Austin Civil War Round Table

Margaret Gillooly

Prisoner of War

The Philippines, 1942-1945

In Memoriam

Margaret passed away in July 2007. She will be greatly missed by all her friends at the Austin Civil War Round Table. This is Margaret's story.

Margaret Gillooly Margaret Gillooly, the only child of Thelma and Thornton Ellis, was born in San Francisco and spent her childhood in the Sacramento - San Joaquin Valley of California. A naturalized citizen and native of Melbourne, Australia, Margaret's father came to San Francisco when he was fifteen years old. When he met Margaret's mother, also fifteen, at a family party, they hit it off immediately. Despite the opposition of both families, they continued to see each other for four years. "Finally, they ran off and got married by a justice of the peace, because nobody would give them their blessing," Margaret says.

As a motion picture theater projectionist for the National Theater chain, Margaret's dad moved the family frequently. "We would move every six months to a year," Margaret says. "I knew it was time to move when I had memorized the names of all the streets in whatever small town we were living in." In 1938, the Ellis family got a unique opportunity: to move to the Philippines, then a commonwealth of the United States.

Map of the Philippines "In 1937, there was a major earthquake throughout the Philippines and all the island chain up through Japan, and Manila was just absolutely destroyed," Margaret explains. "They were in the process of rebuilding the city and elsewhere in the country that needed help. My aunt, Dad's sister, lived in Manila. They got in touch with us in 1938 to say there were tons of jobs available and they would send us ship passage if we wanted to come to Manila. So my Mother and Dad decided that that would be a lark. We took passage on a Danish freighter and went to Yokohama, Kobe, Shanghai, Hong Kong and then Manila."

Margaret's dad took a job in H.E. Heackok company, a retail department store, and quickly became an assistant manager. In November 1940, he was transferred to Cebu City on the island of Cebu, north of Mindanao. "At that point, he was manager for the entire southern half of the Philippine Islands," Margaret says. "That included the biggest store in Cebu City, which was two floors of department store, a radio station on the third floor, and a penthouse on the fourth floor where we lived. We were there a little more than a year when Pearl Harbor occurred."

On December 2, Margaret's parents traveled to Manila to pick out some Christmas stock for the department store in Cebu City. They were caught there when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7 and the Philippines on December 8. "They tried to get back and were on an interisland steamer that hit a mine in Manila Bay. It blew the bottom out of it," Margaret says. "A little more than 900 people were killed in that disaster. The boat sank in less than three minutes. My parents just walked off the top lounge deck into the water. I was fortunate that both of them survived and were able to be taken into prison camp at the end of January 1942, when the Japanese took over."

Margaret had no idea what happened to her parents, and would not see them again for almost a year. At age sixteen, she was on her own. Margaret joined a group of 150 British and Americans on Cebu, living on sugar plantations or wherever else they could find housing.

"I wasn't staying with anybody," Margaret says. "I was not going to become somebody's teenager. I wasn't a rebellious person, but I had been taught an awful lot by my parents up to that point. "

Indeed, Margaret was no ordinary teenager. Of her pre-war life in the Philippines, Margaret says, "I had been raised to learn make up my mind about things, to make choices, weigh pros and cons. When I was fourteen, my mother decided she'd go to work at the invitation of the store in Manila, and she said, 'OK, now it's your turn to learn to run a house.' She just turned it over to me, good, bad or indifferent. I could cook a little, but it was a different proposition to run it as if it were my own house -- planning menus, buying food, handling the servants.

"I learned a lot," Margaret says. "My mother would say 'What do YOU think?' If I was way off-base, she'd guide me , but for the most part, I learned on my own. So when it came to the point when we were captured, and having to survive in a semi-outdoor situation in Cebu, I knew how to cook on open fires because we used to camp, and I knew how to take a dish for six or eight -- I had the recipes in my head -- and blow that up for 150 people."

The Japanese invaded the island of Cebu on April 10, 1942. "We surrendered and were therefore captured the first of May, because nobody showed up in April," Margaret says. "The whole island kept the secret that there were Americans and British on it. Five of our men went down to Cebu City to surrender, because we were afraid if we were discovered, they would come in shooting. We didn't want any harm to come to the Filipinos. The Japanese sent trucks up to haul us and our luggage down to Cebu City."

