PAWTUCKET – Jimmy Brennan graduated from St. Raphael Academy in 1936 at the height of the Depression. Four years later, as Hitler’s army overran much of Europe, the United States revived its military draft.
“I was going to beat the draft,” Brennan, now 91 years old, said last week. “I enlisted in December of 1940. The way the draft worked in those days, if they drafted you, you could end up in the army for 10 years, either active or in the reserves. So I enlisted in the army for three years.
“It was kind of comical, really, how it turned out. I originally enlisted so that I could join the calvary outfit in Panama. If I had been accepted for the calvary, I would have rode the war out in Panama. But when you signed up in those days, they gave you a 10-day leave, and before my 10 days were up, the enlistment sergeant came back to me and said they were looking for guys to join the Army Air Corps.
“That’s how I ended up in the Philippines,” Brennan added. “I went there in 1941. The Japanese knocked out the Air Corps before the year was out. General (Douglas) MacArthur put some of us Air Corps personnel in the provisional infantry. When the Japs put the pressure on, the government evacuated MacArthur and a lot of other key personnel. They took out the pilots, the navigators, the bombardiers. Me, I was just a clerk typist and a private. I stayed in the infantry.
“We were forced to exist on half-rations for three months before MacArthur was evacuated,” Brennan recalled. “We were low on rations because when Manila was declared an open city, we didn’t protect our store of rations. We were half-dead from starvation after three months on short rations. We had no medicine. We learned how to scavenge for whatever we needed.
“When the Japanese took control of the island, I didn’t make the Bataan Death March. I was put in the hospital because I was so sick. I had lost 60 pounds. I was six feet tall and weighed 130 pounds. I was incarcerated in a hospital. The Japs put all their big guns around the hospitals and then used them to fire on Corregidor (where the last remnants of the American forces under General Wainwright were still holding out). The Americans and Filipinos wouldn’t fire back because they didn’t want to hit the hospital where so many prisoners were locked up.
“The Japs were smart. They were good strategists and great soldiers. The greatest glory in the world to them was dying for their Emperor (Hirohito). American soldiers just wanted to get the job done and go home. We didn’t want to die for anyone. We wanted to live.
“I was a POW for 3 ½ years,” Brennan added. “I spent 1 ½ years in the Phillipines. Then I went on a ‘Hell’ ship to Japan. ‘Hell’ ships were unmarked freighters that often were sunk by American planes or ships because they appeared to be Japanese freighters. I was fortunate enough to survive the journey to Japan. I worked in a steel mill for two years. They kept us in a big room in a warehouse with just one army blanket to share. It was cold in the winter and we had to huddle together to share our body heat.
“When the Armistice was signed in August of 1945, we were still working in the steel mill. We didn’t get out of there until October. I spent a year in the hospital before I was able to get out of the army and come home.
“It took me some time to get adjusted after I got home,” Brennan said. “I worked for 33 years on the Pawtucket police force, ending up as a Lieutenant. I retired 29 years ago, when I was 62 years old.”
Brennan still lives in his own home, and his mind is sharp as ever.
“I forgave the Japanese a long time ago,” he said. “It wasn’t in me to hold a grudge. I’ve gone on with my life. Nowadays, I don’t get out much, but I do attend a dinner with other veterans at the Gatchell Post on the last Thursday of each month. I would do anything for veterans of this country. We can’t do enough for our veterans, if you ask me. America is No. 1 because of its veterans.”