Gardnerville man reflects on WWII years
For John Perkowski of Gardnerville, the creation of the National Prisoner of War Museum at Andersonville Prison in southern Georgia will be a lasting reminder to Americans of the indignities of war.
“They’ll dedicate the museum April 9, which is National POW Recognition Day,” he said. “This museum will honor all American prisoners of war, it doesn’t matter what war they were in.”
Andersonville, which was designated a national historic site in 1970, was built by the Confederate States of America’s war department to house Union prisoners during the Civil War.
Designed to house 10,000 soldiers, Andersonville ultimately held 33,000 men at one time.
Between February 1864 and April 1865, 49,485 men were incarcerated there, and by the war’s end, 13,700 prisoners had died there.
The prisoners succumbed to gangrene in their untreated wounds, scurvy, dysentery, typhoid fever and small pox – diseases caused or augmented by contaminated drinking water, inadequate food, cramped living space and filth.
When the Civil War ended, the Andersonville superintendent was tried by U.S. Military Court, convicted of murder and hanged.
John Perkowski, 76, is no stranger to such conditions.
Perkowski was a prisoner of the Japanese from May 8, 1942, until Sept. 1, 1945. That survival experience bonds him across time with other POWs.
n In the Philippines. Now 76, Private First Class Perkowski was barely 20 when Gen. Jonathan Wainwright surrendered the Philippines to Japanese invaders. Assigned to Fort Frank on the island of Carabao, which with Corregidor, guarded the entrance to Manila Bay, Perkowski and 25 other Americans and 200 Filipino Scouts (in the American Army) and regular Philippine Army soldiers had watched the Japanese advance on Corregidor from behind it on the Bataan Peninsula.
“Eight hours a day, I had a front row seat to the Battle of Corregidor from my observation station,” Perkowski said. “Mornings were the worst; we were shelled constantly. Our artillery mostly pointed out to sea, so fighting back was difficult. The dust from the attacks was so thick we couldn’t see Corregidor.”
Perkowski’s post was one of dozens of phone booth cells cut into the volcanic rock cliffs of Carabao Island. The cells, which connected to artillery batteries by telephone, had narrow observation windows.
When off-duty, Perkowski and the others billeted in tunnels which formed an underground network at Fort Frank on the 1- by-4-mile island.
“One of our tunnels was pierced by a .240-millimeter shell which exploded inside,” he said. “Twenty-eight men were killed and 40 were wounded. On Corridor they were out of food and water when Gen. Wainwright surrendered. He had to surrender all the forts. We weren’t supposed to, but we destroyed our big guns and powder and threw our small arms into the sea,” Perkowski said. “We were told of the surrender May 7, 1942. On May 8, the Japanese took us off the island.”
n Prisoner of war. Perkowski’s first stop as a POW was the small port of Nasugbu, which had a deep water pier and a causeway. Retreating American troops had blown huge holes in the causeway. The prisoners, forming a human chain, passed truckloads of coral rocks man-to-man to fill in the holes.
“At night, we were kept in a galvanized iron warehouse.” he said. “It was hot and sunny, but we were limited to one cup of water per day from an old farm well. It took a week to fill the holes. People went mad (from thirst).
“We had been on half-rations for three months before the surrender, so we weren’t in the best shape to begin with. We were kept in Nasugbu for another week then marched in a column to Bilibid Prison, which had been converted to a POW camp. And then to Cabanatuan, where I was put on a work detail at Nichols Field.
“We buried 40-50 per day. They died from disease – malaria, dysentery, pelegra and beriberi and beatings.
n Off to Japan. “We were kept there until 1944 when we were sent on a hell ship to Japan. It was 62 days from Manila to Moji. Fifteen hundred of us were stuffed into the two forward holds of unmarked freighters. The prisoners were given little food or water and mortalities, which included murder, were high. The freighters were attacked and strafed by American fire and at one point, several men swore they heard a torpedo scraping the side of the ship.”
In Japan, Perkowski was sent to Fukuoku Camp No. 17, adjacent to a coal mine about 30 miles northeast of Nagasaki. He and the others worked in the mine until they were liberated at the war’s end. At the coal mine, the prisoners were subject to severe beatings for minor infractions, but Perkowski also remembers occasional acts of kindness from one of the guards.
“Many of the prisoners purposely maimed themselves to keep from working in the mine – breaking their arms, smashing their feet or hands. In camp you could maintain weight even though we were on half rations, but in the mine you couldn’t,” Perkowski said. “One day we saw an orange light over the clouds toward Nagasaki, we thought our bombers had hit a magazine. It wasn’t until we were liberated that we learned about the atomic bombs. Funny thing, we were actually liberated by a newspaper man from Chicago.”
n Career Army man. Perkowski went on to make a career in the Army and retired in 1961 as a major. He then went back to college in Southern California and earned a BA in accounting at the University of California at Los Angeles. He worked as a revenue agent and as an accountant for the Renegotiation Board which oversees government defense contracts. Perkowski and Jean, his wife of 49 years, retired to Nevada 19 years ago. They have two sons and three grandchildren.
Although he belongs to the Veterans of Foreign Wars organization, Perkowski says he rarely attends meetings. He makes a point of attending the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor meetings, which are held twice yearly.
And he often meets with an informal group of ex-POWs at the Veterans Administration in Reno.
“We’re from World War II, Korea and Vietnam,” he says. “But we share that experience in common. For good or bad, it changes you.”
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