Prisoner of War

Tracy Mishkin

in honor of Sgt. Joseph Bergstein

b. 1923

I. Older Sister

Daddy had a still in the basement, a rich man

as long as Prohibition lasted. I delivered whiskey

in the pram, the bottles tucked around Joey.

During the Depression, I dropped out, worked,

an elevator girl. Joe cleaned chicken coops

for quarters, grew from hungry boy to hungry man.

Nothing but the army to fill his belly. 5' 7''

and 110, he enlisted in the spring of ‘41.


II. Sergeant

We shipped out to the Philippines

with rusty Springfield rifles from the war

to end all wars. After Pearl Harbor, they bombed

our airfields. Landed at Luzon and Legazpi.

The colonel took the Tommy guns and half

our rations to his bunker in the woods.

Already hungry and sick, my men and I dug in

till we were ordered to surrender. Bergstein waved

his undershirt as we crept up the road. We heard

they don't take prisoners.


III. Filipino Witness


Sundalos struggle through town, limping

toward the prison camp. Thin men, torn

uniforms. The broken rhythm of their feet.

Rifle shots, the grunt of bayonets. We throw rice

wrapped in banana leaves. The children

bring water, dodging Hapón guards on horses,

who shake their swords. They shoot the men

who fall behind.


IV. Hohei, Soldier-Guard


Ten thousand horyo wait hours in the sun

for water. Wormy rice their only food.

Some eat the worms for protein. Cook

has a dog trap underneath the kitchen hut.

A man without a bowl will die.


No honor in surrender. Only haji, the shame

that runs deep. In monsoon season, horyo

stand outside, washed by rain. They cover

the faces of the dead with weeds.


V. American Medical Officer


I haven’t forgotten the time Bergstein and his do-good pals

washed that goner who’d shit his dysentery pants

and brought him back inside. At the camp hospital today,

they were scrounging sulfa drugs for some poor fool

with syphilis. I was off-duty and told them so. Cholera,

dysentery. Yes, we leave them under the barracks. Yes,

they’re going to die. Have you got a better way

to keep the rest of us alive?


VI. Bill “Stew” Stewart


When Allied planes began to bomb the Philippines,

the guards packed us in an old tub's hold,

heading north. We hunched silent on chunks of coal,

knees drawn up. Shoulder to shoulder, precious air.

We heard the ping of our subs hunting. The buzz

of bombers.


Rice came down in buckets on a rope. Sometimes

it broke, scalding us. We ate every sliver we found.

The shit-bucket passed on the same rope, slopping.

After a while, we lost our sense of smell.


Pinned on the far side of the hold, my buddy Joe

passed his canteen up for water, never got it back.

I sent him my spare. When a man died, it meant

more room for the rest of us.


VII. Civilian, Northern Honshu


Fifteen feet of snow on the trail

to Hanaoka town. Father and I worked

the mines. The dense, gray rock so hard

it bent the tips of picks. Horyo dug ore,

loaded carts, worked beside us as if

they were still men. When my cart jumped

the track, I told Joe to put it back.

He ignored me. Father beat him

with a chunk of rock.


VIII. Heroes of Bataan


Freed by the atom bomb, we sailed home,

gaining weight on Red Cross donuts. I still hadn’t

started shaving. We rode the hospital train

cross-country, drinking beer with nurses, bowling

oranges at liquor bottle pins.


The papers called us enlisted men “survivors

of Bataan”—the officers, “heroes.” They ran

for office on their war records. I went to college

on the GI Bill.