Ernie Koblos didn’t like to talk about it much. And he rarely did.
“My dad once said there was no helping nobody. You stopped to help somebody, you died. It was everybody for himself,” his son, John “Jack” Koblos, said from his Klamath Falls home this week.
It, is a little-remembered incident in the Philippines during the United States’ liberation of that country at the tail end of World War II. It is called the Palawan Island Massacre where some 150 American prisoners of war were burned alive in their hand-dug air raid shelters, or beaten to death, stabbed or machine-gunned when they tried to flee their Japanese captors. Only 11 escaped with their lives. One was Ernie Koblos.
On this 75th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese that brought the U.S. into the war, a new book is out that documents life and death in what was known as Camp10-A on the island off the Philippines mainland. It depicts the massacre and traces the survivors’ stories. The book is titled, “As Good as Dead” by noted war historian Stephen L. Moore.
Ernie Koblos, 21, was just a kid from Chicago, when he enlisted in the Army and chose to go to the Philippines prior to the war. He worked in the artillery division and then a mine-planting vessel.
In 1942, the Japanese had taken over the mainland, and U.S. servicemen became prisoners of war. As a POW, Koblos was transferred to Palawan Island, working on building an airfield for the Japanese.
‘Killing for sport’
“The Japanese were killing people for the sport of it (on the mainland),” Jack said. “So when he got the opportunity to go to Palawan, he took it. But it turned into a nightmare.”
The POW camp had from 150 to 350 American prisoners at any one time. Food was scarce or maggot-infested, prisoners were routinely tied to palm trees, whipped and beaten for the slightest infraction.
Yet, the Japanese had their own public relations department that would type up post cards that prisoners were forced to sign, and send them stateside to their parents.
“One of them read, ‘Dear Dad, there is no need to worry. I am all right and in good health,’” Jack Koblos said. “This was happening during the Bataan Death March,” he said in disbelief. “They were beheading people.”
Jack’s grandfather, also John Koblos, kept all the postcards and letters from the War Department, plus newspaper clippings and any pictures of his son. His family put it all together in a binder for posterity. Jack and his wife, Felice, now have the binder in their Klamath Falls home along with a framed set of medals awarded to Koblos for his bravery.
He was awarded a Purple Heart, Bronze Star and many commendations from the Philippine government.
Death screams in the air
On the day of the massacre, Koblos managed to get out of the bunker, dart through a barbed-wire fence and scamper down a cliff to the ocean. He and a few men hid out in a cave until dark, all the while listening to the death screams of men less fortunate.
He managed to swim several miles across a bay until friendly Filipinos found him and returned him to safety.
“Dad actually wanted to return to the Philippines to live. The government had given him a land grant of 160 acres,” Koblos said. “But it took that back a few years later.”
The veteran lived and worked in California after the war, but never wanted to testify against his captors when they were on trial for war crimes. He didn’t want to relive it.
“There were no heroes here, my Dad once said,” noted Jack Koblos. “The will to live is tremendous, that’s all, that’s what kept him going.”