Samuel Grashio was on the run. He and nine other companions were trapped in the jungle after breaking-out of the Japanese prison camp at Davao in the Philippines.
It had been nearly a year since the Knight of Columbus Fourth Degree member from the Spokane Assembly became a prisoner-of-war. In that time, he experienced immense cruelty, not only in the Bataan Death March, but also in the Japanese prison camps.
But now, on the verge of being part of the only successful mass escape from a Japanese prison camp, his party was falling into despair. They were physically weak to the point of exhaustion and began to hear gunfire in the distance.
In that moment, Grashio turned to the most important asset he had throughout his trials. It was more significant than any weapon or military strategy. He began leading the party in a prayer to the Blessed Mother.
Grashio arrived in the Philippines for duty with the 21st Pursuit Squadron of the U.S. Army Air Corps on Nov. 20, 1941. He always dreamed of becoming a pilot and now he was excited to be in an exotic foreign land.
He was naïve about war with Japan, once betting his Squadron Commander, William “Ed” Dyess — who would later be in the escape party with Grashio — that there would be no war with Japan. But the Attack on Pearl Harbor happened two days later.
And the invasion of the Philippines was only eight hours later. Even then, war didn’t feel real to Grashio. It wasn’t until Japanese fighters blew a hole in his left wing over Clark Field — America’s main military airbase in the Philippines — that danger hit him. In that moment, Grashio thought he was going to die on the first day of war.
“Instinctively, I began to pray again, this time with greater fervor than before,” Grashio said. “Prayer comes easily when the end seems near.”
But his luck held. He was able to outmaneuver the enemy fighters and return to Nichols Field. However, the damage was done. Clark Field was in complete shambles. U.S. airplanes were lined up, wingtip to wingtip, on an unprotected field. In minutes, 30 bombers and observation planes were destroyed. All except for three B-17s were gone. America’s war efforts to withhold the Japanese forces were significantly weakened during the Battle of Bataan because of the attack.
In the ensuing battle for the Philippines’ peninsula, Grashio conducted reconnaissance missions and established safe routes for important personnel out of the Philippines. Before every mission, his thoughts were on his family and new-born daughter, whose name he didn’t even know yet.
But luck wasn’t with the Allied troops, as starvation, fatigue and depleting ammunition eventually led to the American-Filipino surrender of Bataan. Grashio initially fled with Dyess to Mariveles to find transport out of the Philippines, but there was no escape. They ran into a Japanese tank and staff car and surrendered themselves.
Both became two of the 75,000 participants of the subsequent horror now known as “The Death March.”
Following the Fall of Bataan, American and Filipino POWs were forced to march 65 miles from Mariveles to San Fernando to then be transported to prison camps.
Prisoners faced unrelenting cruelty from their captors. Those with Japanese currency or items were battered unmercifully with fists and rifle butts or were bayoneted on the spot. Others were “beaten to a pulp” because they tried to give water to dying prisoners. The POWs received ‘sun-treatment,’ marching during the hottest part of the day and forced to sit or stand in the sun for hours.
In one particularly horrific instance, Grashio saw a Japanese truck go out of its way to run over a Filipino who was dragging himself through the dust on his stomach because both of his legs were amputated.
“There were so many bodies, both American and Filipino, that the sweet, sickly, overpowering stench of human corpses was always in our noses,” Grashio said.
The most painful experience Grashio endured was getting struck in the head with a bamboo stick, which split his mouth and broke a tooth.
When the march reached its destination, the prisoners were crammed into train cars, which smelled worse than the “vilest pigsty imaginable.” Grashio feared he would suffocate and not make it to a prison camp. But he survived, and was transferred to the prison camp, Camp O’Donnell.
The conditions of the prison camps were primitive. Nearly 7,000 American prisoners lived on dirt floors with leaves for roofs at Camp O’Donnell. There was no water to bathe or wash clothes. Men were soaked in their own feces. Dysentery and other diseases ran rampant. One prisoner with elephantiasis told Grashio that he prayed to “Almighty God every night before I go to bed that I won’t wake up tomorrow morning.”
Nearly 30,000 American and Filipino died in the camps.
But more rampant than disease was hunger. Some prisoners went blind from the lack of nutrition. “The main activity of everyone in camp who was not dead or wishing himself dead was trying to get more food,” Grashio recounts. His concentration was on food and escape, living one meal to the next.
Grashio received cruel punishments as well, including in one instance where he simply acknowledged the presence of a Filipino boy. Japanese guards took him aside into a warehouse and beat him, knocked teeth out, spat on him and mocked him for American surrender. But the fear of retribution wasn’t the worst aspect of the prison camps.
“Loss of freedom and loss of privacy, which is a part of freedom, were harder to endure than anything else,” Grashio said.
But he never forgot his faith. It kept him going through everything.
“At bottom I always believed that God would not desert me. I am convinced now that faith and determination were crucial everywhere,” he said. “My greatest solace in camp, by far, was religious faith.”
Grashio volunteered to be one of the thousand “literate laborers” to work in the Davao prison camp after several months in Cabanatuan. The camp itself was surrounded by jungle and swamp, and the living quarters were made up of wooden floors and tin roofs meshed with barbed wires.
