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Escape from a Philippine POW Camp

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

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.

Surrender of American troops at Corregidor, Philippine Islands, May 1942

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.

Cabanatuan Prison Camp

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.  

To read McCoy’s full report of the escape, click here. To see other records from WWII, search Fold3® today.

154 Comments

  1. Donald See says:

    It’s always hard to read stories about the Bataan Death March. My uncle died after making the march and while a POW in the Philippines. He was just 25 years old. His father had died during the pandemic of the 1918 Spanish flu when my uncle was just two. All the time I spent with my grandmother, I never knew of these two terrible events in her life. I’ve always wished I could see her now and talk about them. How difficult it must have been for her. I never knew much about it until later in life and wish I had asked more questions before all the siblings had died. The conditions were just unfathomable for anyone to exist in.

  2. Floyd Karnes says:

    This story, and those of others are why people like me get so angry about athletes taking a knee during the National Anthem. The soldiers suffered immensely for the flag and the anthem that honors the flag. Movies like Saving Private Ryan accurately portray the carnage inflicted on our brave soldiers during D-Day. Unfortunately, young school athletes are allowed and encouraged to “take a knee”. I thought sports were to build character, not destroy it. As a Viet Nam era veteran, I no longer watch or follow sports, and I do not patronize companies that declared these selfish and disrespectful protesters as heroes.

    • SANDRA CARROLL says:

      Well said.

    • Jo Standifer says:

      You are not alone.

    • K. Mortensen says:

      Amen, brother!

    • Irene DelBono says:

      I have many family members who served…and some were killed in service to this country. They all served to protect the Constitutional right of free speech and protest, including taking a knee. Apparently you must also disagree with the 1968 Olympics when 2 black athletes on the podium after winning a race raised a fist in protest…including protesting the killing of 3,000 peacefully protesting students 10 days earlier by the host country Mexico. Followed 2 years later by the Kent State shootings of peacefully protesting students by the Ohio National Guard. I guess you also forget that this country was founded by protests…like dumping tea into Boston Harbor or the women who were arrested and jailed for protesting for the right to vote. In fact, it could be said that the right to protest and free speech – including using body language like raising a fist or taking a knee…is about American as it gets. It’s certainly one of the reasons I served.

    • Irene DelBono says:

      As a Vietnam era veteran, I am disgusted by those trying to deny certain groups their Constitutional rights of peaceful protest and silent free speech like taking a knee, at the urging of a man who sent crowds of violent insurrectionists to attack our capitol, using our flag to beat and spear capitol police, break windows, jimmy doors, and seek to destroy our system by trying to overturn an election that didn’t go his way.
      Raising a fist, taking a knee, and peaceful protests are the American way. Violent attempted insurrections are about as anti-American as it gets.

    • E.Ramos says:

      These new generations will not have a will power to survive. Too sensitive to words and will easily break down. War is inevitable. A proper education about the history of the world should be use to prepare for the future.

    • Lynn says:

      I agree totally with you. Thank you for your service.

    • Lynn says:

      I was agreeing with Floyd K. He is right on!!

    • Jayne says:

      I’m from Viet Nam era also and to your remarks would like to add, can’t stand Hanoi Jane (Fonda).

    • Elizabeth Gross USMC says:

      I agree with you about “taking a knee.” While others here are saying it is a form of protest, and Constitutionally allowed as a form of free speech, I disagree.

      Protests listed – the silent fist raised at the Olympics, women being arrested for protesting – those were done in a manner that got the point across, WITHOUT being disrespectful. I feel that “taking a knee” is disrespectful – of the country (of which the flag & anthems are symbols of), of those who served, of those who died while serving – to PROTECT the right to protest.

    • PETER BURNHAM says:

      Mr Karnes,
      As a military dependent, son of a servicemen, I’m with you sir. It hurts to see players in an outfit, not a uniform but in a program where they are led to believe that its ok to kneel for the national anthem because the white race is too oppressive. The white race elected a black president two times.
      The white race said No to the oppression of our black brothers.

    • Bob Macellaro says:

      Floyd, I too am a Viet Nam vet but our thought process is not the same. That conflict should never have been fought. The USA should not have been there. Politicians instigated that conflict but young soldiers had to fight and die in it. Do not fall into the trap that simply because our government tells us that a conflict is just that it is.

