Firsthand Account of World War II in the Pacific

In the summer of 2002, I took a writing class at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The students and teacher in the class became very close and have continued to stay in touch. One of the more talented students in the class has become a wonderful friend to me, Wil Selbrede. He is retired, and in his late 70s. Recent events have made me inquire of him his World War II experience. In response, Wil sent me the piece below. Because it mentions the Philippines and its people, I thought you might like to see a firsthand account, something Wil wrote when he was a 20 year old, a continuous letter home to his parents. Above his piece is an excerpt from the e-mail Wil wrote introducing the piece to me. All are reprinted with permission from Wil.
-- Cathy

E-mail from Wil, March 15, 2003
I was in the US Coast Guard, which was under the Navy for the duration, and I spent about 18 months in the Pacific, mostly as a member of a Beach Party unit assigned to an amphibious troop transport, the Joseph T. Dickman, an old Roosevelt liner converted to carry about 4000 men. My unit was trained to go onto the beach at the start of an invasion and support the troops by directing the inbound boats carrying additional men and essential materials to support them. We trained with the Marines near Guadalcanal in preparation for the battle of Okinawa, Loaded up our ship at Ulithi with part of the 4th Marines and were part of the armada -- the largest ever assembled, including Normandy -- that gathered off Okinawa's southwestern beaches for the invasion on Easter Sunday, April 1, 1945. My unit stayed on the beach for about a week, then were headed for Hawaii when we learned of FDR's death. I remember feeling as though I had lost a treasured grandfather. Anyhow, except for a couple of near misses by Kamikaze planes, my combat experience was uneventful. Of more interest is the fact that after being retrofitted in Honolulu my ship was sent to Manila where in late September, only a few weeks after the war ended, we picked up and returned to the U. S. mainland the pathetic survivors of Bataan and Corregidor. I am attaching a copy of the memoir I wrote about that. Also attached is a picture of myself working on the beach at Okinawa.

Prisoner of War
by Wil Selbrede

When I wrote this, I was a twenty-year-old Seaman First Class in the U. S. Coast Guard, a member of a special amphibious "beach party," trained to make amphibious landings on hostile shores with combat troops. My unit was attached to the Navy's U.S.S. Joseph T. Dickman, an APA (Auxiliary Personnel, Attack) Troop Transport, a converted civilian passenger ship. Six months previously, in early April, we had carried our shipload of Marines to the beaches of Okinawa and stayed on the beach for five critical days to bring in support materials. Now our ship's combat duties were over and we were "serving out our time" carrying veteran troops, now eligible for discharge, back from the Pacific combat zones to the United States.

At the time this small journal was started, it had been only six weeks since the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and a mere three weeks since the Japanese signed the terms of surrender under the austere eye of General Douglas MacArthur. Three and a half years before, Bataan had surrendered on April 9, 1942, and the remaining U.S. Army troops holed up on Corregidor were overrun by a vastly superior Japanese force the following month, after a heroic defense that bought precious time for the United States war effort.

Manila, Philippine Islands (Luzon)
24 September 1945

Dear Mom and Dad,
The ship is now sealed so my letter will not get off the ship till we get back to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. I plan on writing a little bit each day we are to sea and then mailing the whole thing when we get to Pearl. Hope it works out that way.

The advance detail of troops came on board today. That means the main body will come on tomorrow. This detail is of men going home to be discharged with points. They are here to get things going for the troops - set up the guard system and the troop galley. We heard today the main body of troops would be former prisoners of the Japs. They should be interesting to talk to.

We docked at Manila proper this afternoon and this has been my first chance to really see the place. I was amazed at the amount of Jap shipping we sunk and how we ripped the buildings to shreds. I can see where Manila must have been very beautiful before the war. It is still so, even with the great gaps in the big white buildings along Dewey Boulevard. The sunken ships are everywhere. Many were sunk at their moorings and now our ships use them for piers. The water is so shallow that they are still partly above water.

