Hell of Ofuna

Max L. Parnell in a P-51C Mustang. Taken at Suichuan a few weeks before he was shot down.

The Hell of Ofuna

As a "Guest" of the Japanese in WWII


By Max L. Parnell aka Horio-San (Mr. Prisoner)

With Wayne G. Johnson


It started on Christmas Eve 1944. A week of pure Hell at Stanley Prison in Hong Kong as a "guest" of the Japanese. After a visit from a high-ranking Japanese naval pilot, I had some hope that the torture was over. But those hopes were soon crushed. There would be eight more months of the Hell of Ofuna prison camp in Japan. How did I get into this mess?

I was flying P-51 s with the 118th Tactical Reconnaissance "Black Lightning" Squadron stationed at Suichuan, one of the few American bases left in the "pocket" in southeast China. Intelligence thought a raid on Hong Kong on Christmas Eve would be a bright idea. Some smart guy thought the Japanese would not expect us on such a holiday. Not so smart it turned out. Some of our guys flew a mission in the morning and I was on the afternoon mission. The raid was on Japanese shipping in the harbor.

We came down the slot between Victoria Island and Kia Tak Airdrome in trail with Col. Ed McComas, our squadron commander, leading.  He was so high and to my left when he dropped his bombs but I did not see any hits. Lt. Kethely was behind me. I later learned he was shot down and KIA. I was right on the deck. My two five hundred pound high explosive bombs hit the Japanese freighter dead center without the bombs touching the water. Just the way you are supposed to do it!

I had to pull up hard to miss the stack. Just as I cleared the center of the ship there was a bomb blast or explosion within the ship. Although the bombs were supposed to have a four to five second delay, they must have gone off on impact. There was a concussion. It felt like I got slapped in the rear with a boat paddle! The cockpit immediately filled with smoke and fire. I was blinded. This was real trouble. Maybe I could make the mainland and be picked up by guerillas? That was impossible. My first thought was survival and getting the hell out of the plane before it was too late.

I didn't know my attitude or altitude, and didn't know if I was turning, diving or climbing. At three hundred plus miles per hour and about two hundred feet something would happen quickly...instinctively back on the stick and maybe up to five hundred feet, jettison the canopy, and try to get out the left side. But I was in a turn to the right and the only way out was over the right wing. Too much air speed and pinned back in the seat...I couldn't get out...but my helmet and goggles went flying. Rolling the trim tab full forward I got my feet on the seat and dived out to the right head first...busted my ankle on the tail and hit the water an instant later, just as my chute opened. My plane nosed straight down and splashed in the water a couple of hundred yards from me almost simultaneously. Think...out of the chute harness quick...inflate the Mae West and bob to the surface. One cartridge was all I needed to inflate the Mae West. (There is another story behind the second Mae West cartridge that caused a bit of trouble.)

All was quiet for a moment, then all hell broke loose...Rifle and machine gun fire from Stonecutter's Island and Kowloon docks. They were hitting too close for comfort. Those Japanese didn't like me one bit.

The freighter that I had hit (about one thousand yards away) was really burning and throwing off clouds of black smoke. All of a sudden the firing stopped. It was 4:40 p.m. Christmas Eve. But it wouldn't be peaceful for too long. I lay in the water for about one and a-half hours when a small Japanese gunboat headed out to me about dusk. Two Japanese sailors were in the front in a kneeling position with guns trained on me. I decided my .45 pistol wouldn't do much good so I dropped it, holster and knife into the water.

They fished me out of the water...not too gently...and the proceeded to "work me over." That is an understatement to say the least...they beat the hell out of me. It was approaching dark. They blindfolded me with a black velvet hood...tied my hands behind my back and transferred me to a larger boat of a submarine type. That is when the real beatings and brutality started...with weapons, boots, fists and the whole ball of wax. These beasts were real pros. I lost consciousness many times before we got to the dock. They carried me to the dock and then to a van with some Japanese navy personnel for a most "unpleasant" trip to what I later learned was Stanley Prison, a former British jail.

The guards dumped me in an old, castle type, high ceiling cell...soaking wet. About 9:00 that night they stripped off all my clothes, my flight jacket, pants, shirt, shoes, everything...and hauled me up to the third level of the prison to the interrogation room, with my hands handcuffed behind my back.

This was like a suspense movie. There was a single light suspended from the ceiling in this big room. Marble steps lead up to what we called the gon-da-bo (interrogation) area. There was a large table with two high ranking Japanese naval officers and a bunch of enlisted personnel and an interpreter. They looked like old sinister movie Japs...big horned-rim glasses, square face and squinty eyes.