      The taking of the knee by pro athletes was not about disrespecting the flag. Please do some research and perhaps you will understand that.

    • Phil Duran says:

      You are right on with your comments Floyd. It perturbs me to no end that these guys got to be millionaires living here in the U.S. and all they do is play sports and yet they don’t appreciate the country that gave them the opportunity to do so. They disrespect our country and our flag and all who had to fight and die for it. I am a Viet Nam war veteran who had to do two tours over there. What have these guys done for their country? A big fat nothing they disrespect the country and flag that has given them so much. I also don’t watch any sports at all or buy any of their sports products. They are not my heroes my heroes are my friends who died in Viet Nam.

    • Chris says:

      God bless you. I do agree with you. My husband was a Marine in Viet Nam. He had a lot of pent up anger that came out during his dying days. We cried together when seeing the disrespect that is shown by ignorant people who have no clue what sacrifices have been made in the previous generations that made our country great! Our school systems have taken over our children’s minds & are being taught to hate.

    • Robert Garcia says:

      What you don’t get is that these acts of heroism give Americans the right to protest. It is false patriotism to deny later generations the right to protest.

    • Michellemontecarlo says:

      I agree with you. I also do not watch or support sports I do not purchase anything from companies who support this cowardly behavior. After this 2020 election farce and what happened whe Georgia tightened their election rules I quit Coke a cola and MLB. I don’t fly Delta and I don’t use ATT

    • Irene DelBono says:

      Delta flies our military dead home, provides an honor guard, and posts an honor guard by the deceased until they are ready to be moved to a funeral home and/or their final resting place. They provide a respectful honorable accompaniment for family members arriving to meet their deceased loved one. People can boycott Delta all they want over stupid political b.s. because our military fought and died to protect that choice, just as they fought and died to protect the rights of those who protest by taking a knee. Those who try to take away the right to boycott, or to take a knee dishonor our veterans by trying to take away the rights they fought and died to protect. https://news.delta.com/delta-honor-guard-ceremony-2019

  3. Holly Laskey says:

    Thank you for sharing this story. My Great Uncle James Shimel was a Marine and was part of the death March. He was one of the prisoners rescued at Cabanatuan. He wrote about his time as a POW as well. I am always interested in someone else’s story about that time.

    • Michellemontecarlo says:

      My father Priv 1st class Mike J Artukovich was also a POW of the Japanese during the war. I would really like to know more but I have no problem now to ask perhaps some one here will know. He was a tail gunner in a B52 bomber he was at the barracks on the air field at Scofield on Dec 7 he had a Purple Heart the first day and more later in the war it was horrific. If someone knows anything please write it here

  4. Angie Knutson says:

    Funny McArthur would greet them as he was the reason so many men lost their lives.

    • Bob Croce says:

      Read some history Angie. You couldn’t be more wrong.

    • PETER BEE says:

      Even if Halsey or Nimitz or even Dwight Eisenhower had been in charge, men still lost their lives. Look at how many men lost their lives on or around D Day in Europe.

    • patricio vigil says:

      PUBLICITY, nothing else.

    • Michellemontecarlo says:

      Angie you are misinformed MacArthur loves his men and the Philippine people the problem was with TRUMAN FULL STOP!

  5. Rene Gonzalez says:

    The sharing of our memories of our father’s, brothers, uncles, grandparents , serve as a part of our past that still brings great pride to honor those that endured great hardships during times of war.
    We all have a deep patriotic believe, many of us served in Vietnam, Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan and other unpleasant places.
    This page is to share memories of loved ones in hope of learning more about this brave group.
    Let’s keep politics, and opinions on other forums.

  6. Thomas Treacy says:

    The liberation of Cabanatuan by Army Rangers, Alamo Scouts, & Philippine guerilla fighters was a great story. General MacArthur loved the people of the Philippines. And they loved him! It’s a little known fact that Mac had more boats under his command in the South Pacific than the U.S. Navy. He believed that if the Navy wouldn’t move his men & supplies when and where he needed them, then he would do it himself. Geoffrey Peret, wrote a great biography of Douglas MacArthur. True, he was a man of great ego with little patience. Pansies don’t wear 5 stars.

