An Officer And A Physician
WW II POW experience tested doctor’s resolve, training
By Lynn M. Thompson
When the young pre-med student entered Northwestern University’s Naval ROTC program in 1930, he had little inkling of the journey just beginning. It would take him to the Orient and back. It would make him face starvation and rare diseases, work with primitive medical tools and take charge of desperate situations to save himself and his fellow men. Through it all, his medical and military training gave him the values and skills necessary to persevere.
In the height of the Great Depression, aspiring surgeon Ferdinand “Fred” Berley entered his senior year at Northwestern University. Taking his Navy examination early, he received one of 20 openings nationwide and did his internship in San Diego. By September 1939, he was the Medical Officer for Destroyer Division 58, sailing around the Phillippines maintaining the health of the ships’ crews.
In 1940, DESDIV 58 was sent to Amoy (now Xiamen). Keeping the men safe from venereal diseases in the clubs on nearby Kulongsoo (Gulangyu) became top priority. It was not the only exotic risk, however, as one crew member contracted smallpox. Leaving the misfortunate sailor at a missionary hospital in Swatao (Shantou), the now-quarantined ship headed back to Manila.
That summer, they moved north to the Yellow Sea. On a stop in Tsingtao (Qingdao), Berley contracted influenza and discovered he had a Gohn turbercle from exposure to tuberculosis during college. He was transferred to the 4th Marines in Shanghai in 1940. Bachelors lived a plush life there with private servants and a tuxedo-clad social life at clubs like Circle Sportif Française and the Hung Chou Golf Course.
The following year, Dr. Berley received orders to the Navy dispensary at Cavite, Phillippines. Shanghai luxury became quarters in a wooden building above the dispensary. This was where news of Pearl Harbor arrived. Nobody believed the war would last six months until later seeing photos of the damage.
When bombs hit Cavite, Dr. Berley helped with triage of the wounded. They operated until early in the morning, then slept in their blood-soaked clothes. After securing clean clothes in Manila, he was sent to rejoin the Marines. They went to the island of Corregidor, where “we could see all the Army personnel with their starched khakis, ties and everything. It just didn’t look like a war was taking place.” Air raids were not far behind them, however.
Meal rations were short, and Filipino scouts taught the troops creative uses for local crops. They sterilized latrines by burning gunpowder in them. Morale was boosted by firefights over nearby forts and Voice of America news. Once Bataan fell, in late April 1942, it was only 7-10 days before Corregidor followed. Just beforehand, Dr. Berley rescued a badly-wounded man during heavy shelling and brought him to their hospital for treatment. His actions won him a Bronze Star with a Combat “V”.
Once the Japanese landed, the Marines gathered at Wheeler Point and held out another day before surrendering. Still wearing his Red Cross brassard, Berley was ordered to the tunnel hospital instead of accompanying his group. Hot and humid, the “hospital” was thick with flies and the smell of decaying bodies. He formed a pact with fellow physicians George Ferguson, Murray Glusman and John Bookman to remain together and support each other during their incarceration. The group also adopted LCDR Carey Smith, who would later recommend Berley for a Navy Cross.
Hearing that the 92nd Garage unit needed a dispensary, Berley volunteered for the duty. Only medicine available, argerol. Bandages, none. Water, scarce. Hunger, constant. “One night it started to rain and that was a blessing. And then all those POWs began to sing ‘God Bless America’ spontaneously,” he recalls. At great risk, the doctors pilfered canned goods from an abandoned tunnel to sustain them. Soon, everyone was shipped to the Phillippines’ main prison.
Conditions at Bilibid were bearable. Water was plentiful, with recreation and even a library. There were shows every couple of weeks. One officer set up a canteen selling limited produce. Berley had 80 pesos salvaged from an abandoned locker, enabling his group to buy peanuts. Red Cross parcels arrived just before Christmas and were appreciated for months. Canned goods were treasures to share among the group. Food included a watery, contaminated rice dish called lugao with occasional “whistleweed” and rancid meat, fish heads or dried fish.
Their poor diet and environment yielded some rare medical conditions. One was a dry form of beriberi causing extreme foot pain. Some even lost their feet from it. Another was optic neuritis that took away the central field of vision. A young Army man contracted rabies from a dog bite and eventually died. A sailor died of distension after gorging on a couple of Red Cross parcels in one sitting. Amoebic dysentery was common, and two patients died from brain abcesses caused by amoebiasis. An Army captain even contracted a case of blackwater fever, a rare form of malaria.
Soon after American POWs were marched from the infamous Camp O’Donnell to Cabanatuan, the medical group was sent there to join them. Doctors became just like other prisoners, assigned to work details. One sadistic guard enjoyed taunting them with live cobras as they returned from working the fields. Berley was assigned to a wood chopping detail “that probably saved my life. I got into the best physical condition I could have ever been in. They fed us better.” Their lugao was occasionally enhanced by carabao, and the guards were more humane. He, Ferguson, Glusman and Bookman played cards with a precious deck sent by Berley’s parents. “We wrapped them in a special piece of cloth to keep them from getting soiled. And we kept score. Whoever lost was going to treat the other three to a dinner out.”
Any escape attempts came with threat of death. The Japanese arranged groups of ten who were responsible for keeping the others from escaping. If anyone in the group escaped, the other nine were executed.