They started with the usual propaganda that we were strafing women and children. Then they started to ask specific questions; what unit I was in, where was I stationed, who was my commanding officer, names of other pilots and what type of planes were we flying, etc. I was sure they knew all the answers, but I said nothing except: "my name in Max L. Parnell, lst Lt. U.S. Army Air Corps, serial number 0-686010." That did not impress them. If they had heard of the Geneva Convention, that did not impress them either. They tried to refresh my memory and things got really rough. After working me over with clubs, gun butts and boots, they said I had been to Hong Kong before, strafing women and children. I did not know if they really knew I'd been there before. In fact, I had been to Hong Kong on a fighter strike on December 8...Pearl Harbor day in the Orient. We thought that was a good day to hit them. I denied it.

Then they had a little surprise for me.  They presented me with an onionskin copy of the flight schedule of the 118th  (an exact duplicate of that posted on our squadron bulletin board) for December 8, 1944. My name was there in bold letters showing I was on the December 8 mission to Hong Kong. They obviously had spies right in our squadron headquarters.

Then the fun really began. One officer would question me and the other beat me over the head with a bamboo stick. When they could not get anything out of me, they handcuffed my hands in front of me and ran a long bamboo pole under my wrists. Two men on each side tried to lift me off the floor. Other guards withdrew a large rope (about 1-1/2 inches thick) from a bucket of water and beat me on the back and buttocks. It felt like being cut in two. Because of their small stature, the Japs on the pole couldn't quite get my feet off the floor. I figured they were going to do me in…so I just as well take some of them with me...more out of desperation and pain than anything else. I dropped my full weight on the pole, swung my arms and slammed my feet against the wall. All of us went crashing to the floor. That apparently upset them, since I woke up in the corner with my head gashed open and bloodied. Then more licks with rifles, clubs or whatever was available. They beat me unconscious at least three times that night. I was a bloody mess when they hauled me to my cell about 4:00 a.m. I couldn't sit nor lie down, so I stood in a stupor with blood running down my back.

Christmas morning...with the sun shining bright and clear. I could see a shaft of light and bit of sky through the small window twenty feet above my head. Then I heard reveille and saw the "rising sun" flag being raised on the flagpole. It really hit home. I was in bad trouble.

That day and night, and the next few days and nights, were the same. More questions...more beatings...the second verse, the same as the first! I was beaten again with wet rope but not quite as severe as the first time.  No food or water for the first three and one half days.  Finally they came with a small bowl of rice, but I could not eat, and ate very little the entire week. During the remainder of the week I got a bowl of rice (about the size of a small teacup) and a cup of hot water. The toilet was a wooden bucket that was never emptied.

On about the fourth day, two Navy pilots, one a lieutenant commander who could speak very good English, came to see me. They took me out on a deck supposedly for a friendly visit. They were in full dress white uniform. All I had on was a terrycloth robe. They interviewed me for about a half hour each. There was no brutality on their part, but obviously I had been really worked over although the guards had cleaned off some blood before the officers arrived. One pilot was very concerned about his brother who was in an internment camp in Arizona. He wanted to know what type of food his brother was getting and what type of treatment. Although I had never heard of the internment camps in the United States, I assured him that the people in there were all treated very well and placed there for their own protection. I said; "They are damn sure getting better treatment than I am." I asked if in return for the information I had given to them (which was really nothing) could I ask what they intended to do to me. The commander said, with his input, they would probably take me to Tokyo to an interrogation camp. My hopes soared.

Several days later, on New Year's Eve, the guards gave back all my clothes, including my GI shoes. They took off my handcuffs while I dressed, and then put them back on again. The shoes were a blessing since my ankle was really swollen. I received no medical treatment then or for the rest of my internment. They did not return my watch, Tiger Eye ring, fountain pen, nor dog tags (that's another story).

That night, they put me on a Jap freighter that pulled anchor out of Hong Kong on New Year’s Day bound for Japan. I was in a little room about four by six behind the galley, blindfolded and handcuffed for the entire trip.  The handcuffs were of the type that if one pulled or strained they would get tighter. They loosened them a few times so I could go to the latrine. The "latrine" was a bucket in the corner that the guard emptied whenever it got full or whenever he felt like it. They fed me some bowls of rice or barley that I had to eat on my knees since my hands were handcuffed behind me. They just pushed the bowl in on the floor.

The route from Hong Kong to Japan was along the coast and through the Formosa Straits. Our bombers had been laying mines and we had been bombing their ships, so I was afraid some of my own guys would get the ship. But the journey was uneventful.