    • patricio vigil says:

      No pansies don’t but Ass Kissers do. His father’s power got him his positions plus his mother lived at a house next to West Point to “take care of her baby boy” during his time at the point.

    • Linda Pickle says:

      I have the audiobook. Ghost Soldiers about that rescue. Really well written

    • Michellemontecarlo says:

      Exactly my dad was there he told me same stories

  7. Jim Briggs says:

    Floyd: You’re entitled to your opinion, but I completely disagree with it. My father gave his life in the Philippines in 1945 for a whole lot more than “the flag” – for, among other things, the freedom of all Americans to express their views.. Those “taking a knee” to highlight issues that need to addressed in this country are doing us all a great service.

  8. Gordon Stewart says:

    America’s role in the history of the Philippines was not always honorable. Our liberation of them from Spanish colonization in 1898 effectively made them an American colony until the Japanese conquest in 1941. And while some say General Douglas MacArthur was adored by the Filipino people and he showed an affinity for them (“I shall return”), many military veterans of WWII spoke with contempt for two of his Philippine actions: Leaving General Wainwright behind to surrender to the Japanese and, when personally escaping to Australia (per orders), taking his civilian domestic staff while leaving U.S. Navy nurses behind for eventual capture.

    • Jack Yandell says:

      Gordon, you are Sop correct sir. My Dad was with the 6th Army and landed on Leyte 20, Oct.1944. He always has a disdain for Mc.Arthur. This nurses went thru hell at the hands of the JIA. I never had a liking for the arrogant general. He finally over stepped in Korea and received his comeuppance..

    • Stewart Hickman says:

      Gordon, I do not know how to contact you directly, but would be interested in finding a way to do so. There may very well be a genealogical connection that we might pursue.

  9. Richard Slater says:

    There were 10 escapees in the party – one of them I got to know well, Col. Sam Grashio, from my hometown of Spokane. Several of the party, including Grashio, wrote accounts. The best book on the escape if John Lukacs’ “Escape From Davao”.

  10. Ann Barmore DiCiano says:

    There is so much controversy over the taking of a knee. I wish they could give the flag and anthem the honor it deserves, THEN take a knee.

  11. Meladee Madge Stankus, RN says:

    I read that the Navy nurses would not depart Corrigador with McArthur and they chose to stay with the military patients,

  12. patricio vigil says:

    My family is from New Mexico and dozens of them, Uncles and cousins were in the Artillery Unit sent to the Philippines in the summer of1941. Those who survived the fighting were imprisoned. Some died in the death march, POW camps and some were killed on ships when shipped to Japan. They suffered and died while McArthur was posing for photographs and he and his staff was telling everyone how great he was. He was a A-hole who even ordered troops to fire upon the WW1 veterans in DC during the demonstrations about 1930 for the back pay they had earned. He was a disgrace to this country and his desire for personal publicity allowed thousands of POW’s to be slaughtered at the end of WWII because of his inactions plus others that died due to his desire for publicity.

    • Michellemontecarlo says:

      It never ceases to amaze me how you and people of your ilk sit in judgement over events and people you didn’t know you can’t relate to AND have zero KNOWLEDGE OF EXACTLY WHAT HAPPENED! This Covid business we have just come through should teach a lesson to everyone. YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW Stop judging men of war. Unless you served shut up

    • Michellemontecarlo says:

      It never ceases to amaze me how you and people of your ilk sit in judgement over events and people you didn’t know you can’t relate to AND have zero KNOWLEDGE OF EXACTLY WHAT HAPPENED! This virus business we have just come through should teach a lesson to everyone. YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW Stop judging men of war. Unless you served shut up

  13. I recently published a historical novel , Seven Bowls of Rice, about my fathers experience as a Japanese POW, and survivor the Bataan Death March and three hell ships. He was at Cabatatuan , and Bilibid until shipped to the mainland for slave labor. My sister didn’t meet her father until she was 5 years old. These stories must be remembered and told to the younger generation. Seven Bowls of Rice is available on Amazon http://amzn.to/3nalxVa

  14. Gary McKeto says:

    Lets go and buy some nice JAPANESE cars now!!!

