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Beacon Senior News

Surviving a Japanese prison camp: A letter to my father

Nov 23, 2020 03:02PM ● By Mary Stobie

Dear Dad,

It’s December 7, Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, and I wonder if you knew after you died of Parkinson’s Disease that Mom finished your book “Bail Out”? It has a photo on the cover of you with your squadron. It’s a terrific book! You talk in the book about your experience as a navigator for a B-24 called the Fyrtle Myrtle. It was World War II in the South Pacific, and evidently many men on your crew had pregnant wives.

On a bombing mission your pilot, John Farrington—nicknamed “Mother”—stayed in formation even though the hotshot pilot in your group hung around the target of nickel mines after the bombs were dropped.

You wanted to “get the hell out of there” before the “Japs” would attack, but Mother held formation, protecting the hotshot pilot. It cost Mother his life and nearly yours when the angry Zeros buzzed in like hornets and shot down Fyrtle Myrtle. Pilot John Farrington and half your crew were killed instantly and the survivors, including you, had to bail out with parachutes.

Here I’ll insert Mom’s introduction from your book:

“When that motorcycle pulled up in our gravel driveway, I felt a terrible apprehension it was bringing something I wouldn’t like. When the dogs barked, I had only a few seconds left in my happy world before being plunged into unmitigated grief. The messenger handed me a Western Union envelope and roared off into the night.

Lt. Bill McFerren MISSING IN ACTION!

My world fell apart. I always told Bill he was the smartest man in the world. I was convinced that if he hadn’t been killed outright, he would have been in one of those five or six parachutes reported by the military.”

Dad, your stories about prison camp are etched in my mind, such as the Japanese guard whispering to you, “My wife is in Los Angeles, do you think she’s okay?” (probably referring to the internment of Japanese Americans in prison camps.) You made friends with everybody, didn’t you?

Mom didn’t know if you were dead or alive for 23 months. How stressful that must have been with baby Bill being born and growing up as a toddler never having met you.

Halfway around the world, a Japanese official hit you so hard with a baseball bat in your back it damaged your kidneys. You were close to death, weighing only 100 pounds. The Japanese moved you to another camp for those about to die, Ōfuna. But with your friendly nature, you even got along with British jewel thieves. They crawled up and down ducts and brought you crab and sugar, which saved your life.

Late on the afternoon of September 8, 1945, Mom was preparing dinner with a visitor when they were startled by a racket out front. Mom’s contact, Pat Guilland (she didn’t have a phone), was screaming, “He’s in Manila! He’s in Manila!”

“Is it really true?” Mom cried.

It was true! You came back from the war thin, but alive. After the war, you forgave the Japanese.

“Their people were suffering, too,” you said.

 Then, 10 years later we moved from San Francisco to Golden, Colorado. There you met Bill Hosokawa, who wrote “Nisei: The Quiet Americans” about the Japanese Americans who were interned in the U.S. You two became friends. 

Dad, you could have given up on life and died in that prison camp like so many others. But you came back to Mom and your son, Bill. Then, in a brilliant move, you decided to have a second child, a daughter—me! On Pearl Harbor Day, among other days, I think of you fondly.

Thank you for your bravery, and having the grit to survive prison camp.

Love, Mary  

Remembering Pearl Harbor