Wednesday, October 15, 2003


Haunting memories rehashed - Retired Marine recalls three years as POW in Japanese prison camp
Submitted by: MCRD San Diego
Story Identification Number: 2003922144720
Story by Lance Cpl. Jess Levens

MARINE CORPS RECRUIT DEPOT SAN DIEGO, Calif.(September 19, 2003) -- Tattoos fade, despite portraying memories meant to live forever. And though ink may fade and distort, powerful memories stay sharply in focus.

The black skull and crossbones on Robert Farner's forearm is fading, but it reminds him constantly of his younger days as a U.S. Marine. He got the tattoo during his first time on liberty away from Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego in 1939. He was 16.

His recruiter never inquired about Farner's age. Farner just said he was 18.

With World War II in full stride, Farner found himself in a raging fire fight against Japanese forces in the Philippines on an island called Corregidor. After a night of intense warfare, the Americans, under Army leadership, surrendered the next morning.
Now, prisoners of war, the Americans were forced to march to a POW camp in Manila, Philippines, to construct an airport, according to Farner. On the march, Americans were slaughtered constantly.

"The only tools we had were saws, shovels and picks," said Farner. "And we built an entire airport from nothing."

The Japanese soldiers beat the American POWs on a daily basis, according to Farner, but one day, he caught the brunt of it.

Farner got sick and was kept out of work one day. Just outside the fence, he could see a tree garnished with three our four juicy papayas.

"I said to my friend, 'Let's get those papayas,'" said Farner.

The fellow prisoner was all for getting the fruit, but he didn't know how to do so without getting caught.

Farner noticed a board near the tree and decided to tell the guards the cook wanted the board. He was allowed to retrieve the board and when he got it, he used the board to knock the papayas out of the tree. Phase two of the plan was complete. But phase three was a little trickier, according to Farner.

He then tried to sneak the fruit back into the camp and was caught. The punishment was anything but light. Farner was made to stand at attention while a guard hit him in the back with a six-foot iron pole. The first blow knocked Farner to the ground, but it was the more generous hit as the second blow broke both his arms.

The injury landed him in a "hospital" run by American POWs. They had no medicine and all they could do was reset Farner's arms and use sticks for splints.

"I'm lucky I went to the hospital," said Farner. "While I was there, the Japanese massacred about 175 prisoners. Only about seven escaped."

In another instance of harsh cruelty, Farner was forced to stand at attention against a wall while all the Japanese guards took turns banging the back of his head against it.

"What a headache that was," said Farner, making light of the painful incident.

While working on the airfield in Manila, the POWs were broken down into squads of 10, according to Farner. If one man from the group escaped, the other nine were executed.

"Every time they killed somebody, which they did a lot, the bodies were buried under the runway," said Farner.

Once Farner was back to work from the hospital, he was standing at the back of a line when a guard hit him in the spine with the butt of his rifle.

"I was sure they broke my back," said Farner. "I felt paralyzed for about a day."

Farner said he made the guards think the injury was worse than it actually was. He was taken to a hospital to see a Japanese doctor. To make sure Farner wasn't faking his injury, the doctor impaled Farner's foot with a four or five-inch pin.

"It hurt a little bit," said Farner. "But we learned how to take a lot of pain while we were there."

After Farner's "severe" back injury, he was sent to another camp.

One night at the camp, Farner snuck into the Japanese mess hall to get more food and was immediately caught by a guard. Luckily for Farner, he had the Japanese soldiers' Kryptonite - American cigarettes. The POWs occasionally received Red Cross packages containing cigarettes and other supplies.

The guard looked Farner in the face and said, "I smoke, you eat." Farner made this a nightly occurrence.

"I was eating so well," said Farner. "I used to trade my breakfast for cigarettes so I could bribe the guards at night."

Farner tried to share with his fellow prisoners and brought some food back with him. Farner was discovered and he knew he was in trouble. The Japanese soldiers took Farner that night and drenched him with cold water and let him freeze in the winter night. When he was pretty much frozen to the bone, he was beaten with large sticks repeatedly.

If that wasn't enough punishment, the translator told Farner he was about to be beheaded and asked him if he had anything to say.

"I wasn't about to let them just cut my head off," said Farner. "So I told them that we wouldn't sneak around and we would get more work done if they fed us better."

The translator relayed the message and the Japanese soldiers discussed it for a while, according to Farner.

Apparently Farner made some sense, so instead of decapitating him, the guards continued to beat him. As a result of the beating, Farner was taken to the Japanese medical facility and stayed there recovering for about 10 days before returning to work.

"The other prisoners thought I was dead," said Farner. "They had no idea what happened to me."

After that, Farner was moved to another POW camp, this time in Japan. There, he melted scrap iron in a factory.

"The last camp was by far the easiest," said Farner. "We weren't beaten as much and the work wasn't too hard."

Farner remained at this camp for the duration of the war and was finally liberated by American forces.

Farner said being a POW was a horrible experience and he hopes no one ever has to endure the pain and suffering he and his comrades went through.

"You didn't know if you would live to see tomorrow," he said. "I'm just lucky to be alive."

Farner further urged that if anyone ever becomes a POW, stick to the code of conduct by always trying to escape, learn to eat whatever possible and know the area and terrain as well as possible.

Farner was awarded a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts for his actions in World War II.

Being a POW for three and a half years was never part of Farner's plan as he sat in that chair in 1939, getting a black tattoo with his fellow new Marines. He was just a young kid who jumped a train, saw a nice blue uniform and wanted to make something of his life.

Photos included with story:

(left) Robert Farner is pictured as a WWII prisoner of war in 1944. (right) A smiling Farner in Shanghai, China, four years before he saw combat. Photo by: Photo illustration by Sgt. Scott Dunn (left) Robert Farner is pictured as a WWII prisoner of war in 1944. (right) A smiling Farner in Shanghai, China, four years before he saw combat. Photo by: Photo illustration by Sgt. Scott Dunn
Retired Staff Sgt. Robert Farner remembers his days as a prisoner of war in World War II. Photo by: Lance Cpl. Jess Levens Retired Staff Sgt. Robert Farner remembers his days as a prisoner of war in World War II. Photo by: Lance Cpl. Jess Levens

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