In this Memorial Day issue, we honor a local WWII veteran who survived the brutality of the Japanese POW camps and the “Hell Ships.” Although he passed away February 3, 2013, shortly before his 93rd birthday, his story of courage and endurance lives on.
Sergeant Victor Cote, U.S. Army Air Corps, was a POW in Japan’s Camp 17 near Omata, Kyushu, when he heard B-29 Superfortresses thundering overhead. Looking up, he saw a large mushroom cloud rising over Nagasaki, 40 miles across the bay. It was 11:01 a.m. on August 9, 1945. The B-29, “Bock’s Car,” and its escort planes had flown directly over his camp on their way to Nagasaki to drop the second atomic bomb, ending WWII.
“I didn’t know what the bomb was, only that it was something new and powerful,” the Tewksbury native recalled. After 40 months as a POW—with the last twelve spent in slave labor at Camp 17’s coal mines—his ordeal was finally ending.
Ten hours earlier Victor’s first cousin, Philip Cote, had witnessed “Bock’s Car” take off from Tinian Island in the Pacific with its escort planes, one of which he had just serviced. Philip was crew chief of maintenance for the B-29 bombers on Tinian, where he had served exactly one year to the day. (For Philip’s story, see “Hero in our Midst,” September 2012.)
The atomic bomb saved Victor’s life. The Japanese had a standing order to “eliminate” all evidence of POWs as soon as the first Americans landed on their mainland.
Despite 25 attacks of malaria, scurvy, pellagra, dry beriberi, and cerebral malaria (seizures, coma), Victor Cote survived and lived a long, healthy life.
His cousin Philip Cote, now 97, still lives in Dracut—not far from the Cote family compound on Trull Road, Tewksbury, Mass., where Victor and Philip were raised together.
When asked how he managed to survive, Victor said, “I just wanted to live.” Miraculously he did, by the grace of God.
Victor was stationed at Nichols Field, Manila, when it was bombed within days after Pearl Harbor. “My barracks went up in flames. Japanese dive-bombers filled the entire sky, destroying every American plane. Not one got airborne.”
Victor was handed a rifle pulled out of storage, but it jammed—it had not been cleaned. “Japanese dive-bombers swooped down relentlessly all day long. This hell lasted a week before we boarded a barge to cross the bay to the Bataan peninsula. That trip was a nightmare. A low-flying Japanese plane strafed us throughout the trip.”
Finally reaching Bataan, he was pressed into combat on the front lines near Parsay—without prior infantry training. “Only a field separated us from the advancing Japanese Army. Every day planes flew over, bombing and strafing. I saw legs blown off my friend—men dying all around me.”
In a twist of irony, because of this, Victor escaped the 85-mile Bataan Death March, April 10-16, 1942, that ended at Camp O’Donnell. He survived the hospital, but the Japanese captured him anyway when he left his jungle hideout to catch a monkey for dinner. He was trucked to Camp O’Donnell, arriving just after the Death March survivors staggered in.
“The entire front gate area of Camp O’Donnell was covered with the dead and dying, “boys dying at the rate of 60 a day.” (Military reports state 1500 Americans died at Camp O’Donnell, most of them Death March survivors.)
Victor was assigned to burying up to 150 men a day, in a shallow pit 18 inches deep, 20 feet wide by 40 feet long. Monsoon rains would wash away the topsoil, exposing a protruding arm or leg.
Most POWs died of starvation, polluted drinking water, malaria or dysentery. “We got one small ball of rice a day. One spigot of water supplied the entire camp of 7,000 Americans. You had to stand in line for three hours.”
After two weeks at Camp O’Donnell, Victor was sent back to Bataan to collect old anti-aircraft guns and ammunition left behind by American forces. A month later, he was sent to Bilibid prison in Manila, a transfer point to other camps. “Men were dying here faster than at Camp O’Donnell—all skin and bones, vomiting uncontrollably.” From Bilibid he was transferred to Cabanatuan, a Japanese slave labor camp.
At Cabanatuan, Victor leveled 3 to 4-foot high anthills with a long-handled hoe and planted camotes (sweet potatoes). His weight dropped from 150 to 100 lb. Many times he thought he would die, especially after very severe dysentery and malaria hospitalized him for six months. The dysentery section had an unnumbered “Zero Ward.” No one ever left there alive. “Death surrounded me constantly. I’d go to sleep next to a POW and wake up next to a corpse. While waiting for death, we played macabre games: who would be the next to die?”
Japanese brutality was savage. “They beheaded POWs. They buried them alive. They made them dig their own grave and then would shoot them in the head. They forced men to kneel in submission at the front gate, hands tied behind their knees, 24 hours a day, and beat them. They beat one POW all day long for picking up a bar of soap. We were forced to watch these executions.”
The “Hell Ship”
and the cross
Then Victor was thrown into a “Hell Ship” bound for Japan—where 500 to 1900 POWs would be crammed into the dark, unventilated hold, with virtually no food or water, for a three-month trip from Manila to Japan—which normally took five days. Victor slept on bags of grain infested with lice, lived on one cup each of rice and water a day.
He arrived in Japan a skeleton in rags, assigned to Camp 17’s coal mines. “We had to build stone walls to shore up crumbling ceilings. Cave-ins killed many POWs. A 5-ton rock crashed, narrowly missing me. I saw men beaten to death for stealing food, or for no reason at all. Some 200 died the year I was there.
“Each morning outside the gate, we saw two to four Americans tied to a wooden cross, where they knelt until they died.”
The cross, symbol of suffering and death—yet also symbol of the ultimate triumph of good over evil, eternal life over death. At the cross, Christ conquered Satan and the grave. Jesus said He came “to destroy the works of the devil” (I John 3:8). He promised, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, though he may die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25). “Where, O death is your victory?”