Billy D. Templeton
Billy Templeton was born in central Iowa in 1922 to Ethel and Jake. His family moved to Union, Iowa when he was ten. In Union his dad operated a gas station selling gas for seven cents a gallon. His father died after falling on the ice and his mother sold the station and opened a restaurant in Baxter, Iowa.
Billy finished high school and contemplated his future. He had played baseball and thought maybe that was his calling, but he also loved animals so he signed up for the Army in 1939 hoping to join the Veterinary Corps. Instead the recruiters convinced him to join the Air Corps, then part of the U.S. Army Air Corps.
His eyesight wasn't good enough for him to train as a pilot, so he became a radioman. He was assigned to the 19th Bombardment Group. He attended radio school and worked with the B-17s. In October 1941 his group was told to head their planes to the Philippines and to Clark Field. It was the first mass flight of B-17s from Albuquerque to Clark Field in Luzon. The 19th Bombardment Group operations building was at the end of the field. "We headquarters radio operators were required to run the base station as well as operate in flight." As rumors of war began, tensions ran high.
On Dec. 8th after hearing about Pearl Harbor, they hustled into their B-17 at 8:30 in the morning. At 10:30 they landed back at Clark Field to refuel. Billy watched as their B-17 exploded and the men working around the plane were killed instantly. As he headed towards headquarters, he saw a man cut in half from the strafing, an image that stayed in his nightmares.
After the aircraft losses, they moved the radio equipment on a truck and parked under a Filipino house that was up on stilts to avoid detection. In December, Templeton volunteered to go to Bataan and run a base station for a network on Bataan. Once there, the group worked around the clock. They built shelters and trenches for protection against the strafing.
The group went from half rations to quarter rations and Billy contracted malaria. After recovering he found some Ovaltine and mixed it with water to augment the horse and iguana they had been eating for protein. He believed the Ovaltine helped save his life.
He and others knew the Japanese were advancing into Bataan. They thought of escaping to Corredigor but swimming would involve entering shark infested waters. Towards the end their commander Major Jackson told them they would be court martialed for trying to leave for Corregidor.
After destroying the transmitter, he and a buddy thought they might escape to the mountains, but as they stepped out into the road two Japanese soldiers met them. The soldiers pointed in the direction of the road where they would join the other marching soldiers. When they stopped in Cabcaben for a break they could see Corregidor and realized the Japanese were planning to bombard it. Meanwhile, mortar from Corregidor rained over them, and some of the men in the group were killed in friendly fire.
The violence on the Bataan Death March seemed random and pointless and the sights sickened Billy Templeton. He put a pebble in his mouth and it triggered salivation and helped him with the thirst. They weren't allowed to stop for bathroom breaks creating misery for those with dysentery.
One night the Japanese herded them into a field where they sat with their knees up . "Someone found a turnip...Soon we were digging for them, eating them raw and hiding them in our clothes...That kept us going another day."
On the train to Capas, men died standing up in the boxcar. Once they were let off at Capas, they walked another mile and "saw a Japanese flag flying over a maze of buildings and guard towers surrounded by barbed wire." He was at Camp O'Donnell, with about 9300 other people. He volunteered for the burial detail and found many of the men he was burying weighed under a hundred pounds. Billy wanted to stay alive so that his mother didn't have to bear the loss of his life as the two were close.
In the summer, the Japanese granted the Filipino soldiers amnesty and let them go. Billy moved onto Cabanatuan where conditions were slightly better. His friend went out on detail one day and he never saw him again.
In October, the Japanese loaded him onto the Tottori Maru. He became seasick, and on the second day of travel an American submarine fired on the Tottori Maru. After being narrowly missed, the men felt their nerves fray. Conditions on the ship made it hard for men to keep a positive outlook. At Formosa, the men were hosed down while the natives laughed at them.
He was unloaded at Pusan, Korea, and then went on to Manchuria on Nov. 11th, 1942. When he got there the men numbered close to twelve hundred American enlisted men. The camp was known as Hoten and Mukden Camp.
He worked for the Mitsubishi Company that owned the camp. They were creating machines to make automatic machine screws, the brass part of bullets. He wore white coveralls while at work. At night, in the barracks, he said hordes of rats scampered around and sometimes they would run over their faces. This caused a rude awakening.
