Student Wins Social Studies Fair
Writes about the POWS

January 2007

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Eleven-year old Ronnie Currens, a sixth-grader at Peachtree Charter Middle School in Atlanta, Georgia, recently won First Place in his school Social Studies Fair. The subject he chose was, "How Did Japan Treat American POWs in World War II?" This subject was of special interest to Ronnie because his grandfather – and namesake – 1st Lt. Ronald B. Currens was captured on Corregidor and spent the duration of the war in Japanese captivity.

We are extremely proud to inform you that Ronnie competed in the Regional Social Studies Fair yesterday and won again. He will next be entered in the State SSF on March 17, to be held at Clayton State University in Morrow, Georgia

Ronnie used many sources for his research – several books, a Discovery Channel documentary, this Web site (Center for Research), and his grandfather’s own POW diary. First writing an 11-page research paper on the subject, Ronnie then built a scale model of Zentsuji Prison Camp and created a backboard showing various pertinent photos and maps. On it, he included a portion of his grandfather’s diary, showing on a map each location where Lt. Currens was interned – including Cabanatuan, Zentsuji, Tanagawa, and Rokuroshi. Also included as part of his display was a plastic bag filled with 290 grams of rice – the daily ration allowed each POW – and a scanned copy of the original diary.

After winning his school Fair, Ronnie went on to represent Peachtree Charter Middle School at the county Social Studies Fair a few weeks later. As part of this competition, he not only set up his backboard and visual aids but he was also interviewed by the judges. Once again he won First Place – plus the ribbon for Most Creative – and will go on to represent DeKalb County in the Regional Fair in February, 2007.

Ronnie’s family and schoolmates are very proud of the hard work he did in putting together this most meaningful project. And somewhere in Heaven, the grandfather he never met is also proud of him. The day he won the First Place award at his school was Veteran’s Day ….
Clik for larger image of display

Note the samll amount of daily rice rations

How Did Japan Treat American P.O.W.s in World War II?

The war was long and ugly. For some it was fatal and inhumane. People were beaten so much they could feel their soul coming out of their eyes, and one of those people was my grandfather. His name was Lieutenant Ronald Bryce Currens. He suffered so much that he died before he was supposed to.

This paper will examine how the American Prisoners of War were treated by the Japanese, discuss some of the reasons why the Japanese were so cruel at that time, and detail my grandfather’s experience.

The soldiers in the Philippines were already in bad enough condition which was startling because they were captured by the Japanese and were treated worse. They were starving before they were captured because they could not be re-supplied, they were blockaded. General McArthur was forced to relocate to Australia which left General King to take his place. Then he surrendered because if he didn’t all his troops would die.

By late December [1941], President Roosevelt and War Secretary Stimson had confided to Winston Churchill that they had regrettably written off the Philippines. In a particularly chilling phrase that was later to become famous, Stimson remarked, "There are times when men have to die."1

Corregidor was a fortress island that guarded Manila Bay. General Wainwright and the soldiers on Corregidor held out for a month after Bataan fell before they too were forced to surrender or die. During that month the people in the tunnels of Corregidor were subjected to the most horrendous artillery barrage in the history of modern warfare.

The Bataan Death March made POWs walk 62 miles from Mariveles to San Fernando where they were packed 100 to a boxcar and shipped to Camp O’Donnell. During the Death March anyone who fell or delayed the march was slaughtered with bayonets. There were no food, water, shelter or sanitation facilities for the POWs. In the boxcars they were crowded so much they couldn’t move at all or sit down and many died of suffocation and heat. They were packed so tightly the dead remained standing.

