The United States was coming out of the Second World War. The troops came home with many physical and psychological wounds. Many had suffered horrendous experiences beyond our present understanding. Yet, life had to go on. Families reunited, rebuilt lives and carried on. I had the honor of talking to Randall Stokes Edwards, a 102-year-old who was a Prisoner of War in Manchuria for over three years. He shared stories with me of his very challenging life.
Randall began, “We were in the Philippines on a ship that supplied twenty submarines. We had the spare torpedoes. USS Canopus was a 1918 banana boat that had 600 sailors. There were no sleeping quarters for the enlisted men. I slept behind a big radio transmitter on a cot. I was a radioman first class. When the Japanese came, the ship was bombed and that supposedly put her out of commission. We weren’t really, of course, but we made it look that way. We made it look like it was only good to scuttle.” He continued, “The Japanese attacked the Philippines and so we were ordered to go to a port at the very bottom tip of the Bataan peninsula. We serviced our last submarines there but then the Japanese pinned us down. I went with the 220 Signal Corps with the army. We did anything we could with the material we had. We had no supplies at this time and we ate everything we could find while at Bataan. We ate the last Army mule in March and we were completely surrounded by the Japanese.”
“In April, a Japanese general came back to kill all the Americans on Bataan,” Randall added, “We weren’t going anywhere, we were dying anyway. We were starving to death. We had beriberi, malaria and dysentery. We didn’t have much ammunition and the clip I put in my 1898 enfield rifle when I fired it, would travel about twenty feet and we’d see it drop. We would get a whole case of ammo and out of that very little was any good. It was all so corroded. So we didn’t have much to shoot with.”
Randall remembers when the Japanese general brought his army back to Bataan, they folded. “The last order I got from the Army was you are on your own. I had a choice, try to go through the jungle and escape or I could join the Navy. Well hell, I didn’t like that jungle thing so I went back to join the Navy. My old ship was nose down and the Navy crew was gone. Me and my friend decided to get to Corregidor. We picked up junk, floated on it, and the tide helped us get there. We found the Marine battalion there. We were bombed daily. We watched and counted 900 guns landing on Corregidor. It was just a mile from us. They were the big guns, 240 millimeter! General Wainwright, commander of the Allied Forces in the Philippines, surrendered to the Japanese in May, 1942.”
Randall tells how he was deathly ill and somehow survived and for a time ended up cooking for Japanese engineers while still on the island of Corregidor. “At that time we ate pretty darn good.” Then he was transferred to another prisoner camp where he was put on the burial detail. The grave was a huge trench. “We would take the dog tags off the bodies and slide them in. It was a horrible job.”
Randall recalls 1500 Americans and 1500 Japanese were put on a troop ship. “We were in the hold of the ship but half of us would be on deck as there was no room. We got one cup of water and a tiny rations per day.” In transit Randall had many close calls. He was moved with other prisoners many times. “We dodged a submarine attack. We were on deck and saw a big splash about a quarter of a mile away. We screamed torpedo and even more came at us. Now we knew that those American torpedoes would bump into us, but we also knew they wouldn’t explode. What happened was the firing pin, which was supposed to go straight back in, would bend on contact instead and not explode. You could hear a thud when they hit a ship…but they wouldn’t explode! The Navy eventually fixed that!”
After many months The prisoners ended up in China. “We were not POWS now, we were slave labor. The Japanese sold us to the MKK corporation to build factories in Manchuria. We got there in November. The camp, well, it was like the way Americans raise hogs in. One cast iron stove was at the end of each building. It was 40 below zero there. I froze my feet, I froze my hands and everybody else did too. I wasn’t unique. We did not have any clothes! And we were dying! That first winter we had a cup of cabbage soup each day. The doctors recommended soy beans in the soup! That’s what we ate until we finally were released, more protein.” When asked about how he could get up every day he said “We had no choice. We knew the Americans were coming. But we also knew we would all be executed if they came. So we did what we could to sabotage. You know how I survived? Every morning when I woke up I would say these little bastards aren’t going to kill me today! “
How Did you finally get released? “That’s pretty interesting. One morning we were all sent out to the parade field.There were no guards! An American said the war is over! You woulda thought you’d hear whoops and yelling. But not a sound. (He choked up here). You could hear a pin drop. After three years thinking we could die any day, we were speechless. After that we bailed out of that camp like you wouldn’t believe! Eventually we were shipped out to hospitals to recover.”
Back home, Randall did a five year Electrical Engineering program in three years. He wasted no time in getting back to life. He spent 25 years working for the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. He later moved to Lakeland to be near his only son, Dr. J. Randall Edwards. Edwards became a National Service Officer for American Ex Prisoners of War Organization and American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor. He has served many over the years. He has given many speeches to the Service Academies . For now, he is taking it easy as he is legally blind but still can walk without a cane!
When referring to the Greatest Generation, I think Randall Edwards stands out . He did what he had to do. He came back, worked hard, made no excuses (though he sure could have), preservered, and has lived a full and rich life.