Ex-POW in Philippines, woman to be honored

April 22, 1994|By Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Enemy bombs pounded the city. American troops retreated from the invaders. At a yacht club on Manila Bay, Fontaine Porter Brownell and her husband waited for Japanese troops to march in and slaughter them in the early days of World War II.

A GI separated from his unit conceived the idea of "liberating" a sailboat from the yacht club. As the boat moved through the oily water, passing sunken ships, Ms. Brownell looked back at the city.

"Manila was just in flames," said Ms. Brownell, 76, recalling the scene more than 50 years later. "It was a bright moonlit night. It was a beautiful night."

Ms. Brownell slipped out of Manila, but she was trapped in the Philippines. She went to work in a jungle hospital, dodging bombs during the futile American defense of the Bataan Peninsula and Corregidor Island. When U.S. forces surrendered, Brownell was captured, and she spent three years in a Japanese prison camp, making her one of America's few female prisoners of war.

Ms. Brownell, who now lives in West Palm Beach, is to be honored at a Women's Veteran Day Memorial Ceremony tomorrow.

Elmer Long, a retired Marine Corps captain and the past president of American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor, said Ms. Brownell and the other women ran the same risks as U.S. troops.

"They were right where the bombing was and the fighting was," Mr. Long said. "They could have been killed at any time."

When World War II started, Ms. Brownell and her husband, Otis Porter, were living about 200 miles outside Manila. The couple had moved to the Philippines a few years earlier to escape the Great Depression. Mr. Porter, a civil engineer, got a job as an engineer in a gold mine and Ms. Brownell followed him overseas.

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the Philippines in December 1941, the couple set off through the jungle. They walked two days before catching a train to Manila, arriving in the city in late December, shortly after Japanese troops invaded the country.

On New Year's night 1942, the Porters escaped from Manila by sailboat. Before reaching American-held territory, Japanese planes strafed them. But no one was hurt.

When the group reached shore, Ms. Brownell's husband volunteered to work as an engineer with the Army. Ms. Brownell worked as a nurse's aide in a makeshift hospital hacked out of the jungle on the Bataan Peninsula, where American troops were making a stand against the Japanese.

"We didn't have the medicine or equipment," Ms. Brownell said. "We were so ill-prepared for war.

"In the beginning, we had a lot of hope that help was on the way," she said. But as the fighting continued, hope faded. The Japanese took Bataan April 9, capturing 12,000 American troops. Once again, Ms. Brownell fled. She and a group of nurses got on a boat that took them 27 miles to Corregidor Island where they worked in the island's tunnel complex.

"You were miserable with the crowding and the stale air," Ms. Brownell said. But the tunnels offered an advantage over Bataan.

"We didn't have to dodge the bombs anymore," she said.

Still, the attack continued. One day, Japanese planes flew 83 bombing missions over the island. "You just couldn't live like that," Ms. Brownell said. "We just resigned ourselves to surrendering, knowing it was inevitable."

After the surrender, the Japanese loaded Americans onto a ship bound for Manila. The prisoners included Ms. Brownell, four other civilian women and 56 Army nurses.

Ms. Brownell, sick with dysentery, an infection of the lower intestinal tract, could barely make it up the rope ladder hanging from the boat. Once on deck, she struggled to the railing and looked at the wounded soldiers on a lower deck. Ms. Brownell saw her husband, who had been injured in the battle, and waved. She never saw him again.

The prisoners were taken to a camp at a university near Manila. The 300 women, including nurses, civilian Army employees and American residents of the Philippines, were given a bed, a chair, a mosquito net and 6-foot by 5-foot space. The men, mainly civilians who had been living in the Philippines, were held in a different building.

In early 1945, a U.S. fighter plane flew over the camp. The pilot dropped a note, saying that help was on the way. One day, prisoners heard tanks breaking through the gates of the camp. "Nobody cheered, nobody moved," Ms. Brownell said. "We thought it was the Japs coming to blow us up. Finally, we heard a voice say, 'Anybody home?'"

The prisoners celebrated. She learned the fate of her husband after she had sailed back to her family in California. He was on a troop ship crammed with prisoners on the way to Japan. Americans, unaware that the ship carried prisoners, torpedoed the ship, killing most of the 1,700 prisoners on board.

After the war, Ms. Brownell remarried and eventually moved to Florida. Because she was a civilian volunteer, Ms. Brownell was not considered a veteran. She spent six years documenting her service, trying to get the Defense Department to recognize her as a prisoner of war and grant her veteran status. She received that status in December, making her eligible for veterans benefits.

Even though it's been more than 50 years since she was liberated, Ms. Brownell still has vivid memories.

"All you want to do is exist from one day to the next," she said. "You see people being killed all around. You just didn't know when you were next."

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