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To hell and back, now gone

POW risked his life to keep his journal from the Japanese in World War II -- only to lose the diary to a thief.

March 01, 2007|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

ORANGEVALE, CALIF. — Over the years, Ben Waldron's weathered World War II journal has been in its share of tough spots: hidden inside a dank latrine, stowed in the false bottom of a soldier's wooden trunk, tucked among the fronds of a banana-leaf roof.

But now the dog-eared, secretly written chronicle of the former Army corporal's brutal 3 1/2 years as a Japanese prisoner of war is in its toughest fix yet.

The small canvas-bound book filled with Waldron's heart-wrenching cursive scribblings was stolen from his home in this Sacramento suburb last month -- by a thief who, police say, did not know either its contents or its emotional hold on the 84-year-old decorated veteran.

The theft -- not just of the journal, but also of cash, jewelry and a POW medal -- has outraged U.S. veterans as far away as Iraq. One California National Guardsman in Baghdad offered $1,000 for the diary's return. Others took up collections.

Saying the theft "crushed my heart," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently met with Waldron and ceremonially presented him with a replacement medal, along with a $5,000 check for the reward fund, written from his personal account.

Last week, Carl Joseph Brew, 19, turned himself in to police and was charged with possession of stolen property in the case. He offered no information about Waldron's book, which police believe he simply threw away.

The veteran said he remains "heartsick" over the loss of the journal, which detailed his wartime exploits, including his capture at Corregidor, a tadpole-shaped island at the entrance of the Philippines' Manila Bay.

His daily entries evoked the nightmares of one of the most brutal campaigns of the Pacific Theater, describing life at three prison camps. Often they amounted to a grim log: executions, prisoners being forced to burn the bodies of fallen comrades, beatings so severe that they left the former anti-aircraft gunner unable to have children.

The irony, he says, is that while he kept the diary intact during countless searches by his cunning Japanese captors, he could not protect it from a suburban American burglar who stumbled across the white security box in which he kept his valuables under his bed.

The white-haired retiree is hard of hearing and says he suffers from the onset of Alzheimer's. Take his money, even his Rolex watch, Waldron says, but let his memories be.

"I realize that I'm 84 now. But if I was 32 or 40, I'd take a poke at him," Waldron said of the thief. "I'm mad. I'm mad and I'm hurt."

Police say it is impossible to put a price on Waldron's book. "You can put a price on a ring, it can be appraised, but this little book is like a piece from a museum, a piece of history," said Michelle Lazark, a spokeswoman for Sacramento police. "I don't think the suspect knew what he had. He figured it was some diary that meant nothing to him. So he discarded it."

Robert Smith, president of the Sacramento chapter of American Ex-Prisoners of War, said veterans are incensed.

"This is an item with no intrinsic value to anyone, really, but it's of tremendous importance to this veteran. It documents very thoroughly his suffering," he said. "To have someone steal that record is a violation."

Waldron, who was raised in Denver, began to record his daily experiences when he left San Francisco for the Philippines aboard a military ship. At the dock, his sister gave him a smart new diary and a camera and asked him to keep a record of his experiences.

On Oct. 6 1940, he boarded the ship with 17 other men he had met in the Civilian Conservation Corps. Only two would return alive.

Waldron was still keeping his diary in May 1942, when the Japanese captured Corregidor. A sergeant, he said, gave him a terse word of advice: "He told me 'Waldron, if the Japanese catch you with that diary, you're dead. They'll behead you. I've seen them do it.' "

Waldron hid the book in a sock in his rucksack. But when he and other prisoners were forced to jump into the water from a landing barge, the pages of the submerged diary smeared.

So he bought another book from an Army medic. He paid 12 cigarettes, "which were like money among us POWs," he says. The new journal had been used as a ration book to log prescriptions.

Though dirty and battered, the book helped Waldron keep his sanity. One of his first entries detailed being herded 100 men to a boxcar for an overland trip, in which half of them died of asphyxiation and heat stroke.

He wrote of being beaten by Japanese soldiers for scrounging bits to eat -- a carrot and a handful of beans he found along a railroad track.

He captured his thoughts after a prison-camp commander told the U.S. captives they would never leave their cellblocks. "He said that we'd never see our loved ones again," Waldron said. "And I thought 'That's what you think, jokerino. I'm 19 and I'm going to walk out of here someday.' "

And he described how the starving, emaciated captives resorted to cannibalism and drinking blood and urine for sustenance.

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