The Chinese have a curse: “May you live in interesting times.”
Any person’s life can be “cursed” by the times in which they live. But it is also true that a life is often shaped more by the people one lives with and how they react to their circumstances than it is by actual events themselves.
I think these stories are interesting, focusing as they do on the people interned by the Japanese in the Philippine Islands. The tales are not directly mine, but are a kind of oral history—the memories of others, primarily my parents, passed at the dinner table, in conversations with friends, or as reminiscences spoken of quietly (or often with humor), which became part of our lives, as Santo Tomas Internment Camp in Manila was part of our lives from 1941–1945.
The tales are personal—the experiences of normal people in abnormal circumstances. They are important because together they form a picture of a unique American historical event generally not well-known today: namely, the largest imprisonment of American civilians by a foreign power in the country’s history.
Certainly, I was part of this, being born in the internment camp. But I participated much later on as an eager novitiate sitting and listening to the stories of my past as they were told and retold. These are my memories of the memories of my parents, the Foleys, my grandparents, family, and other internees we saw from time to time who knew parts and pieces. Plus, information from letters, telegrams, a chronology kept by my mother, excerpts of a speech made by Mary Alice Foley to the U.S. Army 1st Cavalry Division at their 50th Commemoration in 1994 of the liberation of the Philippines, and other material mostly tucked away in a big manila envelope by my grandmother, Annie Bishop.
Additional information, statistics, and background were derived from A. V. H. Hartendorp’s The SantoTomas Story (McGraw-Hill, 1964); J.E. McCall’s Santo Tomas Internment Camp (The Woodruff Printing Co., 1945); The Battle for Manila by Connaughton, Pimlott and Anderson (Presidio Press, 1995); Surviving a Japanese P.O.W. Camp by Peter Wygle (Pathfinder Publishing of California, 1991); Captured by Frances B. Cogan (University of Georgia Press, 2000), 100 Miles to Freedom by Robert B. Holland (Turner Publishing Co., 2011); The Mary Alice Foley Papers, William L. Clements Library, The University of Michigan.
To me, these stories were always interesting, especially the retelling of them over the years. I think they show why I have always felt I was blessed by the people around me—the pawns of war—much more than I was cursed by the situation we lived through. This work celebrates the internees and the brave, supportive Filipino people, all of whom should be remembered and their sacrifices never forgotten.
Early March 1942
May Birt Smith shuffled through the shoe box where she kept the prior year’s Christmas cards. She found the one from the Bishops, mailed from Delaware last year, the parents and family of her eldest son’s wife, none of whom she had ever met or even talked with. She set the card box on the kitchen table, picked up a pen to write, and then set it back down. She reached across and picked up the letter from the British Red Cross.
“Madame,” it began. “We have been informed by British authorities that your son, Robert Elliott Smith, his wife Naomi, and their son, Robert B., are prisoners of the Japanese in Manila, the Philippine Islands. They are interned at Santo Tomas University in that city. No additional information is available at this time. As Mr. Smith is a British subject, His Majesty’s Government has informed us that they will endeavor to do all possible to secure additional information as to his status and that of his family. Please address inquiries to this office. Recognizing that wartime conditions in London may delay replies, we request patience as we seek information through the International Red Cross and others, as well as from Japanese and British authorities in the East.”
May was 57 years old, a petite, gray-haired woman with hazel green eyes. Her husband, Henry Robert, had died in a car-train accident in 1928 near Azusa, east of Los Angeles, where he was the pastor of the Citrus Baptist Church. He had been English-born, emigrating to America in 1891 at age 27 and settling in California, where he met his Missouri-born wife, May. They were married in Gardena in 1906. Although the Reverend Smith was a naturalized American citizen, the British still considered him British. Following their marriage, he and May, who was 21 years his junior, moved to Richmond, Indiana, to take up a post at the Baptist church there. Their first son, Robert, whom the British also considered British, was born in Richmond in 1908. A few years later, the family moved back to Southern California, where the Reverend Smith took up his ministry in the rural farming town of Azusa.
Orange groves, dairy cows, and field crops surrounded the small town, circled to the north by the sometimes-winter, snow-frosted San Gabriel Mountains. The son lived a bucolic childhood, herding dairy cows some mornings before school to make spending money, occasionally setting out smudge pots in the orange groves when frost threatened, and playing sports of course. Growing up, he played piano and organ in the church for no pay, and played organ accompanying the silent pictures at the local movie house for a dollar a night, an activity frowned on by the deacons of the church.
