World War II POW from West Virginia

The Cairo Standard
February 25, 1947

Captain Snyder of Cairo Tells of Death March

Captain Snyder Is Now a Recruiting Officer at the Parkersburg Recruiting Station

The sun reflected from the rifle barrels of the Jap firing squad as M/Sgt. William A. Snyder looked at the men who were waiting to shoot him. The Japanese major continued to read the American captive's record in his sing song voice while the interpreter tried to keep up with his English translation of Snyder's crimes

At the end of the record the major paused as he read the sentences that saved Snyder's life for a second time: "Sentenced to death by firing squad in prison camp at Manila. Sentence approved by Gen. Yamashita and prisoner to be returned to Manila for execution."

So, three hours after he had been brought to the courtyard for his execution, M Sgt. Snyder was returned to his cell for a few more days of life. Next day he was transferred to Manila's infamous Bilibid prison, where his death sentence was to be carried out.

In Death Cell

"I was kept in a death cell with five other fellows," Snyder recalls. "We stayed there together for several days, though I can't remember how many.

"One day we were ordered to leave the call. We marched out single file, blinking in the sunlight because we had been kept in the dark for so long.

"I knew this was it.

"On our way through the prison we passed a large detail of Americans. I had nothing to lose, so, when the guard wasn't looking, I ran into the other line.

"The guard didn't notice that I was gone until he reached the prison gate. He took the last American he saw and they all were marched to the outside.

"None of the party has ever been found.

Moved to Cabantuan

Snyder was lucky. The detail he joined was ordered moved to Cabantuan prison where the merciful Japanese had some clever little plans involving a mass starvation. But the Japs didn't know what they had on their hands.

"I couldn't use my own name in the prison," Snyder explained, "for I was under Yamashita's death sentence and I would have been shot immediately. So everybody me 'Kwan,' Which means 'anything' in the Filipino language."

In order that he might never have to go near the walls of the prison, Snyder was made cook.

"I cooked a dog every day for more than a year," he remembers. "We liked the dogs best of all. We ate a lot of cats, too, after I trapped them in a pit I made. We ate all kinds of ants and other insects.

"I was especially proud of my roasted bugs. They tasted like peanuts."

His work in the kitchen gave Snyder a share of all food, which kept him in better condition than his fellow prisoners. He was still in fair shape when the continued American gains caused the Japanese officers to order the prisoners moved to Japan. Had Snyder known of the trip he was to make, he would have preferred to die.

Hell-Trip Starts

"There were several ships in the convoy and we prisoners were herded down until we had jammed the hold. We were crowded against each other until we could hardly move.

"The we got under way, constantly being attacked by Americans subs and plans. The planes wouldn't bomb freighters because they thought they might carry prisoners, but the subs had no way of knowing what they were torpedoing and they fired on sound.

"To of the ships were sunk and we kept hoping we'd be next because we were suffering from lack of water. We were allowed a spoonful of water every day.

"A lot of the fellows went crazy. They would bite off the ends of their fingers and drink their own blood. Some of them attacked other fellows and tried to bite through their neck veins, and drink their blood, too."

To Coal Mine

But the hell trip was completed at last Snyder and his fellow survivors of the expedition were moved to the mainland of the Island of Kyushu. They were sent through Nagasaki to a coal mine where Snyder was lucky again and got a job in the machine shop. They stayed there:those who lived through the next horrible winter when they were forced to walk through the snow without shoes:until the war ended.

"But a lot of the boys never came through. The weather was cold and we had practically no clothes. One month over fifty of us died from pneumonia."

As American bombing was stepped up the prisoners were cheered. One day they felt an earth-shaking concussion and thought a wild bomb had landed nearby. It was not until they were brought back through Nagasaki after their release at the end of the war that they learned they had been jarred by the world's first atomic.

Destruction Awful

"I've seen a lot of destruction during my time in the Philippines, but never anything like Nagasaki. There were still human bones in the streets and street cars, with dead passengers still in their seats, were standing yet, their wheels melted by the atomic blasts."

So M/Sgt. Snyder was returned to the United States. He was given a physical check at Nagasaki and weighed 98 pounds.

Sgt. Snyder had gone to the Philippines as a radar technician in July, 1941. One of the first units activated as the nation armed in defense against the threat of the Japanese aggression, his unit had lifted high the hopes of the military leaders of the Far East.