  15. Mark Kennedy says:

    I am right there with you Floyd. Born in Texas 1949. College grad. Enlisted Marine Corps 1969. Went back to Marines after Marine OCS. Retired USMC Major of Marines. Sick of these pampered ungrateful athletic meat heads. I reject most all of what they may stand/kneel for. I had a family friend on my street in East Texas who survived the Bataan Death March. I was in awe of him. One of the kindest men I knew growing up. No doubt a real hero!

    I served 26 yrs in the Marine Corps (Mustang). I’ve pretty much seen it all. I have no use for these dim-witted overpaid, self important children who happen to be the age of mature men…most of them, men they are not.

  16. George Fleming says:

    It’s a shame that a story that honors our veterans so quickly turns into racist and political diatribes. As long as we have hate in our hearts, there will be more wars and more inhumanity.

  17. Mary Beth Marvil Weber says:

    My father was a fighter pilot on a carrier in ww2, in the Pacific. I won’t tell all his missions, but what he showed me when I was older, a Japanese woman on the beach after the Nagasaki atomic bomb looking through rubble to give something to my father to remember the people. He had a lot to say, mostly , love all mankind, war is evil, but he fought for our country “one Nation Under God” and taught me to never ever disrespect our flag of the United States . My family from the Revolutionary war to now we’re and are all military. My father taught me if I ever saw anyone disrespecting our flag, burning , dropping on the ground, to go tell them, kindly stop it NOW.” My father and all the rest in my family did not fight for those who trash our constitution, God, country and flag. He taught me to have honor, honesty and integrity to Love God and our fellow man. We are not doormats and I was taught not to stand around watching anyone destroy our flag and those who honor it. As for me, I stand by my dad. What I have to say about anyone who takes a knee to our great flag, and dishonors our constitution as was written by our forefathers, they can leave our country amd see if they can make the kind of great living in another country, that they’ve made here in the land of the free.

  18. Martin Hagans says:

    What the article doesn’t say is that there were no more escapes from Davao after McCoy left. My father Ben Hagans was at Davao when this happened. The Jap’s told the camp that for every escapee, ten prisoners would be executed. My father states that one hundred prisoners were rounded up and true to their order, all one hundred were executed. Some by firing squad but most were used for bayonet practice, my father tells me that it takes a while to die by bayonet. Of one of the prisoners was their only surviving Jesuit priest. Dad tells me that they made an example of him. My father now 93 has complete recall of his almost four years a prisoner of war.
    Such a shame that the stories from the greatest generation no longer fits the narrative by our new woke, cancel culture.

  19. Brian Nye says:

    My grandfather was in the fillipenese already serving on the USS Canopus when the pi was surrendered to the Japanese .He had a 2 year old son, my father, and was reported as killed in action just when the US was entering the war. His wife soon remarried and had children. He was in a POW camp on the big island of Japan when both bombs were dropped. He had no correspondence during his imprisonment and when he was finally released after Japan surrendered and all he had done to survive to return to his new family to find out he no longer had a wife and his.son calling someone else dad. His name was Burl Lee Nye, my Grandfather.

  20. Riley says:

    There is a time and a place for protests, which the ‘woke’ generation doesn’t care to observe.
    Protests, a raised fist or taking a knee, whatever gesture is currently popular, have no place in:
    Schools
    Sports
    Churches
    Honor and award programs
    Etcetera. Protests are part of the political process, but these days, with everything politicized, they have spilled over into all aspects of our lives, which is deplorable.
    Take it to the streets, Congress, political rallies, but the key word is PEACEFUL.

  21. Donald See says:

    Although it was NOT my intent to have a political discussion (for or against), I see that is what has sparked this debate. I’m disappointed at the comparison between the bravery of our soldiers during the horrific war and those of the protesters drawing attention to the inequality that has lasted well after the conflict in the story and until today. We must agree to disagree with each other but let us limit the continued comments to the actual story itself, not to our opinions on how those freedoms should be demonstrated.

    We are one society of people enjoying the freedoms bought for us by those who have fought and especially those that have died, such as my uncle. We are also one society that wishes to continue those freedoms for all that reside with us and around us in our community, our states and our nation. Let us be thankful for those that bought that freedom and those that are compelled to fight to retain it for all, regardless of what path that they use.

