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Duty Under Fire
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Duty UnderFire
By Charles Gallagher, S.J.

78,000 men. It was the largest number of U.S. troops ever to surrender to the enemy in the history of the U.S. military. Between April and May of 1942, all of the U.S. Air, Naval and Marine forces in the Philippines were surrendered to the Japanese Imperial Army. “Please say to the nation,” General Jonathan Wainwright wrote to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt from the fortified island outpost of Corregidor, “that my gallant troops and I have accomplished all that is humanly possible and that we have upheld the best traditions of the United States and its Army.”

As the American generals went into captivity, they could be proud of the resistance put up by the valiant Filipino troops and the courageous U.S. servicemen. Japan was forced to commit new troops to the campaign, heavy casualties were inflicted, and the six months of fighting was many more than the Japanese headquarters had planned for conquest. U.S. and Filipino resistance heavily cut into the Japanese military’s plans for an invasion of the Netherlands East Indies. The utterance of the words “Corregidor,” and the 65-mile “Bataan Death March” from Mariveles to San Fernando summon recollections of the finest resistance and dogged heroism in U.S. military history. Still, the men and women of the U.S. military were fighting more than the Japanese forces in the Philippines in early 1942.

“Physical exhaustion and sickness,” General Wainwright wired to General Douglas MacArthur regarding the surrender, “due to a long period of insufficient food is the real cause of this terrible disaster.” “A true medical defeat,” was how one official report described the surrender of Bataan. As the horrific sounds of aerial bombardment ceased and the smoke from the bombings started to clear, a new frontline began to emerge for the captured Americans and their allied Filipino scouts.

With the massive surrendered army moving into sequestration, new enemies surfaced. Fierce battles now had to be fought against malaria; tuberculosis and starvation exacerbated by enemy brutality within hastily devised concentration camps. After the surrender, the new battle would be a “campaign of attrition,” of “consumption without replenishment.” Consequently, the soldiers who would take their place on the frontlines of the new grand battle against disease and death were the U.S. Medical Corps doctors in captivity. Retired Rear Adm. Ferdinand “Fred” Berley of Jacksonville and a member of St. Joseph Parish was one of the U.S. Navy doctors who performed heroic service to U.S. troops in captivity.

“I always had it in my heart to be a Navy doctor,” Rear Adm. Berley said recently in an exclusive interview with the St. Augustine Catholic. Growing up on the West Side of Chicago, Ferdinand “Fred” Berley entered Chicago’s prestigious Northwestern University in 1930 and became a member of the NROTC program. At the time, Northwestern was one of only six colleges in the country that offered a four-year course resulting in a commission as a line officer ensign.

Upon graduation, he entered Northwestern’s Medical School. In 1937, the year before his graduation, the Medical Corps offered nationwide competitive examinations for a mere 20 Navy medical internships. Fred placed 15th and became one of about 730 Navy medical doctors at the time. The new Dr. Berley sailed to the Philippines in September of 1939 and was soon transferred to Shanghai where he joined the regimental hospital of the 4th Marines. Seeking a change of scenery and the chance to function independently as a surgeon, Dr. Berley volunteered for duty at Cavite Naval Yard Dispensary in the Philippines and arrived there on August 21, 1941. War clouds loomed large during the summer of 1941.

Three days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Navy Yard at Cavite was completely destroyed by bombing. The main battle dressing station that Dr. Berley had selected was struck by bombs, but survived. After the bombing, Dr. Berley moved to the Naval Hospital at Sangley Point where he assisted in the surgery of bombing victims. He worked until the early hours of the morning that day performing surgery in extremely difficult conditions. “My surgical aprons were drenched in blood and sweat,” he recalled in John A. Glusman’s recent book Conduct Under Fire: Four American Doctors and Their Fight for Life as Prisoners of the Japanese. “They brought me a new set, but within minutes I was drenched in blood again.”

After the bombing of Cavite, Dr. Berley rejoined the regimental 4th Marines and moved with them to the island of Corregidor, a strategic redoubt of stone tunnel complexes that commanded the entrance to Manila Bay. After their legendary stand, Dr. Berley surrendered along with all of the 4th Regimental Marines at Corregidor on May 6, 1942. “I felt terrible,” Dr. Berley recalled, but he quickly sized-up the situation and knew that thousands of sick and wounded U.S. troops would need the precious medical aid he could provide.

“Tens of thousands captured had before them a terrible death march in which thousands of American and Filipino soldiers died or were slaughtered,” historian Gerhard Weinberg has written, “years of privation in the most wretched prisoner of war camps followed.” It was inside these wretched camps where Dr. Berley’s vocation to professional medicine was tested mightily, and the Christian impulse to provide comfort for the sick was engaged on a heroic level.

