Veterans Museum honors Wilson County man who spent three years in Japanese prison camp

Jacob Smith • Nov 8, 2017 at 4:28 PM

The new Wilson County Veterans Museum has sections dedicated to each war U.S. solders have fought, all the way back to the Civil War.

Items donated by Wilson County residents allow visitors to see, and perhaps better understand, the equipment used by military personnel throughout history and how it has gradually evolved into what is currently used. There is even a Vietnam-era helicopter for visitors to climb in and explore.

All of this is meant to give visitors to the museum a more personal look at the wars that have influenced our country throughout its history. Perhaps the most personal of all the displays is Bill Leslie’s.

Leslie and his family spent three years as prisoners in a Japanese internment camp in the Philippines during World War II, and the museum has a special section dedicated to Leslie’s time in the POW camp.

Leslie and his family lived in Manila where his father, Howard, worked when the attack on Pearl Harbor happened. Just a few hours after the family received news of the attack, the Japanese bombed Manila, as well.

“Gen. [Douglas] Macarthur declared Manila an open city on Dec. 26, 1941,” said Bill Leslie. “Just about a week later, Gen. Masaharu Homma marched into Manila, and that’s when they took us prisoner.”

Bill was 4 years old when his family was taken.

Japanese soldiers took them to Santo Tomas University with about 4,000 other captives, where they spent the majority of their internment. Little food was provided to the inmates.

“In 1944, that was called the year without food. There were people in the camp eating grass and roots. There was just no food in Manila,” said Leslie. “Sometimes you’d get a meal, and it was a ladle of gravy. Other times, the main staple was lugau. It was almost all water with a little bit of rice swimming around in it. They’d serve that twice a day. In the morning, it was real watery; in the afternoon they’d try to thicken it up by adding a little bit more rice.”

Diseases also ran rampant amongst the prisoners.

“We had deficiency diseases and infectious diseases,” said Leslie. “Beri-beri is a deficiency disease; it’s from lack of vitamin B. I had it, my brother had it, and my father had it worst of all. He was swelled up from his knees down.”

Leslie and his family spent three years in the prison. Toward the end, the prisoners began to suspect the Japanese soldiers were going to kill them before they could be rescued to prevent the American soldiers from learning about the conditions inside the camps.

“In 1943, they came out with that ‘kill all’ order,” said Leslie. “We knew about it. My mother particularly knew about it. The Japanese commandant had a valet. The valet, unknown to the commandant, could speak Japanese, and he could read and write Japanese. He saw a communiqué on his desk, so word got out. They were going to kill all American prisoners in the camps, and that’s why they sent the 1st Cavalry Division, the 44th Tank Battalion, in to rescue us.”

On Feb. 3, 1945, an American tank burst through the gates on Santo Tomas, with others behind it. Leslie, his family and the other 4,000 prisoners were liberated.

“It was pandemonium in the camp,” said Leslie. “They had a fierce firefight at the front gates. They had to clean out a bunch of Japanese soldiers. After the fight was over, the tanks came crashing through the iron gates of the camp. A group of Japanese held about 260 hostages in one of the buildings, and that standoff went on for about a day and a half. The tank just pulled right up to the front door and stuck its gun tube through the front door and fired a real long burst of machine gun fire, and that’s how that ended. They didn’t fire anymore after that.”

Leslie can remember the joy he felt when the internment camp was liberated. As the American soldiers filed in, he said, the prisoners sang “God Bless America.”  

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