An Interview with Lt. Col. Herbert Swick

Author’s note: Pearl Harbor was bombed 10 days after my 7th birthday. My family was living in Baguio on Luzon in the Philippine Islands and by Christmas 1941 we were civilian prisoners of war. Our camp was located at Camp Holmes on the outskirts of Baguio. On 18 February 1943, the Japanese brought in a muscular young man named Herb Swick. Swick and another internee named Rich Green escaped from the camp on 4 April 1944.

In August 1989 the survivors of our camp held a reunion at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. I saw Swick there and asked him to tell me his story.

Swick had recently graduated from college in 1941 when he was offered a job with a mining company in the Philippine Islands; he was a mining engineer. He had served several years with the Arizona National Guard prior to his taking the job and he checked with his draft board to obtain permission to leave the country. When he arrived in Baguio, being a single man, he began associating with the U.S. military personnel assigned there.

Swick’s story

When the war started I remained behind to help the Army blow some bridges on Kennon Road and when finished we headed for Manila. We stayed at the government hotel at Belibe Pass and heard the last broadcast of the Voice of Freedom; Manila was declared an open city. We went back to Mountain Province and organized guerrillas and fought with them for 11 months. After Bataan and Corregidor fell, before my capture, Army officers Moses, Noble, Blackburn and Volkman came up to the mountains and swore me into the Army as a 2nd Lieutenant.

Unfortunately, I was captured as I was going north up a shallow riverbed when I suddenly heard bullets; somebody had fired at me. Ping, ping, ping! And this one fellow with me started yelling “Nipon, Nipon.” I ran up the side of the mountain and hid in this tall grass, but they came upon me and took me to their camp, tied my hands and legs and then tied me to a post and kept guard over me all night. The next day they took me to Binalonan and threw me into a dirty, stinking jail. I was in this jail, I would say, over a month; it was around 15 December 1942 when I was thrown in there.

They would take me out about every other day, late at night, and interrogate me. The interrogator was born and raised in California and spoke very fluent English. I kept telling them, ‘I’m a civilian’ with the idea that I knew that they were going to execute me. After each interrogation they would carry me out unconscious. Every time the Japanese would interrogate me I could not control my kidneys and wet my pants. They had to carry me back to this dirty stinking jail. This went on for a period of over four weeks. Then one day a Japanese guard came to gate and unlocked the jail door. He had a bar of soap in his hands and took me to an artesian well. I stripped my clothes off and took a bath. The whole town had gathered around to see this, because it was very rare to see an American. I stuck to the story that I was a civilian. Eventually they believed my story and the best break I ever got was when they sent me to a civilian internment camp, Camp Holmes in Baguio.

In the camp I had a job working in the kitchen and also on the garbage crew. Being in the camp was like a vacation to me at first, but I lived with one fear in mind: that some day the Japanese military would find out my true status from some Filipino that they had captured. That would have been the end of me. It took almost a year and a half to find a way to escape from that camp.

Escape plan

When I was on the garbage crew we would take the garbage outside of the camp and dump it down into a river. Two Japanese guards would go with us. On the way back they would let us talk with the Filipinos. One of those days I recognized a Filipino scout who I was sure was with some Americans who were still in the mountains. I asked him, “Where is Colonel Calvert?”

He said, “He’s right out here in the mountains, and I’m still with him and I’m on my way back to their camp now.”

And so, through him, I arranged to have a rendezvous with Colonel Calvert, who came as close to the camp as he could at night. After roll call one night, Doug Shaw and I went through the guards and met Calvert. I told Calvert that I was going to have to get out before the Japanese found out who I was. Calvert and his group were about to reorganize all the guerrillas. They said they needed all the help they could get so my escape was all set up. I met Calvert one more time to set up the date and time, 9:30 p.m. on 4 April 1944. A bachelor, Richie Green escaped with me. Calvert had cargadores outside of the camp waiting to take us to his camp. When we left the camp we went down beyond the rear barracks, right over a 4-foot fence a child could crawl through.

Prior to my escape the only one who knew I was going to leave was Doug Shaw, he had gone in and out of the camp with me three times. The night we escaped Doug helped us carry out medical supplies and boots that we brought into camp on the two previous occasions to have them repaired. Johnny McCuish was a shoemaker; I told him, “Here, repair these boots and don’t ask any questions.”

The night I was going to escape I talked to Bill Moule at the flagpole and told him, “Bill, this is it.” He had known for a long time that I was planning an escape. Unfortunately, they took three civilians out: Bill Moule, Jim Halsema and Eugene Kneebone, thinking they knew something about my escape. They beat the living hell out of them. Bill knew, but he never revealed anything. Doug Shaw knew everything, but they never questioned him about my escape.

