When I was a teenager, my parents owned a small lakeside business near the tiny West Texas town of Robert Lee.
The area was known as “The Playground of West Texas” because it contained the only “large” lake within several hundred miles of much of the dry West Texas region. People came from all over Texas and our small family operated business provided all of the usual fare required by the many water starved West Texans who came to fish, boat and swim. We had a small cafe, a grocery store, we sold fishing tackle and bait, gas, ice, etc. We also had two short rows of RV/Mobile Home spaces where our customers parked their RV’s or Mobile Homes. Part of my job was to keep the place mowed and clean.
One late Spring morning in 1980, around 10:00AM. I was 18 years old and sitting astride an old 1940’s era butane powered Allis Chalmers tractor. Dragging behind it was a large 8 foot wide shredder that was probably nearly as old as the vintage tractor itself was. It was one of those late Spring days like you get when the milder temperatures of Spring are slowly converting into the sweltering hot days of Summer. I had started at sunrise to avoid the inevitable heat that was sure to come in the afternoon.
I still had two or three acres left to finish, so I was about ready for a break. As I slowly turned the tractor around to make another pass back towards the store and a cold drink in the shade, I noticed a large truck stopped at our front gate. I looked up to see a small lime green Datsun B210 parked just inside the gates in a grassy area. The driver’s door was left open and the engine was still running. A man I’d never seen before was frantically waving a semi-truck pulling a mobile home right through the front gate which was too narrow to allow the over-sized load to pass through. It was obvious from the scene that this gentleman had just driven right in and proceeded to establish himself as the newest resident of our humble little resort. He just hadn’t counted on the cattle guard gate preventing his entry. Now the entire rig was sitting at a standstill and was blocking both lanes of Texas State Highway 158.
This all came as a sudden and complete surprise to myself and my family, none of us knew him and we didn’t expect his arrival. I disengaged the shredder and slowly guided the tractor in the direction of the lime green Datsun and the stranger who was apparently about to move in.
After dismounting the hard steel seat of the old tractor, I took my gloves off, wiped the sweat from my brow, and approached the stranger who was still more interested in getting the truck through the gate than he was in talking to me. To be honest, I was a little perturbed by his abrupt appearance and apparent dismissal of my approach. So with typical youthful bravado, I was just about to assert my discontent verbally when the stranger turned and walked directly towards me with his right hand extended, and a big beaming smile on his aging face. Any concerns I may have previously had, instantly melted away as soon as I saw that beaming smile.
The angle of the bright 10:00 AM sun directly behind me shone directly into his eyes causing him to cock his head to one side and squint his eyes a bit as he approached, as he firmly grasped and shook my hand his first words to me were;
“Hello, my name is Bill. When I came over that big hill back there and saw that water, I knew this was where I was going to live! Where do you want me to park it?“
And so began my Friendship with a True American Hero.
That was over 36 years ago, my new friend and his wife would eventually live with us for nearly two years before eventually purchasing a home in town. After they relocated to town, he would still often make the six mile drive out just to visit myself or my Father on an almost daily basis. Not a single day has gone by since then that I was not haunted by the memories of the many horrific stories he would tell me in my youth.
The “stories” he told me were not stories at all, they were factual details of his own life as it actually occurred.
He was there. And he wanted me to know it.
In the weeks and months to follow, he and I became close friends and I often spent many hours sitting across the table from him in our small cafe as he retold, and sometimes relived, the gruesome details of his life’s story. Details that have been permanently burned into my memory ever since.
After all these many long years, the only thing that has haunted me even more so than the memory of the unimaginable stories of torture and inhumanity that he and thousands of others were forced to endure at the hands of the Japanese, is my own failure to listen to him more closely, more often. But more than anything, I have long been burdened by;
My own personal failure to record the horrific and miraculous story of his amazing life.
To this day, I can still clearly remember much of what my dear friend told me over the years. The details he shared about his own personal experiences were far too intricate, far too unimaginable, far too horrific, to ever be forgotten by anyone who ever heard them spoken by the man who actually lived them. Details like that could only be known or spoken of by those who were actually there. Those who were themselves the victims, those who were actual witnesses to the historic facts that they sometimes reluctantly, painfully, shared with a few others like myself………
Who can only listen but will never be able to even imagine the truth.
Because we were not there.
During casual conversation with a friend in Chicago sometime in 1998 or ’99, I shared the story of my first meeting with the amazing stranger many years before. I also shared my deep regret for not having recorded his story when I had the chance. A week or so later I received an unexpected parcel in the mail. It was a small box containing a brand-new micro recording machine including extra mini-cassette tapes. A gift from my friend in Chicago.
Inspired by this gracious and thoughtful gift, I soon set out to attempt to relocate my long lost friend with the intent of finally putting his entire story to record. I hadn’t seen nor heard from him in years, I didn’t even know if he was still alive. But the importance of his story and the pain of my regret spurred me on until I finally committed myself to do whatever I could to locate him and at least fill all of the tapes included with my new gift.
I just felt a burning and urgent need to make sure his story was not just recorded, but SHARED WITH THE ENTIRE WORLD.
Especially With All Americans and The People of The Philippines.
