Some people are particularly gifted at describing the lives they have experienced. One man who had that narrative ability in large measure was Richard Harralson, who joined the Navy as an apprentice seaman in 1937 and retired 20 years later as a lieutenant commander. In between, as he related in his U.S. Naval Institute oral history, he lived through events that befit the term "hell on earth."
He enlisted at 17 after growing up in California during the Depression. Not only did the Navy offer him a steady livelihood, his departure from home also meant one fewer mouth for his parents to feed. He served in several ships before being lured by the call of the exotic Orient. Once overseas, he reported to the U.S. Asiatic Fleet flagship as part of the enlisted staff that supported the commander-in-chief, Admiral Thomas C. Hart. As time passed, Harralson took pride in his increasing skills as a radioman.
Liberty was a special part of the Asian allure. Harralson remembered Shanghai, China, as the "queen of liberty ports." The attractions included "girls, cabarets, horse racing, jai alai, moving pictures, real nice theaters, real nice restaurants, a lot of action." In Manila in the Philippines he found the Legaspi Gardens, "a great big building, air-conditioned, had real cold beer, a big jukebox, lots of tables and chairs, and lots of Filipina waitresses." Unlike its effect on some shipmates, the beer didn't make him mean or surly. Instead, he took on a golden glow that made him friendlier and more confident.
When the fleet command moved ashore in the Philippines in the summer of 1941, Harralson was assigned to the radio station at Cavite Navy Yard. The happy days of liberty came to an abrupt end with the beginning of war. On 10 December Japanese bombers laid waste to the shipyard and sent Harralson and his mates scurrying for cover to avoid being hit. From the yard he caught a tugboat ride to Corregidor, the U.S. island fortress at the mouth of Manila Bay.
In early May 1942, Japanese forces shelled and invaded Corregidor. Harralson was inside a tunnel until a chief petty officer ordered him to take up a rifle, ammunition, and hand grenades, and go out to confront the Japanese. When Harralson emerged, he said: "it was like Dante's inferno. I'll swear the ground was on fire." Soon the American commander surrendered. Harralson and others with him became prisoners. Occupation soldiers, whom he described as "mean as snakes," assigned him to a squad with three American Soldiers. The Japanese took away two of them. Harralson heard rifle shots, and the two were dead. He and the other American exchanged silent glances, communicating without words the idea that they also were about to die.
Just then a Japanese officer arrived, and his timely appearance saved the lives of Harralson and the other man, but many gruesome experiences lay ahead. The two became members of a working party that had to deal with a mountain of Japanese corpses. They had to remove the dead men's belts and leggings and then to sever the left hand from each body, which would be cremated and the remains returned to the family. After Harralson had completed that appalling task, he and other Americans were imprisoned in the Philippines and still later taken by ship to Japan. That voyage was the worst of the worst. Men were crammed into the hold of a cargo ship that steamed through rough weather. Congestion, seasickness, and the stench of diarrhea produced an atmosphere that exceeded even Dick Harralson's power to describe.
The experience of prison in Japan went on month by month. Some prisoners lost the will to continue and gave away even their meager food rations. Harralson at times also verged on giving up but persevered when others cared for him. To maintain a semblance of purpose, the prisoners deliberately did small acts of sabotage when forced to work in a Japanese shipyard. Their morale got a boost when they saw hundreds of American bombers flying overhead.
Eventually, in August 1945, more than three years after Harralson had been captured, the war ended, and the prisoners were freed. When the war began, he weighed around 155 pounds; at its conclusion he was down to about 100. He returned to the United States, where he received medical care and occupational therapy. In learning how to make leather goods he worked with an instructor, a young Navy enlisted woman named Naomi Winkler. In April 1946 Dick and Naomi were married.
When I met the Harralsons more than 50 years after the war, I was struck by Dick's equanimity. He was a very friendly, kind, down-to-earth man. He told me that he had been able to rid himself of bitterness and hatred toward his former captors. The ex-POWs who continued to harbor such negative feelings, he said, wound up with more physical problems later in life than those who didn't. He drove a Toyota truck, and one of his sons, Art, had married a Nisei woman. Harralson described his daughter-in-law Susanne with pride as "third-generation Japanese ancestry, an all-American girl."
My memories of visiting the Harralsons—including Dick, Naomi, Art, and Susanne—are most pleasant ones. Probably because of his positive mental outlook, passed on to his children, Dick lived a long and productive life. Earlier this year he died at age 89 and was interred at Arlington National Cemetery. He now rests there with thousands of other Americans who fought against the Japanese so long ago.