Confession: Part of the perils of conducting archival research far from home is that I get easily distracted. I’ll be plowing through piles of government documents looking for nuggets relevant to my next book, then I’ll stumble across an insanely cool story that I can’t help but to track down. This was the case this week while working at the MacArthur Memorial archives in search of material related to Paul “Pappy” Gunn. There I was, digging around in the collection when I came across a debriefing document related to a clerk named Corporal Joseph Boyland. So I love stories about unlikely folks who step up in moments of great turmoil and crisis to become bigger characters than their rank and role might lead you to believe. In Afghanistan in 2010, I met a quartermaster named Captain Andrew Alvord–who happened to be out commanding an air assault platoon composed of support troops like fuelers and clerks. He led the platoon on many patrols, fought several sharp engagements during Taliban ambushes, and made friends out of local villagers. That is the kind of American who makes our nation great.
Which leads me back seventy years to a Cumberland, Maryland factory worker who, in the throes of the Depression, sought service in the Army Air Corps as a way out of his small town circumstances. Enlisting in 1937, he trained as a clerk and was sent to the Philippines in 1941 to be a paper-pusher in the newly established V Bomber Command Headquarters. In four years, promotion had come slowly for him, and when Japanese aircraft appeared over Clark Field on December 8, Boyland was a corporal. He was at Clark when the attack came and destroyed most of MacArthur’s air force on the ground, and in the chaotic days that followed, he was culled from the HQ element and sent to the 192nd Tank Battalion, where he trained as an M3 Stuart gunner for six weeks at the start of the Bataan Campaign.
In February, he received a week’s worth of infantry training, then was posted at Cabcaben Airfield, where he manned a .50 caliber anti-aircraft machine gun. Between standing watch over the field, he participated in dismounted patrols around Mariveles, and did such an impressive job that he received a spot commission to 2nd Lieutenant by the 31st Infantry’s Major Miller. Along with most of the other marooned FEAF ground and air personnel, he served in combat with the 71st Infantry Division (Philippine Army) until malaria and dysentery knocked him out of action.
As the situation on Bataan began to collapse in early April 1942, he was ordered to Corregidor, but the FilAmerican Army surrendered while he was trying to find passage to the Rock. The Japanese captured him at Mariveles. With twenty other American POW’s, he was pressed into service as a truck driver for the Japanese. Under guard, he drove around Bataan, Guagua, and Pampanga, forced to do whatever the Japanese demanded of him. Yet, his experience was easy compared to what thousands of other half-starved, sick POW’s faced on the Death March. Boyland and his crew of truck drivers often were allowed to go into Manila to purchase food and even alcohol. This comparatively easy life changed later that spring when and thirteen other American drivers were taken to Olongapo and crammed aboard a Japanese transport vessel. The ship took them to Negros Island, where he and his fellow POW’s drove and repaired trucks for the next year.
On Negros, Boyland experienced the opposite extreme of the Japanese occupation. In the months that followed, beatings became increasingly frequent, and he bore witness to the full horrors inflicted on the Filipino population, especially after the Kempeitai showed up on Negros. One Kempeitai Lieutenant in particular terrorized the inhabitants of Bacolod, killing civilians with his sidearm.
Towns suspected of supporting the growing guerrilla movement were dealt with harshly. Several times, Boyland witnessed Japanese troops pour into this villages and massacre the residents with machine guns and bayonets. Other times, the Japanese would capture a group of Filipino males, tie them up and spend days torturing them. They’d be left in the sun without food and water, burned with cigarettes, and mutilated with scissors. Afterwards, Boyland and his fellow Americans would be ordered to bury the bodies.
Sometimes, the Japanese made clumsy attempts to connect with the Filipino population. In April 1943, Boyland was ordered to drive in a two truck convoy. In back, instead of just bayonet-armed Japanese Soldiers, he and the other driver transported a brass band, a singing trio, two Filipino nurses and a couple of doctors. With music merrily playing, they rolled through the countryside, visiting hamlets around Bago. They would stop, hand out candy, cigarettes and donated clothing to the impoverished populace while the medical staff tended to the sick. Sometimes, they’d host dances and games, complete with prizes.
The pistol-fond Kempeitai lieutenant went along on the sojourns, keeping a watchful eye on the spectacle. The Japanese called these Peace and Relief Missions.
Such tactics couldn’t sway the Filipinos, who remained fiercely loyal to the United States despite the reign of terror unleash on them behind the facade of brass bands and free shirts. That point was driven home to Boyland once day when his truck broke down during a Peace and Relief run to Ponte Verde. As he worked to repair it, the locals came out to him, and when the Japanese weren’t looking slipped him fresh fruit and eggs. The mayor even gave him some money.