Margaret had now become a prisoner of war. "They held us in the provincial jail for a month, which was perfectly awful, filthy -- about 120 degrees on the ground. High adobe walls that were ten feet thick at the bottom and four feet thick at the top. After a month, they moved us to a junior college that had been used as a barracks for Japanese soldiers. It still had basic furniture in it, but everything was full of garbage. We had to clean everything up before we could even begin to exist. We were there for about three months, then they moved us to the Filipino Country club, where the ballroom or dance floor was quite a large open area. We strung wires and hung mosquito nets in there, with families grouped together."

Though she was only sixteen, Margaret was better prepared for the ordeal than some of the other women she was with. "A lot of the wives of the men who were executive of different companies in the Philippines or the Far East had been pampered," Margaret says. "They had servants and nursemaids for their children, and they really were rather helpless."

Margaret Gillooly The Japanese did not provide food, so the prisoners had to scrounge whatever they could. "The Japanese do not believe in Geneva Convention," Margaret says. "According to the Japanese, we were not POWs, but only in 'protective custody.' So we had to take care of ourselves. But they did let Filipino, Spanish, and Chinese vendors come to the gates. You could buy sacks of grain, rice, corn, and millet. We always got polished rice -- we would have been much better off with brown rice. Whatever vegetables or other kind of food you had determined how you structured the meals, how much food you could give out to each person. One day we got forty chickens in. These women didn't know how to cut up a chicken. I was always teaching somebody something."

Margaret found other ways to improvise while helping out her fellow prisoners. "I earned whatever money I had by opening a kind of a floating beauty shop, because these women didn't know how to do manicures. Growing up, I learned how to manicure, to set and cut my hair -- and I took one look at these women who were just desperate, and I thought, 'It can't be that hard!' I let them know I was willing to do it for a price. They paid me to take care of their hair and give them manicures. So I had money, and I knew how to sew and to draft a pattern, so if there was some yardage to be purchased from Filipinos who would come to the gate, I would get it. I cut myself out a couple of blouses and a couple of skirts, sewed them by hand and made extra clothes for myself."

At the end of 1942, the Japanese decided to consolidate the civilian internment camps in Manila, on the ground of Santo Tomas University, a Catholic university founded in 1611. "Our camp in Cebu was the first one to be moved. It took us five days to go a distance which in peacetime would have taken thirty-six hours," Margaret remembers. During the journey, Margaret had a terrifying encounter with some Japanese soldiers. "For a girl, there was always the possibility of rape," Margaret says. "It almost happened one night, when they put us aboard this interisland steamer. It was just an iron bucket of rusty bolts. I stayed up on deck the first night because we were not sailing until the following day, and I didn't want to go down in the cargo hold that first night. Half the cargo hold was full of Japanese soldiers being taken to Manila. It was scary, because we had no lights down there, and you didn't know if they were going to slit your throat or what. They did not do any harm in that respect, but what do you know? You've got your enemy ten feet away from you, with bayonets, knives, and guns.

"So I stayed up on deck. There were about fifteen Norwegian sailors whose ship had run aground in Cebu after Pearl Harbor and who had joined up with our people. They were very knowledgeable, used to being aboard ships, and they were just a fabulous help because that was one area that we knew nothing about. They spoke little or no English, but they were lovely men.

"So that night, some of us slept on top of the hatch cover, which was a huge heavy canvas over wooden planks. Four of the Norwegian fellows decided they were going to stay topside too. During the night, three Japanese soldiers came on board drunk as skunks. They took the butts of their rifles and were banging on the soles of my feet, trying to wake me up." Fortunately for Margaret, the Norwegian sailors distracted the Japanese and cheerfully persuaded them to go away. "But that was a scary night. I'll tell you."

On December 19, Margaret and the other prisoners arrived at the Santo Tomas internment camp in Manila. On arrival at camp, Margaret was startled when a bearded stranger rushed up to her. It was her father, who along with Margaret's mother was a prisoner there. After a year of not knowing whether the other was dead or alive, she was reunited with her parents at last.