After the reverend’s accident, May got a job at the May Co. department store in downtown Los Angeles, altering corsets for ladies on the fourth floor of the store. By 1942, she had worked there for nearly 13 years. It was a quiet life like that of most people.
But now, the three-month-old Japanese-American war was coming home. Only the week before, her second son, Gilbert H. Smith, some two years younger than Bob, had joined the Merchant Marine. He was in training in San Francisco. She had taken the unusual step of telephoning him the day before with the news of his brother Bob. It had been frightfully expensive to call all the way to San Francisco from Los Angeles, but she felt it was necessary.
May put down the letter and picked up her pen. “Dear Mr. and Mrs. Bishop,” she began. “I don’t know what you have been told, but I received the following letter just yesterday.” She copied out the message from the British Red Cross in her careful, neat handwriting. “If there is any news from your end, please let me know.” She signed off “May Smith (your daughter’s mother-in-law),” and added her address in Los Angeles. She sent it via air mail, another justifiable extravagance. It was the first word the Bishops had of their daughter. Nearly three weeks later, the American Red Cross sent a very similar letter to the Bishops, and later to May. The Bishops sent May an immediate return reply. May died in April 1947 in Los Angeles, and they never met.
Pre-war, in the 1930s, a slow boat to China was about the only way ordinary people could travel across the Pacific. The standard sailing schedule was pretty routine on one of a dozen ships, each some 500 feet in length, and all combining passenger and cargo services to try to maximize revenues. The well-to-do could take a Pan Am Clipper, the Philippine Clipper or the China Clipper, but the ticket cost almost as much as a new Chevrolet coupe. And in 1937, crawling through the seemingly endless Depression, few had that kind of money. So, for most people, the six-plus week trip by ocean liner, generally carrying a couple hundred passengers in three classes, was the common path: San Francisco to Honolulu, and then Yokohama, Kobe, Shanghai, Hong Kong, then Manila.
Naomi Bishop had three brothers. Her father, George C. Bishop, a college graduate and former teacher, believed in education and had sent her, the eldest child, to the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, from which she graduated in 1927 and became a teacher. Her oldest brother, George H. Bishop, had gone to West Point, graduating in 1933, and was commissioned a second lieutenant. The other two boys, John and Bill, had graduated from the University of Delaware in 1936 and the University of Maryland in 1937 respectively. In between the two eldest and the two youngest, Naomi’s father, George Bishop, had been hammered by the Depression and forced to declare bankruptcy for his lumber and timber distribution business. Due to Depression cutbacks, Naomi had lost her first teaching job at Glassboro Normal School, which was a secondary school in Glassboro, New Jersey, today known as Rowan University. She came home to live with her parents and was hired to teach in the local school just across the street from the family home in Laurel, Delaware, in the rural southwest corner of that small state. She paid for her younger two brothers’ college educations as her father wrestled with repairing his business. With business conditions showing significant improvement in late 1936 and as a thank you, her father had given her a gift of a trip to visit her brother, George, a first lieutenant stationed with the U.S. Army in Manila. Her trip concluded with an extended return home around the world. American Express arranged for the whole thing—even the train from Philadelphia to San Francisco. She left Philadelphia after the June graduation in 1937 of her youngest brother, James William Bishop. She was just shy of her 32nd birthday.
Bob Smith had worked for the drug distribution and manufacturing firm McKesson & Robbins in Los Angeles from the early 1930s. A 1930 graduate in chemistry from Stanford University, Bob, like many others during the Depression, held tightly to his job while keeping an eye out for something better. One day, just a week after he returned to work from an unpaid vacation in San Francisco (funded by a lucky horse bet at Tanforan Racetrack south of San Francisco), he was offered the chance to transfer to the locally-owned McKesson affiliate in Manila, called Glo-Co. After some thought, he said “yes” and headed for the ship in San Francisco. He was 29.
Naomi arrived in the Bay Area from Philadelphia and boarded the ship, the S.S. President Harrison, for Manila. It was mid-1937.
