WELLSBURG - On Dec. 7, 1941, Ed Jackfert woke up in paradise.
That paradise was soon shattered by news from half an ocean away - news that the Japanese had attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, killing about 2,400 U.S. servicemen. Today marks the 68th anniversary of that momentous tragedy.
At the time Jackfert, a Wellsburg native, was stationed 5,000 miles away in the Philippines at Clark Field near the capital city of Manila as a member of the 28th Bomber Squadron of the U.S. Army Air Corps. He said prior to the Japanese attack the setting was serene and beautiful, and American military personnel had “a pretty good life there,” taking care of aircraft and spending down time having fun in Manila.
Just hours after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the gravity of the situation hit home for Jackfert as the Japanese paid a visit to Clark Field. He recalled emerging from the mess hall after eating lunch to the sound of airplane engines overhead. The bombing began just after 12:30 p.m. and lasted about 15 minutes, Jackfert said.
When he emerged from cover, “the bombers had passed on. I looked around and saw nothing but flames and rounds of ammunition going off” from the explosions. Sensing the worst was not yet behind them, Jackfert said his unit moved 300-400 yards away before a second wave of planes strafed the field.
“They destroyed everything that the bombers did not destroy,” he continued. “About 80 of our group were killed and hundreds were injured.”
The day following the more famous Pearl Harbor attack and the subsequent invasion of the Philippines, President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced the United States would enter World War II, a conflict the country had managed to stay out of for more than two years. It was during that announcement Roosevelt uttered the famous words, “Dec. 7, 1941 - a date which will live in infamy.”
Jackfert’s life would never be the same.
After the declaration of war, Jackfert’s unit anticipated a renewed bombing attack, but with their facilities destroyed and little to fight back with, they evacuated to Bataan, where they bivouacked on Christmas Eve, 1941. After several days in the jungle they were issued old Enfield rifles dating back to World War I and two bandoliers of ammunition, Jackfert said, and were told they were now members of the infantry.
By May, they returned to the Bataan area where they learned that General J.D. Wainwright had surrendered to the Japanese forces. A Japanese patrol stopped Jackfert and his comrades, searching them and taking any valuables they had on them. They were then left in bamboo huts, where they stayed until late September.
Soon after, Jackfert boarded the Tottori Maru - a decrepit, unseaworthy tramp steamer termed a “hell ship.” The boat lived up to its name, with about 1,900 prisoners of war crammed into its holds, deprived of the bare necessities of food, water, and sometimes air.
These ships often came under fire from American vessels who had no knowledge their comrades were inside. Jackfert’s ship nearly suffered that fate, narrowly avoiding two waves of torpedoes near the island of Formosa, or present-day Taiwan.
About 1,500 POWs disembarked at Pusan, South Korea, from which they marched to prison camps in the Manchuria region of China. Jackfert was among the few hundred that remained on board to complete the northward journey to Osaka, Japan.
“During this entire trip on this ship, traveling from Taiwan to Osaka, about 10 or 12 of our POWs died from malnutrition and diseases,” said Jackfert. “Of course we had nothing to know about what would happen to us.”
Those who survived the journey were assigned to work details and performed dangerous manual labor including handling hazardous chemicals like hydrochloric acid and ammonium nitrate - the same substance used in the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building.
“This was used to create and construct armaments to be used against our own people,” Jackfert said. “It was very shameful and shocking to me.”
Another task was hauling 120-pound sacks of rice from boxcars to the camps. “All of us had lost weight and most of us weighed less than the sacks,” Jackfert said.
Those sacks, however, were a source of life for Jackfert and his comrades. He would use a 10-inch piece of bamboo and jam it inside the rice bag. Whatever kernels of uncooked rice fell into the cuffs of Jackfert’s pants would be his meal for that day.
“That was one of the things that really saved our lives,” he said.
Jackfert endured the work camps for nearly three years. By August 1945, the United States was closing in on winning the war. For several nights in a row, air raid sirens sent Jackfert and his fellow POWs scrambling for cover as American forces bombed the Tokyo area. Following the detonation of atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Aug. 6 and 9, respectively, the Japanese surrendered on Aug. 15, 1945.
Jackfert recalled a quietness all around that day.
“We discovered from some of the individuals around there that the Japanese had surrendered and we were now free people,” he said.
The subsequent B-29 flyovers didn’t send the POWs scrambling for cover, but scrambling for the 50-gallon drums of food, medicine and clothing American forces were dropping to aid them.
By October 1945, Jackfert was back on American soil and reunited with his family. More than six decades later, the effects of the malnourishment he endured are still real to him. He still experiences gastrointestinal difficulties, and he suffers from beriberi, a nervous system ailment that leaves him with a chronic tingling sensation in his feet.
But one thing he does not suffer from is bitterness.
“I have no animosity toward Japan. ...They have changed. It’s a democratic nation now,” Jackfert said.
Jackfert continues to lobby Congress for compensation for American POWs.
He said the United States is the only Western nation that has not extended such a gesture to its former POWs.
“We gave the American Japanese and Chinese $20,000 a piece for what they went through (in internment camps during World War II). In 2006, Congress appropriated $30 million to build memorials on their behalf,” Jackfert said. “We haven’t got one thing from them.”