"It was a great relief," Margaret says. "I didn't know they were on the ship that sank -- I learned about that at this point. I was just glad they weren't wounded or hurt. They were about 38 years old. And of course, they were thrilled to see me and find me in one piece."

Santo Tomas University At Santo Tomas, Margaret was assigned to the room her mother was sleeping in, an old university classroom that had been made into a dormitory by stringing wires and mosquito netting.

"We had 30-inch wide slatted wooden platforms for a bed, and we had mattresses that had come from the Red Cross -- sort of a hemp sleeve filled with excelsior, which is shaved wood, which used to be packing material before the war. It had buttons on it to keep things from shifting around," Margaret says. "Our room had sixty women in it, and if you haven't lived daily with sixty women, you haven't lived. It was quite an experience. Probably about one-third of the room were prostitutes from Shanghai. Not that I had anything against them because of the way they earned their living, but these were women who'd fight at the drop of a hat. So it was a very lively situation."

Everything Margaret owned was in a foot locker she kept under her bed. "When we were captured, we were only able to take what we could carry," Margaret says. "I wore a heavy pair of keds, which were men's shoes -- I had a size 12 foot -- and took another one. I also had a pair of bakya, wooden clogs carved to the shape of the bottom of your foot, with a piece of tire inner tube to go over your toes. I took five cotton dresses which were pretty new, the best heavy cotton dresses I had." Along with the bare essentials, Margaret packed one small piece of civilization: "I still don't know where my head was, but I packed three small milk-glass plates, bread and butter size. I got those out when I was unpacking my luggage in mother's room, and she said, 'What on earth did you bring those plates for?' I said, 'I have never in my life lived without a bread and butter plate and I'm not going to start now!' Why I thought bread and butter plates were going to be so essential, I have no idea."

According to the rules of the camp, prisoners over the age of fourteen had to work a minimum of two hours a day in the camp. "I did two kinds of camp labor," Margaret says. "One was working in the kitchens. You had to clean the rice every day, because it was full of rocks and weevils and God knows what. Otherwise, I worked for a doctor in one of these little dispensaries that were there."

For the most part, their Japanese captors stayed out of the prisoners' daily lives. "Their way and our way were virtually opposites," Margaret says. "The Japanese did not understand Western thinking. On the one hand, you could get away with a lot, but on the other hand, they could be very aggressive. Anybody who tried to escape they would torture by tying them to a pole and tying their head back, and forcing them to look at the sun. Within a day, you would be blind. But most of the time, they didn't bother us too much in any brutal way. What was brutal was the lack of food. You went through all the malnutrition diseases, until the third year we hit starvation."

"The other intangible thing was the daily, constant stress of the situation, which erodes you -- physically, mentally, and spiritually," Margaret says. "I had been raised not so much religiously, but spiritually. My mother taught me how to manage my life in those terms. So along comes this crisis, and you have nowhere to go. It's not like any other kind of disaster in your life that you can run away from. The only thing you could do was pray. It was my prayer and meditation life that sustained me."

The prisoners were also sustained by occasional news from the outside world. "There were two shortwave radios in camp," Margaret says. "A whole bunch of men took the radios apart, so there were little units which you put together with other parts to make a radio. Each man carried one part in his pocket at all times. It was like a floating crap game -- only the men involved would know where to assemble. At that time, there were shortwave radio broadcasts from Treasure Island, which was the Navy base in San Francisco Bay. William Winter, who was one of the primary commentators at the time, would do a half-hour broadcast of world news twice a day. Somebody in their group would take notes about what was going on in the Pacific, and this would be passed throughout camp, so within a couple of hours everybody pretty well knew the casualty figures, sinking of ships, downing of planes, coming from Treasure Island.

"Then you had the Japanese source. In a short time, you figured out that if you reversed whatever they told you were the casualties, and the downed planes and the lost ships, you would be very nearly correct. Three different times, they told us that they had totally sunk the American Navy. Now and then somebody would bring in a Manila newspaper which had the news according to the Japanese, and it would say, "American Navy Totally Sunk Again." We'd start to howl, and they thought we were nuts. They didn't know why we laughed. Thank God there were moments like this where you could laugh, instead of just feeling like your life was going to end at some point and you didn't know how long you had to live."

