“They said there was an air raid, you know, the Japanese did… And they told us to get in the tunnels out of sight and we did…” said Eugene Nielsen in an interview with KUED.
But it wasn’t an air raid. It was a command from General Yamashita Tomoyuki to execute all the prisoners of war held at Puerto Princesa, an execution later known as the Palawan Massacre. The Japanese doused the three covered trenches with aviation gas and threw lit rags into each one packed with American prisoners.
The flames erupted, and the Japanese soldiers surrounded three sides of the trenches with machine guns and other weapons, shooting, clubbing, decapitating, or bayoneting, anyone who tried to escape. The last side was guarded by a double barbed wire fence, which blocked the large cliffs bordering the shore below.
One hundred and forty-three POWs were killed in the Palawan Massacre on December 14, 1944. Despite the impossible circumstances, eleven soldiers did survive. Eugene Nielsen was one of the few to escape.
…I had to break for it or die…So I jumped up and I dove through the barbed wire. I fell over the cliff and somehow grabbed onto a small tree, which broke my fall and kept me from getting injured. There were Japanese soldiers posted down the beach. I buried myself in a pile of garbage and coconut husks. (PBS American Experience)
Nielsen was uncovered by Japanese soldiers later but was supposed dead and left to live. With three bullet wounds, he swam nine hours that night to a different shore. At one point he thought he was swimming next to a manatee (or perhaps a shark). Later in the forest, Nielsen dodged a crocodile while sleeping in a mango swamp before finally reaching help.
Read the rest of Nielsen’s incredible survival experience in the Utah WWII Stories from KUED.
A memorial of the Palawan Massacre is now erected in Puerto Princesa with an engraved list of its victims and survivors.