Defenders of the Philippines

picture of captivity and picture of release from captivity

Elmer Shabart, MD

Photo of Elmer ShabartElmer Shabart was born on November 9, 1909 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He studied medicine at the University of Wisconsin Medical School, graduating in 1933. He then signed on as associate to a well-known surgeon in Milwaukee. In 1940 he received requests to join the military for a one-year tour of duty. He decided to join, albeit somewhat reluctantly. He was commissioned to the U.S. Medical Corps Reserves and served at Fort Sheridan, Illinois, where he met his future wife, Louise Stankiewicz, at a dance. They were married four months before his first year of service was scheduled to end, and they had one son, Craig. Shabart also served at Camp Wheeler and Fort McKinley before being sent overseas to Bataan on duty as a senior officer with the 12th Medical Regiment of the Philippine Scouts in August 1941. In April 1942, four months after the outbreak of World War II, Bataan was forced to surrender, and Shabart gave the Filipino soldiers the option of parting ways with the company and assimilate themselves with the civilians. The Scouts all decided to do this, leaving Shabart and another medical office alone with their Filipino first sergeant.

The three men attempted to escape across Manila Bay to Mindoro in a bamboo raft, but they had to forego the venture when Japanese gunboats began heading towards them. They then spent a week traveling through the jungle until Shabart and the other medical officer decided to surrender themselves. The Filipino sergeant kept going and joined up with a group of headhunters, who hid him from the Japanese and defended their encampment. Meanwhile, Shabart and the other officer tied a white rag to a branch and surrendered to a lone Japanese sentry, who stripped them of their valuables and, strangely enough, gave them each two U.S. dollars to hide in their boots.

The two men then came upon a group of Japanese soldiers, who recruited them to drive an eight-wheel American army truck for almost a week. They were then sent, alone, to a holding camp in Balanga, where they joined the men who had already begun the Death March. Shabart and another doctor performed an emergency appendectomy on a young soldier, using broken glass, a needle, and thread in the absence of medical equipment and anesthesia. The man survived.

On the March, Shabart was put in charge of a 200-man column and told that unless all of the men survived, he himself would be killed. Unable to provide medical care, however, Shabart did lose men, but when they reached a holding camp in San Fernando, Pampanga, the men were dismissed without being counted. Shabart told the survivors to eat wood ash to treat the diarrhea caused by dysentery. He was then interned at Camp O'Donnell and Cabanatuan before being transferred to Mukden in Manchuria aboard a Japanese hellship with 1,500 other prisoners. He was granted the privilege of being on deck with the other officers, and he witnessed two torpedoes that nearly hit the ship. They also ran into a typhoon, and Shabart tied himself to the deck as waves bombarded the freighter.

At Mukden, Shabart was one of three POW doctors. They were told to treat the men with whatever they could, so they again used broken glass in place of scalpels. A Japanese army doctor supervised, giving minimal medication if he agreed with the diagnosis. Shabart treated a British officer who, as he discovered, had a knot of long worms in his bowel, and he also performed approximately 450 tooth extractions with the help of a POW internist.

A rice shortage proved to be a saving grace for the prisoners, who were given the opportunity to eat protein-rich soybeans instead. Shabart spoke with the camp commandant and was granted a 30-bed  ward in the Japanese Imperial Army Hospital in the city of Mukden. He performed surgeries on numerous POWs and worked with a Japanese dentist, who served as a translator. Shabart treated him for syphilis.

Late in 1944, an American plane dropped a bomb which landed in the middle of the yard, resulting in 14 fatalities and over 60 wounded. Shabart performed surgery on 23 men for three days and nights; many of the wounded required amputation with limited topical anesthetic, yet nevertheless 22 of the men survived.

After the Japanese surrender in August 1945, the commanding officer of the Imperial Army Hospital and his men gave Shabart their Samurai swords because they knew that he would respect the weapons. Shabart was also presented with two cases full of surgical instruments that the officers had discovered. Unfortunately, had it been given to him earlier, it would have helped many POWs. Shabart later donated them to the Army Medical Museum in Houston.

Shabart stayed behind for three weeks with twelve colonels before going to Okinawa on a Navy attack transport. He then went by plane to Manila, where he was repatriated, and on to Pearl Harbor aboard a Marine shark.

Back home in the U.S., Shabart obtained a surgical residency and received specialized certification in thoracic and general surgery. He served as chief of surgery at the Veterans Administration hospital in Livermore, California, training army doctors, and he consulted in pulmonary disease at the VA hospital in Palo Alto, later giving lectures in clinical science at UC Davis. He took part in a landmark study in 1950, linking cigarette smoking to lung cancer.

Shabart authored Memoirs of a Barbed Wire Surgeon, recounting his experiences as a POW, in October 1996. He cared for his wife Louise for ten years while she suffered from Alzheimer's disease; she passed away on the day that Shabart was admitted to the nursing home where she had recently been taken. Shabart died at age 95 on March 13, 2005, shortly after renewing his driver's license. He was the recipient of the Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster as well as various commendations.