Missionary POWs: The Amazing Story of Althea Dyer And June Rice

By Julia Brown

Althea Dyer, her husband Harlan, and their small daughter June, went forth as Seventh-Day Adventists missionaries to the Philippines in 1937. Harlan Dyer was treasurer of the Philippine Union College in Manila, where he taught business courses such as typing, shorthand and calligraphy. The family was due to return to the United States in 1942, but December 7, 1941, changed the course of their lives.

[Editor’s note: I had the privilege of interviewing these two ladies in 2006, when Althea was a 96-year-old. Althea died August 20, 2007, her 97 years well-spent in service to others. This story is a brief account of a civilian family interned by the Japanese. It is a story of courage, suffering, survival, and most of all, a story of forgiveness.]

June Rice (left) and her mother Althea Dyer (right)

June Rice (left) and her mother Althea Dyer (right)

The movement toward war accelerated in mid-summer 1941 when Japan, now a member of the Axis coalition, announced that it had assumed a protectorate over French Indochina. The US immediately froze all Japanese assets in the United States, denying Japan credit, and cutting off imports of rubber, fuel and iron, commodities that could be used to wage war. The British and Dutch immediately followed suit. This set the stage for a secret timetable by the Japanese. Unless the Allies agreed to lift the embargo on oil and other supplies, and to halt the reinforcement of the Philippines, they would attack in four months. The Philippine Islands were crucial to Japan’s effort to control the Southwest Pacific. Their secret mission was to destroy the US Pacific Fleet in its home port. Early December 7, 1941, on a quiet peaceful Sunday morning, the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor.

The Adventists decided to send the women and children away from the college to a secure mountainous area. They began their retreat near Clark Field, the target of Japanese bombers nine hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The missionaries managed to leave the area with strafing falling around the cars, and eventually reached the small cabins in Baguio where the women and children would be “safe.” The men drove back to the college in Manila. Things seemed to be working out as 20 days passed without event. Then disaster knocked on their doors when the Japanese came to get them. One of the missionaries spoke Japanese and requested that each family be allowed to take a small suitcase. Surprisingly the request was granted. Althea quickly dressed herself and June in three sets of clothes and packed in the small suitcase sheets and pillowcases, where she carefully hid red kidney beans, rice and sugar.

The internees were separated by gender and began their march to Camp John Hay, a US Army base that had been captured by the Japanese. June said she learned a valuable lesson during the march––that some of the Japanese soldiers had compassion and would carry weary children on their shoulders. Other soldiers forced both adults and children forward by prodding them with the points of their bayonets. When they became weak from hunger, Althea and June each had four or five of the kidney beans that Althea had carefully hidden in the sheets. The beans kept them from starving.

When they reached Camp John Hay, they were crowded into two buildings, old barracks each designed to house 50 men. Now holding 500 prisoners, the only walking spaces were small aisles between pallets on concrete floors. They slept on the concrete and were very still and quiet when they heard the heavy thud of the guards’ boots as they walked the aisle with their bayonet-tipped guns. The internees received two scant meals per day, and were allotted one glass of water, while outside the fence a hydrant ran water 24 hours a day. June said this was a cruel gesture by the guards to make the prisoners thirst more for a cool drink of water. The lack of water, poor sanitation, and crowded conditions caused dysentery to become prevalent throughout the barracks.

After about six months the internees left Camp John Hay. Their captors packed them into trucks and they were driven to Manila. Althea and June were reunited with Harlan, but they were also placed under house arrest. They occupied a small dwelling which was shared with another family. The internees were given no food, but were kept alive because the Filipinos connected to their church risked their lives to leave parcels on their porch. One day a female goat appeared, and then a male. The Dyers started a goat family which grew to six. June took over their care, milking them for nourishment. She named them Hitler, Tojo, Mussolini, Churchill, Roosevelt and Baby. Althea said: “We survived by living humble lives and God was good to us.”

In February 1944, the Japanese gathered the missionaries together and told them things were getting so bad that they were going to put them back in internment camps, and they were trucked to Santo Tomas University. After three days they were loaded into cattle cars on a train and taken to Los Banos, an agricultural school. About 500 missionaries joined the 2,000 who were already there, which included people of many nationalities, religions, and occupations. Harlan was given the job of cooking for the prisoners.

Each day the Japanese soldiers brought a bushel of potatoes, a bushel of carrots, and a bushel of corn. From these meager rations, Harlan made a stew that fed the 2,500 people in the camp. The breakfast menu was four tablespoons of corn mash in coconut milk, and the dinner menu consisted of four tablespoons of rice and a cup of what they called the “beautiful purple stew.” The internees began to lose weight rapidly. They were enclosed by a double barbed wire fence and the Filipinos could not help them. It was their worst year of confinement, and some were killed by the Japanese guards. By this time June was 13 years old and weighed about 50 pounds. Althea weighed about 89 pounds, and Harlan weighed less than 100 pounds. Each family was confined to a room that was 6 x 8 feet, no matter how many children were in the family unit. June, like most of the children, slept on a board in the rafters. Parents made an effort to educate the children by teaching them math, geography, history, and the Bible, using the dusty ground to write lesson facts. When the guards drew near the writing was quickly erased by the moving of their feet.

Map of the Philippines drawn by Harlan Dyer from memory

Map of the Philippines drawn by Harlan Dyer from memory

Harlan Dyer, an artistic man, talked Althea into letting him have one of her cotton domestic crib-sized sheets for a canvas. He had bartered with other internees to get India ink and crayons to draw and color a remarkable work of art. From memory he drew a precise and accurate map in calligraphy of the Philippines, naming each small island correctly. The map included a beautiful compass rose, and around the map were drawings of different scenes from the country, one was of the internment camp. When the guards made their rounds June would hide it among the rafters.

