John D. Lukacs, in his book ‘Escape from Davao’ (2010), ten American prisoners of war (POWs) and two Filipino convicts from the Davao Penal Colony recorded ‘the most daring prison break of the Pacific War’ on April 4, 1943.
Historians attach several significances to this episode for its daring and due to the fact that it paved the way for the existence of the brutal Bataan Death March that, until that time, was kept from American knowledge. And for the first time, the plight of American and Filipino POWs in the frightening Camp No. 1 at Cabanatuan City was also exposed to the world.
The escapees were part of a batch of POWs transferred from Cabanatuan and deposited at the colony, which arguably provided better comforts and medical services than the previous confinement. To feed the inmates, the Japanese captors had to dispatch the prisoners daily to a place known as Mactan, an agricultural patch in the penal farm that was devoted to planting rice and the cultivation of coconut, banana, and coffee for the consumption of the colony’s occupants.
It was the bonds of camaraderie and trust between the American POWs and the Filipino convicts that eventually led to the hatching of a plan to breach the fortress-like security of the colony. On April 4, 1943, Sunday, ten U.S. POWs and two Filipinos executed the escape plan. Against the odds and facing the prospect of crossing swamps that hosted crocodiles, the group, despite a few risky hitches, pursued the idea after they had slipped away from the sight of Japanese sentries.
Tentatively lost in the maze of freshwater jungles after the guides failed to find the right route, the group, due to determination and the fear of being captured by the tracking team, eventually made it to freedom with help from rural residents and paramilitaries. They were clothed, fed, and debriefed upon reaching a guerrilla camp not too distant from the penal farm’s premises.
After recuperating from the ordeal, the POWs were escorted up to Misamis Oriental by Lt. Jose Tuvilla; the colony’s superintendent; and a Filipina nurse. They met up with Lt. Col. Wendell Fertig, commander of the 10th Military District in Mindanao, a guerrilla unit.
Of the eight Americans cited in Lukacs’ account, seven of them were spirited out of Mindanao for Australia, the headquarters of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, by submarine. Except for 2nd Lt. Leo Boelens who died in Japanese hands in January 1944, and Capt. William Edwin Dyess, who perished in a California plane crash in December 1943, and the other escapees survived the war. Benigno de la Cruz and Victorio Jumarong, the Filipinos who helped in the escape as chaperons, also survived. It is not known if they were granted pardons by the government.
The information the military escapees shared with the higher-ups during the Australian interview afforded the Allied forces a clear perspective on how best to deal with the enemy campaign in the Philippines and afforded the liberators a glimpse of the Japanese military mind.
In the online article (‘Exposing Atrocity: The Davao Dozen and the Bataan Death March‘) of ‘The National WWII Museum’ (New Orleans, US) dated January 31, 2022, written by Dr. Jason Dawsey, a historian at the Jenny Craig Institute for the Study of War and Democracy, the number of Americans involved in the dramatic escape rose to 12, hence the label ‘Davao Dozen.’
The expanded POW list now included Lt. Comdr. Melvyn McCoy, Maj. Stephen Mellnik, Capt. Austin Shofner, Capt. Dyess, 1st Lt. Michiel Dobervich, 1st Lt. Jack Hawkins, 2nd Lt. Boelens, 2nd Lt. Samuel Grashuio, Sgt. Paul Marshall, and Sgt. Robert Spielman.
The feat of the ‘Davao Dozen,’ initially blocked from being disclosed to the media and the public, was never replicated anywhere throughout the war. The POW revelations enraged the American public and incited the U.S. military to seek retribution against enemy atrocities.