Camp O'Donnell and Camp Cabanatuan

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NOTE: Credit for this information goes to Colonel Irvin Alexander, author of Surviving Bataan and Beyond, published from his manuscripts made in 1949.
For more information on these camps, check Biographies and Profiles as well as Recommended Reading.


  1. O’Donnell got its name from a family of early Spanish settlers in the late 1800’s. It has been used to hold soldiers ever since it’s founding and, prior to hostilities, construction was being done starting in September 1941 to make the camp permanent. Construction work ceased in mid-December 1941 when the troops were sent north to defend against the December 23 Japanese landings.
  2. Called Lugao by the Filipinos, this thin watery soup was a main staple for the POWs during captivity.
  3. Rules laid down by the Japanese camp commandant were:

The Japanese Army does not recognize rank of prisoners of war.
Prisoners will salute all Japanese officers and soldiers while wearing headgear and bow appropriately when not.
Daily check-ups will be made [accountability of personnel].
Men will not leave the barracks between the hours of 7:00 P.M. and 6:40 A.M.
None will approach nearer than 3 meters to the fence surrounding the compound.
Water will be economized. Only sponge baths are permitted.
No smoking within 20 feet of a building.
All borrowed articles from the Japanese will be carefully accounted for.
Anyone disobeying orders or trying to escape will be shot to death.
All requests should be sent through proper channels.

  1. The first act by the captors, after the commandant’s address, was to shake down every officer and enlisted prisoner. If any possessions remained after the Death March, all prisoners were stripped of their blankets, pencils, pens, lighters, knives, surgical equipment, paper, and tobacco products. Almost everything of value was taken from the prisoners, leaving them with nothing but their canteens and mess kits.
  2. Author- Olson writes in O’Donnell, “Of all the buildings in the camp, none was regarded by the captives with such awe and fatal fascination as was the Hospital…if it couldn’t be called a ‘hospital,’ it was merely a place for men to go to die.” Master Sergeant Gaston, who saw the ward in July 1942, had this graphic description: “The men in the ward were practically nothing but skin and bones and they had open ulcers on their hips, on their knees and on their shoulders…maggots were eating on the open wounds. There were blow flies…by the were unable to get off the floor to go to the latrine and their bowels moved as they lay there.” Of all those that had it the most difficult was the American placed in charge, Capt. John Rizzolo, who was the officer in charge of the ward from its creation until early May 1942. With minimal supplies and little support from Japanese captors, Rizzolo did the best he possibly could do.

Note: Tarlac prison Camp was in existence for only a few months- from May 20, 1942, to August 17, 1942. It was used for high-ranking officers, including General Wainwright, 4 major generals, 10 brigadier general, 106 colonels, and a number of orderlies. After the fall of Corregidor, General Wainwright and five of his staff officers were taken to Lamao on the Bataan Peninsula on May 7, 1942. From there the general and his staff were moved to Station KZRH in Manila to broadcast the surrender order to the other commands located throughout the islands. While in Manila, Wainwright sent a letter to General Homma requesting that he send a radio to President Roosevelt, in his name, asking for a ship to be dispatched at once to the Philippines with food, clothing, and medical supplies, for American and Filipinos were dying at a rate of 300 a day at O’Donnell. No message was sent. On June 9, 1942, the Japanese captors informed Wainwright that his high command had ceased to exist and then moved him and his staff to the prison camp for senior officers in Tarlac. Wainwright and other senior officers, like General King, stayed at Tarlac until August 12, 1942, when they were loaded on a prison ship and were transported to Karenko in Formosa.

Death Becomes an Everyday Occurrence

One of the first formations we saw, as we were marching into O’Donnell, was a funeral detail of men with picks and shovels carrying crude litters of dead as they moved slowly, under Nip guard, toward the burial ground. We were to see the same sight each day during our stay there, but I am sad to say that the size of the parties and the number of litters were always on the increase.