By early 1945, the prisoners of Santo Tomas were very near starvation. "It got to the point where there wasn't enough money in camp to buy the supplies that were needed for the camp population, which was about 3700 people," Margaret says. "The man who headed up the committee that ran the camp was the number one man in the Far East for General Electric. He told these vendors who sold food to the prisoners, 'I will write checks on General Electric funds for the food. If you will hold the checks to the end of the war and send them to General Electric, they will honor my signature.' And that's exactly what happened.

"Unfortunately, this man was beheaded just before the liberation. He and some other men, the secretary and the treasurer of this committee, were taken out and beheaded. The Army found their bodies in a ditch. They took the three wives to identify them and they could only identify them by their clothing or wedding rings. That was very, very sad."

Douglas MacArthur By this time, General Douglas MacArthur had re-invaded the Philippines at Luzon Island and was fighting his way towards Manila. Apart from taking the country back from the Japanese, MacArthur's primary goal to liberate all the Allied nationals in the prison camps. This time of desperation for the Japanese was the most dangerous time of all for the prisoners.

"At a point, the Japanese decided that they would execute everybody in the prison camps, so that MacArthur had nobody to liberate and nothing to find," Margaret says. "Roughly the last couple of days of January, 1945, there was a notice issued, in Japanese, that we were to be executed the morning of February 4, 1945. Hardly anybody in our group was ever in the commandant's office, and the notices written in Japanese calligraphy, so they didn't worry about anybody from our group getting wind of it. The notice was just out in the open laying on the commandant's desk. One of the Japanese men, a little noncom who was what we call a gofer -- he boiled water, made tea, cooked rice, and fetched and carried for the officers-- turned out to be an American intelligence officer. He saw this notice and he immediately got word through the Filipino guerillas to MacArthur, that we were to be executed on February 4.

"This just stampeded MacArthur into immediate action. He was going to systematically retake Luzon until he got to Manila. Well, he couldn't do that, with this information. He sent out the 37th infantry and the 1st Cavalry, from Fort Hood. The 37th infantry came down the main roads, and they were ambushed and stopped and never got to Manila. But the 1st Cavalry came with two tanks and 500 men, and however many trucks it took to haul 500 men, and they came over the rice paddies, guided by the guerillas.

"The afternoon of February 3rd was just a really strange situation," Margaret says. "It was the first time I'd had any experience of that expression, 'The air was electric.' If you went over to the edge of the campgrounds where Filipinos were walking on the sidewalk, you could hear the Filipinos very excited, and you could hear them shouting "The airplanes! They're coming!" in Tagalog. We had had bombings and things dropped on camp, propaganda, notices from American Navy planes, since October of 1944, so the fact that there was air traffic was not unusual, but the fact that the Filipinos were yelling at each other on the street -- you just felt this electricity. It was really strong. We know something was going to happen, but we had no knowledge of what."

The prisoners normally had their evening meal at 5PM, roll call at 6PM, and then were free to move around the grounds until 10PM. That night, the Japanese announced over the PA system that the prisoners were to speed up their evening meal, and be inside the buildings by 5PM.

Margaret was in her building with her mother and the other women when they heard a racket outside. "At 7:00 that night, we heard this rumbling, which were the tanks. They made such a noise on this macadam street covering outside the front gate. Then we began to hear rifle shots. You had to be indoors, they wouldn't allow anybody out on the grounds, so everybody was hanging out of windows trying to see what was going on. Mother and I were on the 3rd floor at the front of the building, where we could see in the direction of the gate. And we saw these tanks. It was dusk, almost dark, and so the headlights on the tanks were on, and you could see men crouching below the beam of the lights. We didn't know what on earth this was, because the uniforms were camouflage fatigues and they were carrying carbines, which were much shorter than ordinary rifles. Their hats were not like World War I hats, which was the only reference you had. They didn't look like anybody we'd ever seen. So it was a little anxiety-producing at that point.