Enough was enough. Beaten almost every day for months, bearing witness to horrific atrocities then burying the victims, all while driving around a traveling road show with the sadistic Kempeitai officer was too much for Joe Boyland. In April 1943, a Japanese officer smacked him across the face and that humiliation became the final straw.
The next day, he was in the market place at Bago, paused between runs in his truck. His Japanese guard walked across the street to buy cigarettes, and Boyland saw his chance. He slipped into a nearby shop and bolted out the back door. He linked up with a local guerrilla cell, which took him up into the mountains to escape the Japanese.
For most of the next year, Joe lived the life of an American insurgent, operating with the guerrillas of Northern Negros. They carried out ambushes, sometimes attacking the very trucks that he’d been driving. By July, all but two of the American drivers he’d been with had escaped and linked up with various guerrilla groups as well.
Boyland soon found the shadow war on Negros had an ugly underbelly. The Filipinos in the movement hated the local Spanish aristocracy. They represented the elite of the old colonial order, and they took out centuries of pent-up resentment on them through midnight raids and violence. The Spanish left their outlying properties and moved to Bacolod where the Japanese could better protect them, and many openly collaborated with the occupation force as a result.
Martinez Godinez was an exception. He and Boyland had become friends after Martinez provided food, whiskey and safe places to crash. He was officially the Spanish Consul for Negros, and despite his nation’s neutrality in the war, he played an important role in keeping Boyland’s guerrilla cell in the fight. Despite this, other insurgent groups considered him an enemy, and they marked him for death. Boyland protected him as much as he could, but eventually convinced Martinez to send his family to Manila, where they would be (at least for the time) safer.
Then there were the anti-American guerrillas. The most notorious, at least to Boyland, was a former sergeant in the army named De Asis. Reputed to have gone on a blood-feud killing frenzy that claimed the lives of some twenty-seven Filipinos, De Asis was all about settling scores and exercising grudges. He had a deep seated hatred of Americans, and was rumored to have killed several. In January 1944, Boyland went in search of De Asis, probably to try and halt his depredations, but he proved elusive and Joe never found him.
Bacolod, the largest city on the island, teamed with intrigue. Plenty of the locals supported the guerrillas, but there were always fifth columnists, spies and sympathizers working with the Japanese. A German named Weber was one of the most aggressive pro-Japanese civilian in the city. He would strut through the streets in shorts, armed with a pistol and would “arrest” anyone he suspected of supporting the insurgency, then turn them over to the Japanese authorities.
In February 1944, after months of shadowy operations, ambushes, near misses with Japanese patrols and rival guerrillas, Boyland was evacuated off Negros and taken to Australia, where he was debriefed then sent home to Maryland. When he returned to Cumberland, he learned that one of his brothers had joined the Navy and was serving in England. He later took part in D-Day as part of a landing craft crew.
Joe was given a hero’s welcome in his hometown. So few had escaped from the Philippines that the local papers celebrated his arrival, but noted repeatedly that he wouldn’t talk about his experiences. It later came out that he’d been thoroughly interrogated at the Pentagon after his return from the Philippines. Once he was given 30 day leave and came home to Cumberland, the Secret Service kept him under constant surveillance to ensure he did not speak of what was happening in the Philippines. That level of paranoia was also experienced by other escapees, including the legendary Ed Dyess.
Boyland went to OCS and stayed in the military after the war, learning to fly and serving as a pilot in the Air For Parce before finally retiring as a lieutenant colonel. In December 1975, his car got stuck in soft mud on the side of Route 301 in North Carolina, outside of Rocky Mount. While walking along the shoulder to a nearby gas station to get help, he was hit by a passing car and tragically killed, a terrible end for the warrior clerk.
He never spoke to the press about his wartime experiences in detail, honoring the order given to him during his Pentagon debriefing to keep his mouth shut. But he did tell his hometown paper once of a poignant moment after he was captured that haunted him through his captivity.
While being taken to a POW camp, he spotted a billboard on the side of the road advertising Kelly-Springfield tires. Cumberland was home to an 88 acre Kelly-Springfield factory, completed in 1921 when Joe was just four years old. The company employed much of the town, and was a pride of the city until it was purchased by Goodyear the year Joe graduated from high school.
The billboard brought him back to his hometown, and as he watched the advertisement pass by, he was filled with memories of City Hall Plaza, Bedford street and all the little shops in downtown Cumberland. As it slipped past his truck, the billboard served as a reminder to all he’d lost, and all he’d fight to regain in the difficult years to come.