Three Voyages to Freedom
A WWII memoir by Peter Parsons
The names of two ships, the Conte Verde and the Gripsholm, are the earliest of many that stick in my memory. I was five years old and recently removed from Manila, Philippines, with my father, mother and an older and a younger brother when first introduced to these two great vessels. World War II was six months old.
In Manila we had been kept under house arrest by the Japanese while my father, Chick Parsons, a Lt. Cmdr in the US Navy, was carted off to Fort Santiago prison and Santo Tomas Internment Camp. He had earlier submitted a claim for diplomatic privilege and requested expatriation due to his being the Consul for Panama through his job as manager of the Luzon Stevedoring Company. The last PT Boat for Corregidor left without my father and at that point, in late December, 1941, he began speaking Spanish and burning his Navy uniforms. He had to distance himself from all connections with US military. Remarkably, no one came forth to denounce Parsons as a naval officer while he was in Japanese custody.
Meanwhile we lived in a large house on Dewey Blvd. with four Japanese sentries guarding us. We could leave occasionally if we wore armbands. The sentries caught some robbers who had tried to run away with all our laundry hung out to dry next to the house. And these guards often asked my mom’s permission to take me and my older brother out on bike rides. We were perched on the handlebars of their two bikes as they pedaled us around to visit with their buddies up and down the Boulevard, often racing each other crazily. I was impressed by the length of the cigarettes they smoked, about eight inches long I guessed. My mother, Katsy, was able to visit our dad in STIC occasionally; she supplied him with extra food and they kept up a vigorous albeit clandestine correspondence on scraps of paper hidden in the laundry or in the fruit and vegetables.
In the distance there was the constant booming of heavy artillery in Bataan and Corregidor. Japanese airplanes bombed those two areas at will. When Corregidor finally fell, we watched from our fenced yard as miles of prisoners marched past. My mother and grandmother were prohibited from giving water to the prisoners, but for some reason they allowed me to stagger out and give a large bottle to three who had lain down in front of our house. One of them looked up at me and said, “Thanks, buddy.”
In short, the Japanese let us go a month later, in early June of 1942. My father’s gamble had paid off. They put us aboard the Ural Maru heading for Takao in Formosa. I remember only that this was a black ship, and that we, all five of us, were packed into one cramped cabin with the portholes painted black and sealed shut. I think my father was more or less “in charge” of the other diplomatic prisoners. He wrote all their names down on the back of an envelope, and included there the name of the ship’s captain (K. Itoh) and purser (S. Moriyasu) and the medical officer who was the “diplomatic exchange escort,” one N. Fukuda. The ship was transporting wounded and sick Japanese soldiers back home for repairs. There were a few cabins, at least nine, topsides for the 47 of us who were destined to be exchangees. I think there must have been about 272 Japanese soldiers aboard, according to some scribbled numbers on the same envelope.
Just as the ship was backing out of Pier 7 in the port of Manila, one of my father’s old Luzon Stevedoring tugboats came up to the port side of the Ural Maru and our backing motion stopped. The tug skipper was yelling something up at the crew of the departing ship. My dad overheard the shouts and entered into the transaction. There were four young blonde children, three boys and a girl, I think, who had been separated from their parents and could they be taken aboard the Ural Maru? This is how there came to be next to the Parsons family name on the list of passengers, the number 9. Our cabin was also number 9. But the second nine referred to our load of people in a cabin originally designed for two occupants.
My father volunteered to take these children and to try and locate their parents somewhere, probably Shanghai. A gangplank was rigged between the two vessels; the four kids were handed aboard and were ushered into our cabin. In addition, my father made me give my newly won Easter rabbit doll to the youngest child, maybe in an effort to stop his crying. I confess to feeling angry about this and did not offer any sympathy to the new arrivals. I was still feeling my own losses at leaving behind my grandmother and my real pet, a ferocious dachshund named Baby, and the woman I loved at that time as much as my mom: my amah. All these feelings had accrued unto my blue rabbit.
That evening I was alone in the toilet room down the hallway from our cabin. A dismal light illuminated the space. Suddenly the door opened and in came the youngest of the new kids, dragging my blue rabbit by a leg. The boy was only about three or four. He was snuffling and wiping his eyes and nose. I remember simply staring at him. I don’t think I ever said a word to the poor guy. I don’t even know whether they spoke English, these blondes.
