This is the story of two North Dakota women who became prisoners of war during World War II.
Their story comes from Allison Veselka, a staff member of the Barnes County Museum in Valley City, N.D.
Esther Olson was from LaMoure, N.D. She graduated from Valley City State Teachers College in 1930, took missionary training, was assigned to work as a missionary at a language school and was sent to Baguio in the Philippine Islands in July 1941.
When Japan and the United States went to war that December, Esther and other missionaries in Baguio were interned by the Japanese. They were moved to Bilibid Prison in Manila, where they spent the rest of the war.
A story in a 1945 issue of the Valley City Times-Record told of their internment, Allison says.
At first, they were treated very well. They could communicate with the local Filipinos, purchase food and converse freely with other internees.
Esther was given a job taking care of 22 babies born to other internees.
But as the war continued and the Japanese began to lose their grip on the South Pacific, the internees’ freedoms became less and less, particularly after 1943. Married internees were separated. Prisoners could no longer converse with local residents. A school which had been set up for children was suspended. The quality of food declined, forcing the prisoners to eat cornmeal mush.
Then, on Feb. 3, 1945, the prisoners were liberated by American troops. This involved much confusion and commotion, but finally the POWs were free. And oh joy! Esther and four other women missionaries arrived in Minneapolis on Victory in Europe (V-E) Day.
The second woman in Allison’s story was Ruth Jothen, of Litchville, N.D.
The story doesn’t tell why she wanted to go to China, but it can be assumed she, too, was a missionary. At any rate, in 1942 she was aboard a China-bound ship that was captured by the Japanese.
She, too, was a POW in the Philippines where her experiences were much like those of Esther’s.
Their camp conditions steadily improved from 1942 to 1943, when the prisoners could attend church services and provide entertainment for themselves. They also could borrow money (the article doesn’t say from who) and buy food.
“We were able to buy meat,” Ruth said after the war, “and could have steaks and even Irish potatoes, although they were a luxury.”
However, a new camp commandant took over in 1943. Freedoms soon disappeared and the prisoners were tortured.
Then, in 1944, the POWs were transferred to a camp in Manila. And things got better.
Ruth said the POWs’ Christmas that year was “one of the best we’d had.
“The Christmas season was busy. We made all kinds of stuffed toys, and we knitted things.”
And then three months later, on Feb. 3, 1945, she, like Esther, was liberated by American troops.
The article mentions Ruth’s elation at eating real food again. “Wheat bread was perhaps one of the biggest joys,” she said, as were “candy bars, Coca-Cola, all the milk we could drink and even cheese!”
Ruth also had huge praise for her liberators, saying in the Times article, “Thank God for an army like ours!”
Neighbors thanks Allison for relaying these women’s stories, and for adding, “Both of these women lived to tell about their experiences as prisoners of the Japanese. Their story reminds us that our soldiers were more than just a fighting force. They and those of the Allied forces were liberators. When they freed the prisoners in the Pacific and the prisoners in concentration camps in Europe, they saved millions of lives.”
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