Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

No Return Address: An American Pow's Experience in the Philippines and Japan, 1941-1945

Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

No Return Address: An American Pow's Experience in the Philippines and Japan, 1941-1945

Article excerpt

Personal accounts by and about American prisoners of war during the second World War have been multiplying in recent years, spurred in part by the gradual passing of the "Greatest Generation." They embrace many common themes of fear, hardship, sacrifice, violence, and frequently heroism. The account that follows tells the story of Soine Armas Torma of Republic, Michigan, a Finnish-American who shipped out to the Philippines in October 1941 and returned home four years later in the fall of 1945.1 he spent most of the intervening period-some forty months in all-in Japanese captivity, first on Corregidor, then on Luzon, and finally on Honshu. When placed in the wider historical context of the Pacific War and of American prisoners of war of the Japanese, Soine's unique experience provides insight into the larger issues of why he and his comrades endured what they did, and how he managed to survive a captivity that claimed the lives of over ten thousand of his fellow Americans.

In his classic study of combat, John Keegan wrote that the individual soldier experiences battle "in a wildly unstable physical and emotional environment."2 The same, of course, could be said of the aftermath of battle, in this case a particularly brutal captivity. Human beings are complicated creatures, with emotional, physical, and mental strengths and weaknesses that defy easy generalization. As E. Bartlett Kerr notes:

The Pacific POW underwent an experience unlike that of his millions of fellow veterans. The harshness, cruelty, and barrenness of their prison lives had forced these men to look at themselves and their fellow prisoners stripped of the veneer of modern society. It made them see how they and others reacted when tested to the limits of endurance. It revealed the worst and the best in themselves, their comrades, and their captors.3

just as one individual's experience of war can never speak for all, there cannot ever be a typical POW experience. Each account adds its splash of pigment to the picture. Such stories thus hold increasing value as the events themselves fade further into the past, and as the individuals who experienced them pass away.

In January 1941, Soine Torma turned twenty-nine years old. With the scarcity of jobs in his rural hometown during the Great Depression, he had come to Detroit in 1934 and taken a job as a postal worker. There, he became engaged to Sylvia Wargelin, whose family also had ties to Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The couple's plans for a life together were rudely interrupted when Soine received his "Greetings" from the President. he reported to Detroit's Fort Street Induction Center on April 28, 1941, and his odyssey began that same evening as he boarded a train for Camp Grant in Illinois. Like so many others of their generation, Soine and Sylvia saw the course of their lives transformed by events in distant Europe and Asia.

The first peacetime draft in American history came in direct response to the violent events unfolding in other parts of the world. Nazi Germany had thrown off the restrictions of the Versailles Treaty and embarked upon a campaign of conquest unprecedented in its scope and brutality. Japan's military leaders had launched an equally rapacious war of conquest in China in 1937 and by 1940 were drawing up plans to bring all of East Asia under Japanese hegemony. By 1941, these designs assumed greater urgency in the face of a tightening American embargo of oil, steel, and other vital exports to resource-poor Japan in response to continuing Japanese aggression in China and French Indochina. The Japanese military began finalizing plans for an attack on Pearl Harbor and a swift conquest of American, British, and Dutch possessions in the western Pacific.4

An ocean away at Camp Grant, Soine found basic training tedious and demeaning. On May 14 he wrote his fiancee: "All this routine seems to me to be designed to forget all the things one does in civilian life. …

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