Some POWs were physically tortured by the Japanese. Ralph Levinberg, Death March survivor described, "I watched a guy, he had his arm broken in so many places for stealing a sliver of soap. They put his arm over a sawhorse and broke it repeatedly and wouldn’t let the doctors set it."2

Joseph Dupont, POW in the Philippines, said, "Three escaped but they caught them. They made the three men dig their graves and kneel in front of them. The Japs would cut off their heads they would fall into the hole."2

In Japan they would store the Red Cross boxes packed with food in a warehouse just outside the fence where the POWs could see them, but they wouldn’t give them the packages.2

Prisoners in Japanese POW camps never got used to the daily living conditions. Prisoners suffered from malaria, dysentery, pellagra, beriberi, or various other diseases that wouldn’t ordinarily have killed them.1 The Japanese refused to provide medicine in many cases until too late, if at all. Only the lucky received the medicine they needed. Each prisoner received a ration of 290 grams of uncooked rice per day, plus about ½ cup of watery daikon soup with each meal. When daikon was not in season, they were forced to use weeds such as sweet potato tops and weeds they could gather.4 All prisoners were forced to work, some as slave labor and some at subsistence farming. Some volunteered for burial detail in order to earn extra food. They were so hungry all the time that all they thought about was food. My grandfather filled a whole diary with recipes.

Some prisoners gambled to pass the time and win cigarettes to trade for food and medicine. My grandfather played bridge and even wrote a book about a bridge bidding system while he was a POW. He often said that it was bridge that kept him alive.3

When the Japanese felt they were about to lose the Philippines, they relocated most POWs to Japan on the infamous Hell Ships. The ships were the final indignity and the least well known. More people died in the ships than in the Death March.2 The Japanese crammed the POWs into the holds of the ships even tighter than they had been in the boxcars on the Death March. People stuck their tongue on the wall of the ship to gather condensation for water. People got seasick in the ships. Some people died of heat and some people died of cold and some people died of suffocation. It was so unsanitary that people defecated where they stood and feces, urine, and vomit would slosh up to their ankles. They were fed twice a day with a single bucket of food for everybody. It was dark and crazy – some people went so crazy with thirst that they drank their own urine. My grandfather was on a Hell Ship for 19 days.5 The Japanese failed to mark the ships as carrying POWs so they were often attacked by American planes and ships.

After the war it would be calculated that the death rate of POWs held in German and Italian camps was approximately 4%. In Japanese run camps, the death rate was 27%!1 Even the people who survived suffered from many diseases and were already dying.

The Japanese were so cruel and inhumane to the Americans because they felt that they were superior to other races, especially Westerners. They also had a cult of bushido, the warrior cult, so dying for the emperor was glorious. They felt it was a dishonor to surrender and prisoners would live a life of guilt and shame.6

Jintaro Ishida, Japanese WW II veteran said, "It was a dishonor to become a POW, so naturally enemy POWs received horrible treatment." Kiyokazu Tsuchida, another Japanese WW II veteran agreed, "There is no greater shame than to become a prisoner. This is a fact. The word prisoner does not exist for the Japanese soldier."2

My grandfather’s diary starts when he was in Manila at the outbreak of the war.
Here are some excerpts:

12-5-41 – 12-25-41 Manila.
War begins. Well the Japs finally jumped us. Heard about Pearl Harbor at breakfast. Only the night before a bunch of us were talking about the possibilities and decided they had waited too long and wouldn’t try it now. How little we knew about it. They started out by bombing Baguio, Davao, Eba, & Clarke Field at noon. Caught most of our airforce on the ground at Eba and Clarke. Unbelievable but true. No planes over Manila the first day. Bombed Nichols Field at night and again the next day at noon along with Cavite. Caught some more planes on the ground at Nichols. Air Raid Sirens – How the Filipinos love to bear down on them.
These were the first Nip planes I saw – Noon on the 9th, 72 of them. They came in directly over PoD headed for Nichols and Cavite. The A.A. opened up (3" A.A., 37 mm, Cal. 50, Cal. 30 and even 45’s) of course no one came close. It was quite a sensation the first time you see enemy planes – you don’t know whether to swallow your pride, dirty your clothes and flatten out or be brave & foolish and be nonchalant and stand up. I was on top of the wall by the officers quarters at the PoD and figured that a pretty good place as a bomb would have to light right alongside to get me. Otherwise they would hit below and I would be high & dry. Funny what a guy thinks of in times of stress. However they weren’t headed for us that day. … It’s a hell of a feeling to realize the enemy is on the same island as you and in force, air superiority, and plenty of replenishments available with supply lines intact and you have none and no place to run to.

