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Bilibid Prison

The notorious Bilibid Prison, or Old Bilbid Prison Camp in Manilla, was located in the heart of Manila, not far and a short distance from Santo Tomas University. At Santa Tomas Allied civilians were interned during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines.

A nineteenth-century Spanish prison, Bilibid was one of seventeen Japanese prison camps for the military in the Philippines. This prison was abandoned because it had been declared unfit for criminal inmates. Later it was rehabilitated , and reopened by the  Japanese in 1942 as a prison-of-war camp.


Designed and built under the auspices of the United States Government during the American occupation of the Islands as a place of detention for Filipino criminals, Old Bilibid had, before World War II, been regarded as an extremely modern penal institution.


Source:  William N. Donovan, M.D., Edited by Josephine Donovan, P.O.W. in the Pacific, Memoirs of an American Doctor in World War II, (Delaware:  Scholarly Resources Inc., 1998), 59

“It comprised approximately 11 long, low, one-story buildings, one large main building formerly used as a hospital, and, at one end of the prisoner grounds, a two-story administration building constructed partly of wood and partly of concrete. Under the old administration, prior to the Japanese occupation, one of the small buildings had been set aside as an execution chamber.


The prison grounds were laid out in the form of a wheel, of which the high stone wall surrounding the grounds formed the rim, and the long, low buildings of the spokes. The wall had entrances at three sides, and was topped by a walk on which guard towers were erected at certain intervals, manned by guards who were thus enabled to patrol the camp at strategic points. From this description it may readily be seen that this prison was extremely well equipped, in the best modern manner, to insure that its occupants had scant opportunity to escape alive from within its walls.


When the Japanese entered Manila they took over Bilibid prison with the intention of using it as one of the prisoner of war camps they were establishing in the Philippines; and indeed, they did use it as an internment camp for those prisoner they took in the early days of the campaign, before the fall of Bataan & Corregidor. Upon the surrender of the Americans, however, and after the Japanese had actually occupied all of the Philippines, this prison was used by them as a clearing house and transfer point for all prisoners of war who were being sent to other prison camps in the Philippines, or to Japan.


In the latter part of May 1942, all of the American prisoners of war captured on Corregidor were marched through the streets of Manila to Bilibid Prison. Here they were met by another group of prisoners who had been captured before the fall of Bataan & Corregidor, and who were now assigned to this camp as a permanent detail, to aid in its administration, and to clear the transient prisoners of war through it to other camps.


When the prisoners of war from Corregidor arrived at Old Bilibid their captors searched them and stripped them of all articles such as knives, forks, watches, flashlights, extra clothing and any other personal possessions which the Japanese deemed it unecesssary for prisoners of war to have. Each man was allowed to keep only one uniform, a shelter half, and a blanket, as well as any mess gear he might have in his possession, including a spoon.  Many of the prisoners were unable to obtain a mess kit or water canteen, and had to utilize any kind of container they could find, such as cans, pieces of sheet metal, or even coconut shells, if they were to eat and drink.


They stayed at Bilibid only a few days, at the end or which time they were sent in groups, on successive days to the prison camp at Cabanatuan. Several hundred volunteers were retained by the Japanese authorities to be used as permanent work details in and around the city of Manila. These men were housed and quartered at Bilibid Prison, and together with the first prisoners already referred to, who were aiding in the Administration, constituted the initial cadre of Bilibid Prison Camp in Manila.


The sick and wounded from Corregidor were not transferred to Cabanatuan along with the other prisoners, but were kept in a section of Old Bilibid Prison reserved for patients. They were joined later that summer by another large group of patients from Corregidor Hospital.  There was also a large influx of patients from Camp O’Donnell mostly men who had originally been confined in U.S. Army Hospital No. 1 on Bataan, and who had been taken when the stronghold fell.


The hospital staff was made up of physicians and medical corpsmen comprising the medical staff of the former Naval Hospital at Canacao, as well as few civilian doctors. Most of the routine administrative tasks connected with management of the work details, were performed by naval medical officers on this staff.


