Ralph Gardner Jr.: A prisoner of war's lessons for a pandemic

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Seniors are considered among the most vulnerable to the coronavirus. But, in other ways, might they also be the most resilient?

That's what I was wondering as I sat under a shade tree with Isabel Krebs, socially distanced, of course, at the home in Stephentown, N.Y., across from a cornfield, where her family has lived continuously since 1765.

But, it's not the family's local history dating back to before the American Revolution that defines Isabel's mettle, though deep roots never hurt in a world that often feels as if it's wobbling out of control.

It's three crucial childhood years, beginning when she was 7, spent about as far away from the serenity of the Hudson Valley and the Berkshires (the Krebs' 455 acres traipse over the state line from New York to Massachusetts) as one can get that have lent Isabel a perspective on life few have.

She and her parents spent those years, from January 1942 until February 1945, as Japanese prisoners of war at the Santo Tomas internment camp in the Philippines.

Quarantining, sheltering in place, and wearing a face mask doesn't feel quite as onerous — Isabel and her husband, Neal, a retired civil engineer, mostly venture out these days for doctor appointments — after surviving on a few hundred calories a day and watching your mother whittle down to 85 pounds before the notorious camp, on the campus of the University of Santo Tomas in Manila, was liberated by American forces under Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

Though confinement of any sort still arouses disturbing memories.

"I don't like being restrained in one place," Isabel, 86, acknowledged as we approach the 75th anniversary of the V-J Day on Aug. 14. "But, the food is good and there's no shooting here to worry about."

She saw her share of death and disease, mainly from starvation, among the prison's 500 children and 6,500 adults.

"There were epidemics in the camp," Isabel remembered. "A measles epidemic among the kids. Not much medical supplies at all. Lots and lots of people died."

The secret to surviving such circumstances may be less focusing on the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel — When MacArthur's troops retreated in the face of advancing Japanese forces (the Japanese attacked the Philippines the same day as Pearl Harbor) it was believed they'd be back in three weeks, not three years — than in finding some small measure of hope and happiness in everyday life and in confounding one's captors.

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The camp had a shortwave radio that was disassembled between uses.

"There were five men running it," Isabel remembered. "They'd each take a part. When they felt it was safe, they'd get together and put it together."

In that way, the prisoners had a sense of the war's progress. They also learned to believe the opposite of whatever they read in the Manila Times, a mouthpiece for the occupying Japanese forces that painted Japanese defeats as glorious victories.

Children, in any case, are peculiarly resilient. They possess a talent for play, even in the midst of peril.

"At one point the Japanese decided all the prisoners should bow every time they met a Japanese," Isabel remembered. "The kids would bow to the Japanese, figure out where they were going, and bow some more."

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The game stopped only after the Japanese, realizing they were being mocked, announced that, if the practice continued, the parents would be punished.

"It was fun while it lasted," Isabel said.

She vividly recalls the American troops' return. The ground under the shack that her father, a representative for International Harvester in the Philippines, had built the family by the perimeter wall of the university started to shake. Then she spotted an American flag. It belonged to one of the tanks that broke through the camp's front gate and rumbled up to the main university building where the Japanese garrison was stationed.

The Japanese took 200 prisoners hostage until they were escorted back to their own lines. MacArthur visited the camp Feb. 7, 1945, as the Japanese continued to shell it.

"I saw him from a distance," Isabel remembered. "He was buried in people."

But, the war raged on, the Americans bombing Manila on a daily basis, the family frequently ducking into the makeshift bomb shelter her father had built under their shack. It wasn't until April 9, 1945, that they were repatriated.

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The war still wasn't over for them, however. They embarked on a treacherous journey across the Pacific aboard an American troop ship. Isabel didn't feel safe until they arrived in Los Angeles three weeks later. It was also the first time in her life that she tasted fresh milk, when the Red Cross came aboard with cookies and milk.

"It tasted very good," she remembered.

The family checked into the Biltmore Hotel, repurposed during the war as a military rest facility.

"I walked in, pointed at the bathtub and said, `What's that?' " Isabel had never seen a bathtub before.

The family would move to Chicago, where Isabel's father resumed his career with International Harvester. Ironically, she said, she read better and knew more math than her classmates, even though she only received two hours of education a day at the internment camp's school.

She would eventually receive a master's degree from the University of Chicago, and, when she returned to the East Coast, taught for several years at New Lebanon High School.

One of the casualties of the pandemic is Isabel's annual reunion with 10 other children from the prison camp.

"A group of us girls meet almost every year," she said.

She's looking forward to the return of normal life. She knows it can, no matter how bad the situation may appear at any given moment.

"Our next big meeting," she reported, "is at the MacArthur museum in Norfolk, Virginia, in 2022."

Ralph Gardner Jr. is a journalist whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The New Yorker. He can be reached at ralph@ralphgardner.com. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.


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