Ernest "Ernie" Plantz survived 1,297 days as a prisoner of war during World War II because he had a "strong belief in the man upstairs" and the will to live.
"I never, ever really thought I was really going to die," he said. "… I think my mother prayed me out of that camp. She was very religious. I wasn't a particularly religious boy. I had been raised Baptist, went to church, but like most teenagers I wasn't too religious. But I'm convinced that's what got me out, between my mother and the man upstairs."
Unable to find a job because of the Depression, Plantz had joined the Navy in 1940 at the age of 19. He served on a battleship and then volunteered for submarine duty. His first submarine assignment was the USS Perch (SS-176).
The Perch was in the Java Sea on its second war patrol when it encountered an enemy convoy on March 1, 1942.
"We made a run on a ship … and the (Japanese) destroyers drove us down in fairly shallow water, about 140 feet, and they started to depth-charge us, all in one day, and the next day, and then they left us. They thought they had sunk us because debris and oil and air had come to the surface. So we managed to surface … and tried to make repairs that night.
"The next morning, before daybreak, we tried to make a trim dive and the ship was going down stern first. The water poured in through the hatches. We had an emergency surface, and when we did, we had three (Japanese) destroyers and two cruisers … ahead of us. They started firing … the skipper had alerted us that we'd probably have to abandon ship, so he gave the order to abandon ship. We opened the valves in the hatches to sink the submarine. It was like watching your home go down."
Fifty-four sailors and five Perch officers were in the water.
"I was hoping (the Japanese) would (pick us up), and scared that they would. Because we had no real idea what they would do, how they would treat us, if they picked us up. We'd been told all kinds of rumors, that they'd cut your head off, they'd do this, they'd do that.
"Somebody asked what the (Japanese), if they picked us up, what they would feed us. And somebody else says, 'Rice and fish, you damn fool. What else do the Japanese eat?' And I said, 'Geez, if it's rice, let's hope it's rice with cream and sugar because I can't eat just plain rice.' Three days later, when they got around to giving us the first rice, that was the best rice I ever ate in my life."
The Perch crew was taken to a prison camp in Makassar, on an island in what is now Indonesia.
"They off-loaded us there and marched us through the city. Many of us were barefoot. The pavement was hot, hot enough you could fry an egg on the thing. It fried our feet; the skin peeled off and blistered. Anyway, they ended up putting us in what used to be a Dutch Army camp."
There, the Japanese captors were also holding the crew of the American destroyer USS Pope (DD-225), which had also been sunk by the Japanese in March 1942.
The camp, Plantz said, was brutal.
"They never told you what the rules were, what you could do and what you couldn't do. The way you found out is when you did something that they disagreed with and they'd either slap you around or beat the hell out of you with a club.
"A good example is when we first were there, some of the people at the prison who could play musical instruments scrounged together some Dutch instruments and then organized a band. And we were having some good concerts on Sundays and the (Japanese) said we weren't supposed to enjoy music. So they beat the devil out of the people who were playing music and the leader of the band. And one of our officers off the Pope goes charging down to the (Japanese man) who was doing the beating and says, 'These are my men. If you beat anyone, you beat me.' So they proceeded to beat the heck out of him."
The prisoners were forced to work on the island six to seven days a week, off-loading ships, cleaning toilets, tearing down steel telephone poles so the steel could be used for land mines and hand grenades, and doing other manual labor to maintain the city and build infrastructure for the Japanese.
At first the prisoners were given a piece of bread the size of a hamburger bun once a day, Plantz said, but eventually the Japanese increased their rations to a small cup of rice three times a day, water with a few vegetables thrown in at lunch and dinner and an occasional piece of dried fish.
"It was the worst food they could possibly come up with. The rice was full of worms, the fish they gave us was full of maggots. … The first few days, when we got that kind of rice, we picked out the worm carcasses. You'd end up with half a cup of rice and half a cup of worm carcasses. So we decided, well, the worm carcasses, they were protein too, so we just ate them. They didn't seem to make any difference. You couldn't taste them."
Plantz's worst beating came in late 1943. Some of the sailors, he said, had interacted with one of the local merchants, so the Japanese beat the merchant and then brought him to the camp to identify the sailors.
"He picked out three guys, the (Japanese) wanted four. I was the fourth one. So they put us in the brig, threatened to chop our heads off. We were there for about a week. Then I guess the last day, the breakfast was a good breakfast, all you could eat, and meat, which you never got. And lunch was the same way. They had always told us that the day, or day before, they put you to death, they'd feed you all you ordered to eat. So by the time the evening meal came, which was the same thing, we were beginning to lose our appetite for fear of what was coming.
"About halfway through the meal, we heard a clatter outside the guardhouse and here come a bunch of (Japanese), young (Japanese) sailors charging in, each one swinging a club. They took us out and we realized it wasn't going to be a head chop, it was going to be a beating."
The rest of the camp was assembled to watch as the sailors were beaten, one by one, Plantz said.
"They had a table you gripped with your hands and then they'd make you lean against the table. I got 75 blows before I finally passed out."
In early 1945, Plantz came down with dysentery, then malaria.
"The malaria went to my brain. I went unconscious and I was unconscious for six days. When I came to, I was told that the Dutch doctor who was a prisoner had said, 'Well, he's going to die anyway,' 'cause guys were dying eight, 10, 12 a day, so … he crushed quinine and mixed it with tap water and gave me an injection in the vein with a homemade needle and that broke the malaria."
The only thing Plantz remembered from when he was unconscious was a vision that Jesus Christ had visited him.
"I asked if I was going to die and he told me no, that I was just going to be very ill. And if I had been thinking, I would've asked him how long that was good for. But I didn't."
Before Japan surrendered on Aug. 14, 1945, six of Plantz's crewmates had died of malnutrition. Plantz weighed 80 pounds, down from 175 when he was captured.
"The (Japanese) called us together… and they told us that the war was over and that we had won. They wanted to shake hands, the same guys that had beat the heck out of us for three and half years said, 'Now we're friends.' You've got to be kidding.
"Anyway, the Americans, the Allies, they didn't know there was a prison camp where we were at so we finally cobbled together a homemade radio transmitter … and we made a contact with the Americans and they sent a plane."
Plantz, who left the prison camp on Sept. 17, 1945, spent about 10 months recuperating at a Navy hospital near Chicago.
"I checked in with my friends, what they were doing and what their prospects were, and I decided I would stay in the Navy."
Plantz served for 30 years, retiring as a lieutenant in 1970.
"I think I was a little bit ashamed of where I had to serve (during the war), helping the (Japanese) instead of helping the Americans, so I never talked about it. I wanted to make my way after the war, on my own, without people feeling sorry for me. I think I had a good career and I got recognized for my efforts.
"I ended up as chief electrician, then chief of the boat and on the last boat I got selected for commission (to an officer), so I feel good about my record."