Dr. Berley’s first trials as a Navy doctor in captivity took place early in his confinement at the ominous Bilibid Prison near Manila. At the time, Dr. Berley described himself as a “baptized, but not practicing Catholic.” Nonetheless, it was within the dark walls of Bilibid prison that he met the courageous Maryknoll Missionary William T. Cummings, subject of Stewart Sidney’s classic 1956 prison camp biography, Give Us This Day. Dr. Berley recalls chatting with Father Cummings and being impressed with his ministry at Bilibid. “One day you will come back to the church,” he recalls the martyred chaplain saying. And sure enough, Father Cummings’ prediction was correct. But in early 1944, Dr. Berley was forced to leave Bilibid and descend further into the chaos of wartime POW medicine.

“In July of 1943 I was transferred to the main POW camp Cabanatuan,” Dr. Berley recalled. “I lost my identity as a doctor and officer, and began performing slave labor.” In February of 1944 as part of an evacuation of about 200 medical personnel, Dr. Berley was loaded into a box car and transported to Manila where he was loaded in the hold of a Japanese military freighter bound for Japan. These were stinking and fetid “death ships,” not only due to the insufferable conditions imposed by the Japanese Imperial Navy, but because the freight ships were highly-prized sitting ducks for Allied fighter-bombers and submarines. American servicemen had no idea that United States POW’s were holed-up as human cargo. “It took us three weeks to make the trip,” Dr. Berley recollected, “And I did not realize how lucky we were, because about 8,000 POW’s lost their lives being transported to Japan on unmarked freighters sunk by American Submarines - I lost many personal friends.” Life as a POW in wartime Japan, however, failed
to alleviate the terrors.

Itchioka POW Hospital Camp near Osaka, Japan, was a hellacious transit point - usually to death’s door. Dr. Berley arrived there in April of 1944 and took command by order of the Japanese. “Nobody ever came back from Itchioka,” Dr. Berley recalled, “It was a place where people were sent to die.” Known as “the stadium,” Dr. Berley’s makeshift surgical rooms were located beneath the seating of the converted sports stadium. There was little ventilation, and medical equipment and supplies were in critically short supply. The scene was one of “malnourished skeletons, sleeping on mats,” he recalled, and always in the blazing heat. “The place was loaded with tuberculosis,” Dr. Berley remembers, “and all I had was a stethoscope.” Using crude instruments and know-how, he treated the TB patients by collapsing their lungs with air and then setting a drain. “It was awful - terrible.”

The conditions at camps like Itchioka soon drew the attention of international human rights groups. After various press outlets issued reports of Japanese brutality, Dr. Berley was transferred to a much better equipped camp outside Kobe, Japan. By the spring of 1945, Dr. Berley and his fellow internees at Kobe could see and hear the daily bombing runs of the U.S. B-29’s. On June 5, a bomb hit Kobe landing just 15 to 20 feet from where Dr. Berley was standing at the time. It destroyed the hospital, killing three men and seriously wounding 30 of the remaining 100 patients. For this Navy doctor, the end of an ordeal of death and sickness was finally coming to an end. Dr. Fred Berley spent three and one half years in Japanese captivity. All the while, he was ministering to the troops.

“Come to me,” Christ calls out to his disciples, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was sick and you visited me.” As a captive of the Japanese Imperial Army, Dr. Fred Berley was unstinting in responding to this basic Christian call. His service to America’s troops in wartime, under unimaginable deprivation and disease is a model of sacrifice for all Americans this Veterans Day. For this parishioner of St. Joseph’s and his wife of 60 years, Camille, the past is not a prelude, but simply a reminder of every Christian’s call to loving service of those in need.

Dr. Charles Gallagher, an historian and former archivist for the Diocese of Saint Augustine, is in formation with the Jesuits at Heythrop College, University of London.

Faithful Servants


Lt. Cmdr. Ferdinand Berley married Camille Pascale on July 15, 1946 in their hometown of Chicago. They celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary with friends and family this past June.

The couple met shortly after Dr. Berley returned home from the war. Camille is a graduate of Rosary College - now the Dominican University in River Forest, Ill. She majored in education and taught high school English.

Dr. Berley and Camille came to Jacksonville in 1955. He was assigned Chief of Surgery of the Naval Hospital Jacksonville where he served until his retirement from the Navy on Jan. 1, 1959.

Dr. Berley launched a private practice in Jacksonville as a general surgeon and was quickly recruited by Msgr. Patrick E. Nolan, pastor of St. Paul Parish, to provide medical care for the residents of the newly built All Saints Nursing Home.

He was honored with the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice Cross, the highest papal honor awarded to a layperson, for his 25 years of volunteer medical services at All Saints.

The Berleys have five children, 10 grandchildren and one great grandchild. Their four sons - Robert, Fred, John and Joseph and their daughter Victoria - are all accomplished career professionals.

The Berleys have been active members of St. Joseph Parish for 46 years. They are also members of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem - an order under the patronage of the Holy See. Members undertake special obligations to help preserve the living faith in the holy land as well as the duty to live exemplary Christian lives, thus the order exemplifies action through faith.