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News / Life / Clark County Life

Clark County History: Local couple survived Japanese death camp

By Martin Middlewood, Columbian freelance contributor
Published: March 16, 2024, 6:04am
2 Photos
Marian Russell of Vancouver and her husband Bob were held in the Santo Tomas Internment Campo in the Philippines from 1942 until 1945 along with their infant son. She was photographed here in 2004, the year before she died.
Marian Russell of Vancouver and her husband Bob were held in the Santo Tomas Internment Campo in the Philippines from 1942 until 1945 along with their infant son. She was photographed here in 2004, the year before she died. (The Columbian files) Photo Gallery

A lesser-known fact about America entering World War II is the bombing of a U.S. Navy base at Cavite on Manila Bay, Philippines, on Dec. 10, 1941, three days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Japanese wanted the Philippine Islands because they needed access to the raw materials of Southeast Asia. That meant destroying the Navy’s fleet in Asia. The Cavite attack opened Japan’s brutal invasion of the Philippines.

After three months of fighting, American and Filipino troops ran out of rations and ammunition. When they surrendered, the islands fell. The Japanese rounded up tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians and marched them to prison camps all over the island. On the west side of Manila Bay, they marched Americans and Filipinos down the Bataan Peninsula for six days without food or water. On the east (Manila) side, a couple with a Vancouver connection fell among the thousands swept up by the invaders.

Bob and Marian Russell were born in the Philippines. They lived opposite the Bataan isthmus (across Manila Bay) in the Manila suburb of Mandaluyong. The high school sweethearts were married in 1930 and were expecting their first child when the war started. When labor pains struck Marian, they rushed to the hospital. Their son, John, was born during a bombing raid. Two weeks after his delivery, Japanese soldiers herded the three out of the hospital with only their clothes.

Marian, who was descended from Clark County pioneers, now found her family in a precarious situation. The Japanese imprisoned them at Manila’s Santo Tomas University, which the Japanese had converted into an internment camp holding thousands of American, British, and Dutch civilians, including Marian’s parents.

At first, Bob was separated, but later rejoined his family. When he returned, Bob, an engineer, built a 10-by-10-foot shanty on a timber frame three feet above the ground, using woven bamboo strips. Their address was No. 3 Banana Ave., Shantytown. Under the circumstances, it felt like a third-story hotel room. The dirt floors in most other huts were quickly muddied by the monsoons.

The Russells were given ration cards, which they used to obtain a breakfast of cereal and a dinner of soup, stew or a vegetable. In a 2004 Columbian article, Marian said of the food, “It was nothing but slime.” During her three years of imprisonment, she dropped from 120 pounds to 90.

The Japanese decided the internees would service the camp. The women busied themselves with household chores and cleaning the latrines. Bob served as a garbageman, a patrolman, and later worked in the kitchen. As a patrolman, he watched out for prisoners stealing from campmates. While working in the kitchen, starvation and beriberi swelled his body, making others suspect he’d stolen food.

After the war, Bob returned to his career at Atlantic, Gulf & Pacific Co., rising to vice president of the energy firm. Marian earned a bachelor’s degree in math at age 44 and a master’s in school administration at 50. They lived in the Philippines until 1971, when they retired and moved to Vancouver.

Many survivors of the march and imprisonment lived barely into their 60s due to disease and extreme weight loss. The Russells fared better. Bob died at 77 in 1994 and Marian at 87 in 2005.

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Columbian freelance contributor