The long journey from POW to veterans’ advocate
Harry Corre, held as a prisoner of war during World War II by Japanese military forces in the city of Omuta, was behind a brick building when he saw a “tremendous flash.” Looking around the building, he saw an enormous cloud 30 miles across the bay, above Nagasaki, and assumed there had been an air raid in an oil tank field.
In the work camp the next day, said Corre, who was honored by Union Bank and KCETLink at the 16th annual Local Heroes Awards on Oct. 22. “We knew something big had happened.” His fellow prisoners heard the number 25,000, and then 50,000, and presumed there had been a big battle. But on the third day after the flash, the guards of the work camps disappeared. The war that had made Corre a POW twice over had ended.
Raised Jewish in Boston by a single mother, Corre graduated from school at 16, during the Great Depression.
At 18, he enlisted in the U.S. Army. “I was out of a job at the time,” he said. “The war was getting pretty fierce in Europe,” so he chose to go to the Philippines, the place he thought was least likely to see any fighting. He was “entirely wrong.”
Before the war, American soldiers in the Philippines enjoyed having services like laundry and cleaning done for $1 a month, Corre remembered. When, in 1941, fighting commenced, U.S. Army supplies were sparse and in very bad condition, Corre remembers. “Unfortunately, 90 percent of what we had was from World War I, and a lot had deteriorated.”
Several months into the war, Corre was transferred to Bataan to train Philippine civilians to be soldiers. He remembers it quickly became “an on-the-job type of training,” because of aggressive attacks by the Japanese military. Corre’s men lived on “one-third rations,” less than 800 calories a day. They ate transportation animals, including horses and mules, and, eventually, snakes and monkeys.
Corre recalls his fellow soldiers maintained good morale, but the superior officers ordered them to surrender. “They just did not realize the difference in the culture between the Japanese and American military discipline,” Corre said. “In the American discipline, a superior cannot lay a hand on an American soldier, whereas the Japanese discipline was very harsh physical abuse, such as beating them, and in many cases they would shoot them or cut their heads off.” Corre said the Japanese emperor had declared they should be treated as less than animals.
The infamous Bataan death march followed. By Corre’s estimate, 60,000 Philippine soldiers and 10,000 Americans were forced on the 100-mile trek without food or clean water in sweltering heat. “The men were in very poor physical condition … to begin with,” said Corre, who marched for 24 hours a day with very few stops. Anyone who stopped for any reason, including to get food or water, was shot, bayoneted or beheaded.
“I found that, after two days, I thought I would not be able to finish [the] march without getting killed for some reason, so I escaped at night in the middle of a storm,” Corre said. He built a raft of any buoyant material he could find and swam four miles in the middle of the night to Corregidor. As he approached, American Marines shot at him, believing he was an infiltrator. Four days after his escape, he arrived in the city of Mariveles.
Four months later, Corregidor surrendered, and Corre became a prisoner once again. He was moved to the “zero ward” of a prison camp in the Philippines so that he would not spread his recently contracted diphtheria to Japanese soldiers. The disease made him lose control of his right foot, but he could still walk, and he was made to bury some 50 to 70 bodies a day, sometimes as many as 150.
In 1943, Corre was transported to Fukuoka, Japan, in “more of a rust bucket than anything else,” to work in the coal mines. He worked for a year and a half in a mine that was so hazardous it had been closed to Japanese soldiers, until the atomic bomb was dropped 30 miles across the bay from him, and the war ended.
After spending two months in the aftermath of the nuclear explosion, Corre found a way to return home by boat. Discharged months later at Long Island, N.Y., he sought out a Veterans Administration (VA) hospital to inquire about his benefits. The man sitting at the desk in front of him rudely accused Corre of just wanting a “handout.”
“So I gave him the finger and told him to put it where the sun don’t shine and walked out,” said Corre, recalling that the reputation of VA hospitals at that time was “very bad.”
Corre worked various jobs while attending night school to become an electronics engineer. He worked in the aerospace business for about 30 years, including helping to launch spacecraft from Cape Canaveral and to develop various types of missiles. His last project was at the White Sands Missile Range, in New Mexico, working on the “Star Wars” missile defense project. He worked for 26 years for TRW in Redondo Beach, leaving as an assistant project manager.
After retiring from the aerospace industry, Corre worked in electric repair, before retiring for a second time. Still, he wanted to stay busy. He became a service officer for the American Ex-Prisoners of War organization. After about five years of this work, the director of the VA West Los Angeles Medical Center asked him to work part time as a patient advocate for the hospital, a job he has now been doing for more than five years.
Corre guides veterans through the system, helping them access the care they need. He believes veteran services have “100 percent turned around” since he was first snubbed after his return from World War II. The benefits department is now committed to helping all veterans, he said.
Working for the hospital has even allowed Corre himself to access treatment that he had been missing for decades. He said he did not know he had severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) until he began working in the hospital. Now in his second marriage, he realizes his first wife had a “very, very hard marriage” because of his PTSD symptoms. When asked if he thinks if veterans these days are more aware that they might have the syndrome, he responded, “A crazy man does not know he’s crazy.”
“There is no soldier who has seen any kind of combat action … who has witnessed any kind of horrible scenes of bodies being blown apart, or suicide bombings or IEDs [improvised explosive devices], who can come home without having PTSD,” Corre said.
Corre knows the war changed his perspectives in many things, including religion. “Yes, I am still Jewish, I will always be Jewish,” he said, but his practice is different from the way that he grew up. “The war changed that. … My viewpoint is very wide open,” Corre said.
He believes he would now be considered an agnostic. “I have a very dim view of religion and what it can do for you. I will respect everybody for their own views and what they believe in. I have my own views, and now I am 90 years old, and I still feel the same way.”