Saturday, October 2, 2010

We review two books by former POW Ray Heimbuch

Since living on Corregidor we have had the privilege of meeting many interesting people. There are many others, like ex-POW Ray Heimbuch, who have signed up for our newsletter and become internet friends. Over the past year or so we have been in correspondence with Ray.

Following our review of last year’s bestseller, “Tears in the Darkness,” Ray emailed us and asked if we would like to read his books and tell our readers about them. He sent them to our U.S. address and we received them this summer. The two are entitled, “I’m One of the Lucky Ones: I Came Home Alive,” and “5 Brothers in Arms.” For brevity, henceforth we shall refer to the former, published in 2003, as “ONE,” and the latter, published in 2008, as “FIVE.”

We have read a number of firsthand accounts by former POWs recalling their experiences during the war. Some are, quite frankly, more difficult to read than others, often due to the fact that they are self-published random recollections, yet valuable reading for historical purposes. Others, such as “No More Uncle Sam” by Tony Bikek, and “Unconquerable Faith” by Everett Reamer, are obviously well thought-out and more polished. This is also true of Ray’s two books – we found him an excellent storyteller.

Books in this genre tend to be somewhat boilerplate. Most of the American soldiers who defended Bataan and Corregidor were, like Ray, enlistees. They fought, were ordered to surrender, spent time in POW camps in the Philippines, in most cases were sent to Japan, China, or Taiwan, and were ultimately liberated. The “unlucky ones,” close to 40% of these American POWs, did not “come home alive.” In most cases, those who did survive returned to America to resume their lives, finding jobs and raising families as if the past four years had not happened.

Ray’s story diverges from many of the others in that he was not captured on Bataan or Corregidor, but on the island of Mindanao in the southern Philippines. As a result, his treatment in the early months of captivity was admittedly not as harsh. Later he was sent to the Davao Penal Colony, where he spent the better part of two years under increasingly severe conditions. Also, his brother George was in the same unit, and they spent the initial months in captivity together. Although the two brothers were very close, they reached an agreement that, if the chance arose, they would go separate ways under their captors, to increase the odds that at least one of them would make it back home alive.

Although both books are primarily Ray’s story, and to a lesser extent George’s, there are mentions of the other siblings in the family. The two oldest brothers were exempted from service, one due to health issues and the other because he held a critical job. A younger brother, Erv, was in the third wave of Marines to land at Iwo Jima, one of only three non-casualties in his company. Another, Floyd, served in the Navy, also in the Pacific theater. The fifth, Mylo, joined the Army Air Corps in 1946. FIVE gives a brief biography for each of the four who, along with Ray, were WW II era veterans.

Ray’s points of capture and internment were entirely different from Steve’s father Walter’s, but they shared one horrible experience; they were transported from Manila to Japan on the same “Hellship.” (“Hellships” is the term adopted for the unmarked ships used by Japan to relocate POWs between camps in the Philippines, Japan, Taiwan, and China.) The “Canadian Inventor” was nicknamed the “Mati Mati Maru” (“Wait Wait Ship”) because its boiler kept breaking down, extending an approximately five-day trip into 62 days. Despite its snail-like pace, the ship avoided attack by American airplanes or submarines, something that claimed over 20,000 allied lives during that period of the war. We personally appreciate Ray’s description of that two-month voyage, since this was one thing that most of these POWs, Walter being no exception, were loathe to discuss. Including his trip from Davao to Manila, Ray was on Hellships for three straight months, not counting a very short stay at Bilibid prison camp. Unbelievable. Courtney Krueger from Salt Lake City, Utah, a guest with us on our 2008 Valor Tours excursion, was on the same two Hellships as Ray.

According to its preface, ONE was primarily meant for the author’s children and grandchildren. As such it is shorter and an easier read. FIVE is a revised expansion for the general public, giving more details about military service and POW life. If you are a collector you may very well want both. ONE spends more time discussing his pre-war family life and service in the WPA. As such, it contains a funny incident involving a very young boy who later became a famous sportscaster. Also, the preface to ONE contains a superbly worded statement of Ray’s feeling for the Japanese prison guards whose treatment he would not, and possibly could not, ever forgive, and his feelings about the Japanese people, whom he never blamed for his sufferings.

True to his word, neither book is a rant against the Japanese people. Ray points out several incidents where Japanese soldiers put themselves at risk to assist POWs, yet pulls no punches in describing some of the awful things he witnessed and experienced. Ray traveled to Japan in the past year, not bad for a man who will reach 91 during October.

Both books are available directly from Ray, at or at (707) 438-0222. The price per book is $15.00, plus $2.50 for shipping. Ray autographs each copy. ONE is only available from the author. FIVE is available elsewhere, but would cost you significantly more and would not be autographed. At the very least, send Ray an email wish for a Happy 91st Birthday. We’re sure he would be thrilled to hear from you.

Ray is planning to join us for our April tour, and also an extension to Davao. If you might be interested in joining us for what could well be the very last tour attended by a WWII POW of the Japanese, contact Vicky Middagh of Valor Tours at or visit the website at

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