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Commentary | June 29, 2012

Days of anguish: one chaplain’s POW journey

By Chaplain (Capt.) Cornelius Johnson 633rd Air Base Wing Chaplain's Office

Military chaplains have served in every war in the history of our country, risking their lives, by providing ministry to troops on the battlefield where the bullets are flying.
Per the Geneva Convention, chaplains are not permitted to carry weapons, so they enter the battlefield armed only with their faith.

In the spring of 1938, U.S. Air Force Chaplain Robert Preston Taylor accepted a commission to serve God and his troops on the battlefield. The book, "Days of Anguish Days of Hope" is a riveting account of Taylor's life as a prisoner of war in the Japanese prison camps, during World War II. What was remarkable about Taylor was that he faithfully provided spiritual care to his unit despite all the suffering and grief he experienced as a POW.

In March 1941, 76,000 American soldiers surrendered to the Japanese in the Bataan Peninsula. After surrendering, Taylor and his unit took part in an 80-mile journey, known as the Bataan Death March. Taylor and his unit were forced to walk for days without water and food in the sweltering heat. In addition their captors physically abused and murdered thousands of prisoners.

After the march, Taylor and his unit were housed in the Cabanatuan Prison Camps. The prisoners had very poor living conditions and inadequate food and water. The prison guards were cruel, often assaulting and killing the prisoners for the smallest fault. The camp had little or no medical supplies to deal with the many soldiers who were sick with diseases such as dysentery and malaria. Death was a daily occurrence in the camp. When the prisoners were moved to another location, they had to travel on what they called the "hell ships". On these ships the prisoners were packed into the hold of the ships like sardines for days. Some got violently ill, others died from disease and from being trampled to death.

It was in these terrible conditions Taylor ministered to his unit. Several times a day, he visited the hospitals praying for and encouraging the sick, diseased, and those who were dying. He even risked his life by working with the local people to smuggle in medicine past the prison guards, to care for the sick. The medicine helped many patients get better, until he got caught and was severely punished.

Taylor also conducted worship services every week, and his message focused on not to give up hope, and keep a strong faith. The morale in the camp would increase greatly after the men heard his powerful messages. He stood vigil and prayed with more than 1,100 brave soldiers who lost the battle to hunger and disease during his time in captivity.

Taylor exhibited what it meant to be a chaplain and a leader. According to the Geneva Convention, he did not quality as a POW, because as a chaplain he was a non-combatant. Never did he ask his captors for his freedom or insist on his rights, instead suffering alongside his men. His selfless sacrifice, undying hope, and devotion to his men, won him the admiration of his men, and even some Japanese captors. His ability to be resilient and serve his men with excellence despite the extreme harsh conditions of the prison camps makes him a leader that all military personnel ought to emulate as an example.