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Feature Article on Florence Sanders. Topic: WOMEN, WAR & PEOPLE
Written by Rich Wallace in May, 1995


The U.S. Marine warplane made one pass, swooping down low over the compound. It was nearly dusk, but as the small goggle case fell from the plane and hit the ground, a group of exhausted and starved Americans rushed forward to retrieve it. Inside was the message they had been waiting for: "Roll out the barrel. There's going to be a hot time in the old town tonight!" Within minutes, "Battlin' Basic", the lead tank of the U.S. 44th tank battalion crashed through the gates of the Santo Tomas internment camp in the Philippine Islands. Those present spontaneously began to sing God Bless America. It was February 3, 1945. Over three thousand American and Allied civilian prisoners at Santo Tomas, and many more at the Los Banos camp would soon be free. Among them: Florence Sanders of Perry Township. This is her story.

Florence Smith, the daughter of Mrs. D. D. Williams from her first marriage, was in the midst of a cruise around the world when she was forced to stop in Cebu, the Philippines due to war conditions in China. Sometime later she met and married Phillip Sanders, district manager for Texaco Oil Company. She opened a nursery there to aid dependents of the American military families in Manila. All was peaceful until December 8. She later recalled that "We were having our usual glass of tomato and orange juice at 6:30 am when we heard the news about Pearl Harbor ." Soon after they heard the news that parts of the Philippines were being bombed.

For safety, the Sanders and many of their friends moved into the mountainous countryside and were able to avoid the invading Japanese. After the war, Florence told her cousin Mabel Sharp of Sidney that her faithful Filipino servants buried all of their silver and crystal. The servants found the Sanders after the war and returned every item. They were finally captured and interned on May 1, 1942. Thus began almost three long years of confinement. Florence and Phillip pledged to each other their determination to survive this ordeal - together.

The Sanders and others were initially confined in Cebu. Living conditions were bad, but the treatment by their captors was otherwise tolerable at first because they were then winning the war. There was no electricity in the camp. Although there was no water, the men were permitted to carry in water from a mile away in five gallon buckets.

All the internees organized and divided the duties of the camp among them. Florence taught school. She and her husband were required to live in separate huts. Late in 1942, three men from the camp tried to escape. To the horror of all the Americans, the men were tortured and then killed. Mr. and Mrs. D W. Williams, the parents of Florence, waited back in Perry Township for word from their daughter. Their last letter had been received in March, 1942. They feared the worst.

Ultimately, the Sanders were transferred to Santo Tomas. Mrs. Sanders recalled bitterly that "They shipped their troops in hospital ships and transported us in troop transports which were subject to our bombings." After five perilous days at sea, Florence and Phillip arrived safely. Conditions there were bad and steadily worsened. Overcrowding was a serious problem . When it came to using the bathroom, "Close your eyes if you want privacy" became the running joke. The dietary staple was "lugaw", a soupy rice concoction. Certain internees were assigned to hunt for meat to supplement the food line. Cats were a common addition.

Military conditions worsened for the Japanese in the early spring of 1944. An army unit took over Santo Tomas shortly thereafter. No one would forget Lt. Abiko, the terrorist master guard. Men were soon separated from their families. Florence Sanders and many other women were transferred to Los Banos.

Phillip Sanders stayed with the other men and the violence increased. Four members of the camp's internment committee were beheaded. By the beginning of 1945, the deaths each month were double those of the previous month. Carrol Grinnel, a good friend of the Sanders, was beheaded during this time. Florence Sanders later reported in a letter to her parents that "one of our friends went raving mad" but later recovered. The Sanders later reported that within a month before their liberation, innocent women and children were used as bayonet practice. "But we don't dwell on these horrors, " Florence subsequently wrote. "We keep thinking how fortunate we are."

Just before the liberation of the camps, the average weight of the men was 112 pounds. Word that the American troops had freed those at Santo Tomas had not yet reached Los Banos on February 23rd when the lead column of army tanks arrived. The Sanders recalled their "miraculous rescue" by paratroopers and tanks. "Our rescue so surprised the Japs that no one was touched." Back in Santo Tomas, a measure of revenge was extracted. Lt. Abiko was killed and buried face down in the mud.

For Florence's mother back in Shelby County, three years of silence ended when they received a telegram which read: "Both well. Together." A letter followed which recounted their experiences. It ended: "But that is all in the past, and what fun it will be to begin again."

Begin again they did. Phillip resumed his career. The couple traveled throughout the world and lived in China, South Africa, Hawaii, North Carolina and California. They stopped to see their Shelby County friends often. Mabel Sharp, now 100 years old, recalls those visits with fondness: "I would often ask her how she ever sflorencesanders.gif (28060 bytes)urvived such an ordeal. She always said "I convinced myself those people were not going to get me down."

At right is Florence Sanders (Smith) at her home in Perry Township before she was married. 
Photo courtesy of Mabel Sharp.

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