SANDPOINT — Put yourself in his boots: A young Marine radio operator, still in his teens, stationed in Peking, China. He was part of a small, 130-man support unit stationed at the U.S. Embassy there. The young staff sergeant and his fellow soldiers “lived like kings” for more than a year after he enlisted and was sent from San Francisco to China in 1939.
Eighteen months later, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor changed all that. As the emperor’s forces swept into China, the Marine was taken captive and held with a total of about 1,500 other soldiers in a camp just outside of Shanghai.
It would take almost four years and an arduous pathway of prison camps and forced labor that led through China, Korea and Japan before he would taste freedom again.
“In 1941, we were all taken prisoner on the first day of the war,” said George Hirschkamp, now 95 and living in Sandpoint. “They held us prisoner for 1,376 days.”
Like so many other returning veterans from that war, Hirschkamp simply picked up where life left off before the military when he finally got back home. He married his sweetheart, Lorraine, who had waited for him for seven years after receiving his proposal via military mail before he was captured. He took advantage of the G.I. Bill to study mechanical engineering, landed a job with International Harvester and moved on to the Ford plant, where he retired in 1980 with a full pension.
So it was a surprise, then, when the veteran received a letter dated July 30, 2015, from the Ambassador of Japan, informing him that he was invited to join a small contingent of other former prisoners of war as part of the Japanese-American POW Friendship Program. The trip, set for Oct. 10-19, will travel to both Tokyo and Kyoto, with all travel expenses paid by the ministry.
Hirschkamp will make the trip with his daughter, Sandpoint resident Nancy Shocky, as his escort. The trip, he explained, was arranged as a way to make amends to POWs who had been forced to work for Japanese companies during the war — a direct violation of the Geneva Conventions. Amends or not, Hirschkamp at first had no interest in returning to Japan.
“I didn’t want to go,” he said. “But I’m going to go and try to make the best of it.”
Asked why he was reluctant to make the journey, the Marine minced no words.
“We left guys over there — buried guys over there,” he said. “I guess the good die young.
“I’m just amazed that I made it.”
The Close Calls
Hirschkamp has every right to be amazed. His wartime odyssey is packed with near misses that turned out to be life-saving events. The first and, perhaps, foremost came when he and the other embassy Marines and their equipment were waiting on the dock for a U.S. ship that was coming to save them in advance of the Japanese invasion.
“That boat was being chased by the Japanese out on the sea and the captain grounded it on purpose,” said Hirschkamp. “To this day I say to myself, you’re lucky you didn’t make that ship to the Philippines, or you would’ve been buried there.”
Almost certainly, those soldiers would have become part of the Bataan Death March in May 1942, had they been evacuated as planned.
Instead, the POWs at Shanghai were eventually broken up into smaller groups to be shipped to Japan. Many of them — including Hirschkamp — were forced to work for Japanese companies as part of that nation’s war effort, where they came under Allied bombing.
“I was fortunate — I didn’t get to Japan until 1945,” he said, adding that his time as a forced laborer included working in a machine shop that sometimes came under fire from strafing U.S. fighter planes.
Held captive on the northernmost Japanese island of Hokkaido, the soldier spent much of his final term in captivity underground.
“I wound up being a coal miner,” he said. “It was an abandoned mine and we didn’t ride in, we walked in.”
Interned as one of about 300 prisoners, Hirschkamp faced harsh treatment, though nothing, he said, like what POWs in many other camps endured.
“It was not as bad, but it was bad,” he said. “We’d get beat up, we had to stand at attention until somebody dropped and all of that.”
But things moved quickly from there. The tide of war had turned against Japan — unbeknownst to the prisoners held at Hokkaido — and one day they were told to assemble for an announcement.
“They lined us up on the parade ground and informed us that hostilities had ceased,” Hirschkamp recalled. “Then we all had a drink of sake. The war had ended.
“The next morning, we woke up and — lo and behold — they were all gone,” he continued. “They had abandoned us. From then on, everything became sweet.”
The Way Home
The next person the POWs encountered was a U.S. airman who walked up and knocked on the gate of their camp. He echoed directions they had received after using the still-operable radio the Japanese left behind — stay put and somebody will be out to get you.
“In the meantime, B-29s flew over and dropped supplies,” Hirschkamp said. “More stuff than you could shake a stick at — food, clothing, you name it.”
A train had been commandeered to take the prisoners to the seaport, where they boarded a British destroyer that took them to Tokyo Bay.
“There were several times when this British ship shot and blew up floating mines,” said Hirschkamp.
Headed back at last to his hometown near Chicago, the young Marine first was routed to a naval training station close by.
“On the way there on the bus, they drove right past my mom and dad’s apartment,” Hirschkamp said. “I yelled, ‘Hey! Let me out here!’ and the other guys were yelling, ‘Let him out!’”
But the driver said no can do. He was responsible for delivering the men to the training station and he wasn’t letting anybody off the bus before he got them there.
Six months into his captivity, Hirschkamp was told that he had received a letter from the U.S. He was directed to a prison camp building where a Japanese officer sat waiting for him. The Marine stood in anticipation, eager to read his mail from home. What he didn’t do was bow, or salute, or show any other form of deference to the officer.
“So he tore the letter up in front of me and threw it away,” said Hirschkamp. “I never got to read it. I could have killed him.”
The note might have come from his folks. Then again, it might have been a response from that proposal to his sweetheart. Whatever the contents, Lorraine was there and still waiting for him when he got back.
“We didn’t see each other for seven years,” Hirschkamp said. “When I got home, we dated a couple times and she had the brass to ask me, ‘When are we going to get married, George?’
“I stammered and stuttered and she finally said, ‘It’s June 1 or never.’ So we got married and stayed married for 62 years.”
Though Lorraine has passed, he still calls her the love of his life and considers his grandkids icing on the cake. In just a few weeks, other chapters from George Hirschkamp’s rich past will intertwine as he makes his way back to Japan, some 70 years after being freed from captivity. One of the former POWs joining him and his daughter on the trip will be a friend from World War II.
“We were prisoners together,” said Hirschkamp. “And now he and I are going back on that same flight.”
The 95-year-old isn’t returning for an official apology from the Japanese government — he never expected one and still doesn’t, he insisted. Maybe he’s making the trip because it will servß?e as yet another entry in what has been one helluva life story.
Hirschkamp lights up at that notion and a smile crinkles the corners of his eyes and lifts the sides of a neatly trimmed goatee.
“I can’t complain,” he said. “I couldn’t have written the story any better.”