Many men had arrived at the end of the Death March so far gone that they never recovered. There were many cases of malaria for which there was no medicine, and there were many new cases of dysentery occurring each day that we were at the camp. It was not uncommon to find a few men dead in barracks when we got up in the mourning. Even though medicine soon became practically nonexistent, General King established a hospital under the care of the American personnel in camp. He directed that something could be done for them because he hoped to reduce the alarming increase in infectious diseases.

During the first few days after the sick were collected and brought into the hospital, the starving hospital personnel were very busy for not only were there many dead and dying men in the hospital, but a number of them crawled outside to die, and a few bodies were found under the building when the odor of decay brought out searching parties. The hospital became known as the “Pest House,” into which many entered but few returned.

Sometime later, after we had received orders to move, a friend of mine insisted that I go through the hospital to see for myself the terrible conditions there which he stated were beyond description. I had to go tell Griff goodbye anyway, for malaria had laid him low, so I made the visit. Griff was in one of the cleaner rooms, among men who did not have dysentery and who were strong enough to visit the latrine. Although all the patients were sleeping on the floor, they were as comfortable as they would have been in barracks. All of the rooms were filled with large green mosquito nets of squad size, large enough for eight or more men to lie without crowding, protected form the attacks of mosquitoes by night and flies by day. We told Griff that we expected him to join us soon, which he did, he being one of the small numbers to survive the Pest House.

After leaving Griff, we entered what must have been the dysentery ward for the floor was covered with emaciated bodies in various stages of undress, lying in their own filth. I do not believe any one of them could have stood on his feet, and most of them did not appear to be aware of where they were, nor of the seriousness of their condition. There were no bedpans but, if there had been, the men could not have used them. Not only were the clothes of the men, but the blankets and the floor around them soiled. The physical state of the men was so pitiable, the living conditions so frightful, and the odor so overwhelming, that I could not take it anymore.

Outside, one of the doctors told me that there had been more than a thousand deaths n the first forty days at the camp and, furthermore, if that rate continued the last man of us would be dead before the year had passed by. The death rate among Filipinos in the southern part of the camp was considerably higher than in ours, but I have forgotten the figures. There were so many deaths that the Nips insisted on the burials being made in mass graves, which was a practical solution to the problem, there being so few men who were capable of performing hard labor.

Prisoner-Captor Relationships

The Nips (term used at that time) issued an order that there would be no association or communications between the Americans in the north part of the camp and the Filipinos in the south part. The Nip section being in between the two prisoner sections, the order was pretty well enforced, but the work parties of Americans and Filipinos met frequently at the burial ground, at the ration warehouses, and at other work projects.

Whenever the work parties met there were always many questions asked by both groups. We learned that the death rate among the Filipinos was even higher that among the Americans. We also learned by reports and observations that the attitude of the Japanese toward the Americans differed from their attitude toward the Filipinos. That was understandable in view of the fact that Americans were permanent captives whereas the Filipinos, after indoctrination, were expected to return home and assist the Filipino people [in becoming] loyal serfs of Japan.

The object of Japan being to develop the Philippines into a vassal state, it was difficult to understand why the Japanese were so openly contemptuous, cruel, and arbitrary in their treatment of the Filipinos. The Nips made no attempt to conceal that they considered the Filipino soldiers the scum of the earth, unworthy of any respect or consideration.

While the same cruelty and starvation diet was meted out to the Americans and Filipinos alike, the Nips could not conceal a certain respect and admiration for the American soldier which was in sharp contrast to their attitude towards the Filipino soldier of who they considered no soldier at all.

Camp O'Donnell Memorial and Cross, Cemetery, Mass Graves

A Soldier Dies at O'Donnell - The Curtis Johnson Memorial

More on Camp O'Donnell (description & photo)

Camp O'Donnell Re-Visited Article - 1945

(See also this page on Cabanatuan)