Within a few days, and much to my own surprise, I found that my dear friend and his wife were living a mere 40 miles away from where I had first met them so many years before. The next day I drove a short distance to visit them at their home near Ballinger, Texas. As I drove I contemplated the many questions I wanted to ask him, and I felt a pending sense of relief. It seemed that at long last, I would finally be able to put to rest the ghosts that had long haunted me. Within minutes I had arrived at my destination.
Upon my arrival, it became immediately obvious that the situation was not good. Without going into any details, I can only say that what I found was merely another very sad chapter in the unwritten book of my dear friend’s tragic life. Although he was still perfectly capable of answering questions with complete clarity, it was painfully obvious that this was not the time or place to ask the questions that so desperately needed answers.
After a short visit, it was time for me to leave. I hesitated outside the front door, then turned to shake the hand of my dear old friend. As he stood there in the doorway of his modest home, the afternoon sun behind me shone brightly in his old eyes. He cocked his head to one side, squinted his eyes a bit, then firmly shook my hand and thanked me for the visit. We both had tears in our eyes, and we both knew it would be our final goodbye.
I was too late, I had waited far too long. I would never see my dear friend or his wife again. And his tragically true story would remain untold.
I took the long way home. As I drove in a daze, deeply immersed in my own troubled thoughts, I began to realize the sheer immensity of the loss. A much heavier burden quickly settled in, and I felt as if the ghosts of 500,000 victims were riding along with me. I could see their tortured faces in my mind, sitting there beside me with heads hung low, in deep despair, and utter silence.
Since that day, a single word has placed the weight of the world upon my shoulders.
Although I have failed in life far more than I have ever succeeded, I still consider this to be one of the greatest failures of my entire life. It goes far, far beyond the personal level, this is a truly epic failure that affects all of mankind. And as if that is not bad enough in and of itself, the greatest failure of all is that today’s generation, and with them go those of the future, will never know the Truth! Absent the truth, they will never really understand WHY they are Free. Nor will they value the Freedom that was purchased for them at such great cost.
This kind of failure creates a culture of ignorance. Ignorance that breeds contempt, and dooms future generations to repeat the very mistakes that lead to the kind of Wars that men like
USMC PFC Henry William “Bill” Sublett
Are Sent To Pay For.
Bill Sublett and countless others like him have PAID a price greater than death itself. In comparison, death is quick and easy. Surviving the worst in mankind and living to tell the story, is a much more costly affair.
Because Bill and countless others PAID the highest costs of all…
His is a True Story that Must be Told!
And this is why I am now reaching out to the Entire World in search of what few small traces of this Heroic man’s personal history may remain.
We are also very much interested in any information related to all other American POWs captured or held in the Philippines from December 7th, 1941 – December 31 of 1945. This includes all POWs who were transported to Japan via the infamous “Hell Ships” at any time between December 8, 1941 – August 1945.
With specific interest in all of the POWs held in the camp known as Fukuoka POW Camp #1 Kashii Pine Tree Camp Kyushu Island 33 130. They include service members as well as some civilians.
We have a keen interest in their fellow Filipino POWs as well. Beyond the horrific War Crimes and atrocities inflicted upon POWs, hundreds of thousands of Filipino civilians were also murdered and brutalized by the Japanese. We are seeking personal accounts, recorded statements, memoirs or journals, as well as research and photographs from civilian residents of the Philippines who witnessed the events/atrocities occurring between December 7, 1941 – December 1945. Some of whom may still be living today.
With the obvious reality that first-hand accounts from eye-witnesses like my dear friend Bill are virtually vanished from the earth today, we humbly send out an urgent and serious request for the assistance of all remaining survivors and interested parties who may be willing to contribute in a variety of ways to this honorable and worthwhile endeavor.
Lest We Forget.
Please Be Aware: My main purpose and interest in this project is to record and report the Truth of what really happened. Especially related to the many War Crimes committed against my dear friend Bill, and the thousands who suffered beside him for over 3 1/2 years in Japanese POW camps. Although much has already been written, filmed, and published about this subject, the actual Truth is still largely unknown, unrecorded and unspoken. And increasingly, it is forever forgotten. History is not history at all if it is not accurately recorded.
Our goal is to recover, record, preserve and report historical facts. What we will NOT do is attempt to “re-write” history based on modern “revisionist theory” or a “new perspective” or third party rumors and speculation. And we are not interested in repeating history as it has already been written. We will begin with the Truth as it was reported to me directly from an actual survivor, and the Truth is exactly what will be presented in its entirety when our goal is accomplished. Anything less, would be an injustice and an insult.
My only significant personal contribution to this project is my testimony. The first-hand accounts of historical events that Bill Sublett reported directly to me over a period of years, literally transformed me into a secondary witness to history. Bill was one of the few still living who actually knew the Truth, because he was there. I was also a firsthand witness to the serious trauma that Bill endured throughout his post-war life.
Thanks to the hard work and dedication of the many WWII researchers, historians and individuals who have come before us, most notably: Roger Mansell, our initial research has already produced considerable results which we are slowly collecting. In addition, we have located his surviving family members and are currently awaiting an interview in the near future. We have already discovered a wealth of information, but we still have a long journey ahead of us.
I was truly privileged to know Bill Sublett, and I am both honored and burdened by the responsibility of the Truths that he shared with me so many years ago. Truths that he and countless others would want the world to at least….
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