I put a match to a Robusto Cuban that I swore I’d only smoke in the most deserving of moments. I gazed out into the pitch-black night at the quiet fields outside of my hotel in the West Texas oil town of San Angelo. The thick, white smoke trail extending itself from my lips was admittedly harder to see through the tears I no longer held back. I embraced those hot drops as they slid down my cheeks while I took another puff. I wish I’d known my grandpa’s brothers before they passed. I saw them on a few occasions but I never really got to have meaningful conversations with them about their WWII experiences.
I was pretty young when they both passed away. Phil (Seabee) and Joe (Army) had both been a part of equally vicious campaigns on opposite sides of the world. I can’t even say that they would’ve wanted to bring those memories back up. War is a dreadful thing. Just because it’s necessary doesn’t make it any more glorious. Yet, there’s something beautiful about a man that stepped away from the comforts of his home to defend his nation against an enemy he knew nothing about. My thoughts were transfixed on the legend of a man who’d just made it to his 99th birthday. I had the beautiful privilege of sharing a day with SSG Alfred Haws at his assisted living home in Logan, New Mexico.
I think one of my weaknesses as a writer is looking for something acutely profound in each and every story. There’s a search for exaggerated depth in every single theme and that was another challenge I faced with Alfred. I expected that in those three years, seven months he spent in a Japanese death camp that he’d have some deeply abstruse reason for survival. The simple truth was far more beautiful than my own idea of the “why.” When the bullets start flying patriotism is the furthest thing from the warrior’s mind. Survival is the key. The word Alfred kept using throughout my day with him was the Japanese word for going to work “Shigoto.” Staff Sergeant Haws worked to eat and ate to live.
1,321 days of watching his brothers-in-arms go off on details and never come back to the camp. This was only after a grueling 65-mile march widely known as the “Bataan Death March.” Some of these men were shot in the back of the head, some were burned alive, some starved to death, some stabbed, and some were beaten to death in Alfred’s camp. The atrocities Alfred witnessed and was subjected to were mind-numbingly horrific, yet Alfred didn’t get into too much detail about what he saw. I think that SSG Haws blocked a lot of these things out in order to save his mind and survive each and every day. Here's Alfred.
**Editor's Note: While Alfred recalled quite a bit of information there were times during our interview where he became confused due to his age. His caretaker and daughter, DeLoyce, filled in those portions for him from time to time from stories he'd told her in years past. Major thanks to her and her willingness to have me around for the day.
What was the hardest day for you in the war?
AH: My brother was in the march with me as well as my wife's brothers. My brother Claude wasn't really healthy. The lack of food, dysentery, and malaria killed a lot of us. We were together until the end, though. I was with him all the time. In fact, my brother was in my arms when he died. He couldn't eat the rice diet they gave us. They cooked the rice and gave us the starch water. He died of starvation among other diseases. My tent was right next to his. When he got so bad he couldn't get around I carried his food to him. I did everything I could do to help him. I would do whatever they'd let me do to help him.
Claude died in my arms and I laid him on the ground like I was supposed to, then I called them over to grab him. They dumped him in the trench. My family wanted to bring Claude back but the bodies were in the trench for 20 years. How could they possibly know it was him? I told my mother that I wouldn't go to the funeral if they brought him back because I wouldn't believe it was really him. The bodies were all twisted and turned, about 75 of them in one hole.
What was the march (Bataan Death March) like?
AH: The march (Bataan) was a long, dry and dusty route to get to the camp. We didn't have hats or any type of covering. They made us march no matter how hot it was without water. They marched us for miles and miles and miles in the hot sun. It took us about three days to get there. Only the strongest ones made it through the march. If you fell down the Japanese either bayoneted you, shot you, or ran over you with the truck. One of the Japanese soldiers pulled me out of line, stuck a round in his revolver, and shoved the barrel into my gut. He rolled the chamber then pulled the trigger a few times. God protected me and the gun didn't go off. He yelled at me to get back in line.