In order to completely segregate Americans from their Filipino comrades, the Japanese began transferring the Americans to the three Cabanatuan prison camps in late May 1942. The town of Cabanatuan, or Cabanatuan City, is located on the Pampanga River, 40 miles from Fort Stotsenburg and 100 miles north of Manila. There were three camps at Cabanatuan numbered 1, 2, and 3. Camp No. 1 was approximately four miles to the east of Cabanatuan City. Camp No. 2 was four miles past Camp 1 in the same direction and Camp No. 3 was six miles past No. 2. A small dirt road connected the two camps at No. 2 and No. 3. In addition to those arriving from O’Donnell were many of the Americans in Bataan field hospitals who were brought to No. 3 in late May 1942. Shortly thereafter, the men who surrendered at Corregidor also arrived at No. 3. When No. 3 was filled, the remaining POW’s from Corregidor were placed in No.2. When no water supply was found at No. 2, those in No. 2 were transferred to No. 1 in early June and No. 2 was maintained in the future mostly for naval personnel. In late October 1942, No. 3 was permanently closed and the prisoners located there were moved to No. 1.

The Cabanatuan “hospital” was first opened in June 1942 under the command of Col. James Gillespie. At the hospital there were 30 wards (made to hold 40 soldiers each), often holding up to 100 patients. In each ward were upper and lower decks made of bamboo slats. Each patient was allotted a two-by–six-foot space. The seriously ill were kept on the lower deck. Fenced off from the hospital was a quarantined area containing about ten wards, called the dysentery section. Within the dysentery section was a building missed when the wards were numbered. Later, it was called the “zero” ward, due to the fact that a prisoner had “zero” chance of leaving it alive, serving as a place to put seriously ill or dying patients.

Camp No.3 was divided into three distinct groups by the Japanese, mostly for control purposes. The overall American commander at the camp, until he was sent to Bilibid Prison on August 30, 1942, and then to Karenko on September 27, 1942, was Col. Napoleon Boudreau, the former commander of Subic Bays Harbor Defenses. Replacing Boudreau was Lt. Comdr. Curtis T. Beecher, a Marine. The commander of Camp No. 1 was Col. Leo Paquet (USMA 1919). Col. Armand Hopkins (USMA 1925) was the commander of Group No. 2. When many of the prisoners were sent away to become slave laborers for the Japanese, the groups were consolidated into one group, with Paquet in command and Hopkins as his executive officer. Numerous changes in command occurred over the years that the prisoners occupied the various Cabanatuan camps but, for the most part, the chain of command noted above was in place for a good part of the years of the camps existence.

There was a very organized underground system at Cabanatuan. Food and money was smuggled into the camp on a daily basis. The principal organizers of the smuggling activities were two American women, Margaret Utinsky (“Miss U”) and Claire Philips (“Highpockets”). Both were the wives of American soldiers who died in Cabanatuan during the summer of 1942 and both had avoided confinement in the civilian internment camp at Santo Tomas in Manila. The underground organization received help from local merchants, farmer, and businessmen who provided “baked cookies,” or in other words, produce other foods, medicines, notes, and money to the prisoners. A Filipino mestiza, Evangeline Neibert (“Sassie Suzie”) carried the “cookies” by train from Manila to the town of Cabanatuan, where she delivered them to the market. Naomi Flores (“Looter”), a licensed vegetable peddler, hid the loot in the bottom of rice sacks and took them to the camp. Once or twice a week, the rice detail from the camp picked up the sacks of rice and took them to the mess hall, where the goods were removed and delivered to one of six officers designated as “helpers.” The helpers then delivered the goods to the beds of those requesting the notes and/or goods. Lt. Col. Harold K. Johnson, an infantry officer in charge of the Cabanatuan commissary, estimated that while the underground was in operation, he spent nearly one and one-half million pesos on food and other items with an apparent income of only one-half million.

On May 3, 1944, the Japanese put an end to the underground operations when a group of men were compromised in Manila. Several “ring leaders” and American sympathizers were severely punished, including imprisonment and execution.