By early 1944, changes in war news indicated the tide turning in America’s favor. After being tested for amoebae, Cabanatuan’s prisoners were shipped to Japan. Ferguson’s positive test kept him behind, and that was the last time they saw him. When their primitively-outfitted ship stopped in Formosa to load sugar cargo, the prisoners pocketed all they could to supplement their lugao.
After roughly three weeks, they arrived at Osaka. Ichioka hospital, where Berley was assigned, was built under bleachers for an athletic stadium, and conditions were deplorable. He befriended an Australian doctor named Ackroyd, a constant smoker who contracted tuberculosis. Berley’s Gohn tubercle gave him some immunity, but malnutrition weakened everyone. What little fish they were provided monthly, the guards stole, then beat any prisoners who reported them. One British soldier developed bulimia and died after secreting away in his blanket the food he was supposed to eat.
A respected Japanese physician was soon put in charge of Ichioka. “[Hyojiro] Ohashi proved to be a very fine person, very much a gentleman, very much a doctor.” He befriended Berley and took English lessons from him. Ohashi treated medical officers with the respect due fellow physicians. Upon finally examining the emaciated, lice-covered patients, he ordered everyone moved to the new Kobe International Prisoner of War Hospital. He named Berley senior American officer, allowing him to choose his staff. Before departure for Kobe, they operated on Ackroyd on a kitchen table, using a procedure Berley had learned in San Diego. The normally 240-pound Aussie had dropped to just over 80 pounds, but survived and returned home to recover.
The Kobe hospital was in a former American school on a hillside overlooking the city. Their diet was barley and millet seed with periodic vegetables and dried fish heads. What few holiday Red Cross parcels they received were rationed by the guards. This hospital did have an operating room, although its instruments were sorely outdated.
News trickled in from Kobe that the war was going increasingly bad for the Japanese. Ohashi allowed the doctors to visit with area physicians. Renowned surgeon Dr. Ozawa invited them to his hospital after the war to view lung resections. Although conditions were better at Kobe, Berley saw one case of hysterical blindness. The patient was cured through hypnosis, amazing the Japanese, who showboated him for visiting dignitaries. A tetanus patient was also miraculously saved.
As bombing raids increased, POW morale grew and they bet on when the next would occur. Finally, the hospital was hit during an airstrike. A Marine sergeant whose ruptured appendix had just been removed prior to the raid was moved to a safer location with two other patients. Unfortunately, that building received a direct fire bomb hit. Only a portion of the sergeant’s torso was ever found. The patients who’d been carried out of the compound all survived the raid.
With shelter and supplies now destroyed, the staff attempted to treat the injured, doing their best with what was left. Food was even scarcer than before and the weather was cold. The following day, patients and staff were marched through now-destroyed Kobe to a train taking them to Maruyama. Berley had the agonizing task of choosing which patients could be moved on the few stretchers they had. Others helped each other on the four-hour walk through driving rain.
Maruyama brought an infestation of sand fleas and flies, with men sleeping on tables to avoid being eaten alive. The only food left was millet seed, squash and thin soup. With bandages scarce and medicine non-existent, they used maggots to clean wounds, just as doctors had done in earlier wars. Surprisingly, many of those wounds healed leaving minimal scars.
As they received news of Hiroshima, the Japanese guards grew increasingly aggressive. Prisoners made plans to defend themselves from the guards if American troops landed. After radio news of the war’s end, food began to arrive, but it was far too rich for the long-starved prisoners. Weeks went by, with no help arriving. Without medicine, they were still losing a lot of patients.
They read that the American fleet would arrive on August 27 for the official surrender. Berley, Glusman and Smith decided to take a list of their patients to Tokyo so American officials could locate them. After a harrowing train journey through destroyed cities, they arrived in Tokyo and delivered their list to the Swiss ambassador. Berley recalls, “When we got to the bay just before Yokohama, I could see our fleet out there. And that’s when I almost broke down and started crying. Goodness, what a beautiful sight that was!”
By the time they returned from Tokyo, the patients from Maruyama were all at the Osaka Red Cross Hospital. A special train, with Berley in charge, took the patients to Yokohama. As they arrived, he saw Admiral Byrd on the platform and asked him to greet the men. “He came aboard and shook hands with every one of those hundred or so that we had,” recalls Berley. The patients were loaded onto hospital ships, while Berley and Bookman were directed aboard a tank landing ship. After a frustrating stopover in Guam, they finally made it home to the States.
It had been three and a half years since Dr. Berley was taken prisoner by the Japanese. He was fortunate; 42% of those captured in the Phillippines never made it home. His weight had dropped to around 112. For several years he had a rapid pulse and ran a low-grade fever from a touch of TB. Although his weight returned to its normal 150, it took him many years to get past his anger. He completed his fellowship in surgery, did an additional three months in orthopedics, then wed his bride, Camille.
On the way to Berley’s first assignment after their marriage, they stopped off in New York City to collect from Glusman on that dinner bet made over cards in Cabanatuan. Bookman was also there, and the former prisoners were reunited for one evening, remembering their lost friend Ferguson.
After working at naval hospitals in Pensacola, Philadelphia and Bethesda, Berley came to Jacksonville and became chief of surgery at the US Naval Hospital in May, 1955. Four years later, he retired as a Rear Admiral and entered private practice to support his growing family. After almost 50 years, he retired to his Mandarin home.
You can read a more detailed account of Dr. Berley’s experiences in the book Conduct Under Fire: Four American Doctors and Their Fight for Life as Prisoners of the Japanese, 1941-45 by John A. Glusman. Visit the website at www.conductunderfire.com.