Lost and Found

War tore the sisters' father away forever. Sixty years later, a hidden memoir brought his spirit back to them.

November/December 2016

Reading time min

Lost and Found

Photo: '31 Quad

Fifty-four years after her liberation by American troops, Jannis Robb Garred headed to a final reunion of the dwindling fraternity that had shared a war together in the Philippines—her fellow survivors of the Santo Tomas internment camp.

Once they had numbered in the thousands: American civilians who’d been corralled behind walls and barbed wire after Japan’s 1941 invasion of the Philippines. And for decades they’d reunite every few years on the anniversary of their return to freedom. 

But by 1999, even the internees who’d been children were getting old. And Garred—who was 9 when she entered the camp with her stepmother and 12 when she left it an orphan—arrived in San Diego expecting this reunion to be the last.  

But if the past seemed to be fast retreating under the palms of the Town & Country resort, soon it was shockingly resurgent. An older man at the table Garred was sharing with her sister noted their maiden name and realized they had a connection. “I’ve known your aunt for years,” he said. “She has some sort of diary that your father wrote.”

The women froze. It was the first either Garred or her sister, Allison Robb Marks, had ever heard that any such document survived their father, a Stanford alumnus whose own wartime captivity had ended in his brutal death. “I remember my fork just hovering in front of my mouth mid-bite,” Marks says. “We couldn’t believe it.”

Of course they wanted to see the manuscript, described as a POW journal, for themselves. But contacting their aunt, with whom they’d never been close, was out of the question. To the sisters, her behavior marked an inexplicable violation of decency, not to mention of their rights as heirs. And so they began an attempt to track down their own version from official military and veteran sources—to no avail.

Then, two years later, Garred’s grandson took to Google and found something far from where they’d ever think to look. A copy of their dad’s writings—along with correspondence revealing its convoluted history—was at the University of Dundee in Scotland, where they’d later learn their aunt’s son had studied and donated a copy.

POW - journalImages: Courtesy Jannis Robb Garred (top); Stanford University Archives/Special Collections

An excited 1 a.m. call to Scotland, a helpful archivist and £70 later, Garred finally had her hands on a copy of Carry On, a 219-page book her father had written nearly 60 years earlier during his time in Bilibid Prison, a POW hospital in Manila just 10 blocks from where she had spent the war.

“I expected a little book, a few pages maybe,” Garred says. “It turned out to be a big box. It was quite amazing.” 

Despite the initial description, Carry On—a copy of which the family donated to Stanford and which the University Archives published online this year—is not really a diary. It’s essentially an embedded reporter’s account of life in Bilibid, where Lt. James Robb, ’31, JD ’34, ended up in October 1942, emaciated by “seven months of starvation.”

In hindsight, he might have avoided his fate. Early in 1941, the U.S. government ordered all dependents of service members and diplomats home from the then American colony. As a civilian lawyer working in Manila, Robb had a window when he could have followed with his family.

POW - sistersLAST WORDS: Robb's message (right) to the then 9-year-old Garred, left. Marks, right, never met her father.  (Photos: Courtesy Jannis Robb Garred)

But the Philippines was his home. He was born and raised there, his parents drawn by opportunities in America’s newly won prize from Spain. After eight years in California, Robb had returned in 1937 with his wife and young Jannis, and was soon ensconced as a partner at a Manila law firm, enjoying the comfortable life of a well-positioned expat. 

And he would have faced complexities in returning to America. Afflicted by the tropical heat, his wife, who had suffered several miscarriages, headed back to the States while carrying Marks. Separation soon became divorce, and the remarried Robb may have been leery of a looming custody battle for Jannis if he returned, Marks says.

At any rate, the danger at that time didn’t seem extraordinary. Despite evacuating government dependents, American authorities kept warnings to U.S. expats to a minimum to avoid alarming Japan and the Philippines. And amid official silence, many people reasoned Japan would never be so foolish. “Residents assured one another that Japan would never dare to go to war against the United States,” Robb writes. “It would all blow over. Nothing ever happened to Manila. Nothing ever had.” 

He was hardly alone in misreading the risk. Indeed, the U.S. military was as unprepared for the Japanese assault on the Philippines as it had been hours earlier at Pearl Harbor. Virtually all American air power was destroyed without so much as starting to fight. 

The rout gave Japan dominion of the skies and pushed the U.S. and Filipino troops to the Bataan peninsula, awaiting reinforcements that would never come as the rest of the population reckoned with its fate. “The dread suspicion grew to certainty that Manila would not be defended—that the Japanese were coming in,” Robb writes.

He rushed Garred and his wife to a friend’s house in the countryside before returning to enlist in the doomed resistance. Less than four months later, he’d be party to the largest surrender of U.S. forces in history as one among some 76,000 American and Filipino soldiers, many malarial and starved, to give up arms.  

What followed is one of the most infamous American wartime sorrows: the Bataan Death March, a 66-mile forced relocation with bayonets providing a cruel end to POWs unable to keep the pace. At the end of the ordeal lay Camp O’Donnell, where disease, starvation and neglect consumed many more.