But this camp was different. “One of the redeeming features of Davao as compared to Cabanatuan was that Japanese supervision was less close,” Grashio said.
His first job was working in the kitchen, starting fires under rice cauldrons, hauling wood and preparing bath water along with other odd jobs. He became friends with the main cook, a Japanese man named Abes-san. The friendship proved useful later when Grashio and others were preparing to escape. Grashio was able to wander the camp without alarming the guards since he was Abes-san’s friend. During these times, he was secretively smuggling supplies outside the prison gates and hiding them in the jungle.
But even though the conditions weren’t as harsh compared to the previous camps, Grashio knew he had to escape or die as a prisoner. He couldn’t survive another bout with malaria and dysentery weakened him due to malnourishment.
“If we tried to escape and were caught and executed, so what? It would only be faster than staying on to expire of disease or starvation. If the escape was successful, I would save my life,” Grashio said.
However, the Japanese devised elaborate techniques to prevent escape, one which included mass punishment called “shooting squad.” If one member of the ten-person “shooting squad” escaped, then the rest of the men would be executed.
It was a risk Grashio and other members of the escape party had to take in order to survive. He and other members, including Dyess, USMC Lt. Jack Hawkins, Lt. Mike Dobervich and future Brigadier General Austin Shofner, planned their escape soon after Christmas 1942. The goal: reach Australia.
The crew learned that surveillance was most lax on Sundays, and they obtained supplies and two Filipino guides. Initially, the plan was to escape on March 28, but one of their stashed rations of bananas was discovered, so they pushed the escape to the next Sunday, April 4.
On the day of the escape, the crew formed two separate parties and went out the main gate and preceded through the jungle.
They spent days trudging through the swampy jungle, cut by sword grass, beaten down by remorseless heat and covered in insects. Grashio only weighed ninety pounds, barely having the strength to rip his feet out of the mud to take a step. On the verge of collapse, the escape party found slight reprieve on a log.
But the reprieve was short-lived as the sounds formerly made by crocodiles in the swamp turned into the pops of gunfire. Despair grew because no other POWs at that point succeeded in escape from a Japanese prison camp.
As the night fell, one of the men suggested that they pray. Grashio took the lead, turning to the biggest asset he had throughout his life: his Catholic faith. He knelt on the log and began praying the Memorare, a prayer to the Blessed Mother taught to him by nuns while he attended Saint Aloysius’ grade school as a child. He had a devotion to the Blessed Mother ever since being taught the prayer:
“Remember oh most gracious Virgin Mary, never was it known that anyone who fled to your protection or sought your intercession was left unaided. Inspired by this confidence I fly unto you oh Virgins of Virgins my Mother. To you I come, before you I stand, sinful and sorrowful. Oh Mother of the word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in your Mercy and Kindness, hear and answer me…Amen.”
After the prayer, there was a sense of calm and security, and hope returned to their party. “I thought a miracle had occurred,” Grashio said. “I felt now that God would save us.”
The next days proved more fruitful. On April 7, the escape party met with the Filipino guerillas who were fighting the Japanese. The guerillas told the party that they ambushed a Japanese patrol party of more than 85 soldiers that was out hunting for the ten escapees. The gunfire they heard two nights earlier was the ambush.
The guerillas hosted the escapees, giving them food and money. Towards the day of the day, the group broke out into song, singing “God Bless America.” Then they changed the words to “God Bless the Philippines.” As Grashio recounts, there was “no dry eyes afterward.”
Days later, Grashio saw an American flag flying for the first time in more than 13 months since the fall of Bataan. He had never been so shaken in his life.
“For the first time since April, 1942, I felt like an American again rather than a prisoner of the Japanese perpetually on the run,” he said.
On September 29, 1943, nearly six months after his harrowing escape, Grashio boarded the U.S.S. Bowfin to Australia. The mission was finally complete.
“I was flooded with contradictory emotions,” he said. “I was elated at the prospect of going home to see my wife and family, and to tell the American people all about the horrors of life in Japanese prison camps. At the same time, I could never put out of my mind memories of my fellow prisoners back in Davao.”
Grashio returned to the U.S., visiting his family and meeting his daughter named Judy.
He spent the last years of the war making speeches at war bond rallies, talking about his experiences in the prison camps and in “The Death March.” It was the “best thing” he could do to help the prisoners left behind.
But he never felt at peace until he learned after V-J Day — the day of Japan’s surrender — that the “shooting squads” deterrent was not enforced after his escape, which became the only successful escape from a Japanese prison camp during World War II.
For his service, Grashio received the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest military award next to the Medal of Honor, as well as two Silver Stars. He rose to the ranks of Colonel and left the Army in 1965. He wrote about his experiences in a memoir Return to Freedom, which was released in 1982.
A member of the Knights of Columbus, Grashio saw God’s hand in his escape from the prison camp. Through it all, the grueling hardships, torment and eventual escape, he felt that “God had seen me through a miracle.”
Members of the Knights of Columbus have exhibited their patriotic duty during wars throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, with several also receiving the Medal of Honor. Their acts of heroism are explored in the latest book Knights of Columbus: An Illustrated History.
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