But it is of little use to know that planes are coming when you have no planes of your own to put into the air as interceptors.

"We were stationed at Fort William McKinley in Manila when the war came," said Snyder, "and we detected the first Jap bombers at 120 miles. We had no planes to put in the air, so we all grabbed rifles and helped the infantry."

Held Off Japs

The first Japs landed at San Fernando La Union and Snyder was one of the 5,000 Americans assigned to the task of holding off 100,000 Japs while the bulk of the American forces could retire to prepared positions at Bataan.

"We had hopes at first. But one day we heard that Singapore had fallen and we knew we were lost. The best troops the Japanese had came on to the Philippines and we knew by then that help could never come through."

The days went rushing by as the last stand of gallant Americans kept a sharp eye on their ammunition supplies and food stores and continued one of the world's most one-sided battles. The quinine ran out and Snyder, with many of his buddies, came down with malaria.

Days of war reached on into months. On March 7 [sic], Bataan fell.

Death March

Snyder and the other Americans were beaten into the ragged line that became known as the "Death March." But Snyder never finished the trip.

"I kept planning to escape. They second day I was waiting for the guard to be changed in the early evening.

"The guards were talking to each other at the front end of the line when several of the fellows and I made a dive into the jungle. They didn't find any of us but they didn't know exactly how many of us there were because they didn't have the records."

So Snyder fled to the wild interior of the Philippines where civilization had never made any gains.

"I roamed around for a year with a tribe of head-hunters called the Etnigs. They were very friendly to Americans because lots of the soldiers had gone into the jungles and traded bright cloth and beads to them before the war.

Language Simple

"Their language was so rudimentary that I had no trouble talking to them. It was mostly a matter of signs and gestures.

"They were tough boys in the jungle. They carried two-sided axes that had blades on one side and sharp points on the other. They specialized in stalking lines of Japs as they marched through the jungles. One of the good old Etnigs would sneak up behind the last man in the line and hit him at the base of the skull. The man always[s] died without a sound and the other men could never know he was missing until they looked back. The Japs should have ordered the last man to walk backward.

"The Etnigs never forgot that they were head-hunters. They cut the jawbones from their victims and took them back to camp to beat their ceremonial drums with. The man who had the most jawbones was the most honored member of the tribe.

"I had been given a captain's commission by Gen. Wainwright before the death march (though the battlefield commissioon [sic] [unreadable] then never been recognized by the army) and the Etnigs gave me a lot of help in guerilla warfare. One day we destroyed nine truckloads of Japs:about 40 men to the truck."

But starvation was facing the Filipinos and continued Jap propaganda was making itself felt. So was Jap food.

Second Capture

"I was eating at a Filipino's house one day at noon when I looked up and saw a Japanese captain standing in the doorway. I jumped out the window right into the arms of another hundred of them and I knew I'd never escape again."

During his year as a guerilla Sgt. Snyder had been honored by the Japanese by a $1,000 reward offer, dead or alive. Twice had had escaped traps set by the Japanese, once by floating down a river while the Japs searched banks. But now the trail was ended.

"They beat me every day for 14 days and I still have a slight head injury from the beating. But when they didn't kill me at once, I kinda thought I'd come back to Ritchie county some day.

"They tried me for killing 2,000 Japs and sentenced me to death. I got to go to the trial, but was not allowed to speak. The order was sent to Gen. Yamashita for his approval and the approval come through right away.

"While I was waiting at the prison at San Fernando La they tried to sta[r]ve me. But I managed to convince one of the guards that America would win.

Flattered Guard

"The guard had a sister who worked on a Dole pineapple plantation in Hawaii and I told him I knew her. I kept saying what friends she and I had been and promised the guard a job on one of the plantations when the war was over.

"He brought me fried chicken every other day and I lived like a king, but the major commanding the camp got suspicious when I kept in such good condition and investigated.

"The guard confessed."

So Snyder was tried and sentenced to death for corrupting the guard.

"But the major found that he had to save me for the execution on Gen. Yamashita's order.

"So he shot the guard."

Note: William Andrew Snyder was born in Ritchie County in 1911. He enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1941 and remained in service after the war, serving 22 years. Snyder died in 2003.

Military and Wartime