The Story of Marks House
POW Camp, Kobe
By George Sidline
Copyright -2003 - George Sidline
George Sidline, and his brother Alex, as a young lads, lived next door to this POW Camp
Marks House Camp, Kobe
Next to our house up on Yamamoto-dori, but with an entrance on Kitano-cho around the corner from us, was a large, sprawling, three storey mansion that belonged to an American by the name of Marks. Solid parquet flooring decorated its many rooms and a glass enclosed verandah ran the length of this grandiose house. Surrounding this house on three sides was a yard, large enough to accommodate another equivalent mansion. A six foot high concrete wall bordered this backyard, with its south wall separating it from the side of our house. Our upstairs bedroom windows allowed a clear view of the yard and the house to Alex and me.
Like all the other Americans living in Japan before the war, Marks was repatriated and his house confiscated. For a while the house remained vacant and silent. We would stare out of our upstairs windows at the house, wondering why it was empty. Then in October 1942 we noticed some activity. Uniformed Japanese officers were moving about inside the property, shouting orders to their underlings.
We soon learned the reason for the activity. Within days truckloads of American prisoners arrived-this was to be their home. We learned later that they had been transferred from another prison camp. At first, we didn’t know who these Americans were. Rumor had it that they were construction workers from Guam, under contract to the US military, building air fields and other military bases. They were captured when the Japanese overran the Marianas Islands in the first few days of the war. Other rumors were that they were Marines captured in the fighting on the island. Whatever the case, here they were, 40 plus prisoners, incarcerated inside a big private home where an unknown future awaited them. The house wasn’t big enough to house them, yet they were all crammed in. We watched with curiosity the goings on inside this new internment camp.
My brother, Alex, and I, both being English speaking, quickly established contact with the prisoners. We had a little shed towards the back of our house next to the wall and we would clamber up onto the roof to get to the top of the wall. Alex and I would sit astride the wall and talk with the prisoners in the yard. At first the Japanese guards paid no attention to the two young boys sitting there on the wall. Eventually, though, they discouraged such contact but not very effectively. We continued our conversations with the Americans but usually only with one or two at a time.
With time, we learned the power structure inside the camp. The apparent leader of the Americans was Stan McNulty, a dentist, who originally came from Berkeley, California. Other names come to mind such as Bill, Ed, and Harry. With the exception of Dr. McNulty we never really learned their last names. Several of them came from the San Francisco Bay Area, with others coming from New York, Texas, and other places. They talked of their homes, their families, but never of their work or position prior to being captured.
Life in the camp was humdrum, same routine day in, day out. There was little to break up the monotony of life. So whenever anything out of the ordinary happened, it became a major event or celebration.
One day, several months after the prisoners arrived, we heard a loud commotion going on in the yard. There were loud voices, a lot of yelling and, surprisingly, laughter. We rushed upstairs to see what was happening. There in the yard, were many large boxes, all marked with a Red Cross, around which the prisoners crowded. They eagerly opened each box and pulled out clothing, fruit cake cans, cigarettes, books, and the most important item-CHOCOLATE. We watched as the prisoners celebrated a combination of Christmas, Thanksgiving, birthdays and other holidays all rolled into one. The clothing was of various sizes, a large portion of which was too large as the prisoners had lost considerable weight since their capture about a year earlier. At one point, I looked and saw two men who squeezed into one shirt then marched in tandem around the grounds amid peals of laughter from both the Americans and their usually surly Japanese guards.
Before long, some of the Americans noticed us looking at them from our windows. One of them reached into a box and pulled out a large Hershey chocolate bar and waved it at us, making motions that he will later toss it over the wall. We were ecstatic. It had been a long time since we saw chocolate, much less tasted it. Sure enough, later into the evening after the hubbub calmed down, a large bar of Hershey chocolate came sailing over the wall into our yard. My parents took possession of it and rationed it at the rate of one small square per day to each of us until it was gone, all too soon.
Not all the Red Cross packages arrived at the camps to which they were destined. The Japanese had kept a significant fraction for themselves.
From our vantage point at the upstairs bedroom window, we observed the activity in the camp. There did not seem to be any specific routine. Monotony and boredom. There was a wind up phonograph on which they played the few records that somehow the Americans acquired. Those who felt like it, played ball or exercised. Occasionally, some of the higher officers of the camp guards would bring their families, and we could see their children playing in the yard. There were no obvious atrocities committed there as in other camps where downed flyers were imprisoned and often executed.
The arrival of the food truck was the daily highlight. The food came in a large drum containing a weak gruel, and not much else. Definitely not enough to maintain proper health and nutrition for the young men there. Disease and weight loss was the rule.
The front of our house was setback from the road by a courtyard with a gate which we locked every night. One morning on our way out, we noticed that the gate was unlocked. We thought nothing of it, assuming that we had merely forgotten to lock it the night before. When it happened again, we became suspicious. Over the next few weeks, from time to time, we found the gate unlocked again. We finally realized that under cover of darkness, some of the prisoners were hopping over the wall into our yard and going into town. Later that same night they would come back into our yard and quietly slip over the wall back into the camp. Unlike what was happening in Germany, there never were any attempts at escape, though the opportunity was there. In actuality, there was nowhere to go, and nowhere to hide. The whole country was in fact a prison.