Six weeks can be a long time crossing the Pacific in moonlit tropical waters. In 1928, nearly 10 years earlier, Bob had traveled on the Dollar Lines around the world as crew, playing clarinet and piano in the ship’s band with his brother Gilbert and two Azusa friends. He fancied himself something of a world traveler. In 1937, the President Harrison was following a similar route to the one Bob had taken in 1928. Bob’s cabin-mate—four days out from San Francisco—asked him to “vacate” their tiny second-class cabin for a couple of hours since he was interested in this single traveler, “Miss Bishop.” Miss Bishop did not value the attention which immediately piqued Bob’s interest. The unsuccessful cabin-mate “pursuit” occupied some of the remaining three days from San Francisco to Honolulu. Leaving Hawaii and Bob’s cabin-mate behind, the Harrison began the long trans-Pacific journey. Bob offered to be a tour guide for Naomi in the various cities they would be visiting: Yokohama, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. “Just friends,” he explained, also touting his “experiences” from 10 years before. She agreed. So, after fully using the local American Express tours her father had paid for, she extended her city visits with Bob—a very different experience.
In Shanghai, Bob took Naomi on a rickshaw ride around part of the city beyond the International Settlement and near the Suzhou River area, “just for the experience.” After half an hour, he told the Chinese man pulling the rickshaw to take them to their hotel; he gave the name and address in the International Settlement where the steamship company had provided lodging for travelers while the ship discharged and collected cargo at the harbor. The coolie stopped at a different hotel near the Bund.
“This is not the hotel,” Bob said. The coolie looked at him and then at Naomi. “One hotel is as good as another.” He smiled, looking at Naomi. There was a short, loud argument, but at the end, with a Chinese crowd forming around them, Bob grudgingly paid the rickshaw man, swallowing hard. It was 1937, the sixth year of the Sino-Japanese war in Manchuria, and Shanghai outside the International Settlement was verging on chaos with the Japanese army pushing through the surrounding outskirts, threatening invasion of the city itself, which they did a few weeks after Bob and Naomi arrived in Manila. It was no time for a dispute on a Shanghai city street. The couple got out of the rickshaw, entered the hotel, and ordered a taxi from the front desk to take them to the correct hotel.
In Manila, Naomi introduced Bob to her brother, 1st Lt. George Bishop, who in turn, over the coming months, introduced Bob to the Army-Navy Club, the Elks Club, the Manila Polo Club and similar Philippine colonial American haunts. During her visit, Lt. Bishop took his sister to an American-Filipino reception in Manila, where she was fortunate to meet the President of the Philippine Commonwealth, Manuel Quezon. She was dazzled, but still had to sail on again nearly two weeks after she arrived in Manila, continuing her around-the-world voyage home.
When she arrived home in Laurel weeks later, there was a letter waiting from Bob proposing marriage. She accepted by return mail. She had to work almost 18 months, fulfilling her Delaware school contract and putting together the money to return to Manila, which she did in 1939. They were married in July that year.
For the months while waiting, Bob and his soon-to-be brother-in-law, George, became quite friendly. Finding out that Bob liked to play bridge and was quite accomplished, Lt. Bishop wrangled invitations for him to join a number of Army-Navy Club bridge tournaments. After the war, George reminded him of one match Bob had subsequently forgotten in Manila in late 1937. One tournament champ was a Maj. Dwight Eisenhower, who went on to other bigger things. Bob hadn’t remembered the tournament, coming in some distance behind the leaders. Eisenhower was only a major of no particular note that no one had ever heard of. “Damn good player,” Bob said, once reminded of the match.
While waiting, Bob first took a room in Manila’s Luneta Hotel, just a few blocks off Dewey Boulevard near Luneta Park, not far from his work. Shortly after, he moved into the University Club Apartments, a seven-story, 44-room hotel-apartment building built in the early 1930s and popular with Americans, just next door to the Luneta Hotel and managed by the hotel. The University Club building was later demolished after the war, but the hotel is still there today. In the bar at the Luneta, he met Frank Foley, a salesman and purchasing manager for a New York hemp and jute trading company, awaiting the arrival in November 1937 of his wife, Ella, and daughter, Mary Alice, from the U.S.; he was also a resident of the University Club. It is hard to tell which man was the better storyteller, but each night in the hotel bar next door before dinner, the two men would soon have a group around them drinking, talking, and laughing. The Foley family and Bob became close as the months passed, particularly enjoying the Manila Polo Club where Bob played baseball for one of the four club league teams, the “Whites,” while he awaited the arrival of his bride-to-be.