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Lebanon family recalls liberation from POW camp in Philippines

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Nancy Leslie recalled a story about her sister Alices husband Emilio Groupe, a German who was a citizen of the Philippines and who evaded capture by Japanese soldiers there for many months after Manila was taken by Japanese forces on Jan. 2, 1942.


She said Emilio worked for the Radio Corporation of America, or more commonly, RCA, and was good friends with David Sarnoff, president of RCA at the time.


He was making transmitters and receivers for the guerillas, all underground, Nancy said.


He was transmitting to MacArthurs headquarters in Australia about Jap troop movements and positions, Bill Leslie said of Emilio. He was also instrumental in transmitting to MacArthurs headquarters about the treatment of prisoners.









Bill Leslie, left, sits with his mother, Nancy in their Lebanon home. The pair lived 37 months in a Japanese internment camp in Manila, Philippines during World War II.






But upon his capture in late 1943 or early 1944, they could not recall exactly, Bill and Nancy said Groupe was taken to Fort Santiago Prison in Manila, where the Japanese used its dungeons and prisons to torture prisoners of war.


Youve heard of the Spanish Inquisition? They built Fort Santiago, and thats where they tortured during the war. Emilio was in one of those torture chambers, Nancy said.


She said Alice was able to go to Fort Santiago once where she found her husbands cell so full of prisoners, that none could sit or lie down. The POWs were packed shoulder-to-shoulder, with little or no food and water.


She pleaded to the General for Emilios life, he gave her a box of coffee grounds and sugar, but they were mixed together, Bill recalled.


She said every day, Alice and others would sit with the jar and pick apart the coffee grounds from the granules of sugar until the two were separated enough to use by their family in Santo Tomas.


Bill said Emilio was accused and charged by a Japanese military court of sinking 17 ships and killing hundreds of thousands of Japanese soldiers with his radio communications from guerillas to Allied headquarters in Australia.


On Japanese Emperor Hirohitos birthday in 1944, Nancy said 28 prisoners from Fort Santiago were marched to a Chinese cemetery in Manila.


They marched them over to the cemetery and two Jap officers, one on each side, beheaded each one of them, in celebration for the Emperors birthday, she said.


The group was buried in a mass grave that was later discovered after the war. Nancy recalled Emilios cousin had to identify his remains.


Bill noted as the war drew on in the Pacific and the Allies gained momentum, the food supplies and Red Cross packages shipped to Santo Tomas were cut short and later eliminated.


In February 1944, Filipino doctors and nurses were no longer allowed inside the camp, however, Bill said a number of U.S. Army and Navy doctors and nurses were transferred to Santo Tomas after their capture in Bataan and Corregidor, Philippines.


The Leslies said many soldiers escaped harsher treatments by posing as citizens before capture, allowing them to be interned at Santo Tomas instead of prisons such as Fort Santiago.


American forces drew closer to the Philippines later in 1944 and Nancy recalled air raids and bombings became more regular. Before the war returned to Manila, Bill said most people died from disease or starvation, but in the last six to eight months, combat deaths became the norm.


You could set your watch by the bombings, Nancy said.


Bill described the classroom where his family slept on the second floor as being near one end of the building. One day, Bill said the Japanese soldiers came and ordered them to move to the other end of the building.


Nancy said the prisoners used to stand and watch out of the buildings windows, watching American and Japanese fighter pilots dog-fighting over Manila. Despite orders from the Japanese to not look out the windows, Bill and his father Howard continued to watch the dog fights daily from a balcony.


Every time a Jap plane would go down, my father would cheer and yell, Bill said.


A sentry on the ground noticed Bill and his father on the balcony and yelled at them, waving for them to go inside the building. Bill said his father ignored the Japanese soldier and continued to watch the aerial battles.


It wasnt until the sentry shot at them did they return inside. Shortly thereafter, the portion of the building where the Leslie family once slept was destroyed by Japanese artillery. Bill said they were lucky the Japanese moved them from one room to another on the end before the building was hit.









Bill Leslie, left, and his brother Tom, right, sit on the tank known as Ole Miss after being liberated from Santo Tomas internment camp in Manila, Philippines in 1945. The boys would play on the tanks and Army Jeeps in Santo Tomas after liberation.






Every day, Bill said he started occupying himself in the yards of Santo Tomas after artillery barrages, searching for pieces of the shells that landed within the camp.


It became my hobby to pick up bomb shrapnel, he said. I had a stick and a cigar box and I would go around and flip the hot pieces into the box.


Later in the year, a bulletin printed by prisoners after the liberation indicated 3,785 prisoners at Santo Tomas on Dec. 25, 1944 saw, read or heard of a leaflet that landed in the camp indicating American forces were close and wishing everyone a Merry Christmas.


The Commander in Chief, the Officers and the men of the American Forces of Liberation in the Pacific wish their gallant allies, the People of the Philippines, all the blessings of Christmas and the realization of their fervent hopes for the New Year, the leaflet read.


