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  by "merchant  seaman" Joseph Vernick  
  I was a seaman on a merchant ship when it was bombed and sunk in Manila Bay at the start of WWII.  A few days later I was picked up by the Japanese and sent to the soon-to-be-overcrowded camp at Santo Tomas University.  About a year later 800 of us were shipped in crowded and very hot rail cars and sent to help build a new internee camp near Los Baños, which is about forty miles southeast of Manila.  
  By late 1944 American forces had freed the island of Leyte, south of Luzon Island, and began the liberation of Luzon and the capital of Manila.  Fighter planes and bombers from aircraft carriers were flying over our camp to bomb targets around Manila.  
  Conditions were chaotic and supplies for the Japanese were being disrupted.  The Filipinos knew the Americans were returning so they dug up buried arms and bolos to attack the Japanese soldiers who had badly mistreated the Filipino people.  Our camp food supplies dwindled and the Japanese forbade internees to leave camp to cut wood for cooking fires.  Fuel was so scarce I would pick up twigs, hide them under my bunk, and then make a tiny fire to cook.  All we had to eat was lugao, a watery broth made of rice.  
  Japanese officers and non-coms routinely struck or kicked lower ranks who then would do the same to us internees.  I was assigned to daily sweep the area around the main gate.  General Homma (the butcher  of Bataan)  entered the camp one day as I swept.  A guard screamed that my bow was not low enough to show respect to the general.  He kicked me so hard in both knees that they greatly pain me to this day.  
  We were starving by late 1944.  I was blacking out from hunger and would stagger while walking.  We knew liberation was coming but wondered if we would be alive to see it.  
  Prisoners were dying daily from beriberi and starvation.  The camp Commandant offered any internee 100 grams of unhusked rice to dig a grave.  I tried swinging a heavy mattock but was so weak I kept falling down.  So I decided to get some food regardless of the risks involved.  
  A guarded storeroom (bodega) in the center of camp supplied 150+ Japanese camp guards.  Jack Voorhees of New York, Joe Flores from Hawaii and I decided we would break into the bodega rather than die from slow starvation. We cased the bodega for several nights to learn the routine of the guard.  Only once in three nights did he check the path that led into the bodega.  
  We chose a dark and rainy night when we felt the guards would stay in their sentry towers.  We crept through the waist high weeds leading to the back of the bodega.  Slim was our sentinel, so he stayed back and hid in the weeds.  Joe and I edged along the pathway from the rear to the storeroom door.   
  Joe tried to pick the lock with a skeleton key with little success.  I started getting nervous and said "Break the %$%S  lock, and let's get in and get out!" Just then a guard came around the bodega.  Had we been discovered?    We were terrified as we  hunched down on the on the path a few feet from the door.  It was nearly pitch dark but I could see the outline of the guard and a momentary glint from his long bayonet.  
  I said to myself, "Here is where I get cold steel."  My heart was beating so hard I thought the guard could hear it!  He was so close I could have stuck my foot out and tripped him.  By this time Joe and I were wet with sweat.  Slim, out in the back, never saw the guard.  After the guard passed, Joe took a screwdriver and broke the lock.  We entered the bodega not knowing if anyone might be in there.  Luck was with us.  
  Against the wall was a platform with large sacks.  I slit one of the sacks and kernels of corn began to bounce on the floor.  Each sack weighed 100 kilos (~200 pounds) and was far too heavy for us to carry.  I felt another sack, then slit it open, sugar spilled out.  I shoved a fist full of it into my mouth.  It was the most glorious taste I experienced during my internment.  At that moment I would not have cared if a guard had come in and killed me.  
  I removed my blue sweatshirt, tied the ends of the sleeves and pounded them full of brown sugar.  Joe said, “he had found a box of cigarettes.”  I stated "To hell with them, let's get out here!"  But Joe felt we could trade them to other prisoners for canned goods.  I then tied the bottom of my pants with cord and shoved my pant legs full of cigarette packs.  We ran out to where Slim was waiting and we all rushed to the safety of our barracks.  
  There were two other men living in our 12' x 20' cubicle.  We made a tiny fire on the backside of our barracks where it could not be seen.  One of the men had a deep aluminum pot.  We put 4" of corn in the pot and added water.  The cooked corn swelled and filled the whole pot.  Joe grated a coconut, which he mixed with water to make coconut milk.  The five of us then sat down, and with generous sprinklings of  brown sugar, gulped down a wonderful meal of sweetened corn.   
  We then buried the remaining corn and sugar along with most of the cigarettes and we all spent the next morning enjoying "Akibono" (Rising Sun) cigarettes.  Not a word was ever said by the Japanese and no inspection of the barracks was made.  But I am sure anyone entering the bodega thereafter would have received quite a reception.  
  In mid-February the Japanese began to dig a large trench about 150' outside the camp fence near our barracks.  We feared and it appeared the Japanese planned to kill us before the U.S. Army would rescue us.  
  On the morning of February 23, 1945 we were dragging ourselves into ragged lines outside the barracks for the 7:00 am rollcall.  We were all filled with dread thinking about the new ditch and wondering if it was made for us.  Most of the guards, clad only in loincloths, were in the middle of their 6:45 to 7:15 am daily calisthenics.  Suddenly gunfire, shouts and low-flying airplane noise shattered the silence. Philippine Guerillas and GIs popped up everywhere.  Some beat the panicking Japanese to the locked rifle racks. The unarmed Japanese fled to the nearby gullies or were killed.  
  A few minutes later I saw an American soldier standing over a prostrate Japanese soldier near the newly dug ditch.  I asked, "Is he dead?"  The soldier motioned to me to lie down and said, "Not yet" and kicked the Japanese into the ditch and followed that with a grenade.  The trooper then added, “now he is.” We then joined the throng, straggling along the 2 mile trail, to the distant beach as the Los Baños camp barracks were burning fiercely behind us. . .   
  About the author:  Mr. Vernick lives in Seal Beach, California (July, 2001).  He   was president and co-founder of the United States Merchant Marine Veterans of World War ll.  In 1987 the 100th Congress awarded the organization the S.S. Lane Victory, a surplus war cargo ship, and it is now a National Landmark berthed at San Pedro.  It sails with hundreds of passengers six times each year towards Catalina Island to commemorate those who were lost on the hundreds of cargo ships sunk through  enemy action during WWII.  
  The ship can be viewed at Berth 94 throughout the year as well as its famous museum of ship models and artifacts from WW2, Korea and Vietnam.  
  Ed Note: The sword Joe is holding over his right shoulder, is a Japanese sword he gained during the Los Baños raid.  
  Thanks to Paul Shea, B-511th for providing a Draft copy