The Japanese allowed them to bathe. They usually did so by pouring cups of water over themselves. Little soap was available. The diet proved a little more varied than in the Philippines but the bitter cold caused men to die from pneumonia. Once the ground thawed in the spring, they buried 176 men who had died over the winter.
Some of the men would teach others skills. A Canadian POW taught Templeton about navigation and mapping. When he left the papers in his pants pockets and the Japanese found them, they knocked Billy around. When they interrogated him he said he was just remembering things from flying in planes.
He along with others sabotaged production. Saying his eyesight was bad, he undercut the steel stock. They slowed their work down only completing three automatic screw machines. He also ran a crane. Some of his memories at the MKK factory included watching a Manchurian electrician trying to pull out his own tooth with pliers and men pulling lice out of the seams in their clothes. He also remembered one of the POWs finding a boxcar of sausages which everyone enjoyed.
The Mitsubishi employees were easier to get along with than the camp guards. He said they always lived in uncertainty, unsure when a shakedown would occur.
In the fall of 1944, they started receiving some Red Cross packages that boosted morale. In December of the same year, "the U.S. conducted air raids over Mukden...one day we were bombed at the camp... We lost several POWs and several men were wounded in the attack. A friend of mine was hit. I ran to him and saw that he was mortally wounded. I held him in my arms until he died."
By the end of February, 1945 some of the Japanese guards and officers began leaving Mukden. In August men heard from civilians that America had dropped a big bomb on Japan. Then about a week or two later, the men didn't have to go into the factory. Next, the OSS started parachuting in supplies. Russian officers came in with a translator and told them the Japanese camp was turned over to the Americans, but the men were not to retaliate against the Japanese.
When the men went into the town of Mukden they were still at risk of bring shot. The Japanese were shooting at the Chinese and vice versa, and the Russians were shooting at anyone who shot at them. He left Mukden in September on a train to Darien, and left Manchuria on September 13th supposedly to go to Okinawa. However, the USS Colbert got stuck in a typhoon, and then hit a loose mine. Billy was injured when the ship hit the mine. At first he thought he was paralyzed as he initially could not move his legs. He did have both ear drums perforated and two horrible black eyes. "I felt like I had gone through ten rounds with Joe Louis and lost."
In Okinawa, they transferred him to a plane going to Guam where he could get medical care and he was in hospital for a week. In the hospital he ruminated on the circumstances of men around him. One young person from Guam learned he had a new son who was three years old, but also found his father had passed away. There was also a pilot who was in casts. Instead of being injured in battle he was hurt when they turned over their jeep while celebrating the news that the Japanese had surrendered.
"I reflected on the course of that young man's life-and on my own, Certainly luck played a role in who lived and who died. Bombs fell on some people and missed others. In those circumstances, everyone prayed--and hoped for the best. I felt blessed to be alive and in reasonably good shape."
Before he left Mukden, the men were told not to talk about their imprisonment as it might affect the upcoming war trials. As Templeton, finally made it to San Francisco he climbed down and kissed the concrete at the foot of the ladder. He received the Purple Heart while in Letterman General Hospital in San Francisco for his injuries received when the USS Colbert hit the mine.
He toured San Francisco and planned to eat at Joe DiMaggio's on the wharf. When they got there it was boarded up. The next day they found out it wasn't really closed but they hadn't removed the blackout material. A few days later he flew home. He still had to be in the hospital for another month and a half.
He decided to get a job afterward. He became an employee of the CAA/FAA and worked there for thirty-seven years. He tried to find out what happened to all his friends. He struggled to understand why the events happened as they did in Bataan. In summary, Billy Templeton says, " Although being a prisoner of war did not define me, it did impact how I lived my life. I appreciated much that I might have taken for granted otherwise. I focused on what was coming down the road instead of what was behind me. I conquered what I could and rode out the rest. I'd survived through endurance--by breaking down an endless path into manageable steps. Back in the world, I solved everyday problems the same way."
Written by Jane Kraina
Sources: Manila Bay Sunset by Billy D. Templeton