by Winston Chua
There’s a new book out about the Second World War, called Surviving a Japanese Internment Camp: Life and Liberation at Santo Tomas, Manila in World War II by Rupert Wilkinson. There are interesting aspects of the book for me on a number of levels; but one element of the work that stands out is its proximity to all of us here in San Marino.
Reg Spear, a name we should all be more familiar with, was born in Pasadena and attended Polytechnic School in the 1930s before entering boarding school in Canada. During the time of the Second World War, Spear found himself working for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a predecessor to the CIA.
He met personally and secretly with then-President Franklin Roosevelt, who sent Spear on information gathering missions. Roosevelt felt he wasn’t getting information soon enough or honestly enough to his liking.
During World War II, the Japanese imprisoned more American civilians at Manila’s Santo Tomas prison camp than anywhere else, along with British and other nationalities. Reg, known for his resourcefulness, was up to the task. But in order to not arouse too much suspicion, he needed to play the role of a junior Canadian mining engineer from Benguet.
Wearing shoes from Hong Kong made for a Canadian, he was ready to embark on a very fruitful mission, one of 17 missions he would serve his country for. The Santo Tomas mission began on a submarine in Luzon and headed to Tralac, 70 miles north of Manila. When the sub was near the shore, Spear spent a night at a guerilla camp on the hills near Manilla.
Finally in Manilla, a guerilla drove Spear the next day to the camp in a stolen Japanese vehicle. At the gate was a guard who was more interested in Spear’s cigarettes than his actual visit.
Spear gathered from meeting with an executive committee (a group who represented the prisoners) that the internees were all emaciated. Should there be a need to drop weapons for future combat, the people there would be too weak to fight. In all, he spent two hours in the camp and was even able to relay a message to a lady named Lorna Wilkinson: “Hang on. Gerald sent me.”
Gerald was Spear’s handler and the father of Rupert, the author of the book, who was also in the camp. Rupert was just eight at the time.
The information Spear was able to relay to the president was instrumental in leading to the release of almost 4,000 prisoners at Santo Tomas.
After his mission was complete, Spear would learn that he had been accompanied on the train by a guerrilla escort and her baby, protected by her 45 under a bag of diapers.
Reg would go on to serve another seven missions after Santo Tomas. He later married Robin Lysle Knight (also a graduate of Polytechnic school). The two were married for 63 years and had two children who went through the San Marino School system.
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