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Our War: Despite long POW status, local vet still has no enemies in his life

Gaunt allied prisoners of war at Aomori camp near Yokohama, Japan, cheer rescuers from U.S. Navy. Waving flags of the United States, Great Britain and Holland on Aug. 29, 1945.
Gaunt allied prisoners of war at Aomori camp near Yokohama, Japan, cheer rescuers from U.S. Navy. Waving flags of the United States, Great Britain and Holland on Aug. 29, 1945. Provided to BND


Joseph Purlee for decades volunteered to fix his neighbors' lawn mowers or appliances, then taught the next generation to repair their own.

"Although his children were grown, he was the guy who aired up the bike tires for all the kids on the block and sent them away with cookies or candy. It was simple, outdated and old-fashioned kindness," wrote former neighbor Melissa Moehle. "He once explained to me that after all the suffering he had seen, that the only thing he could do was live the opposite."

At age 19 Purlee gained the right to become a very angry person.

He spent all but the earliest months of World War II as a prisoner of war. He was starved, beaten and nearly worked to death by his Japanese captors but held no grudges, even during the worst of it.

"I've never had a known enemy in my life, not even the Japanese guards," said Purlee, 87, of Collinsville. "I never did feel bad about them. They were starving, too, and would steal our food for their own families."

Purlee grew up in State Park Place and left high school after a year to help support his family, hoeing horseradish and other crops for $1 a day.

When he turned 19, the U.S. Army seemed like a better way to make money. On Feb. 5, 1941, he enlisted and took a pay cut to $21 a month, but after three months the regular Army pay kicked in and he was making the same money he'd made in the fields.

The Army gave him a choice -- infantry in Kansas, horse soldier in Texas or artillery in the Philippines.

"As long as I was going in the service, I decided to take the scenic route as far as I could ride," he said.

He was assigned to B Co. of the 59th Coastal Artillery on Corregidor Island as an ammunition handler for the 14-inch guns guarding the mouth of Manila Bay. He was just settling into a routine when on Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and attacked Corregidor later that month.

He fought on Corregidor and then was assigned to E Co. on nearby Fort Drum, an island that had its top leveled, concrete poured and big guns placed like a battleship. It fell on May 9, 1942, and Japanese soldiers rounded up Purlee and about 100 others.

They were put on a Filipino boat early in the morning and taken about 100 miles south to a sugar cane plantation, arriving before dark. Purlee was hungry and thought they would be fed -- he'd last eaten the night before, then destroyed all the food so it wouldn't fall to the Japanese.

But the prisoners were put to work moving rocks to rebuild a rail spur out into the bay. Darkness fell and the Japanese lit lanterns and kept them working. Midnight came. The Japanese changed shifts.

They were forced to work all night, the next day, the next night and into the next day. No water. No food. When one soldier's World War I-vintage doughboy hat fell into the water, the Japanese guards decided to take all their hats so they would blister and suffer under the tropical sun.

"They wanted to kill us. They said they did it because we'd spotted their camp and wiped out 10,000 of them with our 14-inch guns. They were going to kill us all for that," Purlee said.

They were succeeding.

Then an American officer crossed the line drawn by the guards. They failed to shoot him as promised, and the officer approached the Japanese commander, convincing him to end the forced labor. They were fed wormy rice and salty cherries.

The Americans were marched back to Manila, but with temperatures of 110 degrees, some of them fell by the side of the road and died. Some tried to drink from water buffalo hoofprints and were bayoneted for falling out of line.

They arrived in Manila and were put in a federal prison that was already packed tight. Purlee dropped into the only spot available, a chair no one else would use.

"It was the prison electric chair. I slept there all night. Hundreds of guys were put to death there, but it never did bother me. One guy said I wasn't in it five minutes and I was snoring."

They were moved to the Cabanatuan No. 3 prison camp in the Philippines.

One morning, Purlee was stopped by four of his friends from Fort Drum who pressured him to escape with them. He said no, because the Filipino natives were turning in escaped Americans for a bounty of rice. He couldn't convince them to stay.

About 2 p.m. that day a truck rolled in with the four. The Japanese officer said, "You guys were naughty. Thirty-six hours sun cure."

The four each had their hands and feet bound around the back of a post and a leather strap around their neck. After a day in the sun they were practically dead, Purlee said.

"They told the Japs, 'We'd rather die than keep taking this.' They cut them loose, gave each a shovel and made them dig their own graves that evening. They shot them and let them fall into the graves."

