On April 4, 1943, ten US service personnel outwitted their Japanese guards and escaped from a work camp in the Davao Region of the Philippines. One of those escapees, Lt. Commander Melvyn Harvey McCoy, kept a journal during his imprisonment. After his escape, he gave a detailed report of the brutal treatment of POWs and his remarkable escape. Using his account and other records, we’ve pieced together this amazing WWII story of escape and survival.
Melvyn H. McCoy served as a Radio Material Officer in the 16th Naval District and was stationed in the Philippines. On Christmas Day, 1941, a week before the Japanese entered Manila, McCoy and other personnel evacuated to Corregidor, where they held off Japanese troops until May 6th, when Corregidor fell. McCoy sent the final radio message marking the fall of the island. Along with more than 10,000 Americans and Filipino soldiers, McCoy was taken POW. The men were herded into an enclosed concrete square, where they remained for seven days. There were no toilets and just one water spigot. It was brutally hot. Next, they were packed on merchant vessels and transported to Manila. Just meters from the shore, the men were dunked in the bay and made to swim ashore, then marched through the streets, soaking wet. Some fell, physically unable to make the arduous trek.
McCoy wound up in Bilibid prison. He described unbearable work detail. One group of 300 prisoners captured at Bataan saw their numbers reduced to 30 after 270 died on the job. McCoy was later transferred to Cabanatuan prison camp where he found more deplorable conditions. He described dead prisoners lying in the barracks and daily fatalities. Prisoners were tortured and starved to death. They also suffered from disease and sickness. Malaria, dysentery, and diphtheria took thousands of lives and there was no medicine available. Some tried to escape but were recaptured and executed. McCoy estimated that 3,400 prisoners died during his time at Cabanatuan.
After six months, McCoy was transferred to Davao Penal Colony. The trip took 11 days on an overcrowded boat. There wasn’t room for all the prisoners, so some stayed topside even though it rained each night. After arriving on land, the prisoners marched 17 miles to the prison. Prison officials were angry when they saw the weakened and diseased condition of the new arrivals, as they expected new workers. After spending several difficult months at Davao, McCoy began plotting an escape.
In January 1943, McCoy and nine other enlisted men and officers and began to steal small amounts of food. They needed to build up their strength for the escape. They secreted stolen equipment and supplies in the jungle. On the morning of April 4, 1943, the group left the prison as if they were going on work detail. Instead, they snuck into the jungle, assembled their gear, and began to run.
The escapees, along with two Filipino guides, were pursued by patrols but managed to elude them. For the next five weeks, they traveled mountain paths, swamps, and rivers while playing hide-and-seek with Japanese troops. Along the way, they contended with hunger, sickness, leeches, crocodiles, and exhaustion. They also encountered kindness and hospitality from Filipinos who shared food and lodging.
The escapees linked up with friendly guerilla forces who helped them along the way. With the help of a guerilla radio, they sent messages to officials in Australia and made plans to rendezvous with an American submarine. The sub transported them to Australia where Gen. Douglas MacArthur greeted them and awarded them the Distinguished Service Cross. McCoy and his fellow escapees brought back the first eye-witness account of the atrocities inflicted upon American POWs by Japanese soldiers in the Philippines. Their accounts shocked and infuriated Americans.