They didn't feed us at all and we were in the hot sun. I don't have a hip anymore because the joint is rotten from the march and my diet. The Japanese would make Filippino women hide behind trees and tell us they could help us escape. Behind the tree or a building would be the Japanese soldiers waiting for us if we tried to get away. When an American soldier would go over there to that woman saying they could help them, the Japanse would execute them. I saw a pregnant lady behind the building step out once and by then we all knew it was a trick. The Japanese soldier saw that we weren't going to fall for it so they slit her belly open in front of us. They didn't value human life.
What was the Japanese camp (Camp O'Donnell) like?
AH: We were held for awhile in the first camp and didn't do anything. Then they lined us up and put us to work. Shigoto. Shigoto was the word they always used. The first day, the commander stood up on a table and told us he didn't care if we lived or died. If we didn't work they'd pass us around and beat us for awhile with clubs. They tied one of our soldiers to a post and beat him with canes throughout the day until he eventually died. You worked whether you wanted to or not. We worked all day and we had a little time for breaks. I didn't have much time to myself. Some of us built aircraft carriers or runways. I was working on a runway. They gave me a shovel and a wheelbarrow and that's all I had. I hauled dirt and filled in the holes to make the runway smooth. I did that for quite awhile. I don't remember all that I did after that. I worked in a pit for awhile about the size of this dining table. They'd roll out hot sheets of metal and I had a job making sure they stayed in line.
My wife's brothers were in that camp. The younger brother (John Moss) was picked to go on a detail and his older brother (Glen Moss) knew something was going on. A lot of times guys wouldn't come back from details. He traded places with his younger brother hoping he could save him but they sent both of them on the detail. They brought him in a cave and tortured him and killed him. Her older brother was shot to death. In the opinion of the Japanese dying is an honor. Americans obviously don't feel that way about it. The Japanese didn't respect us because of that. The work ethic my parents had instilled in me was what kept me alive during my time in the camp. If they hadn't taught me the value of hard work I would've died. I can still smell those bodies in the camp.
It was either work or serious business in the camp. There was no time for laughter. You either worked and ate or didn't work and you were beaten. There wasn't a whole lot of food but I ate what I could. I remember there was a pile of rice in a field once. They took us out there to shovel that dirty rice. We shoveled it into the truck. We ended up eating that rice. I ate the rice they gave us but it had rocks in it. They used to dip those rice balls into feces and urine before feeding it to us. They hoped we'd get sick and die so they wouldn't have to deal with us. I had to get dentures because those rocks in the rice balls tore up my teeth. I was scooping the rice up onto the truck one time and one of the Japs hit me on the back with a shovel. He hollered "Shigoto" and hit me with it. He didn't think I was working fast enough. It was hard work because we were so unhealthy. Even the easiest work was made hard because we were in bad shape. I could probably do more work now than I could have then. The Japanese were so mean. They didn't care if we lived or died. I saw some guys get beat up every single day. I remember they sat one of the guys on the side of a bank after he dug a hole and they shot him then put his body in that hole. He dug his own grave.
Was there ever a moment where you felt like you wouldn't make it?
AH: I didn't think about not surviving. I just remember praying to God that if I made it out I'd dedicate my life to Him. The situation was so desperate that I think everyone felt that way, though. I was strong when I got to the prison camp so I was fortunate. A lot of the guys weren't strong enough and they didn't make it back.
How'd you lose your arm?
AH: On August 8, 1945 I was a member of a 43 man detail who were assigned to work in the Taubata Steel Mills located about 15 miles south of Moji. At approximately 9:40 AM the air sirens blew, and we were given a 30 minute break. None of our detail went into the shelters because the Japanese didn't let us. It was the policy of the Japanese to keep all POW details working even after the sirens started. About five minutes later the bombs started exploding, though none of us could hear the planes overhead because of the noise of the mill. I was hit at 10 AM and my arm was severed at the shoulder.
None of the Japanese guards or pushers, as we called them, were around administer first aid, so I had to apply a tourniquet myself. It was not until five hours later that the Japanese furnished me any treatment, and then it was poorer than that which I had improvised. Eight hours after I had been hit, an American doctor gave me help, but I was almost dead by this time. He was forced to hold me down and hack it off.