"These two tanks rolled into the plaza area, which was in front of us and three stories down. There were a lot of soldiers congregating there. They were looking for people on the grounds, and of course there weren't any. There was this one guy who walked a little ways away from his group, and he was looking up at all these women's faces looking out of these huge, tall, narrow Spanish windows. You could get three heads high at every window on every floor. And he just couldn't imagine. He grabbed his cap, and scratched his head -- he had flaming red hair with this butch cut -- and he looked up and said, "Hell, this MUST be the place!" I don't know whether it was Texas or Oklahoma, but it was a drawl.

"With that, everybody started to scream and started running out of the building, and were hugging and kissing and grabbing these men, these soldiers, because we realized they were Americans," Margaret says. "General Chase, who was in charge of this task force, was concerned about the Japanese, naturally. He asked who was in charge of the camp and they explained that the Japanese were in a building next door, which had been a convent, initially. The ground floor of that building was their mess hall, and the 2nd and 3rd floors were dormitories that internees lived in. My dad's room was on the third floor of this building. General Chase who was trying to see what he needed to do to secure the situation, was told the Japanese were at dinner, except for the guards at the front gate and around the walls, who had been shot as the Americans were coming in. General Chase had the tanks come across the plaza and then turn so they were ready to fire point blank into the first floor. It was all glass windows. And the Japanese were sitting there at long tables, eating. It was their garrison. You know what a tank sounds like -- there were two tanks, all this gunfire, and nobody moved. To me, it was a complete miracle. We could hear it, why couldn't they hear it?

"Then he had the men come, some of them kneeling down, others standing up so they could fire over their shoulders -- they got in front of the tanks, ready to shoot. All these screaming women had come over, behind the tanks, ready to watch the war. And my dad and a couple of other men in this building had tied bedclothes together -- they went out the front window and were shinnying down the front of the building, crawling on their stomachs back behind the tanks. All this was going on, and the Japanese were calmly, quietly eating dinner. And in a moment, somebody looked up, saw the tanks, and then they erupted." The internees still trapped in the building were held hostage for three days before the Japanese finally walked out and surrendered.

"On February 7th, MacArthur himself came down and officially reclaimed the Philippines for the United States, from the marquee of one of the main buildings at Santo Tomas," Margaret remembers. But the war was not yet over for the beleaguered prisoners. "The army was finally able to secure Manila, and the Japanese retreated as fast as they could. We were kept in camp because there was nowhere to go. The Japanese had mined every floor of every building in the downtown area, and set off all of those things. We were literally in the middle of a ring of fire, and it was gradually closing in on our camp, and that was very frightening, because we didn't know what would stop it -- if anything."

At one point, the camp was under siege by Japanese shells. "Three hundred people were killed," Margaret says. "I knew many of these people and they were dying at my feet. We were at one corner of our building, for safety, and the Japanese were shelling the opposite corner. It was destroying the building. We were all huddled there, sitting on the floor and there was nothing to do, and you didn't want to go anywhere else and get killed. But it was very tough for those days. I and a girlfriend and a male friend were sitting in this little passageway that had been walled off under a stairwell to make a storage room. The army had made another room nearby into what we know as a MASH unit. We had five operating tables going in our room, because people were being wounded and half dying while the shelling was going on. When people died, many of them died on this string of litters that were just lined up on the floor, as people braved it to go out and bring people in off the grounds when they got hit with shrapnel.

"And they decided to use this little storage room as a morgue. So they were stepping over our legs and they'd go to the door and just throw the bodies in there, and we could hear them bounce. It got to the point where it was so stressful that we laughed every time they threw somebody in there. My friends felt the same way I did, that if you don't laugh, you're going to lose your mind. Your mind's going to crack because it's too much pain, all at once." The ordeal continued for four days until the Japanese were finally beaten back and the Americans restored some security to the camp.

After surviving liberation and the siege, the next hurdle for the Ellis family was the repatriation process. "You had to apply to the army counter-intelligence people who were stationed in the camp, and it took about three weeks to get clearance, because nobody had passports, papers, or anything. The Department of Immigration and Naturalization investigated your family and did FBI checks to be sure you were a legitimate citizen and had no Nazi or Japanese sympathies. After that, they had to figure out what they were going to do with you and how to get you out of the Philippines."