On Jan.19, 1945, after twenty days at sea, we docked in a port on the southern tip of Honshu Island. I was taken off in handcuffs and a hood placed over my head. They first took me to a jail, with a cell in a big open room, with bars on three sides from the floor to a very high ceiling. A few hours later, we got on a train for a thirty-six hour trip. I was tied in the baggage car with the door open and got frostbitten feet. We changed to an electric train at either Tokyo or Yokohama and arrived at Ofuna prison camp on January 21, 1945. I stayed there until August 29, 1945 when released by Americans. A Japanese officer and one enlisted man accompanied me from Hong Kong to Ofuna. They kept me in handcuffs for the first twenty-nine days after my capture. They did not allow me to wash my face, comb my hair, shave or bathe for forty-four days nor to change clothes. I wore the same pants and shirt for eight and one-half months. The tattered clothes were like oilcloth when I was rescued.

One look at the camp and I knew things were not going to get better. On arrival, an interpreter, known as “Handsome Harry,” interrogated me for several hours. He had been educated at the University of Chicago and could speak better English than any of us. I got off to a rolling start with him by calling him a "hypocritical S.O.B." That's another time I opened my mouth when I should not have. They threw me in solitary confinement where I remained until May 7, l945...over four and one-half months. The only Americans I saw before May 7 was just a glimpse as I was forced to wash the corridor floor between the solitary cells. Prisoners had to swab the floor with a mop with no handle. They forced us to run on our bare feet, stooped over, with hands on the mop on the floor. The floors were full of splinters, and sometimes ice would form as we mopped. We were continually beaten with clubs like baseball bats.

Ofuna prison camp was not listed as an official POW prison. It was an interrogation center primarily for aircrews. There was one American submarine crew (the sub Tang with Skipper O'Kane) in the camp, two British, and one Australian. Pappy Boyington, the former Flying Tiger and Marine Ace, was in the camp when I arrived. He was out of solitary and working in the kitchen. He left before I got out of solitary.

The camp consisted of two sections of frame buildings. One section had twenty rooms of solitary cells. The other part was a barracks with about twenty-five rooms and two to three guys per room. We slept on filthy straw mats on the floor. To say that the conditions at Ofuna were inhuman is an understatement. A Red Cross official who visited the camp on August 24,1945, two days before my release, said the conditions were the worst he had ever seen.

We received no medical attention during our entire stay. The only food we received was a small bowl of rice or barley three times a day. Sometimes they would cut that off for two or three days at a time. Mostly we ate barley because the guards ate the rice. That was fortunate in a way since we learned that barley had more vitamin A than rice. There were no medicines or drugs. The guards and camp personnel stole the Red Cross packages. We never received any. We found butts of cigarettes the Jap officers had thrown away with "Chesterfield" marked on them, so we knew Red Cross packages were coming in.

The first night I was there the guard beat me up for not bowing when he brought a bowl of rice. The beatings continued throughout the period that I was a prisoner. The cruelty was beyond comprehension. A Navy PBY pilot was in the next solitary cell to mine. When the guard was not around, we could talk a little. He was badly burned and given no medical treatment. The stench from his burns was horrible. He died about a week later. About one-third of the prisoners died in camp while I was there. One made it to the hospital ship...then died.

The worst beating I got was from a guard we called "Kangochye." he beat me with a baseball type club for watching B-29s fly over. He beat three other prisoners also, one of whom died two weeks later. Over time, he beat several other prisoners to death. Sometimes, there would be mass beatings of all prisoners in solitary, for no reason at all.

When I got out of solitary on May 7, I went to work detail, digging caves in a hill where the Japs were storing food. By this time I had Beriberi with swelling feet, ankles, and up to the vital areas.  I managed to steal a carrot out of a garden. They were grown in human excrement and were about three feet long. I shared it with other prisoners, and it really tasted good, but we all got a bad case of diarrhea.

Another work detail I got on was the "Hopsguard," or shit detail. The urine had to be collected separately from the fecal material and mixed carefully in large wooden buckets (about the size of a 5O-gallon barrel) so the farmers could haul it to their fields. We would get one Jap cigarette a day for that work. An interesting "pastime" the guard imposed on us was catching flies. For every 100 flies we caught, we would get one Jap cigarette. If we got any outside information it was usually misinformation. Once a guard called us out and said, "Roosevelt...bang - bang," and pointed at his head with his finger, indicating Roosevelt had committed suicide. It was not until after the surrender that we learned that President Roosevelt had died of a stroke.

