Small Miracles

Michael Harold Hyer, “Small Miracles,” in Saints at War in the Philippines: Latter-day Saints in WWII Prison Camps (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book), 69‒74.

Where can I turn for peace?

Where is my solace

When other sources cease to make me whole?.

—Emma Lou Thayne, “Where Can I Turn for Peace?”

When the 515th surrendered on Bataan, Brown was in charge of some trucks. The trucks had likely been spared destruction in the hope that they would be used by the Japanese to transport the surrendering soldiers.[1] The Japanese commandeered the vehicles and ordered Brown and his drivers to drive to Camp O’Donnell. Consequently, Brown arrived at Camp O’Donnell with two other Americans, ahead of the other prisoners, who were forced to walk the same distance.[2] While Brown would endure the horrific conditions of the prison camps, he was spared the horrors of the hike—the Bataan Death March.

When Brown surrendered, he had with him the triple combination set of scriptures his mother had given him when he left El Paso and the hymnbook given him by the Church youth group; he somehow managed to keep them.[3] That these materials escaped Japanese confiscation is surprising, as the Japanese typically confiscated Bibles from the POWs.[4] However it happened, Brown entered captivity with his scriptures and a hymnbook. In an otherwise horrible situation, this was a fortunate turn of events that would help him and others endure the ordeals to come.

Over the next ten days or so, Brown would see others he knew from the 200th and 515th struggle into the camp, including Baclawski, Brown’s friend and tentmate from Fort Bliss, along with Hamblin, Allred, and Bloomfield, the few other Latter-day Saints in Brown’s unit. At one point during the march, Hamblin had become dizzy and his legs had given way. Falling down or falling behind the group usually meant death by a bayonet from a Japanese guard. When he fell, Hamblin “offered a simple but very sincere prayer asking [his] Heavenly Father to help [him, and he] immediately felt strength coming into [his] body.” He recovered and made the rest of the march without further signs of weakness. Indeed, he was also able to help those who were marching with him. Later he wrote that he had always tried to live the Church’s health law, the Word of Wisdom, and had been taught since his childhood the scriptural promise that the obedient will “receive health in their navel and marrow to their bones . . . [and] shall run and not be weary, and shall walk and not faint” (Doctrine and Covenants 89:18–20). He concluded that it “seems to me that I had received a fulfillment of that promise.”[5]

If Brown had been scanning the POWs slowly walking into the camp, among those he would have certainly been looking for was his closest friend, Jack Keeler. However, Brown’s friend would not join him in the camp. When the POWs, including Keeler, arrived at Camp O’Donnell, the Japanese guards searched them again before sending them into the camp. Keeler, along with several others in his unit, was searched and found with something that appeared to be of Japanese origin. Keeler and the others were summarily taken away and executed.[6] For Brown, this was a heartbreaking loss.

Other sick and exhausted Latter-day Saint POWs who Brown did not then know struggled into camp. Among them was Private Franklin East, the homesick soldier from Arizona who came to the Philippines as part of the Fifth Air Base, a group that was then building an airfield on the relatively safe southern island of Mindanao. Shortly after the Fifth Air Base group arrived in Manila, East underwent a hernia operation and had been recovering in the hospital at the time his unit was sent to Mindanao. As a result, he remained in Manila and ended up on the Bataan Death March.

But on the other hand, East was fortunate to be alive and part of that march. After being released from the hospital, East had been assigned to a unit guarding ration trucks going to the front lines on Bataan. While waiting to get fuel at the assigned fuel depot, he had been impressed to go farther up the road to another depot. On his return, he saw that the trucks that had been lined up at the first depot had been bombed by the Japanese; the men were still in the trucks, burned to death.[7]

Captain Robert G. Davey also staggered into camp. Before the surrender, Davey contracted malaria, and, with persistent symptoms, he checked himself into the field hospital. Two days earlier, the hospital had been bombed, killing two hundred. Concluding that the hospital was not a particularly safe place, he grabbed some quinine and went back to his infantry unit shortly before it surrendered. He became part of the Bataan Death March.[8]

Davey started on the march at Mariveles at the far southern end of the Bataan Peninsula. He survived the march, a distance he estimated at about one hundred miles in ten days, without any medical care and without any food for the first six days. Like the others, he endured the harassing searches by the Japanese—during which he lost his scriptures—and he witnessed the Japanese soldiers shoot or bayonet many Americans and Filipinos who were too weak to continue.

When Davey started the hike, he had a temperature of 104 degrees and was suffering from malaria.[9] Malaria, however, was not his only health problem. The unfortunate fact of war is that in a time of a shortage, those farthest away from the supply depots—such as those fighting on the front lines—tend to receive the least; there was typically a significant “shrinkage” between the time a shipment of rations leaves the supply depot and its arrival at the front.[10] Not only were those on the front lines, like Davey, malnourished, they were also exhausted, having spent nearly four months without relief and with nearly constant engagement with the enemy.

Daveymalnourished, exhausted, sick from malaria, and perhaps beginning to exhibit the symptoms of various other diseasesfrankly would not have been a likely candidate to survive the Bataan Death March. But Davey got a lucky break: he had a friend. When Davey left the hospital and rejoined his unit just before the surrender, he met up with his best friend, Russell Sparks, from Las Cruces, New Mexico. Russell quickly figured out that Davey was too ill to survive this march alone. Allowing Davey to lean on him and at times dragging Davey so he would not fall, which they both knew would likely mean death by a bayonet, Russell helped Davey along on the march. They both struggled into Camp O’Donnell on April 22, 1942.[11]


[1] Shively, Profiles in Survival, 48.

[2] The accounts in Miracle of Forgiveness by Spencer W. Kimball and the BYU Studies article (which account was based on Kimball’s book) state that Brown drove to Cabanatuan, not Camp O’Donnell, as this is what Ruby Brown had stated in a letter to Kimball and which was the basis for the account in the book. However, a more detailed account prepared by Ruby and her oldest daughter, Nelle, states that he drove to Camp O’Donnell. Brown and Zundel, “George Robin Brown . . . His Story,” 16. This family history account is likely the more accurate and it is easy to appreciate how Ruby could have confused the two locations in her letter to Kimball. Some sources indicate that approximately 375 men and officers were loaded into trucks and sent ahead to ready Camp O’Donnell. See Cave, Beyond Courage, 177.

[3] Clark and Kowallis, “Fate of the Davao Penal Colony,” 117; Brown and Zundel, “George Robin Brown . . . His Story,” 18.

[4] Carl S. Nordin, We Were Next to Nothing: An American POW’s Account of Japanese Prison of War Camps and Deliverance in World War II (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 1997), 79. For example, Davey’s scriptures were confiscated upon his surrender. In general, Japanese attitude toward religion seemed to have varied among the camps, and for the POWs it was somewhat unpredictable. See Cave, Beyond Courage, 234.

[5] Hamblin, “My Experience,” 9. The Word of Wisdom, or the religious health law practiced by Latter-day Saints and the promises quoted are found in section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants. The prohibitions against smoking and drinking alcoholic beverages are the most obvious and best-known tenets of this law, but there are also other healthful admonitions contained in that scripture.

[6] Cave, Beyond Courage, 188; Brown and Zundel, “George Robin Brown . . . His Story,” 16.

[7] East, “Army Life,” 9–10.

[8] Springgay, “Robert Gray Davey,” 19–20.

[9] Springgay, “Robert Gray Davey,” 19–20.

[10] Morton, Fall of the Philippines, 371, 374.

[11] Springgay, “Robert Gray Davey,” 23.