“What happened at O’Donnell was easily foreseeable,” Robb writes. “It was what would happen when upwards of 90,000 half-starved, fever-ridden men were forced to undergo a terrible march of several days’ duration in the hot, tropical sun, with no food or water, to a half-finished division camp, virtually devoid of sanitary facilities and there left to shift for themselves with no medicine, very little food and virtually no water. They died.”

There were even worse fates. One of the book’s most highly charged moments comes in Robb’s description—gleaned from interviews, not personal observation—of the fate of 300 men, most already disease-ridden, who were pulled from O’Donnell, crammed into trucks and trains, marched into the mountains and made to work on a road gang. Sleeping without shelter and with no sanitation arrangement, more than 80 died. Doctors resorted to feeding others charcoal to stop diarrhea and dysentery from draining the life out of them.

Robb, though, isn’t most interested in these disasters, which he assumes others will write about. His main focus is within the 18-foot-high, 3-foot-thick walls of Bilibid, an old Spanish colonial prison where he describes a Naval medical unit working miracles despite a desperate dearth at times of the most elemental supplies, from medicine to mattresses.

The camp’s chief surgeon tells Robb that a stretch of no surgical deaths in the improvised operating room is “No more than the taxpayers had a right to expect.” 

But it’s Robb’s description of the small indignities of prison life that may be the most evocative—such as a prolonged absence of any soap, or a toilet paper shortage so severe, men were rationed to a single 10-inch-square sheet per day. 

“Consider the average American: administer to him a dose of salts every morning for a week or so and at the same time, deprive him of toilet paper, newspaper and mail-order catalogues, and you can appreciate the predicament,” he writes. “[L]et me assure you that one sheet a day is not enough for a healthy person’s normal needs, and is nothing at all for a dysentery case.”

Most frequently, the book is about food, or the lack of it, and the fight to get more—by smuggling, pleading and ingenuity, like growing yeast using a mix of rice and water. Unlike in some Japanese prisons in the Philippines, Bilibid’s guards inflicted relatively few beatings and other physical punishment. But persistent hunger exacerbated by meager, monotonous and often-rotting supplies stalked the hospital, resulting in diseases from beriberi to pellagra, causing blindness and perpetuating many other illnesses.

“Starvation is starvation no matter what you call it,” Robb writes. “Put a man on a diet of rice and garbage soup for a few weeks or months and he is going to get sick. That is all there is to it and whether the disease will attack his heart or his digestive system, his nervous system, his mind or his eyes, is unpredictable.”

Full of exact statistics, dates and citations from official memos, the book shows Robb clearly had full access to the inner workings of the camp’s prisoner-led administration; the Japanese were largely hands-off in the hospital’s day-to-day operations. And although Robb doesn’t address how he wrote without being detected, another prisoner who kept a terse log of daily happenings provides some insight into how such a work could be put together.

“I used to make my notes in my own shorthand and then type them out at night,” a pharmacist’s mate named Robert Kentner later explained. “You could hear the guards coming, for they all wore metal cleats on their shoes. I’d switch an official [Japanese] report into the typewriter and wait for them to go by. Then I’d start the typing again.”

But if Robb’s book is replete with small details, it is virtually devoid of any mention of the author’s life or emotional struggles. There are no wistful longings for family or hopes for their well-being—a disappointment to his daughters, who have felt his absence their whole lives. Growing up, Marks says she often attached herself to friends’ fathers; later, as a student at San Jose State, she walked around Stanford to feel Robb’s presence.

But masking his identity makes sense as a precaution against reprisals, his daughters say. The text frequently mentions numerous violations of the Geneva Convention (signed but not ratified by Japan) and basic human rights, and Robb’s legal mind is clearly attuned to evidence of negligence and malfeasance.

Regardless of what isn’t stated, Marks says the writing provided her a sense of her father’s intelligence, humor and personality as nothing she’d had access to before. “As I read it, I thought I would have liked to have had him as my father,” Marks says. “It was like meeting him for the first time. I was so grateful.”

One of the few times Robb does slip into the first person is to describe with pride “Bilibid College,” his short-lived idea to tap the prison’s captive brainpower. The greatest burden of POWs, he writes, was not knowing how long they’d be prisoners. “Worst of all—far harder to bear than cold and rain, blistering sun, hunger, kicks and blows—was the uncertainty.”

To pick spirits up, prisoners produced entertainment shows, showed old movies and played sports, until many eventually grew too weak to participate. Robb’s contribution was to organize more than a dozen classes, including Spanish, constitutional law, shorthand and astronomy. The last was a natural favorite for prisoners drawn to the night sky as an escape from the misery and monotony of their lives.

“The place resembled a college campus, with classes going on all day, students hurrying to their classes, poring over their lecture notes, gathering in little groups to discuss, argue etc.,” he writes. “The students were graded on the basis of weekly and monthly quizzes which eliminated the deadwood.”