I came back and I was 97 lbs when I got to Brigham City, Utah. I remember when the Americans came to get me. I was as excited as anybody could be. I knew when the bomb at Nagasaki went off that I was going to be free. I was there when the bomb went off. They told me you couldn't live through something like that but I lived through it. I remember the colors. There was red, green, and yellow. I was on the ground when it went off. The first thing they told you was to lay flat on the ground when it went off.
How much harder was working with that loss of your arm in the war?
AH: It depended on what I was doing. I had an artificial arm back then and I remember when I first used a scoop to scoop the grain off the threshing floor to see if I could and I did it. I just took one shovel and did it. You learn to do things very easily when you know you have to do them. I remember one of my sergeants saw my shoes and asked me how I tied them. I told them I did it with my one hand. I'd just lost my arm a couple of weeks before that. He told me there's no way I could've done that and he untied my shoes. When he came back they were tied again. He untied them again and stood there. I tied them in front of him (laughs). You do what you have to when there are no other options.
What do you remember about your brother, Claude? If you could tell him anything now what would that be?
AH: It's been a rough world. I wouldn't say anything because he was better off dying because they would have killed him or he would have died some other way. The world still goes on.
Were you born and raised in New Mexico?
AH: I was born in the Western Central part of Oklahoma and raised mostly in New Mexico. The town I was born in isn't there anymore. It's gone. There's still a few grain elevators operating there but that's it. We lived more in Central Oklahoma than any other part of it. I was born an Okie but not from Muskogee (laughs). I had three brothers and four sisters. I'm the only one left. My dad moved us around a lot. We moved to Kansas for awhile when I was young where my grandparents lived. We moved back to Oklahoma after that then we moved to Texas for awhile. My father was a very hard worker.
I remember my mother (Esther Volkman Haws) was the most gracious woman you could ever meet. She passed away in '74 from cancer. I don't remember a person more gracious than her. My mom was the most jolly, happiest hardworking woman you've ever seen in your life. She was a real go-getter. She loved people and helped take care of everyone. She was a Christian but didn't go to church often. She didn't have nice enough clothes to wear so that kept her away. She was the most sensible and reasonable person I've ever known. I'll be glad to see her in heaven someday. I worked on a farm most of the time I was with my dad. After the war was over I went back to working with him during the wheat harvest. I worked mostly with my brothers after the war. They had combines, tractors, trucks, and scoops for the harvest.
What was it like when you got to the Philippines first off?
AH: We left from San Fransisco on a ship to get to the Philippines. We stopped in Hawaii first and they turned us loose for a night. We had one night there. We were as free as anybody could be. We drank a little beer at the saloons and ran around and had a good time with the Hawaiians. When we got to the Philippines we were just waiting for the war to start. We held the Japs off for quite some time over there. Each of us only had a 30-30 rifle with very little ammunition. They said if we'd had a few more bullets and a ham sandwich we would've beaten the Japanese. They called us the "Battling Bastards of Bataan."
I remember when we ran out of food and were eating whatever was available including horses and mules. I think we were just a diversion set up by MacArthur. He knew we'd be captured. There weren't enough of us to fight them. I was in the 200th Coastal Artillery. When the war started I remember they set up a tent for church meetings. I went in there and I told the Lord I'd do His work if He let me come home. I've tried to do that since I've come home and I think I did a pretty good job at that.
Why'd you join the Army?
AH: I didn't want to go over there but I had to protect my brother. I went to be with my brother and protect him. I was living in Texas but I was drafted by New Mexico. I could've gotten out of it because I was living in Texas at the time but I promised my mom I'd go to be with Claude. I did my best to defend him. I didn't have a family at the time and I'm glad I didn't have one. I didn't have to worry about them. I was single and had no worries going overseas. I didn't want to have a family before the war started because I didn't want them to have to worry about me while I was at war. I put that off until after I came back.
What was life like after the war?