    War is a terrible way of having to secure freedom however we all know that it occurs. Love your neighbor even if you do not agree with how that neighbor expresses their desire for freedom, equality and the right to be treated fairly by everyone. Please limit further comments to the story itself and not to the political differences that wars for freedom allows us to express.

    Peace to you all.

    • Irene DelBono says:

      Thank you for both of your well said comments. I do not see anything in your comments that might have sparked the comparisons to today (perhaps you edited it?). I agree 100% with both of your comments. As a child I would visit my grandparents, and there was an enticing space under the eaves at the back of a closet where they stored lovely mementos. And photo albums of his and my uncles’ and dad’s time in the war that would sicken anyone. I couldn’t discuss them with family because I wasn’t supposed to see them. My dad and uncles never spoke of what they did in the war. I, too, am sorry that I didn’t have those conversations with family members. We must never let anything take away those freedoms our ancestors suffered so much for. If we allow the loss of those freedoms, then it will mean our ancestors gave their lives and suffered for naught.

  22. Kathie says:

    I had several patients who were survivors of Bataan and the rock. The one complaint I remember hearing over and over was not about peaceful protests. It was about being left out of the history books They felt ignored because they had to surrender

  23. Peggy Perry says:

    I and my sisters asked my dad as children what he did in the war (WWII). He said briefly that he picked up dead bodies. We were so horrified we never asked anything else. Decades later at his funeral, we met many of his childhood friends who had gone to war with him. We discovered that picking up dead bodies was done in the post-war years working as an ambulance driver in England. What he did DURING the war was create dead bodies. He was a point man in the Phillippines, preceding the troops into the jungles, finding and taking out the Japanese snipers waiting for them. You could tell he was very good at it, someone told me later. He came home alive and uninjured. At least physically. He wrote poetry there and mailed it home and his mother had it published. We have found 2 poems so far. I published them on my website.

  24. larry woods says:

    i served my country and i was a strong supporter of President Trump which it is crazy that they try to say he caused the riot at the capitol. President trump loved our country and was a president who made me feel safe in my country. today it is very scary in America. god bless America.

    • Donald See says:

      Larry,

      Evidently you did NOT see the message I posted regarding comments on my original post. This has nothing to do with your political feelings or who you voted for as most of us don’t care. Please remove your response and respond ONLY to the original post regarding those that were POWs during the conflict described.

  25. Richard Moore says:

    The book Escape from Davao by John Lukacs is an excellent account of these courageous men.

    How sad that people like Floyd would use their story so opportunistically to decry the exercise of the freedoms these men fought to defend.

  26. Robert Garcia says:

    As I read these comments I see so much anger over a man who silently took a knee during the national anthem, or an Olympic athlete who protested recently during the anthem at the awards ceremony. Where is the outrage over the modifications of the flag to emblazon political messages for the past president or modify it with a blue line. I salute those who fought and died for this country but I call out “False Patriotism” that requires a single mindset of devotion – that requires only one type of allegiance. Quite frankly, that is the hallmark of facist regimes and should be resisted.

    Our flag has been hijacked by nationalists.

    • Bob Gerrish says:

      I have not commented much, but I definitely agree with your comment. Thank you for posting it.

  27. John San Felice says:

    Larry thank you for sharing your story or I should say your families story. I am sorry that others have used this as a platform to argue politics. Our service men fought for the freedom of those at home and other countries that were invaded our enemies. Many made the ultimate sacrifice and many more were wounded physically and mentally (PTSD). Americans today don’t seem to comprehend that sacrifice provided todays freedoms.

  28. Too bad the two Filipino guides were not named.

    • Irene says:

      If they were named, wouldn’t they and their families have been put in danger for helping the enemy?

    • John Shively says:

      The two Filipino convicts who helped with the escape from Davao were Victor Jumarong, a fisherman who had worked for a logging company and knew a path through the swamp. The other guy was Ben de la Cruz, a druggist who spoke pretty good English. They were both in for murder. It’s all in my book, Profiles in Survival, The Experience of American POWs in the Philippines during World War II.