In Aug. 1942 an administrative force arrived from Japan to take charge of all the concentration camps, for prisoners of war and civilians alike, established in the Philippines by the Japanese. Immediately upon taking office, the new commandant, Lt. Nogi, announced that he intended to run the prison in accordance with the rules laid down by the Geneva Convention, except that every American, whether officer or enlisted man, would be expected to salute or bow to all Japanese soldiers, regardless of their rank.  He told the prisoners that a set of rules was to be posted in each building for the guidance of all prisoners of war patients and duty personnel in Bilibid. These rules, he warned, must be strictly adhered to.  He also promised that conditions in the camp would soon improve.


The lieutenant was as good as his word. The promised regulations were posted, and a more rigid guard system was established to patrol the compound.  Within a very short time conditions, particularly in respect to food, sanitation and recreation, were much better. A commissary officer was appointed to act as purchasing agent for the camp.  It was his responsibility to contract with Japanese and Filipino merchants for food items to be purchased by the prisoners of war. A staff was also chosen to cook and issue food to the patients and working personnel. This galley crew worked in the kitchen under the supervision of an American officer. A sanitation detail was designated to police the compound and make necessary improvements in latrines and urinals. One Japanese and one American interpreter were detailed to the Japanese headquarters as liaison officers, and a number of the American prisoners were also detailed there as clerks and typists.


The increased efficiency of both the Japanese & American administrative forces at Bilibid, was reflected in the marked improvement that soon took place in living conditions there, an improvement that continued through 1943. The Japanese authorities made some attempt to keep careful records of the prisoners stationed at the camp, as well as those who came and went constantly on work details. All in all, a great deal was accomplished this year for the welfare of the prisoners. The food became much better, with the result that there were fewer prisoners ill, and thus more of the better grade men became available for administrative work.


The following year the Japanese sent some of the American army officers, who had been on the administrative staff to Cabanatuan, installing a group of Navy officers in their place. This new staff functioned very efficiently until Oct. 1944, when they, too, found themselves relieved of their functions and placed on the list of details to be sent to Japan.


Now an entirely new American administrative staff, made up mostly of doctors and medical corpsmen, was put in charge, and remained in control until the camp was liberated by the invading American forces on 4 Feb 1945. During the period of their administration this last staff conducted extensive surveys of the conditions of the patients in the camp, and also increased the number of routine inspections.”


Source:  American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor


Quick Facts:
Former Civilian prison converted to a POW camp, hospital and transit camp for POWS. Almost every man captured on Corregidor passed through this camp at one time or another. As it was a transit point for movement to other camps, e.g., Davao, and for hell ships to Japan. It is safe to say that over 80% of all survivors from Bataan also passed through this camp.

First major use as transit point for high ranking officers from Bataan and for all men from Corregidor.
27 May 1942:  First shipment of Corregidor POWS depart for Cabanatuan.
3 Jun 1942:  Exodus of high rank officers to Tarlac begins.
2 Oct 1943:  150 doctors, medics and patients transferred to Cabanatuan. Included were Doctors Ferguson, Berley, Bookman and Glusman. Corpsmen Richard Bolkster, Bernard Hildebrand and Ernie Irvin. Remaining were: Doctors Carey Smith, Max Polhman, Marion Wade (Exec Officer) & Gordon Lambert.
Source:  John Glusman

Photos – middle of page

Bilibid Medical Staff
Commanded by Col Hayes who replaced Captain Lea B. Sartin who was assigned by Japanese. [Sartin- first Med CO at Bilibid]

Japanese Staff:
Headed by Captain Kusamoto but Bilibid doctors under control of Nogi Naraji, Captain IJA (MC)

Bilibid Transfer Roster
Bilibid Liberation Roster

The Rescue:
Wonderful story by Stanley Frankel, one of the men who rescued the internees & POWS at Bilibid, well written and factual.


Source:  Roger Mansell Site