Capt. Robert G. Davey was lying on a cot in Japanese prisoner of war camp in the Philippines when his ears picked up the faint sound of men singing.
The year was 1942. The malnourished Davey resembled a human skeleton while suffering from various skin diseases and malaria. He had already survived four months of battle on the front lines, the Bataan Death March, other diseases and two previous Japanese POW camps where thousands died of starvation, torture and other brutal means.
It was the song, not the singing, that captured Davey’s interest. The music was familiar but seemed completely out of place.
The soldier, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, followed the sound to the mess hall, where he observed about 30 prisoners singing the inspiring pioneer hymn, “Come, Come Ye Saints.”
“Not exactly what you would expect in a World War II Japanese hellhole in the Pacific; yet there they were, an informal branch of brothers in the Davao Penal Colony, a small but bright ray of light in a very dark place,” author Michael H. Hyer wrote in the introduction of his new book.
The true account is one of many that Hyer has compiled in “Saints at War in the Philippines: Latter-day Saints in WWII Prison Camps,” a new volume detailing the experiences of World War II veterans in the Pacific Theater. The book will be published by Brigham Young University’s Religious Studies Center and released in October.
Robert C. Freeman, director of the BYU’s Saints at War Project, endorsed Hyer’s work.
“Of all the veteran wartime voices that yearn to be preserved — and there are many — none are more deserving than those who endured terrible experiences as prisoners of war,” Freeman said. “Michael Hyer is to be congratulated on doing just that — preserving voices in a way that honors their suffering and sacrifice — often their ultimate sacrifice. God bless these heroes.”
A resident of Park City, Hyer is a retired corporate attorney who has served in the church’s Office of General Counsel. He is a graduate of BYU’s J. Reuben Clark Law School.
As thoughts turn to remembering loved ones on Memorial Day weekend, Hyer spoke with the Deseret News about his meaningful project, how it came about, the powerful stories featured in its pages and relevant themes of faith and reconciliation.
‘I can’t ignore these stories’
Hyer didn’t know his uncle, 1st Lt. George Robin (Bobby) Brown, but he had a vague understanding that he died while serving his country in World War II.
Several years ago, Hyer came across a 2011 BYU Studies article that included references to Brown and his involvement with a Latter-day Saint branch unofficially organized in a prison camp.
The article propelled Hyer into a deeper search to find out more about his uncle’s experiences as a soldier and prisoner of war. He sought out every credible source he could find. His goal was to create a blog or history of Brown’s life.
Hyer accomplished this objective, but didn’t stop there.
In researching who his uncle may have been with in the prison camps, Hyer cross-referenced names of fellow prisoners with the FamilySearch website to identify several soldiers from Utah and the Intermountain region who were Latter-day Saints. Then he reached out to their families and requested any information. Their responses “stunned” him.
Many of the soldiers left behind accounts of inspiring experiences that demonstrated stalwart faith and perseverance in letters, interviews, talks and personal histories. Many were largely unknown. Hyer couldn’t ignore what he had found.
“Bear in mind I was basically done with the project. I wanted to tie it up in a neat little bow and send it off to my family. Then I got these great histories coming back,” Hyer said. “That’s when I had this discomforting feeling. I can’t ignore these stories. More people should know their stories, and that changed the entire scope and nature of the project.”
At that point, Hyer’s project became a mission to tell the stories of these Latter-day Saint prisoners or war. He did his best to document the stories of survivors, as well as those who died, in the proper historical context.
Bataan Death March
Following their surrender on April 9, 1942, more than 75,000 Filipino and American troops on Bataan were forced to march over 65 miles to prison camps in intense heat while being harshly treated by guards. Thousands died in what became known as the Bataan Death March.
Davey was malnourished, exhausted and sick from malaria, but survived without medical care and food for six days, thanks in large part to his fellow soldier and friend, Russell Sparks, who supported him during his weak moments. They witnessed the Japanese soldiers shoot or bayonet many Americans and Filipinos during the march.
When Pvt. Orland K. Hamblin, the grandson of prominent Latter-day Saint pioneer Jacob Hamblin, was about to fall out of line, he offered a quick, sincere prayer and “immediately felt strength come into his body,” he wrote later.
Not only was Hamblin able to continue walking without trouble, but he helped others during the march. Hamblin attributed this blessing of added strength to God and his efforts to live the church’s health code, the Word of Wisdom.
Prayers and dreams
About 50,000 diseased and starved American and Filipino prisoners were crammed into one prison camp and told by the camp’s commander that “whether you live or die is of no concern to us,” Hyer wrote in one chapter.
Under these terrible conditions, many without strong family connections, religious beliefs or some sense of purpose gave up hope and died.
Allen C. “Ace” Christensen, a Latter-day Saint from Tremonton, Utah, recognized the hopeless expression on many faces shortly before they died.
“Those who gave up weren’t necessarily the sickest among us, but their lack of hope was invariably fatal,” Christensen wrote after the war. “They would lay in their beds in a semi-fetal position and stare at nothing. By morning they would be dead — starved of hope.”
At one point Christensen, discouraged and exhausted, decided to give up and quit working. He was severely beaten by the guards. As he waited for his life to end, he looked at two items he had concealed — a picture of his parents and his patriarchal blessing, an ordinance received by the laying on of hands where a person is given inspired guidance and counsel.
As Christensen looked at his personal items, he started to pray and found new resolve.
“That day my spirits were lifted,” Christensen recorded later. “I determined that I would hang on. I had beaten my enemy.”
When Davey’s friend, Sparks, died, his will to live began to slip as well.
One night Davey said a prayer, went to sleep and had a dream. In the dream, he saw a young lady he didn’t recognize, walking around his house in Salt Lake City. He awoke with renewed confidence that he would survive.
Davey faced more severe hardships after that, but eventually returned home unannounced to find a party underway. He recognized one of the young women at the party as the girl from his dream. Even though she was engaged to a sailor at the time, they married in the Salt Lake Temple about six months later, Hyer said.
Forgiveness and reconciliation
More than four decades after he was a Japanese prisoner of war, Christensen and his wife Doris served a Latter-day Saint mission in Osaka, Japan. He wrote in a church magazine article that would never forget his POW experiences but didn’t hold any hard feelings for his Japanese captors.
Shortly after Staff Sgt. Nels Hansen was discharged, the Latter-day Saint and former POW accepted a call to serve a mission in Hawaii among Japanese Americans, and later in Japan.
“Yes, I have seen the inhuman treatment by the Japanese in their prison camps. It was torture all right. But fundamentally, the Japanese people are not bad. ... They need Christianity,” Hansen wrote in accepting his mission call. “A great work lies ahead. I have no hate in my heart towards the Japanese. My desire is to help them.”
Hansen was a good friend of Brown, who didn’t survive the war. Hansen met Brown’s parents, George and Ruby Brown, after the war and gave them an autographed photo of himself, which they treasured.
Brown’s parents and family members harbored a deep hatred toward the Japanese for many years before finally finding forgiveness.
This message of reconciliation, illustrated in the lives of the POWs and their families, is as relevant today as it was then, Hyer said.
“Often, stories such as these are presented in a binary fashion: us versus them, good versus evil, nation against nation, and so forth. In reality, everyone is a victim in war, and sometimes forces from all sides perpetrate atrocities,” the author said.
“This book is a lesson about hate, a powerful emotion often exploited for its potent motivating force. But hate is ultimately a destructive emotion whose corrosive effects can linger long after its cause has disappeared. This is a story of how the gospel of Jesus Christ can be its antidote.”
Learn more about “Saints at War in the Philippines” at rsc.byu.edu.