The compass rose drawn by Harlan Dyer from memory

The compass rose drawn by Harlan Dyer from memory

Many events are etched into 74-year-old June’s memory as if they had happened only yesterday. Once, five nuns were brought into the camp from a cave. As they were being interrogated, inquisitive June slipped down to the area to see what was happening. The commandant himself was there and recognized her as the daughter of the cook. He told her he was hungry and she was to bring him food. The frightened young girl ran back to her mother. Althea quickly cooked some of her precious beans and rice, and put them in June’s canteen to be taken to the man. Several weeks later the commandant came to their cubicle and demanded to see the child. They were all terrified, but he handed June her canteen and abruptly left. It was filled with Canadian mints and sugar. June said she learned another life-lesson, that the harshest of people could have a soft spot.

Christmas of 1944 was the greatest experience the family had during their long period of incarceration. Harlan Dyer somehow found two pieces of wood, and using nails that June had collected by wearing a magnet around her waist, made her a beautiful pair of stilts which she shared with the other children.

The Japanese began decreasing the prisoner food rations and gave them unhusked rice. They were so weak they could hardly pound off the husks. About the same time they saw something most unusual––P-38s flying over the camp. The first day there were three, the second day two and the third day one. That was the day before they were liberated––escaping annihilation.

Los Banos Camp was enclosed by two mountains, a rice field and a lake. The Japanese were building gun turrets into the side of one of the mountains, and each morning the internees were counted and lined up on the dirt road facing the turrets. They knew that the Japanese were planning to finish them off by lining them up and gunning them down from the turrets in the mountainside. Unknown to them or their captors, General Douglas MacArthur had sent three spies from the 511th Airborne to infiltrate the camp to map its layout and the habits of the guards. He was about to order action to liberate the internees.

On February 23, 1945, when the guards had stacked and locked their weapons to do their daily calisthenics, paratroopers dropped into the rice field as amphibious tanks (amtracs) made their way across the lake. Paratroopers entered the camp buildings and engaged the Japanese in combat. The internees had five minutes to get out as the paratroopers torched the buildings. Althea’s hair caught on fire, and an American soldier put it out with coconut juice. The freed internees raced over the ground covered with the bodies of the dead Japanese. They were herded into the strange amtracs that none of them had ever seen or heard of. Thinking that they would all be drowned, Althea fainted. Each amtrac carried 48 internees to safety, and miraculously no one in the camp was killed, although some were wounded. They were taken to a field hospital in New Bilibid Prison behind the front lines outside of Manila, and served their first meal of tomato soup, crackers and milk. Ten thousand meals were served to 2,500 because the starving POWs kept going back for more food.

The Dyer family came home on an American hospital ship with about 4,000 other internees and prisoners of war. On their journey across the ocean the ship was torpedoed but it did not sink. A typhoon also struck them, but they finally landed safely, although seasick, in San Pedro, California. Dressed in army clothes they must have looked odd. The merchants there helped to make them presentable. June had not attended school in four years, but the studying with her toes in dust paid off, and she was able to take four years of schooling in one year, and graduated with her 8th grade class in Lancaster, Massachusetts in 1946.

Althea’s mission did not end there. After a year of recovery, the Dyers made a decision to go back to the Seventh-Day Philippine Union College. They wanted to help rebuild the school and to witness to their former captors about their Christian faith. They placed June in the Far Eastern Academy in Shanghai China to attend high school, and arrived in Manila to find that many of the Japanese guards had been tried by the Philippine government and were in prison awaiting execution for war crimes. Althea visited them and set up a class of Bible study. As a result of her witness, 19 of them became Christians and were baptized. As they were sent to their deaths, Althea walked beside them reading the Bible and sharing her love and faith. She repeated to each one: “I will see you in the morning, my brother.” She made certain that they did not die alone, and watched their executions with eyes filled with tears as she recorded in her Bible the names of those who had become Christians, along with the dates of their baptism. She commented during the interview that she felt so sorry for them.

Althea later interceded on behalf of a medical doctor, Dr. Itchinose, who had done some really bad things––things that she felt he had been forced to do. She said she saw goodness in the man and she begged the authorities not to keep him from using his medical ability to help others. Through her witness, he became a Christian and eventually the head of the Seventh-Day Adventist Hospital in Tokyo, Japan.

June and her husband, Donald, have been foster parents for the past 46 years, taking in many children who could not be placed because of disabilities. They adopted six foster children before they became parents of a daughter after 15 years of marriage. They are extremely proud of all of their children and are still fostering small ones in their years of retirement. They work with the DeKalb County Department of Human Resources in this fostering mission.

Asked to what she attributed her long life, Althea said: “I have always lived by the Golden Rule, treating others as I would have them treat me. For some reason God has blessed me with a long and healthy life.” Nearing her 97th birthday at the time of the interview, Althea was taking no medication, and was getting around just fine.

[Editor’s note: When General Douglas MacArthur saw the map Harlan Dyer had drawn on the sheet he offered $10,000.00 for it, quite a sum in 1945. His offer was rejected because it was to be dedicated for the Lord’s work. Today it is a treasured artifact which will be donated to the Seventh-Day Adventist Museum at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. On the morning of August 20, 2007, Althea kept her promise. She met her “brothers.”]