For a brief period in early January, the men of Cabanatuan camp ate quite well, principally as a result of their having robbed the Japanese stores [after most of the Japanese garrison moved out]. And eating well, they found, could work miracles. The sap of life was returning. Astonishing things began to happen to their bodies. For some, the sharp throbbing aches of beriberi diminished. Their night blindness improved. With stronger immune systems, the men recovered from all sorts of miscellaneous low-grade infections that had persistently tormented them. Tropical ulcers shrank, rheumy eyes cleared up. Odd sounds—whistling, humming, laughter—were heard around camp. Here and there, one could see small instances of wasted motion, the superfluous dips and gesticulations of a spirit that abides in vitamins and calories. Atrophied interests revived. The men began to think about sex, and in the mornings they noticed with some curiosity that they were occasionally waking up with erections again.
Mainly, though, they put on weight, as much as a pound a day. It seemed impossible that a body could accrue mass and girth so quickly, but nursed on a steady diet of canned fish and syrupy Pet milk, everyone in camp experienced almost miraculous gains. Ralph Rodriguez, who ordinarily weighed 150 pounds but had plummeted to 90, was back to 120 in the two short weeks following the storehouse raids.
With new stamina, the prisoners grew bolder. One day a few of the men spotted a Brahma cow grazing in the fields outside the fence. Its Filipino owner was nowhere in evidence, and the Japanese, cloistered in their barracks, didn’t seem to be paying attention. All the guard towers were empty. The large-humped cow quietly cropped what little grass it could find in the dry field, its hide spasmodically twitching to shoo off the flies. With the peculiar malice of the protein-starved, the men strode out the gate, slipped a rope around the animal’s neck, and pulled it into camp. This first step seemed like a move of Promethean audacity: No one had set foot outside the Cabanatuan fence on his own before and lived to tell of it.
Straightaway, Dr. Ott was summoned. The veterinarian looked the animal over to make sure it wasn’t obviously diseased. The cow was stunned with a large hammer and then Ott slit its throat. A bucket was placed under the dying animal to collect every ounce of blood. A large group of prisoners looked on as the Brahma cow was cut open, and some of the men wept with joy as they joined in the butchering. Dr. Ott inspected the condition of the organs to look for infections or other abnormalities. When he sliced open the liver, trematode worms boiled out by the hundreds. These writhing parasites were better known as liver flukes, common in the Philippines and harmless when ingested as long as the meat was thoroughly cooked.
Dr. Ott gave the cow his seal of approval and a feast was planned on the spot. Standing in a circle around the fire, the men cooked and ate the flesh within a few hours. They prepared an immense vat of beef stew. They fried up the clotted blood or simmered it to make a consomme. They sucked the marrow from the bones, and boiled the hooves to make a broth. By the day’s end, every part had been eaten. “We couldn’t imagine it, a whole animal for five hundred people,” Dr. Hibbs wrote. “The soup even had fat floating on top of it.”
Savoring the foreign sensation of full bellies, some of the men spontaneously threw a party. They sang songs and passed around bottles of confiscated sake. Conversation turned appreciatively to women, their shapes and smells and other attributes. Someone brought out a radio that had been swiped from the Japanese side of the camp and they listened to KGEI out of San Francisco. In the glow of good food and drink, the men of Cabanatuan caught glimpses of a life with grace notes. They were surrounded by Japanese who seemed to wish them no harm. The war was radically tilting in their favor. Even as they listened to a radio signal from home, the vast American armies were coming, after long delay, to fetch them. They were drinking a wine made from a grain they hated, the distillate of a culture they hated even more, and yet somehow they found pleasure in it.
Then a news bulletin on the radio confirmed a rumor they’d been hearing for two days—that General Krueger’s Sixth Army had landed on Luzon and was driving south toward Manila. Liberation could be any day. “There were prayers and tears of rejoicing,” recalled Abie Abraham. “Many people danced, or at least they tried to. It was quite a startling sight to see those skeletons stand up and make brave attempts at clogging and Highland flings as the Japanese radio blared through the night.”
The morning after the party, life at Cabanatuan continued more or less as usual. As welcome as it was, the new dispensation left the prisoners acutely suspicious. They sensed that the favorable situation in camp, the seeming beneficence or at least indifference of the several dozen Japanese in residence, was but a temporary aberration to be enjoyed while it lasted.
And they were right: In mid-January, the picture began to change abruptly. The population on the Japanese side dramatically swelled.