FAIRFIELD — Army Air Forces serviceman Ray Heimbuch had been in the Philippines less than a month, to help set up an air base on Mindanao, when America was plunged into war and the Japanese attacked the Philippine Islands in December 1941.
“We were sent to build an air base for B-17s, but they did not arrive,” said Heimbuch.
Within a couple of months, he was an infantryman after the Army Air Forces decided it did not have the ability to support aircraft on the island since the Japanese had control of the sea around it.
“They made us all infantry when they knew we were going to be captured,” Heimbuch said of one of the last orders he got before the southern Philippine Islands surrendered.
Heimbuch grew up in Mobridge, S.D., with his four brothers.
“Jobs were pretty scarce and the war was about to start, so my brother (George Heimbuch) and I signed up,” Heimbuch said.
Heimbuch wanted to fly and tried to qualify to become a pilot, but he could not pass the physical. Instead, the Army Air Forces put him in administration.
The two young men were put in the Army Air Forces, and not long after putting on the uniform, they were shipped out to the Philippines, landing in Manila in November 1941. It was only a couple of weeks ahead of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the invasion of the Philippines.
Ray Heimbuch was attached to the headquarters unit for the 5th Air Base Group and was sent from Clark Field on Luzon to the island of Mindanao in the southern Philippines, not far from the Davao Penal Colony.
In May 1942, after subjugating Luzon and eradicating the Filipino-American Army on the Bataan Peninsula, the Japanese arrived on Mindanao. Both Ray and his brother surrendered, along with their unit.
Initially, the two men were sent to the Malaybalay POW Camp “where, at first, we thought it was going to be easy.”
That changed with a new, more brutal commander “and it all went to hell.”
Heimbuch and about 2,000 other POWs were shifted to the penal colony and put to work in the rice paddies and vegetable fields, raising and harvesting food for the Japanese army with workdays that started with a 5 a.m. roll call and a march out to the fields in groups of 30.
“We could steal enough, so food was not a problem,” Heimbuch said.
That changed on June 30, 1944, when Heimbuch and a group of POWs were lined up and put in a freighter, the Canadian Inventor, which the POWs soon nicknamed the “Mati Mati Maru” because it spent so much time in various stops on its way to Japan due to boiler problems.
“It was an old ship and the trip took 62 days. We were locked in the hold of the ship. I did not once take my clothes off and was fed a cup of rice for lunch and dinner,” Heimbuch said of what POWs called Hell Ships.
Heimbuch arrived in Moji, Japan, with 450 other POWs. He was sent to do slave labor in a smelting facility in the Ishikara Sangyo plant at Nagoya.
“An earthquake hit and we spent a week cleaning up the plant before they sent us (Heimbuch and about 250 men) to a steel mill in Toyama,” Heimbuch said.
The camp was bare bones, with raised wooden benches where the POWs slept in a 100-foot-long building. As for the guards, “some just did their job while others would find a reason to slap the hell out of us,” he said.
Food got worse to the point that Heimbuch’s group was losing one to two men a month “and that was all to malnutrition,” Heimbuch said.
At times, the POWs would see American B-29 bombers far overhead “and we would just hope that we would last until the end of the war,” Heimbuch said.
When the bombers appeared overhead, “alarms would go off and the guards would run for foxhole,” Heimbuch said.
On Sept. 5, 1945, Heimbuch woke up and the guards were gone. Not long after, an American fighter buzzed over the camp “and dropped a bunch of candy and stuff, which told us the war was over.”
Heimbuch stayed in the Air Forces, pinning second lieutenant’s bars not long before the Air Force became its own separate service in 1947.
“I like it, but I had to buy my own uniform two months after I got my Army officer’s uniform,” Heimbuch said.
He stayed in the military until 1961, retiring as a major and working as a price analyst and a contract negotiator until he retired in 1978.
Heimbuch has since written two memoirs of his experiences, one about his own time as a POW and the other about himself and all four of his brothers who served in the military. He has also recently taken a trip back to Davao, “it is a big penal colony again,” and the factories in Japan where he was kept prisoner.
As for his career, “I loved it and, considering that I had no college, I wound up a major so I did not do too bad,” said Heimbuch, who now lives in Fairfield.
Reach Ian Thompson at 427-6976 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter,com/ithompsondr.