David DeVries came to Manila, Philippines in the late 1930s with his two siblings and missionary parents. It wasn’t the normal upbringing for young American kids. Home-schooled for first grade, David was enrolled in a native school the following year. His mode of transportation was a pony ridden bareback. “I rode with the rope in my left hand and my books in my right. That was fine as long as the pony didn’t go faster than a trot. If he got spooked, I tumbled and lost my books. Life got better when I got a saddle for my birthday.”
In his early teens, David got a bicycle. “I rode it all over and as I needed spare parts, I got them from a kind Japanese man who owned a bicycle shop.” This man helped David built motorized boats, the two of them watching the models motor around the inner harbor. When Japan declared war on the United States, this man, in the Japanese army reserve, left his shop and reported for duty.
Around this time David enrolled in the Boy Scouts of America.
On December 8, 1941 when word of the attack on Pearl Harbor reached the Philippines, David was to receive his Eagle Scout medal. The event and school were cancelled. David had been living with his friend and fellow Scout Jack Kreutz and his family. His own family had been living 600 miles south in Mindanao.
On January 17th, the inter-island freighter S.S. Corregidor was scheduled to leave Manila for the journey to Mindanao with what would be mostly evacuated students. As fate would have it, David’s bicycle was dismantled, the frame drying under a fresh coat of dark blue paint. Choosing to give the paint another day to dry, he asked Mr. Kreutz for permission to take the ferry the following day. That night, sometime around midnight, the S.S. Corregidor struck a Japanese mine fifteen miles from Manila harbor and sank in five minutes. Only 132 out of 1,100 onboard survived.
David had taken a first aid course through the Red Cross weeks before the Pearl Harbor attack. The morning of the ferry sinking, David was dockside helping with the retrieval of the survivors. When the Japanese started bombing Manila, David along with three other Scouts, part of the Emergency Service Corps, were assigned to two ambulances. On their second day, they were called out to the airport to help load victims of a bombing attack. “We loaded injured and body parts,” he said with a shrug of his shoulders. “What else does a teenager do?” In the ensuing confusion, their ambulance driver disappeared. “Neither of us had our drivers license or even knew how to drive. We came up with ‘rock, paper, scissors’ to decide who would drive first. “I won… or lost, depending on how you look at it.” After four tries stalling the ambulance, David got the truck rolling and kept it rolling. Not wanting to stop and struggle with the clutch again, David barreled through intersections at 40 mph. “It made for an interesting ride.”
January 2nd, the Japanese invaded the Philippines and told citizens of Manila to report to the University of Santo Tomas. Mr. Kreutz believing the American troops would return in a matter of weeks, urged his son and David to hide out in the jungle. Meanwhile Mr. Kreutz and the rest of the family dutifully turned themselves in. For almost three weeks, the two boys remained hidden. At night they would sneak into the Kreutz house for food and listen to the radio. “One night we heard the Japanese would shoot any enemy aliens after 3 PM on January 22nd.” With no sign of the American forces returning, David and Jack turned themselves in on the final day, but in typical teenage fashion, arrived ninety minutes late. “Of course we were lucky we weren’t shot.”
“The Japanese guards told us we’d be there three days. It was three years.” Meanwhile his parents and siblings, now in a prisoner of war camp in Mindanao had assumed David had drowned in the freighter disaster. A cryptic message said David was “with the angels”. What was intended was the knowledge that he was at “Saint” Tomas, not a victim of the S.S. Corregador sinking.
One day a package was left at the gate for David. The Japanese bike shop owner, now a commandant of another prisoner of war camp, left items he knew David could use: soap, clothes and other supplies. That was the last he ever heard of or from that older friend.
Life was hard. Dysentery was rampant. Lack of food and medicine made for hard times. Everyone suffered. Of course there were strict rules, one of which was possession of a radio. The penalty was death. With typical teenage aplomb David built and listened to broadcasts in the dead of night. But the Japanese were smart and monitored the flow of electricity noticing a spike in that one barrack. The troops ripped up floorboards throughout the barrack but gave up before reaching David’s area. That night he buried the radio on the grounds for good.
At 7 AM on February 25, 1945, the US Army’s 11th Airborne Infantry Division made a surprise drop. Within five minutes, ninety-five Japanese soldiers lay dead. The camp was liberated. Outside the walls of the camp, a huge trench had been dug. Four miles inland, the locals had been slaughtered. The intention was for the Japanese troops to kill the entire camp population. Once again David escaped death. Six weeks later, recuperated and returned to his near normal weight, he was reunited with his family and soon steaming home for the United States. Luck, pluck and survival skills carried this young man through a lifetime of obstacles in three long years. There was no merit badge for what David endured.
Thirty years later fate played its final hand. David DeVries now a professor at Wheaton College, in a surprise ceremony orchestrated by his wife Carol, received his long overdue Eagle Scout award.