On March 19, the Ellises flown to Tacloban, the capital of the Island of Leyte, and spent four weeks in a convalescent hospital. Finally, on April 19, they boarded a Dutch freighter bound for San Francisco. "It took us three weeks to cross the Pacific, which was a very harrowing experience by itself," Margaret says, "We were glad that we were coming into San Francisco because that's where our family was. When we arrived on May 9th 1945, they wouldn't let us off the ship. They took us in small groups and we went trough an FBI investigation and a Naval intelligence investigation. We went to an OPA representative, who gave us ration books and gasoline stamps and issued us social security cards -- things that would allow us to begin to pick up life in the states. It took us about three hours to get through that process. In the meantime, our family was going nuts -- they were standing on the dock thinking we would just come down the gangplank. It was quite a reunion when we were finally together with our family. There were several cars, and we all went back to my grandmother's house."

Margaret remembers when she learned about the atomic bomb explosions that finally ended the war. "Personally, it was very difficult for me, because with my spiritual beliefs, and feelings and concerns, to me it was man's inhumanity to man," Margaret says. "When it happened, they said 'This was to save lives.' As a civilian, I remember thinking, 'Whose life are they saving? And are their lives less valuable than ours?' I understand their reasoning -- the Japanese were never going to surrender -- but it doesn't make me feel any better. I regret it, to this day, because it was such a horror on so many levels. But I can understand why they arrived at that conclusion. The bomb was the most devastating thing that could have been used to bring Japan to its knees and stop all the sacrifice."

Resuming life back home in the States was a difficult adjustment for Margaret. "It was very frustrating when we got back to the states, because I became a teenager. I went back and relived that three years that we had jumped over." After her experiences as a prisoner, Margaret did not relate very well to other young women her age. "I could not make friends with these people," she says. "I didn't want to hear about what a tough time they had getting a dress for Saturday night. My experience had literally been life and death."

Initially, Margaret was not interested in going to college, but her parents persuaded her to go with the argument that all the G.I.s would soon be returning. She began attending the College of San Mateo, south of San Francisco. But the subconscious horrors of her ordeal took their toll. "The spring term of my first year, I had a nervous breakdown," Margaret says. "I didn't get psychiatric or psychological help, because they didn't know what I'd been through, so I decided not to do that. I spent endless hours talking mainly with my mother because she could understand my feelings. Half the situation in therapy is to just get it out, vocalize it. get the pain out, cry. I was able to do that with her, which over several years it helped straighten me out. Because when you're in a situation like that, whatever values you had held were gone."

With the help of a compassionate teacher, Margaret received a scholarship to the University of California at Berkeley at the end of her second year. "I had applied to the University of California at Berkeley, because that's where I wanted to go for my upper level courses, but I couldn't afford it. I didn't have any money. I said, 'God, if you want me to get a college education, you get me there and you keep me there.' That was my prayer; I said it every day. I had no way of knowing how on earth this was going to happen.

"The Spanish teacher at the College of San Mateo went to the scholarship office in Berkeley, and said 'I have a young woman who is very worthy of scholarship help.' And she talked them into giving me money. So I went to Berkeley for my junior and senior year. All my parents could give me was $65 a month, which was what it cost to live in a rooming house. I just lived on faith that last two years." Margaret graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration and a minor in foreign trade, and went on to work for Stanford University, non-profit organizations, and a shipping company. Margaret moved to Austin in 1983, and today works as office manager and editor for Texas Association of Minority Business Enterprises.

From her personal experiences, Margaret has this to say about war: "Coming from my background and the way I think, it's not the way to settle disputes. I think we have to be more spiritualized in our values and ethics. We have to grow and develop to the point where we can sit down with other people and representatives of other countries, and work out our problems in a relatively peaceful way, so we don't go on slaughtering each other. A lot of it is ego -- ego of the country, ego of the individuals or political leaders. When you get the ordinary people together in any country, you don't wind up having stuff like that. We're jealous. People think in terms of their country, and not one world."


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