12-25-41 to 4-9-42 Bataan.
Arrived in Bataan just before midnight Xmas day. Busy establishing headquarters, setting up offices and quarters. …Only 2 meals per day – chow gets shorter & shorter. Chun salmon & rice.

4-9-42 to 5-6-42 – Corregidor
Arrived about 7:00 AM – Carried my barracks bag to Malinta tunnel. Had breakfast in officer’s mess – slept in Ordnance lateral w/ 3" AA amm. Boy was I tired – slept all day & all night.

5-6-42 – 5-24-42 – Corregidor
My career as a POW begins. Remain in tunnel till morning of the 8th. No attempt to feed us – so we raid the QMC Lateral whenever possible. … worried about hiking. Have heard rumors that prisoners on Bataan were shot for falling out of column. … Heard we were slated to Cabanatuan & started leaving day after our arrival. I am with casual officers & we are slated for last group. Marched from Billibid to Escaroga RR Sta. 1 km morning of the 28th. Loaded onto a box car – 100 per car a little difficult with baggage but Nips with a bayonet did the trick.

5-24-42 to 5-30-42 Cabanatuan. [Death March]
Arrived at Cabanatuan about noon – trip was terrible – heat was terrific – legs cramped.

5-30-42 to 6-1-42 Camp #2, Cabanatuan.
No one else in camp but our group. No water – had to be carried in. Rained the 31st and we got our canteens full & a bath. Boy was it a godsend.

6-1-42 to 11-5-42 Camp #1, Cabanatuan.
Arrived in the late afternoon & was dark by the time we were assigned to a barracks – had supper after dark. These camps were originally built by our forces for the Phil. Army. Grass roofs, sevallee sides, wood frame, split bamboo bunk racks, 2 decks and a catwalk. About 115 to 120 of us per barracks – very crowded. … Shortly after we had been in camp the boys from Bataan who had been at Camp O’Donnell started being moved into Group 2 and 3 – those who were able – death rate had been terrific.

11-6-42 to 11-25-42. Nagata Maru from Manila to Moji. [Hell Ship]
Boarded Nagata Maru afternoon of the 6th. My company of 100 under Maj. Bidgood loaded in #1 hold, 535 of us. Heat was awful … We were loaded in the lower "tween decks" with Nips in the upper. They took great delight in throwing crumbs & cigarettes to us to watch the scramble. No doubt in our minds as what would happen to us in case we were attacked & hit – rats in a trap. However we were lucky on that score. Weather – from tropic heat to winter cold.

11-26-42 to 1-15-43 Tanagawa.
5 thin cotton blankets & a set of dishes all set out waiting for us. Had my first taste of barley mixed with the rice – liked it better than straight rice. … Allowed to rest a few days – were shown where men were to work – removing rock from a quarry for a dry dock. Allowed to write 1st card home. Thought I was going to freeze – Geo. Moore & I pool our blankets & sleep together …. Thousands of lice – no facilities to get rid of them.

1-15-43 to 1-16-43 Tanagawa to Zentsuji.
Left Tanagawa 120 of us after supper (about 5:00 PM) – hiked to RR sta. – 3 km. Waited in cold about 1 hr for train – Col. Miller in charge. We do exercises slowly to keep up circulation – thank God we were allowed to keep overcoats for the trip.
Ronnie Currens model of Zentsuji

1-16-43 to 6-23-45 Zentsuji.
Arrived about 10:30 AM. First questions to boys hanging out the windows – how’s chow – soup & rice w/ bread for lunch – boy did they look good – all dressed in captured British woolens – us in tattered summer khaki … am overwhelmed by the kindness & help the boys already in camp show us. The first real human kindness shown us since our capture – gave us cigs & chow – helped us in & out of bath tub – scrubbed our backs – helped us dry off & dress & walk back to the barracks – I almost cried….

