No ordinary man
In May, Bill Arnold will turn 100 years old.
Even for an “ordinary” person, that would be quite a feat. But Mr. Arnold is no ordinary man.
Not only was he alive during World War II, but he lived World War II. As a Japanese prisoner of war, first in the Philippines and then in Japan, Arnold survived circumstances that most only see in movies or read about in books.
A STILLWATER BOY
Arnold was born on May 4, 1917, at his father’s homestead about three miles outside Fishtail. When he was young, his parents, William and Margaret, moved the family to a house on the West Rosebud where the family grew until Bill, the oldest, had five brothers and four sisters.
Arnold attended a one-room school house that housed grades one through eight. He remembers riding horses three miles to school and leaving them in the barn until the end of the school day. As Arnold recalls, “The horses were pretty anxious to get home, and a lot of times they’d just run all the way home with us.”
After taking a test to pass the eighth grade, he attended high school in Absarokee, graduating in 1937.
When he was about 16 or 17 years old, Arnold worked for a summer in the Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC was a New Deal program instituted by President Franklin Roosevelt to put young men to work during tough economic times. Arnold worked on the National Bison Range near Polson, Mont., building fire trails. He describes how “we were paid $25 a month, and then we’d send home $20 a month, [so] we had $5 to spend.”
Starting at a young age, he worked around the family ranch. After high school, Arnold continued to use those skills to work on ranches in the Absarokee/Fishtail area. The pay was not substantial, so when he learned that the military needed men, at the age of 23, he and three friends signed up for the Army in March of 1941 at the office in Columbus.
A MILITARY MAN
The young men from Stillwater County took a train from Columbus to Missoula, where they were inducted into the Army at Fort Missoula. At that point, they were sent to Fort Lewis, Wash., for boot camp, and then on to Fort Knox, to learn different professions. Arnold attended an intensive, summer-long, radio operator school to learn Morse Code. Upon completion of his training, he was assigned to work with a National Guard tank unit.
After a brief time in Louisiana for maneuvers, and a short two-week leave to visit home, Arnold and his company were deployed. The group sailed, with all of their equipment, from San Francisco to the Philippines, with a stop in Hawaii.
The ship landed in the Philippines on Nov. 20, so the men had only 17 days to become accustomed to their new environment before the Japanese bombed the Philippines on Dec. 8. This was a branch of the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor (the date is different because the Philippines are on the other side of the international date line).
The American soldiers were caught completely off-guard, and Arnold, who had just completed his shift and was looking forward to some leave time, watched as the Japanese airplanes approached, initially believing them to be American. Then, as he recalls, “All of a sudden I could see bombs dropping out of the airplanes.” The attack destroyed the barracks and many American planes before they even left the ground.
What ensued was a five-month struggle to control the Philippines. As Arnold and his fellow American and Filipino soldiers fought to hold their ground, the Japanese troops advanced, effectively cornering the troops on the Bataan peninsula by Jan. 1942.
For the next three months, without any supplies or reinforcements, the troops crowded on Bataan struggled with hunger and disease. After the April 9 American surrender of the peninsula, the Japanese led their prisoners on a brutal march to concentration camp locations that lasted about a week, during which no food or water was provided. Arnold narrowly missed out on this “Bataan Death March” because he was hospitalized with malaria and dysentery.
As he lay in the hospital, Americans maintained control of an island off Bataan known as Corregidor. The Japanese used this hospital as a type of shield, bombing the American stronghold from behind it. Arnold remembers an entire month where “they were firing back and forth, right over our hospital area.”
Following the American surrender of Corregidor on May 6, he was driven to Manila and then marched through town to Bilibid prison. Arnold was in the concrete walls of Bilibid for about a month before he was moved to a location close to the docks where he was forced to work. During these odd jobs he and the others would use the opportunity to find extra food and sabotage cargo heading to Japan.
The work on the docks led to Arnold’s selection to work aboard a ship loaded with coconut on its way to Japan. He was again fortunate, missing the “hell ships” that later carried POWs from the Philippines to Japan.
Once he arrived in Japan in November 1942, Arnold was sent to a POW camp at which he was forced to work at a foundry with other American and British prisoners. He describes how, at this point, “we became slaves of the Japanese army again.”
At the beginning of 1943, Arnold was sent to the vicious Tanagawa work camp, where he was forced to do hard, manual labor moving rock and dirt. He remained at the camp until the spring of 1945, when the Japanese, feeling American pressure, broke up the camp. Arnold was then moved to Fukuoka, a town near Nagasaki, where prisoners worked in the coal mines.
The surrender of the Japanese on Aug. 14, 1945, marked the beginning of Arnold’s freedom after three and a half years in captivity. In October he was able to set foot on American soil once again. Arnold was honorably discharged from the military in 1946.
After a two-week stay at a hospital in Fort Lewis, Wash., to regain his health, Arnold finally returned home. He was able to catch up on some needed quality time with his parents during a government sponsored trip to California.
By May 1946, Arnold had found a job in Billings and that is where he lives to this day.
When asked how he remained strong during the brutal years in POW camps, his response was simple, yet powerful: “I just had the idea to get outta there someday and go home.”
Arnold believes he had an angel on his shoulder, guiding him through the difficult times and away from the most dangerous situations.
Stillwater County is fortunate to have its very own war hero. Bill Arnold’s medals can be seen on display at the Museum of the Beartooths in Columbus. The museum also has copies of Arnold’s book “Some Survived,” detailing his war experience.