The camp commandant was Lt. Col. Masao Mori, who operated a bicycle shop in Manila when the war began. He was nicknamed “Blood” and “Bamboo Mori” by the prisoners. Mori, who was in charge of both Camp No.1 and No. 3, chose to live at No. 3 until he moved to No. 1 in September 1942. He and another guard, Kasayama Yoshikichi, who the prisoners called “Slime,” were the terror of the camp. Blood and Slime were punished after the war as war criminals. Blood was hanged and Slime got a life sentence. In late October 1942 Mori was replaced (after Camp No. 3 was closed and all prisoners were transferred to No. 1) by Major Iwanaka. Iwanaka was quite old for a major and paid no attention to the goings-on in the camp. In June 1944 Iwanaka was relieved by Major Takasaki, who ruled the camp with an iron fist.

First Lieutenant Oiagi was the camp quartermaster. He was tall and had played on the Japanese Davis Cup team in America. Unlike most of the prison guards, Oiagi was relatively fair and pleasant to the POWs. The prisoners had many “affectionate” nicknames for their guards: Big Stoop, Little Speedo, Air Raid, Laughing Boy, Donald Duck, Many Many, Beetle Brain, Fish Eyes, Web Foot, Hammer Head, and Hog Jaw were just a few names known to most prisoners at Cabanatuan. Urban McVey, in Martin’s Brothers From Bataan, said “Two of the main guards were ‘Big Speedo’ and ‘Little Speedo.’ They were called that because if you were too slow in your work they would yell & holler "Speedo". ‘Big Speedo’ did not beat up the prisoners. ‘Little Speedo’ did, and he was much bossier and demanding than ‘Big Speedo.’”

The American prisoners had been severely warned upon entering any prison camp that an attempt to escape would result in death by firing squad. Despite the warnings, a handful of escape attempts from Cabanatuan occurred in the early days of incarceration. If the escapees were captured they were usually tortured and shot to death while other POWs were forced to look on. To prevent any more escape attempts, the Japanese captors initiated what were called “Shooting Squads” or “Blood Brothers.” Each POW was assigned to a group of ten. If anyone in that group escaped, the other nine would be shot. When it came to the deed, the Japanese often had mixed feelings about whether to actually shoot the helpless hostages or not. Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t, but one could never feel any confidence about the matter. In one account the author of As I Remember writes, “You can believe that each man knew where his blood brothers were most of the time and especially at night.” Because of the danger to those in the camp, the American leadership took extra precautions by imposing additional rules to prevent escape attempts and to prevent the perception (which had occurred more often than not) of a POW trying to escape. For instance, the Japanese rule was to stay within ten feet of the fence. The American leaders made it 30. In addition, a walking, unarmed patrol of POWs was formed to watch for anything suspicious. The patrol wore white armbands with MP printed on them.

During the first eight months of camp in Cabanatuan, deaths totaled approximately 2,400. Some 30 to 50 skeletons, covered by leathery skin, were buried in common graves each day. The Japanese issued documents certifying that each death was caused by malaria, beriberi, pellagra, diphtheria, in fact, anything but the real cause – starvation and malnutrition. Death hit the youngest men the hardest. Of the men who died during July 1942 at Camp No. 1, 85 percent were under 30. Ten percent of the enlisted men died, compared with only 4 percent of the officers. Due to conditions at Cabanatuan, most of the prisoners welcomed the transport to Japan, hoping for better conditions. Little could they imagine what lay ahead.


Following is a report of Col. Webb E. Cooper's "Medical" Department Activities in the Philippines from 1941 to 6 May 1942:

Each day an attempt was made to clear each barracks of the dying. They were removed to “zero” ward, laid on the bare floor entirely naked. These patients usually were profoundly emaciated, in fact, little better than skeletons with a feeble spark of life. Heroic corpsmen and doctors did what they could to alleviate the indescribable conditions. They tied grass onto sticks and attempted to cleanse the floors. They used the same method of cleansing the body. Occasionally a big puddle of rainwater would provide enough water to wash the floor. At this time the use of the regular water supply system was strictly forbidden by the Japanese. The few laymen who saw these conditions were utterly horrified. Even the Japanese doctors would not enter these wards and the Japanese staff at Headquarters gave it a wide berth.

(Report courtesy of Jim Burnett, nephew to Camp 17 POW, Billy Alvin Ayers, #195)