We landed in Takao on June 10 and in Taihoku on the 11th. We then traveled overland to someplace and eventually flew, in two separate groups, in a Japanese bomber to Shanghai. On our overnight on Formosa we stayed in one of the most beautiful places I can remember. It was a one-storey Japanese inn, surrounded by ponds full of water lilies and large colorful fish. There were no sounds of automobile traffic nor the continual, albeit distant, artillery exchanges we had grown accustomed to in Manila. Women dressed in kimonos tiptoed in and served tea to us, and later steaming food. We ate dinner with chopsticks. I was stunned with the quiet almost surreal beauty of the place. It haunts me to this day.
In Shanghai we stayed in the Park Hotel for a few weeks and then left on the 29th of June on the Conte Verde. At the hotel we children–there must have about 20 or so there–ran wild, not only around the large park near the hotel, but through the hotel itself. I remember one time being abandoned by the older kids while I hid under the dining tables in a large banquet room. The Chinese staff caught me there and dragged out by the scruff of my tee shirt while I was trying to urinate into a large, empty, salad bowl.
My older brother, Michael, was constantly being brought back to our hotel room by Japanese military police. At one point my father was asked to referee a polo game between Italian and German teams, as he had achieved some renown as a polo player in prewar Manila. And whenever I smell a certain cut of grass, like new-mown lawns, and if the temperature and the humidity are just right, I return to that park in Shanghai where I think I must have first smelled that smell. Sometimes at night we looked out our window onto the streets below and watched Japanese throwing nets over screaming Chinese frantic to get away.
We gratefully boarded the Conte Verde and began our trip to eventual freedom. The freedom we experienced on leaving Manila was not “real.” At one check point en route we had to have all our bags– (one each)–inspected by Japanese soldiers. My mother had kept all the notes that had accumulated for six months from my father’s intelligence and guerrilla contacts; she had not gotten rid of them as my father had requested of her.
Now, they were hidden in my younger brother, Patrick’s bag along with diapers and other things for a one and a half year old boy. I was given the bag and told to go sit on a nearby bollard.
I did that and was soon approached by a fully armed Japanese soldier who sat down next to me. He plied me with candy and small talk. I knew a bit of Japanese from our home sentries. To what must have been the horror of my parents, the soldier picked me up and put me on his lap, me still clutching the forbidden bag to my chest. I remember he smelled just like our sentries at home.
When everything else had been inspected, my dad scooped me up, with a nod to the soldier, and we marched off to the gangplank, spilling candy into the harbor, to board our ship and all five, rather, nine of us entered our tiny cabin with black-painted portholes.
Even when we were aboard the Italian Conte Verde we were technically not free as this was an Axis ship, and I suppose we could have been re-arrested at any moment if my father’s true identity as an American naval officer had come to light.
However, we were free from the constant background noises of the war, the lack of food, the seeing of good friends march past our house, after the fall of Corregidor, on their way to Bilibid and other prisons. For us children it was a fairly unrestrained time and it seems in retrospect we must have been allowed free run of the ship. I remember getting lost often as most of the kids were older and I was alone a lot. The only souvenir of that voyage that I have is a certificate that I crossed the Equator on the Conte Verde on July 9, 1942.
When we got to Lorenco Marques in Portuguese East Africa we transferred our meager kit to the Gripsholm; we did not even mind the jeering of the Japanese that were now boarding the Conte Verde for the return trip to China. We climbed the gangplank to real freedom. When we set off, we were able to breathe free air for the first time now in seven months.
On board the Swedish mercy ship my father was granted his US Naval identity again as members of the US Foreign Service interviewed him extensively. He was the first military officer to have come out of Manila since the start of the war and his 51-page intelligence report, written aboard the Gripsholm, was sent ahead by one C.J. Spiker. My father was no longer “Missing In Action.”
But it turned up in his report and interview with Spiker that he had been president of two Japanese mining firms in the Philippines. It was apparently this information that raised some sort of red flag in the States because when we got to NY (I understand that we docked in New Jersey) the FBI detained my father in isolation for a long time, convinced that he could only have gotten out of the Philippines as an agent of the Japanese. Someone from the Department of State, R.D. Muir, came to his rescue with a letter (dated August 23, 1942) to the US Customs stating that Parsons was USNR and an employee of the US Government, but not before my father told his interrogators that they were as bad as the Kempetei who had grilled him in Fort Santiago back in April.
The voyage across the Atlantic was more pleasant than that from Shanghai. I remember being out on deck more and seeing much more of the open skies and blue horizons. One day the ship stopped and everyone ran over to the starboard railings to look down into the sea. There was a huge jellyfish about ten feet below the surface. It must have been about twenty feet in diameter. I knew what a tiny jellyfish could do to one’s arm and chest, and I was terrified by this genuine sea monster.