Shortly thereafter, Nancy recalled watching a dog-fight where an American plane was shot down and its pilot ejected. While the prisoners watched the pilot deploy his parachute, as he drifted to the ground, they could see he was not moving.


She said the pilots body slowly fell near the camp, close enough to see his head slumped, and close enough to see that he had not survived.


The camp was really quiet that day because we could all see this pilot, Nancy said.


On Jan. 11, the 44th Tank Battalion landed at Lingayen Gulf in Luzon, Philippines as the American troops began fighting back the Japanese on the island. The Allies fought furiously through Luzon and toward Manila.


Almost a month later, while dog-fights and bombing were becoming more frequent, Nancy said an American plane flew unusually low over Santo Tomas while she was walking one day. The pilot threw out his pair of goggles to the prisoners below, with a note wrapped to them.


It said, Roll out the Barrel, a bar song at that time, which meant happy times were here again, she said. We were cheering.


The day was Feb. 3, 1945, and Gen. MacArthur ordered a column of troops to advance into Manila, bypassing any enemy soldiers to reach three internment camps, including Santo Tomas to liberate the prisoners.


Later in the war, Bill indicated Japanese POW camps were issued orders to kill their prisoners. He said MacArthur was likely afraid the Santo Tomas prisoners and other POWs in camps in Manila, would be killed.


Word had gotten out in the camp that this was going to happen. The Commandant had a valet that could read and write Japanese and he saw a communiqu on his desk to kill the prisoners, Bill said.


Late that evening, Bill said an American tank with Battling Basic written on the side, burst through the gates of Santo Tomas University, with others behind it, marking the liberation of the camp.









This photo, printed in a New Haven, Conn. newspaper in 1945, shows American soldiers and Santo Tomas prisoners after liberation, outside the main building, shown at left, where the Leslie family slept.






The Japanese soldiers who were left took around 200 hostages inside the Education Building and Nancy said an officer named Abiko reached for a grenade but was shot by an American soldier.


She said the officer was taken inside the camps medical building to treat his wounds, but a number of prisoners followed the stretcher carrying Abiko inside.


Several of the prisoners cut his throat, she said.


Outside, as American troops filtered into the camp along with other tanks, Nancy and Bill recalled the excitement and joy all the prisoners felt at seeing their liberators from B Company of the 44th Tank Battalion.


The prisoners were all singing God Bless America, she said.


Bill noted while the fighting was still going on in Manila, he and his dad were lying under an American tank eating Hershey bars given to them by American soldiers.


While the camp was liberated on Feb. 3, the fighting did not end. Casualties from Japanese bombings and artillery continued to pile up.


At the same time, Bill said he and his brother Tom, along with other kids, would play on searchlights and tanks parked in the university during the day. While instruments of war surrounded them, the young boys used them as their playground.


I remember fondly this one tank with Ole Miss written on the side. I dont know why but I really liked that one, Bill said.


In all, the Leslies spent 37 months interned at Santo Tomas, but did not get the chance to go home until a few weeks later. Civilian prisoners were evacuated in April after military prisoners of war were taken out first.


Nancy said they docked in San Francisco around Easter, 1945, after a long trip across the Pacific.


While their ordeal was over, the Leslies would never forget what they went through, the friends and family they lost along the way, and the men who liberated them on that February night.


I wrote all this down one day, it was the 50th anniversary of the liberation, Nancy recalled. I relived everything that night, 50 years later.


The ink on the pages, handwritten by Nancy Leslie, has faded over time, but her memories remain sharp, as do Bills.


He returned to the Philippines in 1957 while serving in the United States Marine Corps. He never went to Manila, and pointed out, I never asked to go. The family has never been back since flying out on a boulevard used as a runway in war-torn Manila.









Nancy Leslie, left, and Howard Leslie pose for a picture aboard the U.S.S. Jean Lafitte, en route to the United States after being liberated from Santo Tomas. Nancy noted this picture was taken after Howard had fattened up a little.






Bill moved to Lebanon in 1976 from California where he worked as a printer for the Lebanon daily newspaper. His wife was born and raised in Gallatin, and they raised three daughters, Leigh Ann, Laurie Ann and Linda Ann, in Lebanon.


While Bill was just a young boy at the time the tanks known as Battling Basic and Ole Miss burst through the gates of Santo Tomas, he is hopeful an upcoming local event will allow him to meet veterans of the 44th Tank Battalion.


Cumberland University is holding a special ceremony in May to award honorary masters degrees to veterans who participated in the local maneuvers during World War II. The 44th was formed shortly thereafter.


Im really looking forward to finding someone in the 44th to sit down and talk with them, Leslie said. I hope there are still veterans alive from the 44th.


I hope no other American has to go through what we did, simply because they are American, he said.


Staff Writer Patrick Hall may be contacted at phall@wilsonpost.com.

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