POW Eddie Jackfert Tells His Story, Creates Museum
The American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor Museum, housed in the Brook County Public Library, began when one WWII POW Eddie Jackfert donated many of his memories, and much of his passion.
On September 11, 1940, Jackfert enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps. He became an airplane mechanic and was serving on the Philippine Islands in June, 1941. He was 19 years old and remembers well all that happened next.
“We were sacrificed and abandoned in the Philippines,” he said. “We were. 19,000 Americans. We were abandoned.”
Jackfert remembers vividly the days, months and years that followed the 1941 December invasion of the Philippine Islands by the Japanese.
“We were told about World War II happening, about Japan and how they’d bombed Pearl Harbor. So I went down to the plane, and came back for lunch and as I came out of the lunch room, we heard a group of airplanes. And we looked up and someone said, ‘Those are Naval planes.’ Someone else said, ‘Naval? Hell, they’re Japanese!’”
Soon after, Jackfert and so many others surrendered. They were without provisions, food, or military support. From there it was on to the Bataan Death March, or what Jackfert experienced: the Hellships.
“October the 9th as we were going toward Taiwan, I was on to pof the deck of the ship and someone hollered Torpedoes. And I looked out and there were two torpedoes coming right at our ship. The captain of the ship turned right toward the torpedoes and they spanned the ship, one on each side.”
Not everyone was so lucky—luck being a matter of your point of view. Air attacks or submarines sunk at least 25 of these ships. Inside POWs were stored in the hulls without facilities or fresh water. They subsisted on scraps, urine and blood; the very desperate resorted to bilge water. Many expired. Survivors continued on to labor camps.
“They made us get into a formation, a line of fours, and walk through the streets. The streets were lined with Japanese women and Japanese men and Japanese kids—the kids were throwing stones at us. We held our heads up high and marched straight down the street about three miles to a place where there were big warehouses. There was an abandoned office building that they turned into a POW camp, and that was our quarters until July the 25th of 1945.”
Jackfert worked in a variety of fields over the following years. Sometimes carrying rice, sometimes unloading coal, sometimes the work load was heavy, other times the work carried heavy implications.
“We were initially assigned to work in a steal company. We helped them manufacture steal which would be made into ships and tanks which would be used against our troops. This is what we were forced to do. There was nothing we could do about it. We were working armaments to assist the Japanese fighting against Americans. And this really hurt us. Hard to get over.”
In November of 1944, events changed much to the hope and horror of Jackfert and his friends.
“We all ran up on top of the deck and we looked down toward Tokyo and there was a B-29 making pictures of Tokyo. The first airplane in that area, November 1, 1944. Of course, that was a bad omen for us, too—it was good and bad—because shortly after that we were bombed almost every night. Every night.”
Eight months later, in July, they were hit. Jackfert is haunted by the memories of digging out suffocated men and collecting limbs of his comrades. In August they were rescued. Jackfert pointed to a picture on display in the museum of a ship with a red cross on it.
“See that red cross ship there? We saw it sitting out in the waves, that’s where they were taking us. But, what we saw? We saw the flag. If anything ever hurts you, makes you tear, that did—the Red White and Blue of the flag.”
19,000 men were taken prisoner. 16,000 returned home. Half of those died within the first ten years of being home. Today less than 500 survivors are still alive.
The Brook County Library will dedicate new shelves in the museum, in recognition of POW/MIA Day. With a collection of over a million and a half artifacts, documents, and photographs, and oral histories, the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor Museum has become a center for research. Eddie Jackfert says he only hopes that someone will learn something from all the suffering.
“Show the people that war is nothing but death and destruction. Let’s teach the young ones: this is what you’re going to encounter if you don’t do something about it. Let’s get some schools, some universities, let’s get some clubs running. War will not solve the international problems. We need something else.”