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Suppose a Child Goes to War
Coming of Age as a POW. Reviewing ‘A Bright and Blinding Sun’ by Marcus Brotherton
When Joseph Quitman Johnson rescued an underage prostitute while stationed in the Philippines, the fifteen-year-old Army recruit had no clue the girl’s angry pimp was the least of his worries.
Yes, I said fifteen.
Manila was 8,000 miles from his single mom’s home in Memphis, but Joe had already traveled plenty. He ran away at twelve to find his father in San Antonio and then moved with him to Arcadia, California, to train horses. When the stable owners realized the fourteen-year-old boy was too young, his dad told him to head back to Texas or his mom’s. Instead, Joe joined the military.
Far too young to enlist, Joe lied on the forms and fudged the location of his birth certificate. By the time officials secured a copy and figured out the fib, Joe guessed he’d be on his way. He guessed right. When a Memphis reporter later heard about Joe’s serving overseas, he published a story with “Baby of Bataan” in the headline.
Brotherton—best known for his many World War II books, especially those in the Band of Brothers franchise—offers a rich sense of the setting, characters, and drama of Joe’s story. While detailed end notes and acknowledgements reveal the painstaking research behind his fast-paced narrative, the tale’s momentum sweeps you away like the ship that carried the boy overseas.
Saving a Prostitute
Joe disembarked at the Port of Manila in April 1941 with two friends he’d made back in the states, Ray and Dale. Joe turned fifteen earlier that year. The three had arranged to stay together once in the Philippines and now began several weeks of drilling and instruction. Joe’s unit handled heavy weapons; he trained on .30 caliber machine guns. A few weeks into training, Joe qualified as an expert marksman—the only one in his platoon to do so.
After six weeks of boot camp, the men secured weekend passes and a chance to see the town. Before long Ray was too drunk to return to base, so Joe and Dale took him to a hotel and got dinner by themselves. Meanwhile, across the street from the restaurant a brothel beckoned.
The proprietor paired Joe with a girl named Perpetua, who—shockingly—was a few months younger than he was. Despite his alarm, the boy fell head over heels. After that first visit, Joe returned several times just to talk with her, and he soon hatched a scheme to get her out.
The girl’s prospects, already dark, worsened when she became pregnant. When Joe found out, he arranged for the nuns in the convent across the street from base to shelter her. First he had to sneak her out. He managed that one rainy night in September, secreting Perpetua across town and into the sisters’ care.
When the pimp showed up on base the next day demanding retribution, Joe lied to his commander and claimed he had briefly been at the movies before returning to base. The commander, disinclined to believe the unlikeable pimp, bought Joe’s alibi and sent the accuser packing; somehow he’d gotten away with it.
It was a strange opening chapter to an unconventional military career, but Joe’s adventure was just getting started. And not to his liking.
Can’t Kill a Cockroach
Joe was miserable in the weeks following Perpetua’s rescue. He sent money to the convent for her care but was unable to get even a glimpse of her. He wanted to go home. “This is the worst place in the world,” he wrote his mother. He told her to contact the commanding officer and say Joe joined without her permission; since he was underage, that sould invalidate his enlistment and then he could be sent home.
Could—but wouldn’t. Pearl Harbor was weeks away.
Soldiers on base mobilized after the December 7, 1941, surprise attack, as Japan began its assault on the Philippines. Shortly before hostilities commenced, Joe was given a new job—motorcycle messenger. He jumped between posts, delivering news. He also helped evacuate the nuns from Manila; he hope to see Perpetua, but she’d already been shuttled out of the city.
The Japanese army engulfed the islands. By the end of the month, the American Army had moved out of Manila. Japanese bombers wasted the city and would soon dominate the entire archipelago.
Joe, caught in an early bombing raid, lost his hearing for two days and very nearly his life. Another time, he heard a mortar whizzing overhead and dove into a foxhole by a stand of bamboo. After the explosion he thought he’d been stung by bees. “They’re swarming all over me,” he shouted. But it wasn’t bees. Splintered bamboo pierced his backside from head to heal; it took hours to pluck out all the shards. When Joe was back on his feet, fellow soldiers started calling him “Porcupine.”
Joe earned another nickname then, too: the Cockroach. “It’s a compliment,” explained the soldier who gave it to him. “You can never kill a cockroach.” He was just days away from his sixteenth birthday.
During another attack by the Japanese, Ray was killed. Both Dale and Joe narrowly avoided being imprisoned and forced into the Bataan Death March. But their escape—being dragged through the water on a fleeing boat—only postponed the inevitable. The Japanese finally overtook the last American holdout, the island of Corregidor, and took Joe prisoner in the process.
Prisoner of War
Prisoners were marched to a camp 100 miles north of Manila, from which Dale was soon killed trying to escape. The abuse and torture endured by American soldiers boggles the mind. Fed barely anything at all, men were worked to death, beaten to pieces, and worse. By the time he’d turned seventeen, Joe stood over six feet high but weighed less than 110 pounds. He had picked up cases of malaria, scurvy, pelagra, and beriberi while suffering nerve damage in his hands and feet.
Hope finally dawned at the end of 1944. American troops had returned. But the hope quickly dimmed in December as prisoners were rounded up by retreating Japanese soldiers and shipped to Japan. The six-week voyage was brutal; only a quarter of the sixteen hundred prisoners survived the trip. Joe, who had turned nineteen while aboard, was one of them.
After stealing food with a fellow prisoner, Joe was transferred to an especially harsh mining camp populated by 1,735 Allied POWs. There in an explosives accident, he nearly lost his right leg.
Not long after, U.S. forces began bombing Japan. In early August, 1945, they dropped the world’s first atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, effectively ending the war. “I think about every friend I ever had in this world and how they’re all gone,” Joe told a nurse when finally safely back in American hands. “I feel guilty for being alive. I know should be happy, but I have no one to be happy with.”
He had lost several friends—Ray, Dale, and all the others he met along the way. But the statement wasn’t totally true.
Why So Much Love?
Against all odds, Perpetua survived the Japanese invasion and had trained with Allied forces to become a nurse. And now here she was taking care of Joe in the infirmary, just as he had taken care of her by smuggling her out of the brothel four years before.
And, indeed, all that time had passed. “I’d spent nine months as a peacetime soldier in Manila,” Joe said looking back, “five months fighting the Japanese on Bataan and Corregidor, and more than three and a half years as a prisoner of war.”
Following the war, Joe suffered all the post-traumatic stress and psychological torment you might imagine. But he somehow came through it all with plenty of therapy and not a little prayer. He died in 2017 after years of volunteering and advocating for POWs like him.
The astonishing thing was Joe’s attitude about his suffering. “Instead of wondering Why do you allow so much evil in the world?” says Brotherton about Joe’s questioning God, “he will wonder Why do you allow so much love?”
“Every damn one of us needs redemption,” Joe said. Amazingly, he found it.
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