AH: My favorite memories were just being able to work freely and live the life I wanted to live. I met my wife Mary after living in Clovis awhile and got married. Her brothers had died in the Japanese camp. She lived across the street from my house. I remember she loved to dance and she was really good at it. She taught me a little bit about dancing but I never got really good at it. She had a two-step partner and they won at the Senior Olympics. I had a child a year after I married her and she died at birth. Two years later I had a son, then I had a daughter, and a year after that another daughter. I drank and I smoked a lot when I got back because of my PTSD. After awhile we moved to Montana where I quite smoking and drinking. I became a farmer and rancher. I planted a two-acre garden so we'd have food for the winter. We had cows and we had sheep. That was good for me because I got to get away from the stressful things in life. It was nice to be working in the outdoors where I didn't have to think about the bad times. I planted this huge garden and I told my wife which were the plants and which were the weeds. She pulled the plants and kept the weeds (laughs).
I'd worked in Albuquerque before that for awhile at the AEC (Atomic Energy Commission) in a very secretive job. I wasn't allowed to tell anyone what I did. After being in the war and dealing with the stress of the job, I started developing ulcers. The job was killing me. That's one of the reasons why we moved to Montana. It was nice to be able to do my own thing as a farmer and rancher. I joined the Forest Service while we were living in Montana, where I planted trees and fought fires. I had an artificial arm that had a hook on the end so I could work with the Forest Service. After I retired, we moved back to New Mexico to Truth or Consequences, then to Clovis, then to Amarillo and that's where my wife passed away. I was married to my wife for 63 years before she passed.
What was the hardest part of coming back?
AH: There was no ticker tape parade when we got back. We just got back to work. That's how we were raised. My wife and I had some rough years because of what I went through. I was glad to be home, though. I taught myself how to do everything with that one hand. I really didn't talk about what happened over there for about 50 years. I didn't join any of the American Legion or VFW groups.
Most of us just shut it out and didn't talk about it. I canceled all of my time over there out of my brain or I tried to anyways. Some things just stay with you. It doesn't really bother me to think about it anymore. I was glad when they dropped the bomb. I hate those Japanese bastards. Pardon my language but that's how I feel about those animals. They had no respect for anybody or anything.
What was the best part of coming home?
AH: Coming home alive was the best part. I still remember one of the soldiers asking me what he could do for me when I was in the hospital. I said to him, "You can let me go home." A soldier walked in later and said to me, "Haws, you're going home." I said to him, "Can I bring a helper with me?" I couldn't carry my bags at the time because of my injuries so I chose one of the guys who'd been in the prison with me. He carried my bags.
When I first got to my temporary station they let us go home. Some rode buses and some walked home. I walked from where we were stationed. I got to a camp in Temple, Texas and I rode the train home to Clovis. When I got to Clovis I walked home from there. I didn't knock or anything. I just walked in and my mother was so shocked. Honestly, I wouldn't do it that way if I did it over again. It shocked her so badly. She was so happy to see me though.
What was the mission when you first got there?
AH: We were just killing time for awhile swimming in the ocean and living in our tents. The Japanese came to invade the Philippines and that's when the war started for us. There were some of us that tried to run and swim to another island to get away. Some of those guys made it, most drowned, were shot, or the sharks got them. My brother was one of the first that died while were over there. I don't remember my captors individually but I remember what they looked like.
What would you say to a civilian if you could say one thing?
AH: I hope I changed the world for the better as a veteran. Honor us by keeping the world going in the right direction. Hold on to your freedoms and never let them go.
Has PTSD affected you at all since the march?
AH: PTSD has stuck with me the last 70 years. I had to get to work, though. I didn't have much time to think about the bad things. A lot of us had PTSD but there's just no time for the bad thoughts when you're working. Fireworks still bother me and sometimes I still feel like the bugs from the camp are crawling on my skin. I can still smell those bodies that they dumped in the trenches.
What's been your most memorable experience since you got back?
AH: My favorite thing has been being able to teach people, and especially children, about God. I preached for three years. All of the members of my church moved away though so I didn't have any more people in the congregation. The church that was sponsoring me told me to shut it down. I loved it while I did it but I found out I really didn't have enough of an education to do it. I only went through a year and a half of high school. That was the last time I was in school. I worked on the farm after I left high school.
What was the most therapeutic thing for you in coming home?