Manila, 25 September 1945
We got the troops on board today and they will occupy most of the rest of this letter for awhile. Remember at the beginning of the war, how the Japs took Bataan and Corregidor and captured the remnants of the garrisons after a tremendous fight? We have those men on board now. They have been prisoners of war for three and one half years and all left Japan not more than a month ago. Then too, we have Marines and Army soldiers that were on Wake Island when that was captured, and many civilians who were there at the time, building the base.

That isn't all. We have British and Canadian soldiers who were captured at Singapore, Hong Kong, and other parts of China. There is a missionary who was in Korea, I believe. Then there are some -- a few, not many -- merchant marines who were captured by a German raider in the South Pacific and turned over to the Japs.

The first thing that struck me when these men came aboard was their physical condition. Now I know what the word "malnutrition" means. The general characteristics were swollen and bloated bellies, fattish faces, and pitifully thin shoulders and arms and legs. The next thing I noticed were the number of scars and skin diseases they had, and great round spots that were abscesses that had healed. They seemed to have an infinite amount of patience, which could be noted during the confused time of loading. They were obedient to orders, quiet, and had a pitiful sort of humor about themselves. They were always trying to crack jokes. Weakness in their muscles was very evident when they carried on their small bundles of clothes.
Tomorrow I hope to talk to some of them. It is late so I will quit for now.

At sea, 26 September 1945
We left Manila late yesterday. It is now about 7:00 o'clock PM and we just left the last Philippine island behind. All day we would watch the various islands march by. As a rule, they were all alike, just mountains with a flat section near the sea, but once in awhile there would be an interesting feature about them. A lonely lighthouse, a small native fishing village and once, a volcano. The latter was really the highlight for me. It appeared to be smoking from the top and from two or three small places lower down on the sides.

I talked to a few of the troops last night and today and I wish I could remember all of what they told us. There were some things they said that I won't tell you. I couldn't. I'll start out tonight by telling of one man and I'll make it short because I have to go on watch soon.

He is tall, and I can see he used to be a big man once. He will be again - in about a year. He is about twenty-five or thirty years old - a soldier captured on Bataan. He took part in the "Death March" of Bataan but wouldn't talk about it. The Nips took him in December, 1942. For a long while he worked on the docks in Manila unloading Jap ships. It was then that the Filipino women risked death to bring him and his buddies food. He came closest to death himself on the Death March. They marched constantly while their guards worked in shifts. To fall meant to be beaten to death. Once they were loaded into a small box car -- one-hundred to each car -- and travelled for a long time without food or water and were unable to sit down in the car. When the car reached the end of the line they were marched the last twelve miles into the camp. Only one man died on that last leg of the journey and he was just a few steps from the gate.

At sea, 27 September 1945
We have left the Philippines entirely and once again all that can be seen in any direction is blue sky and bluer water. The ship is settling down to its daily sea routine - watches, work, inspections, sleep, eating. The former Jap prisoners do nothing but eat and sleep. They are gradually losing their nervousness and rapidly gaining weight, especially around the waist. Some of them have developed the biggest pot bellies I ever saw. There have been several cases of illness due to over-eating. Most of them have "beri-beri," a disease similar to mange. Their feet and legs swell up due to the change in diet. If you press your finger in the swollen limb the imprint will stay for a long time.

Another one of the passengers was telling me how they sabotaged the factories where they worked in Japan. He is a plumber who was on Wake Island when it was captured. I can't remember all of the ways they did it. Sometimes it was by bending a pipe a little wrong, or making a fitting a little small, or putting the wrong mixture into a batch of steel. If they were caught, they were beaten and sometimes killed.
He also told us the system by which they were allowed to write letters, or rather post cards. For over a year they weren't allowed to write at all. Then they were allowed forty-two words, including address, message and coding. However, these cards were re-typed before being sent out, and the process took about a month for a barracks. If during that time anyone in the barracks did something the Japs didn't like, all the cards for that barracks were torn up. Also, if one person wrote something the least bit wrong, all the cards were torn up. Since they were allowed about one card every three months you can see how much mail got out. One man put his weight down on the card. He was called up to the office. The next day his friends saw him sitting in front of the brig (prison) - beaten beyond recognition.