In Germany, an escaped prisoner could melt into the population and move about relatively undetected. In Japan, with a limited Caucasian population, the government kept tabs on every foreigner. Even though it was not unusual to see Caucasians in the streets of Kobe, an escaped prisoner would have been easy to spot. Most westerners in Japan spoke at least some Japanese, while the Americans did not. There would have been an alert. Besides, Japan being an island, there was no way for anyone to get off the island and get anywhere without some help. There was no underground, no partisans, no secret network. The racial difference, the topography and geography, all worked against any escape attempts. So the prisoners availed themselves of the next best-occasional freedom trips into downtown Kobe.
After a while, the Japanese guards got wind of these trips over the wall. They built a two foot wooden extension above the concrete wall. But to strengthen this extension, they reinforced it with beams running parallel along the wall, which acted as rungs of a ladder and made excursions over the wall even easier. There was never barbed wire, glass shards, electrified fences or illumination. And so these trips into town continued unabated.
The climate where we lived in Japan is relatively mild. In Kobe, winter meant that the days were shorter and the temperature cool. Snow was an extremely rare event. Yet, one winter day it started snowing. The big wet flakes fell silently and soon the whole city was covered in white. All traffic stopped. No vehicles could negotiate the slippery hills. Snow removal equipment did not exist. The only thing to do was to wait for the snow to melt.
On that snowy day, the Americans were let out into the street to enjoy the snow. They built a snow fort in front of the camp. It stretched across the width of the street, about three feet high. The wet sticky snow kept its shape. Some Americans built up an arsenal of snowballs behind the fort. A few yards further down the street, another group of American did the same. And in no time there was a snow ball fight between the two American prisoner groups, all under the watchful eye of their Japanese guards. Eventually the fun and games came to an end and all the prisoners were herded back into the Marks mansion.
The Americans' main complaint was lack of food. There was never enough to go around. As the tide of war turned against the Japanese, universal food shortage was the way of life. Rations were cut back and a regime of austerity was imposed. The food for the camp, never plentiful, was reduced even further. My parents recognizing the shortage in the camp proceeded to do what they could to help. Even though the administration in this camp was relatively benign, it was still illegal to help the prisoners. Anybody caught doing so would be accused of aiding the enemy, with resulting dire consequences. Still, my parents knowing the plight inside the camp would secretly pass food over the wall. After dark, at a prearranged spot on either side of the wall, they would listen for a whistle or a quiet whisper. They would then toss cans of food over and listen for eager hands to catch them. Occasionally my mother would bake or cook something special and this was carefully passed over the wall. My father would place a ladder against our side of the wall and carefully climb up to peek over to see if there were any guards present. When it was clear, my mother would pass the food up to him and he would slowly lower it down the other side. We couldn't do this on a daily basis, nor have enough for the whole camp, but I think this friendly and supportive contact on the other side of the wall did a lot to maintain prisoner morale.
In May of 1944, it became apparent to the Japanese that the camp site was probably not safe. Even though Kobe had not been hit by a major air raid yet, the last one being the single B-25 of Doolittle’s raid in April 1942, apparently the recapture of the Marianas by American forces and the ability to allow B29’s to operate from there signaled to the Japanese that it would be prudent to move the Marks House prisoners out of there. So one day, without notice, the Japanese packed up everybody and took the prisoners to a camp on Futatabi, a hill beyond the city limits of Kobe. There, they were reunited with other Guam civilians who had been interred in other camps, including Canadian Academy. The Marks mansion once again became vacant and silent.
The transfer of prisoners from Marks House to Futatabi did not eliminate our contact with them. Periodically a group of prisoners from Futatabi were sent into the city to get supplies. About half a dozen prisoners pulled a donkey cart during these trips into town. A single aging soldier, obviously too old to serve on the front lines, guarded this supply group. They became a familiar sight. Often as they went into town, they would stop in at my father's store on Tor Road, armed guard and all. My father, who was an inveterate cigar smoker, had a source of Manila cigars, which on the Pacific side were equivalent to Havana cigars on the Atlantic. On these occasions my father would approach the guard handing him a couple of cigars, and would ask, after making the proper bows, "Is it all right if I gave your prisoners some cigars?"
"Oh, yes. By all means," replied the guard, happy with his gift of cigars. My father would then dip into his reserve of cigars and distribute them by the fistful to the Americans, trying not to be too obvious to the guard. The Americans were always happy to visit "Sid" as they called my father.
In early February 1945, the bombing of Kobe started in earnest. The Kawasaki dockyards were hit and severely damaged. Then not much later, in March, another devastating air raid hit downtown and civilian areas. This time one of the casualties was Ecole Ste. Marie, the Catholic girls’ school. The Marks house, vacant and dark for months, came to life again as the girls, in their severe uniforms, became its daytime residents as the school moved into its new location.
Then early on June 5, 1945, all this came to an end as the last major air raid on Kobe completed the destruction of the city. The Marks House became a heap of smoldering rubble and ashes with just the foundation, the fireplace chimney and garden wall remaining to mark its place.
Copyright -2003 - George Sidline