A lifelong fear of snakes, acute memories of hunger and an abiding gratitude for the U.S. military is the legacy of Sharon Kromholtz’s time as a POW.
Kromholtz was born in the Philippines in 1938. Her father, Paul Crawford, supervised a gold mine for the Itogon Mining Co.
“He knew his hard rock mining,” she said.
He’d been working in Wallace when he was offered the job overseas. He traveled to the Philippines and sent for his wife, Catherine, and his daughter, Pauline. Their family grew with the birth of Kromholtz and younger brother Donnie.
When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Kromholtz said her father wasn’t too worried.
“Everyone thought it would blow over – that the Americans would take care of it.”
But within hours of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan launched the invasion of the Philippines.
On Christmas Eve 1941, the Crawford family fled into the jungle.
Before they left, Crawford, an explosives expert, tried to render the mine unusable. He also gave a horse to a fellow American miner and his young family who fled in a different direction. That miner, William Moule, wrote a book, “God’s Arms Around Us,” about his experience.
“Mr. Moule is the grandfather of Marcy Few, wife of Mark Few, coach of the Gonzaga Bulldogs,” Kromholtz said.
Kromholtz doesn’t remember much about her family’s time in the jungle, but said, “I do have one carryover – a terror of snakes.”
A Filipino servant had fled with them, and he carried Kromholtz safely on his shoulders as they trekked through the jungle.
“Apparently, I was the worst one for trouble,” she said. “My mother said, ‘Sharon always kept the family in an uproar.’”
She got jungle rot, and remembers the awful gnawing hunger as her parents tried desperately to feed their three children.
“The natives helped us a lot,” Kromholtz said. “They gave us food when they could, and signaled us with three sharp whistles when the enemy was near.”
The plan had been to hike down the mountains to Manila to look for a ship to take them home, but her father soon realized that wasn’t going to happen.
After a year of living hand-to-mouth, hiding in the jungle, Crawford feared for his family’s survival and surrendered to the Japanese.
“My first memory of the little jail where they held us was me clinging to my mother’s leg,” she said. “The natives had smuggled us in some food and mother said, ‘Don’t make any noise.’”
Things didn’t go well for her father.
“Dad was taken from us and tortured,” she said. “They took him out into the hills and wanted him to show them where the guerilla soldiers were. He dropped a rock on his foot and broke it so he wouldn’t have to go. They waited until it healed and took him back out, but by that time the guerillas were gone.”
Soon, they were sent to the campus of the University of Santo Tomas in Manila. The sprawling university had been turned into an internment camp, housing thousands of mostly American prisoners.
Those Americans included oil company executives, business owners and Army nurses, and they organized the POW camp like a small city.
Her sister went to school every day, and her father built a shanty with a dirt floor and a nipa (palm) leaf roof to house the family. He hung shelves on wire to keep lizards out of their limited food supply.
“Dad rigged a fan from nipa leaves, bamboo and a rope to keep the flies off our food,” Kromholtz recalled. “He also made knitting needles out of copper wire he found in the dump.”
Her mother was no less industrious.
“She was amazing, really. She made flash cards and taught me how to read and write,” Kromholtz said. “She made paper dolls for me, and sewed us each pajamas. We named our pajamas to make going to bed early, easier. Mine was American Beauty Rose and Donny’s were Canary Yellow.”
Years later, Kromholtz continued that tradition of naming sleepwear with her own four children.
To pass the time, the family often sang together before bed.
“We’d sing ‘Roll out the Barrel’ or ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,’ and my dad would carry me to bed singing ‘We’re Off to See the Wizard,’ she recalled.
The children hated those early bedtimes, but they were necessary to conserve energy. Hunger was a constant companion.
“My mother would make a pot of mush in the morning, and one of us kids would get to scrape the pot out,” Kromholtz said.
Competition for those last bits was intense, and Kromholtz’s mother had to make a calendar to keep track of whose turn it was.
When her mother taught her embroidery, instead of a flower, Kromholtz embroidered a cake.
“That feeling of hunger is vivid,” she said.
Her father would gather potato peelings from the Japanese soldier’s garbage to add to the pot, and finally they resorted to eating a banana tree.
“Mom stripped it and boiled it for hours and hours trying to get it soft enough to eat,” she said.
They began to see American planes fly overhead and rumors of liberation abounded.
On the evening of Feb. 3, 1945, the rumbling of approaching tanks grew closer.
“Manila was burning,” Kromholtz recalled. “We didn’t sleep that night.”
When the first American tanks crashed through the gates of Santo Tomas, Kromholtz and her family ran to meet their liberators.
“My brother kept saying his feet hurt,” she said. “In the rush, Mom had put his shoes on the wrong feet.”
The soldiers threw chocolate bars to the crowds of starving children who thronged around them.
“I thought they were superheroes,” she said. “They were so big and strong, and we were all so skinny.”
It took months to evacuate the thousands of POW’s, but finally the family boarded a Dutch merchant ship, eventually docking in San Francisco on May 9, 1945. They returned to North Idaho, settling in Careywood.
Kromholtz married and raised her children in Spokane and at 79 still works part-time as a legal secretary.
In 2013, she and her sister traveled to the Philippines with a group of Bay Area ex-POWs.
She found her name engraved at Santo Tomas and met a fellow survivor who also vividly recalled eating a banana tree.
“It was affirming,” she said. “I so appreciate my parents for holding us together as a family. They tried to make things seem normal.”
And she’s deeply thankful for the soldiers who liberated them.
Her eyes filled.
“They saved our lives,” she said. “People don’t realize the price that was paid.”
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