By Beverly Skardon
In the spring of 1943, for those American military personnel incarcerated in Japanese prisoner of war camps in the Philippines, the future was dreadfully uncertain. The question most of us asked, or at least thought privately, was, “Do you think we’ll get out of here?”
“Here” to several thousand of us was the camp near Cabanatuan, about 90 miles north of Manila. We worked on “the farm.” Our duties consisted of weeding long furrows while on our hands and knees, carrying buckets of water hundreds of yards to irrigation ditches, gathering firewood for the kitchens, digging ditches, and carrying stones to build an airfield. The monotony of these chores took a terrible toll and the constant brutality of the Japanese guards made each day perilous and fearsome.
Our uniforms had become worn and tattered and because workers on the farm could not wear shoes, we were truly a bedraggled motley crew. Usually, we wore the equivalent of Japanese underwear ( a “G-string”), a straw hat if we had one, and a water bottle tied to a piece of cloth to carry over the shoulder.
We were fed a serving of rice for each meal, sometimes supplemented with mongo beans, seaweed soup, or camotes. On one occasion each POW received a food box from the American Red Cross which contained a can of powdered milk, a can of salmon or corned beef, powdered coffee, a bar of chocolate, a box of raisins or prunes, and two packages of cigarettes. These boxes gave a tremendous boost to our morale.
We all looked forward to “the seventh day” because it was Sunday and we did not have to work on the farm. General Protestant and Roman Catholic services were tolerated, but only at pre-approved locations and times.
In April of 1943, Chaplain Quinn, an Episcopal chaplain in our camp, passed the word that there would be a celebration of the Holy Eucharist on Easter Day. The service was to be very simple. We were told to drop by a small nipa hut, and to come alone to avoid attracting attention. Since this service had not been approved or scheduled by the guards, it could have been devastating if they had become suspicious.
Chaplain Quinn had written out parts of the Communion Service plus some responses from the Book of Common Prayer on sheets of paper. The Lessons were read from a “pocket testament” which some prisoner had managed to keep in spite of many shakedown inspections and searches. The host was made from rice which had been hand-rolled with a bottle to make flour and heated on a piece of tin to produce a wafer. The wine had been made by fermenting raisins from the Red Cross package. I do not recall what was used for the paten, but I remember the chalice most vividly. It was a very small, ornate glass bottle, decorated with odd figures of oriental design. I have often reflected on what became of our grail.
It seems bizarre now, even grotesque, to picture eight or 10 skinny men variously dressed in makeshift shorts, skivvies, tee shirts, and clogs (hand-carved and made in camp), most with no upper clothing or shoes. Chaplain Quinn wore shoes; he was not required to work on the farm. He had on the remnants of a U.S. Army khaki uniform, but the eye-catching item of his vesture was a very small green stole, borrowed from a Lutheran chaplain, which gave authority and a benediction to our gathering.
Hearing the words of the Communion service after two years of privation, humiliation, and cruelty brought to mind the great community of Christian faith.
While serving in the United States Army in subsequent years, I have been privileged to attend services at many magnificent places: St. Paul’s in London, St. Paul’s Within-the-Walls in Rome, the Anglican Cathedral in Seoul, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, and the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul in Washington, D.C. But it was when I visited the dark, earthen caverns and narrow passageways in the catacombs south of Rome, where the early Christians hid and conspired to keep their faith alive, that my thoughts took me back to that hut in Cabanatuan, where my fellow conspirators and Chaplain Quinn celebrated the most memorable of Eucharists on Easter 1943.
Our guest columnist is retired Army Col. Beverly N. “Ben ” Skardon, who makes his home in Clemson, SC., where he attends Holy Trinity Church. This article was first published in the April 16, 2006 issue of The Living Church.