My brother Michael was terrorized almost on a daily basis by a gang of girls about his own age or older. He showed up one day in my parents’ cabin all scratched up and his shirt torn. I never had any idea what this was all about but I stayed away from that pack. I recall they were south Americans of some sort.
I got into trouble once as I allegedly pushed a nice girl down a flight of stairs. I remember swearing innocence to my father, but since the poor girl had broken her arm, justice had to be done and my dad, for the first and last time in his life took a belt to the rear end of one of his sons. I guess peace of sorts was made with the girl and her mom because I remember the girl, her arm sporting a brand new cast, smiling at me and her mom likewise.
Our stop in Rio de Janeiro was memorable. We strolled through an open air market and I was dazzled at the profuse collection of things of many colors. Fruits and vegetables and flowers and just a lot of other things I couldn’t identify—it was overwhelming after the Manila and Shanghai of the Japanese occupation.
We went up on the funicular to Sugar Loaf Mountain and looked down on the city and the ocean. I remember only being cold up there in what I felt was a polar breeze, and I was somewhat horrified at the view from our window as we descended. I came to understand that I was afraid of heights.
On solid ground again I saw a toy car in a shop window, I mean a car big enough for a five-year old to get in and pedal around in. Michael had had a real toy car, a race car, in Manila, complete with engine, and we would get in it and drive it around and around our house. This one reminded me of fine days at home.
We boarded the ship on the run. My father had a penchant for cutting things fairly short. The ship was on schedule and blowing its whistle. We were the last ones to board, without any toy cars in tow, but we did have a few necklaces made from gorgeous shiny brown seed pods. I have a feeling that some of these were used to appease the pack of wild girls that tormented Michael. We didn’t have a single one at the end of the voyage, and my brother did survive the voyage.
The whirl of euphoria and excitement of arrival in the United States I have pretty much forgotten. The jellyfish impressed me more. My mom was pretty much undone by the sight of the Statue of Liberty. She just kept pointing at it and saying “There it is, I can’t believe it.” She had been born in Zamboanga, Philippines, and had never seen this statue before except in films and books.
I know that the name Gripsholm was treasured in our family lore and vocabulary. My mom used to tell people who visited us or whom we visited during the war that we were brought out on the first mercy voyage of the Gripsholm. The word, the name of the ship, sat in my memory like a burnished jewel. Somehow we all had been made special by our brief life aboard her. We were all grateful, and perhaps our gratitude to Sweden was doubled by the fact that the person who forwarded my father’s initial request for Consular privilege in Manila was the genuine Swedish consul, Helge Janson. It was through his efforts that we gained our freedom. A freedom that he himself did not attain, as he remained in Manila for the duration of the war. I am glad to report that he survived with his family intact, and that during the Japanese occupation he and his wife were responsible for many generous acts benefitting the prisoners of war and other troubled people.
My father’s life grew more complicated when he arrived in the US, as General Douglas MacArthur and President (of the Philippine Commonwealth) Manuel Quezon called him back into action; he became the General’s liaison with the Philippine guerrillas, and developed the special mission (“Spyron”) submarines that conducted 49 missions to supply arms, ammunition and medicines. These submarines also evacuated a large number of civilian and military personnel back to safety—a subject very dear to my father’s heart.
Note: As for the four children my father had brought into our lives in Manila that June, 1942, they must have been reunited with their parents somewhere along the line, most probably as we got to Shanghai because they were not with us in the Park Hotel and were not part of our traveling circus on the Conte Verde or the Gripsholm. I would love to find out one day who they were and what was their real story. I also wish I could have been more generous to them: they had nothing except the clothes on their scrawny bodies and the aching memory of their parents. I had one bag of clothes, my two brothers, and both my parents.
My mother and father died in 1980 and 1988 respectively. Michael lives across the street from me in Baguio, Philippines. Patrick lives in Manila. And newcomer brother, Jose, born in 1947, lives in Bacolod on the island of Negros. My grandmother, Blanche Walker Jurika, did not survive the war. She could have come with us but chose stubbornly to remain. The Japanese arrested her, believing her to be the head of a major guerrilla outfit in Manila. They tortured her in Fort Santiago, “tried” her in Bilibid Prison, and then executed her in late August of 1944. Although my amah survived the war, we never saw her again, nor my dachshund, Baby. I was able to find the location of Dorothy Janson in the late 90s and write a letter of thanks to her which she read on her death bed. Her children sent me her thanks, that she had appreciated my letter written on behalf of all Parsons survivors. Her children and even a grandchild have continued to correspond with me occasionally.