6-23-45 to 6-25-45 Zentsuji to Rokoroshi.
Left Zentsuji 3:00 PM the 23rd & hiked 1 km to RR sta. Everyone had to carry all baggage (much disappointment among the brass) … Saw & smelt the results of the bombings in Kobe and Osaka – told to keep blinds down so we couldn’t see but I was next to a broken one & did alright. Boy there isn’t much left to bomb except the RR – the boys sure did a good job with incendiaries. …

6-25-45 to 9-8-45 Rokoroshi.
Arrived 2:00 AM – after much banging, roll calls, etc. in the dark we are assigned bunks – enlisted men have a meal ready for us if we can get around to eating it. …

Aug 22, 1945
Well, here it is – the Camp Commander arrived back in camp this PM & called Col. Unruh to the office. The Col. came back and gathered all the Lt. Cols. & equal Navy rank in room 20 and ran everyone else away from the immediate vicinity. Windy & I sat on the hillside below the bengo – Sweating. The Camp Commander, Sgt. Major and Fujimoto came to the barracks (all very strange & unusual). He informed the assembled group in room 20 that the war was ended – we would have to bear with him a little longer – till we could be turned over to our own troops – Our chow would not be cut and might be increased if enough could be procured – No other details – the Camp Commander and his stooges then left – He had just cleared the wash rock when the big cheer and yell came out of the barracks – He kept right on going with his tail between his legs and looking very unhappy. What a joyous shock – Everyone running around shaking hands – congratulating each other ….

Sept 2
Formation called at 4:00 PM – Nip commander made a speech & told us we were now free. Think he expected a return speech but Col. Unruh dismissed him – he then held a flag raising ceremony. Johnny Pray played the bugle and the star spangled banner was slowly raised. I cried like a baby – so did many others. This signaled the beginning of many things we have waited for so long – at last we are under our own flag.5

The biggest challenge for the POWs was returning to everyday life. Some died shortly after they got home. The people that were prisoners in Japan will always hate the Japanese and all their traits. The Japanese returned to their home with shame and dishonor. Because of all the bombing some Japanese families perished. It was hard to imagine that American POWs in Japan suffered seven times as much as the European War POWs. War is ugly because the clash of different cultures gives different opinions which leads to misery. This is a lesson that needs to be remembered, to respect different people.

End Notes:

Sides, Hampton. Ghost Soldiers. New York: Anchor Books, 2002.
Ghosts of Bataan, Discovery Channel documentary, broadcast August 21, 2006.
Currens, Ronald B. Jr. My dad. Interviewed October, 2006.
Ushakoff, Capt Michael M. (October 23, 1945, Ft. Lewis, Washington). Center for Research - Allied POWS Under the Japanese. HYPERLINK ""
Currens, 1st Lieutenant Ronald B. Unpublished diary. 1941–1945.
Caracillo, Dominic J. Surviving Bataan and Beyond: Colonel Irvin Alexander’s Odyssey as a Japanese Prisoner of War. Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania: Stackpole Books, 2005.


American Prisoners of War in World War II under the Japanese were treated inhumanely because of the Japanese military culture. The American POWs were already starving when they surrendered and were sent on the Death March with little or no food or water. While in captivity they were starved, tortured, denied medicine, and worked as slave labor. To the Japanese, to become a POW was a dishonor so they received terrible treatment. War is ugly because the clash of different cultures gives different opinions which leads to misery. This is a lesson that needs to be remembered, to respect different people.


Caracillo, Dominic J. Surviving Bataan and Beyond: Colonel Irvin Alexander’s Odyssey as a Japanese Prisoner of War, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania: Stackpole Books, 2005.
Currens, 1st Lieutenant Ronald B. Unpublished diary. 1941–1945.
Currens, Ronald B. Jr. My dad. Interviewed October, 2006.
Ghosts of Bataan, Discovery Channel documentary, broadcast August 21, 2006.
Sides, Hampton. Ghost Soldiers. New York: Anchor Books, 2002.
Ushakoff, Capt Michael M. (October 23, 1945, Ft. Lewis, Washington). Center for Research - Allied POWS Under the Japanese. HYPERLINK ""

Ronnie Currens SSF Research Paper