GREAT LAKES, Ill. – Long, winding roads in between cornfield covered hills lead travelers to the tiny town of Bennington, Nebraska, where Warren Jorgenson, a World War II veteran, resides at Ridgewood Retirement Community.
His apartment is scattered with memorabilia, the kind one might expect from someone with a long, eventful life. Jorgenson, 96, grew up in the small town of Bertram, Iowa, during the Roaring ‘20s and the Great Depression. He speaks about events in his past as if they were just yesterday.
“After losing my factory job in 1939 I was searching the paper’s help wanted section and saw an ad that said, ‘The U.S. Marines are seeking young men to serve in Hawaii and the Asiatic Station. Apply at the Federal Building in Cedar Rapids,’” Jorgenson recalled. “The exciting prospect of faraway places appealed to me.”
He departed in December 1939 to Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego in California, then known as Marine Corps Base, San Diego. The war broke out in Europe shortly after he enlisted and Jorgenson was sent across the world to Shanghai with the 4th Marine Regiment.
“As a private, we were rich at $21 a month,” he said with smile. “On my first night of liberty, I paid a rickshaw fare twice and had a grand dinner, all for a little more than one dollar.”
A little before Thanksgiving Day 1941, Jorgenson’s unit was abruptly loaded onto ships and sent to the Philippines.
On Dec. 1, 1941, 4th Marine Regiment arrived at United States Naval Base Subic Bay in Olongapo, Philippines. Jorgenson remembers a specific day a week after arriving; he was excited that he was halfway through his Marine Corps enlistment.
That day was Dec. 7, 1941.
“I told my gunnery sergeant that I had two more years to go,” he recalls. “A few minutes later someone came up and said, ‘Oahu’s been bombed!’”
Jorgenson remembers almost immediately afterward the officer-of-the-day went by in a motorcycle sidecar shouting, “War’s been declared!” The momentary silence was deafening.
“It was no drill. It was war,” Jorgenson said. “The curtain had opened to an uncertain future.”
The 4th Marine Regiment learned they wouldn’t be used as infantry on Bataan and were moved in late December to Corregidor, a military fortress guarding the bay. Unbeknownst to the Marines, the Navy radio tunnel on Corregidor had cracked the Japanese security code that helped the Americans win the Battle of Midway. Shortly after, the Navy codebreakers were moved to Australia to protect the mission. A siege began that would last more than five months.
On the morning of December 29, Corregidor’s deep air raid alarm growled to life. Marines sprinted to the safety of the barracks. Jorgenson ran to the first-floor shower and scrunched in it. The raid lasted two and a half hours.
“It was pure terror,” he said somberly. “There was no getting used to the bombings, but you finally adjust because you’re not dead yet.”
The Marines kept their spirits up in hope that reinforcements would come, but the Japanese pressure increased after the fall of Bataan in April 1942. On May 5, the Japanese reached Corregidor and the fighting ensued.
On May 6, while inserting another clip of cartridges into his rifle, Jorgenson was shot in his left abdomen.
“It was a heart shot,” Jorgenson said. “The gas mask and canister I had deflected the bullet and saved my life.”
A corpsman sent Jorgenson to the hospital located in the Malinta Tunnel where there more than 900 wounded service members.
He said he was shocked to hear the doctor say, “Young man, we’re getting far more wounded than we can keep up with, many of them worse off than you. I’m putting a new dressing on your wound and suggest you go back to your unit.”
Feeling weak and tired, he made his way to a bunk alongside the tunnel wall and fell into an exhausted sleep. He woke up to an announcement that Lt. Gen. Wainwright had surrendered Corregidor to the Japanese, who would be entering the tunnel, and that there should be no resistance. The Japanese did not interrupt the operations of the hospital, allowing the wounded to heal. While recovering, Jorgenson missed an important roll call and, as a result, his family received a message that he was missing and presumed dead.
On May 27, 1942, he was discharged from the hospital and sent to a prisoner-of-war work detail on Topside, the island’s biggest flat area that points toward the West Philippine Sea. Jorgenson was assigned to pick up scrap metal for the Japanese war effort. A year later, he was moved to Clark Field north of Manila.
“I got hit a quite a few times, but it comes with the territory,” he said. “I wanted to get up and just beat them, but you just don’t.”
On August 25, 1944, 1,035 prisoners, including Jorgenson, were crammed onto a cargo ship, the Noto Maru, bound for Japan. The prisoners were without room to move about, were given limited amounts of water and rice and used a community tub as a restroom.
“There were no fights, just a lot of congestion and smells,” Jorgenson recalls. “We got to Japan in 12 days.”
Once in Japan, the prisoners were sprayed with water, fed and loaded onto railroad cars. Jorgenson, alongside 500 other prisoners, arrived at Hanawa, in the mountains of northern Japan, on Sept. 9, 1944.
“It snowed daily from October to mid-April,” Jorgenson recalls. “The fleas, hunger, hard labor and the thin clothing made winter at Hanawa pretty terrible.”
For the next year, he traveled two miles to and from the mine where the prisoners worked long days and nights. But instead of remembering the horrible experiences, Jorgenson likes to focus on the times where the Japanese soldiers showed compassion.
“There was a Japanese officer who spoke English who gave me a pack of cigarettes and told me he hoped we made it home safely after the war,” Jorgenson said tearfully. “There were times when you saw the brighter side of things.”
In August 1945, the prisoner’s overheard conversations between Japanese mine workers talking about a ‘baka-bomb’ in Hiroshima that killed many. A few days later, another hushed conversation about another ‘baka-bomb,’ this time in Nagasaki.
They soon received word that the war was over.
“We couldn’t restrain our joy,” Jorgenson recalls with a smile. “The thought of soon going home, it was overwhelming.”
The now former prisoners-of-war received air drops of food, medicine and clothing until the following month when they were liberated on Sept. 13, 1945. Jorgenson, weighing in at 96 pounds, boarded a ship bound for the United States.
After spending a short time at Naval Station Great Lakes to recover and adjust to life outside a POW camp, he traveled to Mount Vernon, Iowa, to visit his awaiting family.
“Seeing my mother open the front door was a moment I’ll never forget,” he said tearfully. “I didn’t think I was ever going to see her or anyone ever again.”
Jorgenson married and went on to attend Drake University, where he studied radio journalism. He graduated in 1951 and landed a job at Capitol Records soon after. Years later, a widowed Jorgenson reunited with his first love, Ruth, in California. They spent 18 years together before her death.
After his service in the military, Jorgenson remained active with the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor group. He said he decided early on that he wasn’t going to be bitter about his experience as a prisoner of war.
“It’s a risk that comes with enlisting in the military,” Jorgenson said. “I decided that life is too short to be angry. I’ve served my country proudly and I’d do it again if I had to.”