief personal message limited to 25 words.  No information about the camp itself could be divulged.  Five or six times during  1943 the prisoners were allowed to send similar postcards home, but they still could not receive any mail.  Indeed, it was not until well into 1944 that they had any word from their families.  When this eagerly awaited mail arrived it was quickly distributed, for the Japanese administration here did not hold up the mail to be censored, as did the officials in some of the other prisoner of war camps.  Again this year the prisoners were allowed to send several postcards to their families.

 Movement of Prisoners from Camp—Since this camp was a “clearing house” for details, it is difficult to trace the destinations of all the prisoners who came and went from this camp during the years 1942-1944.  Two large details of a thousand men each came through the Bilibid “clearing house” in Oct. and Nov. 1942.  One of these details was placed on board a transport and sent to Davao, and other was sent to Japan.  During July there was a large influx of prisoner patients from Corregidor, and several hundred other prisoners of war came in from the Tayabas work detail.  Shortly after that, in Aug. 1942, a large group of prisoners was transferred from Bilibid to Cabanatuan or to other work details.

 The men in the detail that left for Japan in Oct. 1942 were given medical examinations by both American and Japanese doctors.  A few of them who were suffering from chronic tropical diseases were left behind in Bilibid Hospital, and the quota for this detail was then made up by substituting some of the former patients from Bilibid Hospital who had been discharged as fit.  These details did not receive any issue of clothing or shoes at this “clearing house.”  During 1942 the only clothes they had were the ones they were wearing at the time of their capture.  In the ensuing two years, however, this situation was remedied, at least with respect to the details that left for Japan.

 Throughout 1943 there was a constant and continuous movement of prisoner details through the Bilibid “clearing house.”  It is, however, impossible to trace these movements accurately without reference to the official records kept by the Japanese during these period, and at the moment of writing these records are not available.

 Even without these records, however it is known that in October 1944 a detail of 1905 men, including several hundred American doctors and medical corpsmen, was shipped out of Cabanatuan to Bilibid and eventually transported to Japan.  Upon their arrival at Bilibid they were jammed into filthy quarters, given a little rice and some water, provided with shoes and heavy Japanese Army clothes, and then marched through the city to Legaspi Landing, in the port area.  There the entire detail was herded into the hold of a ship that had never been indented to accommodate more than about 200 men. There was nothing about the ship to identify it as a Japanese prisoner of war transport.

 The story of this ship movement is the usual one of hardship accompanying travel on any Japanese prisoner of war vessel.  It was overcrowded; it had no sanitary accommodations and no provisions for air & light.  The men received almost no food during the entire trip.  Many died during the first few days of the voyage.  On 24 Oct. 1944, the ship was struck by torpedoes launched from American submarines.  According to the best reports available, there were only five survivors out of the 1905 American prisoners of war who were being transported on this ship.  These five managed to make their way in a small boat some 250 miles to the coast of China, where they established contact with Chinese guerillas, through whom they were enabled to bring the story back to the people of the United States.  It has since been recorded  that three more survivors of the ship were rescued by the Japanese and taken to prison camps in Japan.

 In Oct. 1944, the Japanese transported approximately 1600 American Prisoners of war, mostly officers, by trucks, from Cabanatuan to Bilibid Prison.  These men were herded together in a building that had been used as a hospital building prior to the war.  Despite the fact that  Manila and Manila Bay were under a constant serial bombardment after 1 Sept. 1944, this detail, with the exception of about 35 who were seriously ill, was five Japanese uniforms and placed aboard a Japanese freighter to be sent to Formosa.  On 15 Dec the ship was sunk off Olangapo, in Subic Bay, by American bombers.  Several hundred prisoners of war were lost in this action.  The 618 prisoners who survived were herded together and marched across Luzon to another port, where they were again placed aboard a Japanese freighter and taken to Formosa.  This ship was torpedoed in a harbor outside of Formosa.  The survivors, fewer than 300 in number, were taken to a prison camp in Formosa, when they were transported to Kyushu.  Some of them were then moved to Korea and transported thence by train to prison camps in Mukden and Manchuria.

 After this detail left Bilibid Prison there remained at the camp approximately 800 men, all of them so incapacitated physically that they could not possibly be moved without the service of two fairly healthy men for each disabled one.  These 800 men were left in Bilibid Prison on a starvation diet with little or no medicine.  On 9 Jan. 1945 the American forces invaded the island of Luzon, and on 4 Feb. dramatically liberated these 800 men from Bilibid Prison and returned them to American military control.  At the same time they freed approximately 5000 civilians form Santo Tomas University, where they had been interned for a period of almost three years.


  1. Starvation, “nutritional and actual” was present among American Prisoners of War in the Philippines in 1942 and was the direct cause of the great majority of the excessively large number of deaths, which occurred.
  1. On changing from a balanced diet, at the beginning of the war, to a nutritionally deficient one, Beri-beri was the first nutritional disease observed , occurring after three months departure from a balanced diet; Pellagra was observed after nine months, Ariboflavinosis after nine months and Scurvy was still questionable after nine months and began to definitely appear in ten months.  Xeropthalmia and nystalopia although difficult to diagnose microscopically was definitely present in 10 months and very severe thereafter, increasing in intensity to complete blindness in many cases, cleared up by massive doses of Vitamin A and thiamin.
  1. Severe and sharp “shooting” pains in the feet and legs developed during the winter months of 1942-43 and resulted in gangrene of the toes and many deaths.  It was definitely cleared up by great doses of thiamin in test cases, administered intra-spinally and intra-muscularly.
  1. The efficiency and fighting capacity of the Filipino-American troops in Bataan was markedly lowered by a very poor diet, affecting military capabilities, their morals, and fighting capacity.