But it would not last. After two months, Bilibid College was snuffed out by order of the Japanese commander. From then on, Bible study was the only class allowed.

Robb clearly had big plans for the material he was gathering. A copy of a contract with a fellow POW, a subsequently celebrated artist named Ben Steele, shows that Robb promised $300 in cash for a minimum of 20 pencil sketches of prison life—payable later, of course. The agreement lays out how royalties would be split in case the work resulted in magazine articles or even movie rights.

Robb wouldn’t live to do any of it. His stay at Bilibid lasted from October 1942 to about the same time in 1943, when his recuperation from pellagra and other diseases was judged complete, at least according to the Japanese military’s health standards. “Anyone who could walk (and many who could not) were shipped out to prison camps over the doctors’ protests,” he writes.

Before leaving Bilibid for another camp, he entrusted his writings to the prison’s warden, a Navy warrant officer named Earl Schweizer, who sealed the manuscript in a canister and buried it in the ground. There it apparently remained even as Robb passed through Bilibid a final time.

As the momentum of the war changed and the constant sight of U.S. warplanes overhead announced the imminent return of American forces, Japan began shipping POWs back to Japan to work in mines and factories. In December 1944, rumors grew in Bilibid of a mass exodus. 

“[I]t would be infinitely discouraging,” a young officer wrote in a note to his parents on December 12. “A ghastly tragedy to many who are not adjusted mentally to the horrible shock of having release so near, snatched away at the last second. You can see by the date how close our forces are to this island.”

The very next day Robb and the author of the letter were among the 1,619 POWs, mostly officers, who were marched from Bilibid to Manila docks, where they were crammed into the hull of the Oryoku Maru ocean liner bound for Japan.

The men must have known the odds of survival were poor. American bombers were everywhere, and the ships weren’t marked in any way to indicate their cargo. The nightmare that unfolded, though, must surely have been worse than any could have imagined.

Barely a third would make it to Japan. Hundreds would die as the result of Allied bombs. Far more, Robb included, would succumb to suffocation, thirst, disease, beheading, beatings and starvation. It was a litany of suffering that would ultimately result in the hanging of two Japanese officials as war criminals (see sidebar). 

“Jim’s end came on the last leg of the voyage, about January 15, 1945, at a point unknown, some place between Takau and Japan. Cause of death, brutal treatment and starvation,” his father would write later in the Stanford Alumni Review. “[He] perished miserably at the hands of an ungracious foe, at the hour of our highest hope.”

Less than three weeks later, American soldiers liberated both Bilibid and Santo Tomas, the camp where Garred stayed. (Her stepmother, who had tended her constantly for three years, was killed by a mortar after American troops had already reached the camp. The explosion knocked Garred out but left her without a scratch.)

POW - memorialROAD TO HELL: A memorial post in Bacalor, Pampanga, Philippines. (Photo: Ramon Fvelasquez)

Once freed, Schweizer dug up the hidden manuscript and turned it over to military intelligence. When he returned to the States, he sought out Robb’s parents to tell them the story of their son’s ordeal and provide a receipt for reclaiming the document.

Robb’s parents had spent much of the war not knowing whether their son was alive; the first notice that he was came via a terse postcard received 17 months after his capture. But they believed that so long as he lived and had access to a pencil, he would be writing about his experience. 

They set out full steam to get a copy, with increasingly frustrating results. “We have tried for two years to locate the manuscript, but have had no success so far,” they wrote in a letter asking Stanford to lend its resources to the effort. “You can readily see how much this would mean to us.”

Ultimately, the book seems to have surfaced only after Robb’s father, Walt, a former foreign correspondent in Manila, made contact with the office of Dwight Eisenhower, the Army chief of staff, whom he knew from the general’s time in the Philippines before the war.

“Our son died like a starved rat on the last of the Death Ships from Manila to Japan,” Walter told Eisenhower. “Mrs. Robb and I believe that now, an office to office, desk to desk search must be made; and we wonder whether it will be possible for you to detail an officer to this duty.”

Why their grandparents never revealed the document to their son’s children is hard for the sisters to guess—as is why their aunt, since deceased, continued the silence decades longer. In a letter, she accuses Garred of being insufficiently concerned for her father’s plight and claims Marks is another man’s child (a claim flatly contradicted in surviving correspondence between Robb and his first wife).

At root, mistrust seems to have existed between the maternal and paternal sides of the family. Both greeted Garred when she finally arrived by ship in San Francisco, but no sooner had the 12-year-old’s feet hit the dock than her maternal grandmother was maneuvering her around to make it clear she’d be going home with them.

The long secret was just another of the many consequences of a family riven by divorce, incarceration, anguish and deaths. But for a random chat at a final reunion, it might never have been revealed to those to whom it mattered most. “It was very emotional,” Garred says. “I always wished he had survived and we could have talked and compared notes on our imprisonments.”

Sam Scott is a senior writer at Stanford.

You May Also Like

© Stanford University. Stanford, California 94305.