I have the midnight-to-four (watch) tonight so I better get some sleep.

At sea, 28 September 1945
Had a nice day today. It rained all afternoon so I didn't have to work. A regular vacation. I want to do a little work on my college Trig correspondence course so I'm going to make this pretty short. I haven't had time to touch it in over a week.
I've been meaning to tell you - we have Lou Jenkins, former lightweight champion of the world - on board, going back for a discharge from the Coast Guard. He is a good boy, not stuck up or anything. He sure is battered up though. His nose is flattened, his eyes are puffed up, and he looks beat up in general. When we are working out on the punching bag every day he comes around once in a while and gives us a few pointers. He may be old but he can really make that big bag jump when he hits it.
I made another discovery in the last couple days - the universal hatred the American soldiers we have on board hold for the "Limeys." It seems that the English soldiers kept saying how the English were winning the war all by themselves. These English soldiers, by the way, were captured when Singapore fell.

At sea, north of Ulithi 30 September 1945
Well, yesterday I didn't get around to writing because I went to the movie. First one I've gone to in quite a long time. It is laughable the way these soldiers act in a movie or when looking at a movie magazine. I was paging through a magazine a few days ago with one of the boys and we came across a picture of Frank Sinatra. He asked me who that was. I told him about the "Voice" and he said, "Is he good?" You see how behind times they are! They never heard of Jennifer Jones, George Montgomery, June Allyson, Esther Williams - any of the top-notchers, except such old standbys like Bette Davis or Humphery Bogart.

I started this letter with good intentions. I was going to have something of interest to say every day. Woe is me. Nothing can be so dreary and monotonous as a trip at sea - especially when it isn't one's first trip. Of course, I could tell you about the chow - how the officers eat cantaloupe and ice cream while we eat bologna sandwiches - but that is old stuff. The "doggies" think they (the sandwiches) taste pretty good.

At sea, 1 October 1945
You'd be surprised at the change in the soldiers in the days since we left port. When they came on board they were quiet and listless. There was none of the horse-play common among a large body of men. Now, their stomachs are flattening, their arms and shoulders filling out, and they show a little spirit. Once in a while a little wrestling match is staged. By the time we reach San Francisco they will probably look like ordinary G.I.'s - until the Golden Gate passes over our heads. Then, if they don't do some cheering and hollering enough to shake that old monument I'll bury my head in a bucket of sand!

We are all looking forward to seeing Pearl Harbor. We are due there on the eighth, will just have been paid, and Honolulu calling. I may get liberty there and I may not. If I get ashore I'm heading straight for that drugstore where I used to work and lap up about 10 sundaes - made by the hand of my favorite Honolulu girl friend. She's the cutest little Hawaiian in the islands.

At sea, (two days out of San Francisco), 6 October 19451
I got up bright and early this morning and stood watch for four hours and then we were supposed to stand inspection in whites. But it is raining so the inspection was called off. Then Mr. Rados, the big German bag of wind in charge of the deck divisions says if there is no inspection we have to "turn to" on the deck. @#$%^&* Navy!

I think I'll close this letter for good.


1After a few days of rest and recuperation in beautiful Honolulu, we had sailed for San Francisco. Two days after closing my letter our bedraggled but deliriously happy ex-Prisoners of War formed a sea of waving arms "topside," and poured out a thunder of jubilant shouts as the Golden Gate Bridge passed overhead. Their joy at walking down the gangway at the pier, many into the waiting arms of their tearful loved ones, cannot be described. It can only be felt, and remembered forever.


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