When we saw our planes overhead almost every day, we had hopes the war would soon be over. The English speaking guards told us that we would all be shot if the Americans invaded. After the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, all the Jap prison personnel took off. New Jap guards came, armed only with clubs to keep the Japanese civilian population away from us. We were all convinced that, had the atom bombs not been dropped, all prisoners would have been killed. (I learned during the War Crimes Trials that Japanese documents found after the war verified that the Japanese high command had issued orders that all POWs were to be killed in case of an invasion of Japan by American forces.) The most beautiful sight I had ever seen was when those BIG U.S. Navy MPs arrived at the Ofuna prison camp and took charge.

As we were leaving camp after our rescue, one of the prisoners searched a desk in the Jap commander's office and found my watch, ring, fountain pen, and dog tags that had been taken from me in Hong Kong. There is no explanation for this bizarre behavior by my captors.

There was one humorous incident during my captivity in Hong Kong...but it only lasted for a few seconds. The Japs brought in my Mae West during interrogation and wanted to know how I inflated it. Without thinking, I pulled the release cord and the remaining CO2 cartridge exploded and the life jacket flew out of my hands. The Jap officers dived under the table and the guards hit the floor. I was laughing almost hysterically...it was silent for a second...then all hell broke loose. The guards piled into me and worked me over good. But it was worth it. Whenever I got really down, I'd remember that incident and get a little chuckle...remembering those little bastards scrambling for cover. That incident again came to mind as we left the horror of Ofuna.

A charcoal burning truck hauled us from Ofuna to a prison hospital on Tokyo Bay. The Navy then took us out to the U.S. Hospital ship moored in the Bay. The sight in Tokyo Bay was overwhelming. The hospital ship was lit up like a Christmas tree and the bay was filled with U.S. military might.

I weighed about one hundred seventy pounds when taken prisoner and weighed in at ninety pounds after being fed for two weeks on our hospital ship...stark evidence of the inhuman treatment we endured. I was lucky...I survived.

As we sat on our hospital ship in Tokyo Bay, we had grandstand seats viewing the surrender aboard the Battleship Missouri moored next to our ship.

The atrocities we had been subjected to had now ended. We had sacrificed much, but were proud that we had made a contribution to secure freedom for all those that had been the subject of aggression. God Bless America. But there were others that sacrificed much, too. The mothers and wives that waited and hoped that their loved ones would return. Knowing that my wife, Virginia, was waiting for me, not knowing if I was alive or dead, gave me the courage to survive those long months in hell. She was the embodiment of faith and courage during those trying times and she has been my strength through all my ups and downs during these past fifty years. I could not have survived then, nor now, without her.

It took me almost fifty years before I could tell this story of man's inhumanity to man. I can only say to those who clamor to rewrite history and transfer blame away from the Japanese...I would not be here...other POWs held in Japan would not be here...many other hundreds of thousands of American soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen would not be here...and you their children would not be here...if President Truman had not ordered the use of the only weapon that could bring this horrible war to a quick end.

Komine, nickname: "Weasel" or "King san." This was a particularly mean high-ranking Japanese guard at Ofuna Prison who continually beat POWs in a most vicious manner. He would also cut off rice rations for days at a time. Sentenced to forty years imprisonment by the War Crimes Tribunal.


Kitamura, Japanese Navy Pharmacist Mate, nickname: "Congo Cho" or "Kango chye." The most vicious of the guards who beat prisoners every day. He beat at least three POWs to death with a club at Ofuna Prison. Sentenced to death by War Crimes Tribunal.

Sasaki, nicknamed "Handsome Harry." Civilian Interpreter with the equivalent rank of Japanese Navy Lt. Sr. Grade at Ofuna Prison. Educated at University of Chicago and could speak perfect English. Sentenced to eighteen years imprisonment by War Crimes Tribunal for cruelty to POWs.

Akaike, nicknamed "Monkey," "Turdbird" or "Queer." Another vicious guard at Ofuna Prison. He would beat POWs with a bat or grub hole. POWs had to ask for permission to go to the toilet. His favorite trick was to hide and not answer. When the POW would, in desperation because of dysentery, go to the toilet, he would make him stand at attention naked exposed to mosquitoes for hours. Sentenced to seven years imprisonment by the War Crimes Tribunal. Most POWs at Ofuna that survived felt the sentence was much too lenient. (All photos courtesy of Max Parnell.)

Reprinted with permission

Chenault's Flying Tigers

World War II

50th Anniversary