Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Backpack a reminder of Japanese interment camp

A Milton-Freewater resident had painful memories rekindled in March 1988 when a photo surfaced that hearkened back to his time in a World War II Japanese interment camp in the Philippines.

John Wightman and his family celebrated a day of thanksgiving every Feb. 23, the day U.S. troops from the 11th Airborne and elements of the Filipino guerrilla forces liberated 2,247 prisoners from the Los Banos interment camp in the Philippines in 1945. But John said he remembered very little about the time spent in the camp except from stories his parents told. “When we got back to the United States, I was having trouble emotionally adjusting to a ‘free’ life. Part of the way I finally adjusted to that was to forget most everything,” said Wightman, who was six years old when the family was freed after a little more than three years in the camp. His younger brother Bill was born there.

John’s memory was given a jog when a photo on display in the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., was discovered in 1987 by Dick Hoyt, the editor of Voice of Angels, a publication for the 11th Airborne Alumni Association. Hoyt was able to identify the children in the photo by the names written on their backpacks. Wightman’s father, in an article for the publication, wrote that the packs were made because the Japanese army had a custom of suddenly moving prisoners from a camp to an unknown destination. John still had his backpack, and a knife given to him by one of the liberating soldiers.

The Wightman family moved to the Philippines to help in missionary work with John’s grandparents and two uncles. When the Japanese invaded the islands in December 1941, the entire family was taken prisoner. The family endured frightful conditions, but all but one uncle survived to return to the U.S. — he was killed when a Japanese ship was torpedoed and sunk by a U.S. submarine crew that didn’t know there were prisoners aboard.

Wightman came to Oregon in 1970 and moved to Milton-Freewater in 1974, where he lived until his death in 2012 at the age of 74.

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