AH: It was just good for me to be outside and get back to work. My dad was a farmer and he still used horses to pull plows. I thought it would be smarter to use a tractor but my father didn't like that. I ended up moving to Friona, Texas to farm with my brothers because they had tractors. My father refused to buy a tractor. I told him we could get so much more done and help the family more financially but he didn't think tractors would last. He thought horses were better so he bought a few new horses and I moved in with my uncles. He got pneumonia and died a few years later. He was in his 50's.
I still remember my dog Joe that took care of my mother while I was gone in the war. He was still alive when I got back. I remember a few mean hounds came up the road looking like they were going to tear him to pieces. He backed up near a thorny bush outside and just stared them down. They looked at him and decided "Aw shucks, we don't want none of that (laughs)." I know that's what they were thinking. I saw him do that twice in one day. That dog could fight. While I lived with my brothers that dog was with me.
What would you tell anyone looking to get into the military and the Army in particular?
AH: Being in the Army isn't all that bad and it isn't all that good either (laughs). Your time in the Army is what you make of it. If you behave and follow the rules you won't have much trouble at all. Do what they ask of you and do it the best you can.
Did you feel detached at all when you first got back?
AH: I felt like I didn't belong when I got home. There was no recognition when I got back. I had a lot of issues I was still dealing with. The way I was treated in the camp and the things I saw made me feel like I didn't belong when I came home. I didn't know where I belonged. I think people are much more grateful for our service now than they've ever been.
If you could say anything to the guys from your unit what would you say to them? How do you want to be remembered?
AH: I'd tell them I believe our sacrifices were worth it. The world is a different place. People's lives have been changed for the better. I just hope people remember me as honest, fair, and as a good Christian man.
The hours I spent with Alfred were hours of a wide range of emotions. I’d never felt such nerves as I did when I walked into his quiet room at Autumn Blessings Assisted Living Home. I was meeting one of those “greatest generation” warriors; men who quietly returned asking for nothing except a normal life with their freedoms intact. There was biting sadness. There’s something incredibly heartbreaking about watching a legend grow old. It doesn’t seem fair to watch a warrior fade, and quite honestly the impact left is one I’ll feel forever. Yet, I still saw the war-fighter within, sometimes in the quietest of moments. When he described his working in the camp there was a gripping intensity in his demeanor. I was looking into the eyes of a legendary survivalist, one who made it his daily mission to make it home for over three and a half years.
There was happiness. I watched Alfred smile as he said, “Goodbye.” I kissed him on the head softly and told him I was proud to call him an Army brother. His words resonate in my ears, “I don’t know if I’ll be here much longer but I’m glad I got to meet you, Tim.” I felt an intoxicating sense of pride. Imagine you’re sitting in a room with one of the men responsible for your freedom. This isn’t some cheesy line of over-exaggerated patriotic hyperbole. Alfred is one of the singular reasons we aren’t all speaking Japanese or German. While you’re reading this blog I want you to remember these four names: Alfred Haws, Claude Haws, Glen Moss, and John Moss. These four men are men who every single one of my friends and family will know about from this day forward. I will do my best to honor their memory by sharing a story of pain, suffering, sacrifice, and the hard, gritty foundational truths of how freedom comes to be.
I also want you to think long and hard about men who return asking for nothing. Logan, New Mexico is an hour and a half from the nearest semi-big city, Amarillo. It’s three hours from the nearest New Mexican metropolis, Santa Fe. There’s not even a quiet buzz surrounding the town. It’s a sleepy farm borough with a population barely over a thousand, situated on the Eastern New Mexico flat plains. In a day of constant attention seeking and celebrity worshipping, some of our most impressive relics live in the quietest pockets of our country. There are lessons to be learned from these revered warriors. In a society that’s constantly about self-love, there isn’t much room for patriotism. Men like Alfred are fading reminders that freedom requires selfless maintenance and care. Without Staff Sergeant Haws, America isn’t the America we love. There are no foundational freedoms. Enjoy those freedoms during this New Year but do so with a watchful eye of solemnity. Remember the sacrifices of our great generation that stuck up for democracy, honor, and integrity. Remember that it wasn’t one glorious charge up a hill that saved our nation from certain despair. It was the countless cruel hours of horrifying destruction where men’s courage prevailed through fear. There’s nothing pretty about war. Alfred Haws is an incredible reminder of that actuality.