George Falk: The heroic story of a World war II Pow

Courtesy photo
George Falk.

A revised reprint from a 2005 edition of the Milan News-Leader

By Isabelle Schultz

It was a time when 52 American hostages were released from Iranian captivity. The national news event unleashed a flood of memories for Milan’s George Falk.
“When I watched the hostages coming off that plane, I knew the joy they felt,” Falk remembered, many years after his own release from a Japanese prisoner of war camp.
It would be a year later that Falk would die at age 62. His ashes were buried in a simple ceremony in the family plot at Milan’s Marble Park Cemetery.
“That was his wish,” said his wife Doris. “He was entitled to a military funeral but he wouldn’t have wanted that,” she said. “He didn’t want any special attention.”
Falk’s story about his captivity is being retold now as the nation observes the anniversary of the end of World War II.
In March 1942 Falk, who never rose above the rank of private in the Army’s 2nd Battalion, 131st Field Artillery, was one of a small group of Americans on Java when the Dutch surrendered the East Indies island to Japanese forces to keep it from being blown to pieces. The Japanese met with American officers and told them they were to stay in one area and were declared prisoners of war. Around noon the next day the Sergeant got the men together and told them to get rid of anything that would give the Japanese information or help.
They surrendered all arms and guns. Most all firing pins were taken out of the rifles so they wouldn’t be any good. They drew oil out of trucks and put sugar in the gasoline tanks to ruin them.
The 22-year-old Milan man spent the next 3-1/2 years as a prisoner of war. His ordeal lasted until August 1945 when the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki led to Japan’s surrender.
After his capture, Falk was shipped to Thailand where the Japanese gathered thousands of Allied prisoners to build a railroad through Thailand and Cambodia. The railroad later became the subject of a movie, “Bridge on the River Kwai.”
“ Men were divided up into kumis. So many men to a kumi, in order to keep better control of the thousands of men. Men were counted in the morning and counted at night and counted when went to work and counted when work was done each day.”
“We had elephants, but no machinery,” he said. “We built 250 miles of railroad with picks and shovels and carried the dirt in baskets. Each day we had a quota. You had to get your quota before you could go back to camp at night. We did what we were told. We were prisoners. The Japanese were in control. There was only their way. They worked us all the time. We were either exhausted or sick all the time,” he said, as the memories came crawling back. Food was bad. One beef cow would be killed for a watery stew for approximately 3,000 men. “We would go to the kitchen and scrape out what was stuck or burned onto the rice kettles.”
Men were dying at a more rapid pace because of the worsening conditions. Each camp had its own cemetery.
He often worked all day then walked to the river to take a bath “and there would be elephants taking baths too, so we waited for the elephants to finish.”
Falk managed to illegally conceal photographs of his parents and sister Eva and carried them with him. “They’re worn,” he said as he pulled them from a box of memorabilia, “because they went through everything with me…heat…cold…sickness.
He received mail only once during the nearly four years he was held captive. His parents, Mr. and Mrs. Earl Falk of Wabash Street, however received five Imperial Japanese Army postcards from their son.
“We tried to write exactly what we were told,” he explained. “One time when I was sick, I wrote that I was well. It was important to follow orders so the cards would get through and my folks would know I was alive.” Most of the cards carried preprinted statements and the men were instructed to check the ones which applied to them. His longest message was addressed to his mother. ”Dear Mother, Am a prisoner of war. In good health. Hope all is well at home, Love George.”
Falk’s desire to return home coupled with encouragement from his camp friends kept him going. “It’s human nature to fight for life,” he noted. “We helped one another…although there were times when I wished I would die and it would be over…but usually the next day the old drive would come back.”
Sitting in the pleasant living room of his E. Main Street home, Falk recalled he always feared his captors. “We hated them, “he said simply. “We didn’t trust them. They were so treacherous…we were never sure what they might pull.”
The prisoners became even more uneasy after the “Death Railroad” was completed.
“The war was closing in on Japan. They had gotten the work out of us…we were becoming a burden…we didn’t know what they intended to do with us.”
Falk learned of his freedom when the remaining 200 Americans were assembled on a Thai camp parade ground and quietly told of Japan’s surrender by American officers.
“They asked us to be quiet…not to show any emotion,” he remembered, “but we went crazy, we were so happy. We began to sing ‘God Bless America’. One of the prisoners had made an American flag but kept it out of sight for fear of provoking the Japanese who were still in control. They could have fired on us if they felt like it,” Falk said.
Like the hostages in Iran, the American POW’s boarded planes for their flight to freedom.
“After our release we weren’t at ease until the planes were off the ground. The plane ride was quiet, we were bewildered, things were happening too fast…we couldn’t believe it,” he said. “We didn’t feel really good until we landed in Burma. Then we knew we were out of Japanese territory.”
Falk was sent to an Army hospital in Calcutta, India for “decompression.” There, doctors checked the health and mental state of the gaunt POW’s
“They wanted to know what kind of treatment we received…they gave us plenty of food, newspapers, magazines and books from home to read. It took a while to get used to the idea I was free and it was over,” he said slowly. “I remember going to bed on sheets….and those pillows! I had been sleeping on floors, the ground and bamboo for a long time.”
Falk was flown to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington where he spent two more weeks.
“They built us up more….fed us real good,” he said with a broad grin. “They gave us more tests to make sure we were all right. It’s hard to be imprisoned and then dropped back into society and the world. We hadn’t been free for a long time. The Japanese told us where to sleep, when to eat, what work to do….it was rough.”
Falk felt his life was changed by his experience as a captive. The soft spoken Milan High School graduate shied away from publicity when he arrived home.
“I’m sure I have a greater tolerance…a broader outlook toward life and people, he said. “I met so many different kinds of people under such extreme conditions.” His feelings of hatred toward the Japanese subsided with time. “You don’t gain anything by hating,” he said, adding, “I also appreciate a lot of the little things in life…like soap. And, when I hear someone say they can’t eat something, I think to myself, “ You could if you had to.”
Falk said his opinion of America has never wavered. “To me, it’s the greatest country of all.”
He arrived in Ann Arbor by train at 3 o’clock in the morning shortly after his discharge on October 14, 1945.
“I hired a taxi to take me home to Milan,” he said. “ I had dreamed for years about jumping up on that back porch and hollering for Mom and Dad…and that’s just what I did.”

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