Survival: World War II

70 years ago, my father, Private Henry B. Foster, was fighting in the Philippines, when the Allied Forces were overrun by the Japanese Fourteenth Army, resulting in the famous Death March, which sent 78,000 soldiers to the Camp O’Donnell as prisoners of war. Private Foster was on Corregidor, also known as “The Rock,” a tadpole-shaped island which divides the entrance of Manila Bay into the North and South Channels.

As the U.S. forces were cut off from supplies, conditions became difficult and at one point, rations were cut to 1/16 of a normal day’s food. Then, came the surrender on May 6, 1942 and removal to Camp O’Donnell to join those from the Death March. There, the conditions were so harsh, my father told stories of men who decided that no human should live this way; they turned their head to the wall and were dead in a few short days. But Private Foster was a survivor.

Survival Stories: Private Foster, WWII | MimsHouse.com

Two years later, when the tide of war turned, the POWs were taken by boat to Japan, herded into large cargo holds. (I actually found the name of his boat, and a list of passengers, which included his name.) My father climbed up into the pipes along the ceiling to be above the filthy, overflowing honey pots (latrines) and hopefully avoid some of the inevitable disease and sickness. They were fed boiled eggs, a smell which ever after he despised. For the year they were on Japanese soil, prisoners were on such short rations that everyone was emaciated, surviving on whatever rats or snakes they could capture. Once, they were allowed to visit a nearby river to bath. As he looked into the water, he wondered who that old man with white hair was, only to realize it was his own reflection. He contracted beri-beri and scurvy from vitamin deficiencies, and his gums were so infected that eventually he had to have all his teeth pulled and wore dentures the rest of his life.

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Survival in the Wild for Over 60 Years

Because of my Dad, survival stories have always touched me. Now, 70 years later, a different story of survival in the Pacific has captured my heart. When the Japanese tsunami overran Midway Atoll in March, 2011 the oldest known wild bird in the world—and her new chick—were in danger. Scientists said the scariest thing was that the tsunami struck at midnight when they could hear the water over-running the island, but couldn’t see what was happening. The next day, sunlight revealed 100,000 dead chicks and over 2000 dead adult seabirds. No one knew where Wisdom was. Her chick was a small heap of waterlogged feathers, bedraggled. And alone.

They waited.

Eight days.

Nine days.

On the tenth day, Wisdom was spotted feeding her chick. She had survived.

Many people read the story and stopped there: but I was captivated by the story of a 60+ year old bird who was still surviving and still laying eggs. The result is my children’s book, WISDOM, THE MIDWAY ALBATROSS: Surviving the Japanese Tsunami and other Disasters for over 60 Years.

A Timeline of Survival

Wisdom was first banded in 1956 by Chandler Robbins, a young Navy man. He said,

“On December 10, 1956, early in my first visit to Midway, I banded 99 incubating Laysan Albatrosses in the ‘downtown’ area of Sand Island, Midway. Wisdom (band number 587-51945) is still alive, healthy and incubating again in December, 2011. While I have grown old and gray and get around only with the use of a cane, Wisdom still looks and acts just the same as on the day I banded her.”

Since the first banding, she was caught and re-banded in 1966, 1985, 1993, and 2002. In 2006, she received two new bands: the usual metal one and a bright red band, Z333, which could be seen at a distance. She was also given the name Wisdom by former Refuge Biologist and current Deputy Refuge Manager, John Klavitter. Scientists observed that she laid an egg and hatched a chick in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016. In 2017, her egg didn’t produce a chick, but she hatched another in 2018. At 65+ years old, she is still raising chicks!

That’s the bare bones of this story of survival and many stopped there. But it wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to know more. I wanted details of her story of her survival.

Research took me back to 1951, the year Wisdom was presumably born and back to Midway Atoll and events in the Pacific. I studied other earthquakes and tsunamis: November 4, 1952 a 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of Kamchatka, Russia and sent a tsunami across the Pacific. Archival photos show the water in the streets on Midway.

I studied storms: tropical storms and hurricanes that struck Midway Atoll: Hurricane Dot in 1958, Hurricane Iwa in 1982, Tropical Depression Raymond in 1983, Hurricane Iniki in 1992, Tropical Depression Orlene in 1992, Tropical Depression Eugene in 1993.

I studied ecological problems that seabirds faced during the last half of the 20th century: As early as the 1960s came worrisome reports of seabirds eating plastic floating in the ocean. Since then, the problem has only become worse, and many chicks die because their stomachs are so full of plastic, no food will fit and they starve to death. For over 50 years, the alarm has been sounded–and ignored. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, predicted in scientific literature as early as 1988, has only grown with the addition of the debris from the Japanese tsunami, which is estimated to be the size of California.

I studied how fishing practices have affected the seabird population: Longline fishing is the practice of baiting lines that are several miles line and may contain up to 2500 hooks. When a seabird swoops to eat the bait and is caught on a hook, nothing can reach them fast enough to save them. In 1991, estimates said up to 100,000 albatrosses were caught on such lines; they were considered an acceptable by-catch. Today, even with required modifications, it is still a problem.

Wisdom, the Midway Albatross ebook on an iPad | MimsHouse.com
This ebook tells the story of Wisdom, the Midway Albatross, the oldest known wild bird in the world. Possibly the oldest mother in the world, at the age of 65+!

Add to these man-made and natural disasters the ever-present danger of predators. Sharks are often waiting in squid-rich waters when albatrosses land on the sea to eat and the albatross becomes prey instead of predator. And add to that the incredible distances albatrosses fly: In Wisdom’s 60+ years, it is estimated she has flown about 50,000 miles each year, for a total of about 2 to 3 million miles in her lifetime.

This is one of the incredible survival stories!

Years after my father was released from the POW camp and returned to the U.S., I visited Auschwitz in Poland and stood talking with a Polish man about the differences in the German and Japanese POW camps. Finally, the Polish man said, “Let’s talk of better days.”

“You don’t understand,” I said. “My Dad came home from the war, from three years as a POW. He married and had eight children. In spite of everything, he had a full and happy life. He survived.”

I am the product of a story of survival. In spite of everything, my Father survived. When I look at Wisdom and her chick, I see my father and his eight chicks.

And here’s something I never realized before: I have to tell every survival story I can.

Other Survival Stories from Darcy Pattison

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