HUNGER. It was the one constant in my life as a prisoner of war in Japan during World War II. After a while, I could no longer remember when I had not been hungry.
One day a kind Japanese man in the boiler room of the factory where I was imprisoned gave me half a baked potato. I stuffed the whole thing into my mouth and tried to swallow it before the guard noticed. But the guard did notice, and he punished me with his stick.
Even though I knew then, as I do now, that the Japanese are just like other people—some good and some bad—if anyone had told me that day that I would someday preach the gospel to the Japanese people, I would not have thought it possible. Yet forty-five years later, my wife and I were called to serve in the Japan Osaka Mission. I was grateful I had never harbored hard feelings toward my captors, but I knew I would never forget my experiences as a POW.
I was a twenty-year-old private in the air corps when our ship left San Francisco for an unknown destination in the Pacific. We landed in the Philippines on Thanksgiving Day of 1941. Though our dinner of hot dogs and sauerkraut seemed poor fare, I had no way of foreseeing that I would later dream of such feasts.
Six months later we were captured. General Wainwright had ordered us to voluntarily surrender, but had I known then that I would languish in prison as a POW until the end of the war—three and a half years later—I do not think I would have surrendered so peacefully.
The white flags on our trucks fluttered as we drove to the place of surrender. When we arrived, we were searched, even though we didn’t have on much clothing due to the heat and humidity. One guard pointed his bayonet at my watch. Of course, I knew what he wanted. I gave my watch to him—no use arguing with a bayonet and a rifle. Miraculously, however, I did manage to conceal two pieces of paper that later saved my life.
By 1944, I had been in five different prisons as well as in the hold of a cargo boat for ninety days. I had become familiar with beatings, exhaustion, lice, bedbugs, disease, death of comrades—and the relentless hunger.
Finally, I had had enough and decided to give up. I had seen others give up. It was invariably fatal. I could always recognize them. Though they weren’t necessarily the sickest among us, they would lie in their beds in a semi-fetal position and stare at nothing. By morning they would be dead.
Death began to seem more and more to me like my only release. One day I put down my hammer and told the guard I would not work any longer. I didn’t care what he did to me. I wanted to die. He beat me, and afterwards, as I lay in my bed waiting for the end to come, I took out the two precious pieces of paper I had managed to keep concealed for three years: one was a picture of my parents; the other was my patriarchal blessing.
As I read my blessing, I thought of my grandfather, the patriarch who had given me the blessing, and my dear mother, who had patiently taken down every word. The words softened me. Maybe there was a future for me after all. Then I studied my parents’ faces in the picture. I began to recall my childhood, our farm, my brother Max, and the times we had spent riding our horses.
I started to pray. Somehow, I began to feel strengthened. I remembered that Helaman’s army of two thousand had been strengthened by their mothers’ teachings. I remembered my mother’s last words to me and my brother, both still in our late teens. She promised us that if we would always live the Word of Wisdom, the Lord would bless us.
As I lay there thinking about what my mother had said, I weighed only eighty-five pounds. I didn’t feel that I could run and not be weary, but maybe I could walk and not faint. That day my spirits were lifted, and I determined that I would hang on. I had beaten my enemy.
It wasn’t long after this that we began seeing American bombers. Air raids were frequent. Finally, one day our guards informed us of the Japanese surrender. Anguish became joy. My longings for home were now filled with joyful anticipation.
Almost immediately, prison conditions improved. We marked the roofs of our barracks with the letters POW so that American planes could recognize us from the air and drop food to us. Seeing those large cans of supplies floating down from the sky on parachutes was better than Christmas, Thanksgiving, and the Fourth of July all rolled into one. We feasted. We gorged. Many of us, being unaccustomed to so much food, became sick.
If my first visit to Japan as a POW had been characterized by hunger, my second visit to Japan as a missionary with my wife was quite the opposite. Generous neighbors and friends kept us supplied with rice, fruit, and vegetables; they fed us as honored guests. In turn, we kept those who were spiritually hungry supplied with “spiritual food,” much as I had been fed by the kind man who had once given me half a potato.
One day there was a knock at our door. It was the banker to whom we had given a copy of the Book of Mormon the day before. He carried the book under his arm. I was afraid that perhaps he might be returning it. I was wrong. He and his two daughters were bringing us gifts of mechans (a citrus fruit) and mochi (a rice product) to show their appreciation.
The beautiful words of the Savior took on a new meaning: “For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: … I was in prison, and ye came unto me.” (Matt. 25:35–36.)