Escape From Davao and Never Say Die

November 3, 2011

One of the great things about having my mother-in-law stay at our house for a few weeks is that she does all the dishes each night.  So I get more reading done than I usually do.  Here’s a couple that I was able to scratch off my “to read” list.

Escape From Davao (John D. Lukacs, 2010).  Most Americans are aware of the Bataan Death March in 1942.  A few may know of the Cabanatuan prison raid in 1945.  Even fewer have heard of the escape of ten Americans and two Filipinos from the Japanese prison camp at the Davao Penal Colony in 1943.  This excellent book is the author’s attempt to reintroduce to the world the story of these daring men:  Ed Dyess, Jack Hawkins, Austin Shofner, Mike Dobervich, Melvyn McCoy, Stephen Mellnik, Leo Boelens, Sam Grashio, Paul Marshall, Bob Spielman,  Benigno De La Cruz, Victor Jumarong, and all the men and women who helped them along the way.

The work done by Lukacs in creating this book was extensive:  interviews, travel, pages and pages of references, etc.  Stories from a few of the escapees had been previously published elsewhere, but Lukacs ties all the accounts together and supplements them with his own research.  The result is what will likely forever be the most important book about the only significant escape of American men from a Japanese prison camp during WW2.

Never Say Die (Colonel Jack Hawkins, USMC, 1961).  This is one of the previously published accounts of the escape.  A nice little book, but doesn’t contain much that isn’t found in Escape From Davao.  Notable for its additional details about the Mindanao guerrillas and preparations for the arrival of the Narwhal at Nasipit Bay in November of 1943.

Colonel Hawkins is the last surviving member of the escapees, having recently turned 95.

It was cool to find an inscription in my copy of Never Say Die. And the bookseller's business card made me chuckle.

Where’s the jungle, you say?    The Japanese were thinking “Jungle as Prison“, but the escapees were thinking “Never Say Die”.  They made epic journeys through swamp and jungle after escaping from the prison camp.  Here’s what Hawkins had to say about the wild interior of Mindanao:

The merciless swamp was cutting deeply into our reserves of physical endurance.  Our feet sank far into the clinging mud beneath the thigh-deep water, and each step required a tiring struggle.  The matted grass towered above our heads, engulfing us and holding us immobile, like flies in a spider’s web.  The midday tropical heat was intense, turning the swamp into a vast steaming cauldron which wilted our vitality.  Rest was impossible, for there was no dry place to sit down.

Soon we found ourselves beyond the realm of civilization in a pristine wilderness where time had stood still through countless centuries.  Nowhere was there evidence of human life.  Monkeys peered curiously down at us from lofty perches in the giant trees of the primeval rain forest and chattered in alarm as we passed.   Brightly plumaged birds added brilliant flashes of color to the wild scene, and their shrill calls split the silence in angry protest at our invasion of their domain.

And then suddenly, as we rounded a bend in the stream, we found ourselves face to face with a band of Atas!  We stopped short and stood motionless.  They did the same.  There were more than a dozen of them, not forty yards away.  As we stood transfixed, they began ot advance along a gravel bar directly towards us.  Thoughts of what to do flashed through our mind.  Our bolos, I knew, would be of little use if they attacked with the long spears and bows and arrows they all carried.  Should we run or stand our ground?  It was too late to run.

The strange-looking party moved to within fifteen yards of us and halted, as yet making no menacing move.  They stared at us and we stared at them, both sides in silence.  Never before had I seen such people–short, bushy-haired men with copper-colored skin and heavy anthropoid features.  Their upper lips protruded grotesquely from wads of betel nut underneath, and the blood-red juice trickled down the corners of their mouths, staining the skin.  Except for scanty loincloths, they were naked.  Each man carried an eight-foot spear and a bamboo bow with a quiver of arrows slung from the shoulder.  They seemed spellbound at the sight of us, even as we were at the sight of them.  Probably we were the first white men they had ever seen.

Then, as silently as they had come, they turned and padded away, disappearing in the dense foliage on the riverbank.

Soon we began to pass other Atas who came floating down the river on bamboo rafts–men, women and children.  Like the first group we had seen, they all wore loincloths and seem addicted to the betel nut habit–even the small children.  The narcotic effect of the betel nut possibly accounted for the strange, half-dazed look on their primitive faces.  None of them approached us nor made any gesture of greeting.

Each Ata family lived in a tree-house, separated by a considerable distance from any neighbor.  They never congregated in villages.


4 Responses to “Escape From Davao and Never Say Die”

  1. Craig Savela said

    I am a nephew of Eli Dobervich and lived with him for a while after returning from my tour in Vietnam while in the Army. His brother, Mike, was one of the of the ten prisoners to escape from Davao. There is a Feb. 1944 Life Magazine article about the escape also. Five of the six Dobervich brothers served in the Pacific Theater. The oldest, Sam, died at Iwo Jima and is interned at the national cemetery in Hawaii. The youngest, Bob, was also a prisoner of war as an Army paratrooper. The others have illustrious,in their own rights, military resumes during their war service.

    It would be a great honor to own the book if you are willing to part with it.

    Eli passed away while I was working in West Virginia and I was unable to attend the funeral.

    Craig Savela

  2. Earl Ray Brewster was a fellow POW and friend of Jack Hawkins. Here are are some of the comments of the aftermath of the escape excerpted from chapter 7 of his memoir:

    “I am sure that our escapees had thought a lot about the matter of reprisals as they considered the question of escape.- Jack Hawkins, in his* book, indicates that it was an agonizing decision to make — knowing of the actions and reactions of which some of our captors were capable. Jack brought out the fact, however, that as bad as things were at Dapecol, Major Maeda didn’t (comparatively) seem to be as sadistic as was Colonel Mori at Cabanatuan. In fact, the execution squads of ten each were not formed at Dapecol, as at Cabanatuan.

    The foregoing should not be interpreted, however, as meaning that we were not apprehensive about what might happen to us as a result of this terrible loss of face on the part of the Japanese. Those of us in barracks in which escapees had lived became particularly anxious about rumored threats concerning special treatment from our captors. The Japanese command assumed that many of us knew about the escape plans, and that some of us must have helped our fellow-Americans do this dastardly deed to them. They simply could not imagine how ten of us could plan and carry out such a maneuver without all (or at least some) of us being involved. We were puzzled, too, but, as far as I know, nobody among our two thousand prisoners had been aware of what was going on; if anyone had been, he had an extremely unusual ability to keep his mouth shut.”

  3. […] escapees was authored by Col. (then Lieutenant) Jack Hawkins. This book, which bears the title “Never Say Die”, was published by Dorrance & Co., Philadelphia. Jack was not bound by the limitations placed […]

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