The Sunday before my escape I gave confession to Father Sheridan, the Catholic Priest in the camp. He couldn’t see me but I am sure he recognized my voice. I told him I wanted to make a real good confession and wanted to be prepared for death in case something happened to me in the future. That helped my morale a lot.

Author’s note: Moule, Halsema and Kneebone were taken from the camp by the Kempei-tai and tortured and interrogated for five days. They were hung by their thumbs until their arms were dislocated at the shoulder and beat repeatedly. Our camp Commandant, Rokuro Tomibe, went to the Kempei-tai and sought their return. The Kempei-tai wanted to keep them until their injuries healed, but Tomibe appealed and got their release. Tomibe was to say later that he received a minor rebuke over the issue, but it appeared that he was demoted.

I did not believe the threat that the Japanese would kill five prisoners if anyone escaped because one of the internees, Sy Sorrell, escaped and was recaptured without anyone being hurt. I never found out about their beating up the three civilians until after the war. When I first heard about it I felt really bad because they were good friends of mine. I saw each one of them after the war and they said they did not carry a grudge and they thought I had done a good job.

We only traveled at night, and it took us three nights to get to Calvert’s headquarters. I learned that Moses and Noble had been captured and Russell Volkman, who was a graduate of West Point, took over command of all units in northern Luzon.

When I got to Calvert’s camp, Volkman had moved from Banaue down to Calvert’s camp to take over the entire division. He sent Green to join Colonel Barnett, who was the commanding officer of the 121st Infantry in the La Union Province. I was sent north to join Don Blackburn (who retired as a General after the Viet-Nam War) in the Province of Ifugao.

I was there for about two months. The pagan tribes there were headhunters before the war and we were able to settle their ongoing tribal wars. Bontocs, Ifugaos and the people of Mountain Province were all pagans; they were the most loyal people to the Americans that I ever met out there. They let you know right away that they were for the Americans, whereas in the lowlands everybody played the fence — whoever was winning the war, then that was the side they were on.

Guerrilla infiltration

I was sent north by Blackburn to reorganize the guerrillas. I was to pick up all ex-constabulary, ex-Philippine Army and ex-Phillipine scouts. While going through these villages I would get up and give a short speech assuring them that the Americans were coming back. Submarines were putting in and bringing in radio equipment, small arms and a lot of matchbooks with MacArthur’s photograph on them. We distributed these along the way, and that helped to convince the civilians. We were also given a large quantity of American dollars to spend.

I went up to Cagayan to organize a battalion of the 11th Infantry. I started with one company on the northern coast of Luzon at a town called Sanchez Mira and soon had a full battalion. We were armed mostly with Japanese arms obtained from small ambushes and started to wipe out small Japanese garrisons and then moved up to Ballesteros and wiped out the garrison there.

While at Ballesteros we rested up for a few days and we happened to be looking out at the ocean when we saw a lot of Japanese ships and a bunch of Japanese coming in. I had a lot of troops stationed there for security purposes; this was the best ambush we ever had. We waited until those boats practically got on shore and we killed 150 who came in by boat; this was part of the Navy and they did not know anything about guerrillas being in that part of the country.

We continued from there over to Aparri, wiping out the Japanese, but could not take Aparri because it was too well fortified and that was left to the American Army when they came back. I was called by Colonel Volkman to come down to Basoong Pass overlooking the City of Cervantes. That was one of the biggest battles we had. The battle had been going on for about a month before I got there. I took over what was called a provisional battalion attached to the 121st Infantry commanded by Colonel Calvert. I was there three weeks before we broke through; my battalion was one of the first through. We took Cervantes.

From Cervantes we went up north and took the towns of Tadian and Sagada, wiping out the few Japanese there. Then we went on to Bontoc, where we had a fairly good-sized battle. While resting up there, I had one company of Igorots. I was sitting in one of their huts one night when they called me down to join them in a celebration. They were doing native dances and in the middle they had thrown 30 Japanese heads and were dancing around these heads. I did not mind because I knew what the Japanese had done to the civilians in the Philippines. I did not feel sorry for them.

I pushed southeast to Banaue where I met the 6th Division of the American Army. I was attached to this division and we pushed towards Yamashita’s headquarters in the mountains. Yamashita surrendered and that is when I stopped fighting. I stayed in the Philippines several weeks to help organize the Philippine Army and then left to be home by Christmas 1945.

Author’s note: Swick was a Major at the end of the war. He remained in the Army, but after 17 years was suffering with petite-mal epilepsy as a result of the beatings at the hands of the Japanese. He took a medical discharge. Herbert Swick passed away on 16 August 1997 in Tucson, Arizona.