Purlee weighed 220 pounds when captured. By the time he was being shipped to Japan, he was below 100 pounds.

The trip on the "hell ship" took 60 days.

The Americans were kept in a hold with boards and canvas over the hatch to keep it dark. The Japanese would take on coal, pouring it on the Americans who would scramble up the piles to keep from being buried.

A five-gallon bucket on a rope was their toilet. Half of it would slosh back down on them as it was being hoisted out of the hold.

The trip took so long because they kept zig-zagging to avoid Allied patrols. The convoy was spotted though, and Purlee's ship was torpedoed. Several ships around his sank, but his limped to Japan in time for Christmas 1942.

Their white Christmas near Osaka was deadly cold.

"You'd a like to freeze. All three winters there were ungodly cold. We had one thin blanket, like a horse blanket. We slept in bunks 20-inches apart in a two-story corrugated building with one stove for 500 guys," he said.

"It got so cold in the winter they'd bring around a brush shaped like a doughnut and make you scrub yourself all over with that until your skin was pink, and beat you if you didn't.

"We'd shiver for four months. Then in the summer you had the mosquitoes, bed bugs and lice. Probably 100 died in that first winter."

Purlee was almost one of them.

The Americans were forced to work in a factory that made 55-gallon drums. Purlee was too weak to lift a seven-pound sledge hammer.

"I was beat for that by this crazy little 4F Jap trying to impress the women who worked there."

When prisoners were too sick to work, they were put on a blast furnace ash pile to pick out coke. He's convinced the duty saved him.

"The sun may have saved my life; it was so warm on that ash pile," he said.

There was no doctor.

"The sick were sent to Kobe, 20 miles across the bay. They never did come back from that hospital."

Purlee thought about suicide once.

He was working on the steel drums and was cut up badly from the trimmings.

"I was so sick and disgusted I said, 'Lord help me or I can't take any more.' That was the second year," Purlee said. "I prayed to God and he flooded that factory. It rained all night, and the water was 5 feet deep in there and ruined everything."

He was moved to the Nagoya area, unloading wheat and rice shipments from Korea. A Japanese civilian who cooked for the Imperial Army troops took a liking to Purlee and let him eat the burned rice scrapings from the pot.

"One day something told me not to go -- maybe because I had a feeling the Americans were really close. Another guy took my place.

"An American bomb hit the little kitchen. The Japanese guy was hurt and died. The American broke his leg when he decided to hide behind a stove and one of the pots was blasted into it."

Then the bomb dropped and the war ended.

Purlee said the most beautiful sight he's ever seen were the U.S. B-29s dropping barrels of food attached to colorful parachutes. Leaflets told them to hang tight, but Purlee and a buddy decided to take their chances and hopped the fence to find the Americans in Osaka.

They locked themselves in a passenger train bathroom for 90 minutes. Later when they were asked for a ticket, they used the Japanese they'd picked up to tell the conductor: "We're Americans and we own this railroad now."

The train stopped in a mountain village and they found themselves stranded for the night. They wandered down a street and ran right into about 1,000 Japanese soldiers.

"We thought, 'Boy, we've had it now.' One of their sergeants said 'Where are you going' in perfect English. We asked him where he was from. He said, 'I'm Japanese but I was raised in Chicago.'"

The sergeant told Purlee and his friend not to worry, the war was over and everyone was going home. He marched them a short distance down a side street, knocked on a door and told the resident to put them up for the night.

They made it back to Osaka and found the Americans, but an officer told them to get their fannies back to where they came from. They refused and finally the officer gave in and fed them.

Purlee finally was shipped to Hawaii, where he was one of 80 POWs honored by Admiral William Halsey at a luau early that fall of 1945. The admiral gave Purlee a silver bracelet, which he has passed on to his daughter.

He met his brother, a Marine, in Hawaii and just missed his younger brother headed to Okinawa. The Marine said they needed to call their parents.

"They'd received a letter on Christmas Day 1942 that said I was being held as a POW. They didn't know I'd survived until I called."

Purlee came home, married Gladys from the old neighborhood and they eventually had five children to raise.

He said he drank too much and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, but said he never hurt his family. He still takes medication and visits a psychiatrist.

"He asks if I ever have thoughts of suicide, but other than that one time in the barrel factory I never have," Purlee said. "I've not had one known enemy in my life, including the Japanese. Regardless of what you think about what we went through, every day is a new life."

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