Culture · Poetry · Uncategorized

This is the Day We Learned that the War Was Over


We were jubilant; the war was over!

August 14 is VJ Day—victory over Japan. Ancient history to some. A war about what? Nobody remembers. But you don’t have to remember the past to be affected  by it. It helps, though, if you remember. I was reading Escape from Davo (a Japanese prison in the Philippines) the other day. Each chapter is preceded by an excerpt from a poem by Henry Lee. Who? There is nothing about him on the Poetry Foundation’s website.


Captured on Bataan, he survived the Death March, and was imprisoned in Cabanatuan. Reports from Philippine spies about Japanese plans to massacre the prisoners caused the Americans to launch a raid behind the Japanese lines to save them. It is celebrated in Hampton Sides’ book, Ghost Soldiers and in a movie, The Great Raid. 

However before the camp was liberated, Lee and some other prisoners were sent to Japan. He did not survive the war, but he had buried his poems at Cabanatuan. His friends dug them up and gave them to a reporter. Many were published in the Saturday Evening Post. They do not reflect Wordsworth’s “emotions recollected in tranquility.”

They are patriotic:

“Our faith is in the blood of weary men / Who take the coral beaches back again. / My country—Oh, my country—well we know. / That final victory will be your part,”

and blunt:
So you are dead. The easy words contain
No sense of loss, no sorrow, no despair.
Thus hunger, thirst, fatigue, combines to drain
All feeling from our hearts. The endless glare,
The brutal heat, anesthetize the mind.
I can not mourn you now. I lift my load,
The suffering column moves. I leave behind
Only another corpse, beside the road.

After he’d been in Cabanataun for three years, he wrote:.

“Teach me to hate,” I prayed — for I was young,
And fear was in my heart, and faith had fled.
“Teach me to hate! for hate is strength,” I said
“A staff to lean on.” Thus my challenge flung
Into the thunder of the clouds that hung
Cloaking with terror all the days ahead –
“Teach me to hate — the world I loved is dead;
Who would survive must learn a savage tongue.”
And I have learned — and paid in days that ran
To bitter schooling. Love was lost in pains,
Hunger replaced the beauty in life’s plan,
Honor and virtue vanished with the rains
And faith in God dissolved with faith in man.
I have my hate! But nothing else remains.

But that wasn’t quite true. He had “one treasure nothing can destroy.”

Somewhere there lives a woman I suppose
Who once was you. All night I fought my brain,
All night with burning eyes that ached to close
I probed the whirling darkness while the rain
Played on the nipa with a rhythmic stamp,
And as forgotten memories seared my heart
The restless mutter of the prison camp
Mocked at the empty years we’ve been apart.
But now the hills that race the tropic dawn
Across a sky ablaze with pagan joy
Have touched me with their strength. Though you are gone
I guard one treasure nothing can destroy—
Across a spring green, a sunlit campus lawn
A golden girl laughs with her dark-haired boy.

Henry G. Lee’s one book of poems, Nothing But Praise, was published after the war by the Philippines Asia Museum. It’s out of print. The hardcover costs $495. Even the paperback at $88 is outside my range. But a few of his poems can be found on the internet.


Survivors from Cabanantuan

While searching for Lee’s poems, I came upon a site that published “Three Years After” along with this accompanying photo of two surviving prisoners. The blogger said she’d read Ghost Solders and it “disturbed” her. She couldn’t accept the idea that the Americans were admirable and the Japanese despicable. So to reassure herself (and to sound wise), she claimed she saw “disturbing parallels” between what happened in Cabanatuan and “what has been done in our ‘war on terror.’” (Note the queasy passive voice.) What parallels? Do any of the Islamist prisoners at Guantanamo look like the Cabanantuan prisoners in the picture? I know, she’s young, so maybe I should go easier Unknown-2on her. But she read Ghost Solders!

3 thoughts on “This is the Day We Learned that the War Was Over

  1. I try to imagine. What was it like to hear this good news? The war is over. Not any war. THAT war. I sort of understand. But there are no parallels in my life time to draw upon to help me. Just my fined tuned sense of empathy. I can almost get there. I try to imagine what it was like to be a soldier, captured and on the death march and then imprisoned by the Japanese. There certainly are no parallels in my life time or experience to help me. Thank God. But these beautiful poems by Henry Lee help. Really, at the end of the day, words are the only way to understanding something beyond our experience. And Henry Lee’s poems get to the heart of it. Thank you for posting this. Thank you Henry Lee for the words and for your service and sacrifice for our great nation and for me.


    1. I guess most of us can point to a particular teacher who made our lie miserable. And I think many women would have to admit they were at some point guilty of the manipulative techniques described in the poem. Not many would admit it, however!


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