By Margaret Edwards
Special To The Standard
BARNARD — In 2009, soon after Lillian Wuttke De Giacomo finished packing up in Barnard, where she had lived for 27 years, to move to Cavendish, Vermont, to be near her son, she began to contemplate a book project that she had been putting off for too many years. During the move, she was careful to transfer a precious and important box—a box filled with material that she had saved from the early years of her first marriage.
The box held many original sketches on flimsy pieces of paper, some typewritten notes, and a faded photograph. All were tragic mementos from her first husband’s four years spent as a Japanese prisoner of war. Just after Bill Wuttke had been liberated and had returned home, he described to his wife and family in some detail what he had been through during the war. “But,” Lillian says, “after that, he put his experiences behind him and never mentioned them. He didn’t want to dwell on them. Like so many others, he wanted to occupy himself for the rest of his life with family and good times.”
Bill and Lillian became the parents of six children: five boys and a girl. They lived first on Long Island, later in Pennsylvania, and eventually in Iowa. In Des Moines, Bill died of cancer at the age of 59 in 1977. Even as his end drew near, he did not speak of the contents of the box. “Yet I knew what these things meant to him,” Lillian says. “And I knew they had been packed away with good reason. We never forgot what the war had been for him—and for me. But we both felt thankful. We just wanted to concentrate on the here and now, and to enjoy our happiness.”
In 1941, shortly before Bill became a soldier, he had married his sweetheart Lillian Wark. They were newlyweds and deeply in love when Bill was drafted. He spent a few weeks at Camp Upton at Yaphank, NY. Then he was moved to Fort Belvoir in Virginia. The newlyweds were writing often and making plans to see each other. So it was a great surprise to Lillian to have her young husband, who was stationed where she was welcome to go visit him, be very suddenly gone. “We had no chance to say good-bye,” Lillian remembers. “It was as if he had vanished. And no one would tell me anything.”
Ten days went by before Bill was allowed to send a letter from California saying that he and his unit had been taken by railroad to the West coast. They were soon to be on a ship bound for the Philippines. Later, after he had arrived at Camp Stotsenburg, he wrote letters telling how he and his buddies were clearing jungle to build air fields. The USA wasn’t yet at war but was preparing for the worst. Then came December 7, 1941—Pearl Harbor—and war on Japan was declared. That’s when all communication from Lillian’s husband ceased.
There was complete silence. Lillian knew only what the newspapers reported, and she learned to her horror of the US surrender in the Philippines. The Japanese had overtaken the Americans there. Lillian still shudders at the memory. “No one knew where Bill was, and no one could tell me what had become of him or his unit. Bill and I were the type to write letters often.” Having no word from him made her fear the worst. “But then I reasoned that there had been no official announcement of his death. So where was he?”
While his wife agonized with worry, Bill as a captive was being moved, along with his fellow soldiers, from the Bataan peninsula to Camp O’Donnell. This was a terrible ordeal, infamous in later accounts as the Bataan Death March. Many soldiers died of disease and wounds, or were executed, and Bill’s survival seemed to him a miracle. Also miraculous was Bill’s endurance of the next move, from Camp O’Donnell to Cabanatuan, and then the ordeal of being herded on into China, to Mukden, Manchuria. Bill always credited his deep Christian faith and his fierce love of the wife he’d left behind as the two reasons he had hung on when others fell.
The sketches that Bill made during his imprisonment, sketches of life at the camp, are a combination of many individual cartoons with a few realistic drawings. They had to be finished quickly, and he took a great risk in creating and hiding them. Together they compose a graphic account of the life of a typical private held prisoner. Bill’s ability to draw had fit him for duty in the prison’s drafting department in a munitions factory. In that drafting room, he was able to scrounge precious scraps of paper. The drawing job itself saved him from the sort of back-breaking labor which, given the meager prison rations, tended to starve others to death.
Lillian always knew that Bill’s sketches would be of value to historians, and early in the year 2010 she began to organize them and write captions for them, as well as to compose the story of Bill’s ordeal. He, himself, had not left a written manuscript behind.
In August of 2010 came the completion and publication of Just One More Day, which is subtitled: “My Life As Prisoner of War #1475 As Lived and Pictured by William C. Wuttke, Sr.” And now, on Saturday, July 9th, 2011, at 10:30 a.m., on the 2nd floor mezzanine of Woodstock’s Norman Williams Public Library, the book’s editor and guiding spirit, Lillian Wuttke De Giacomo, will make sure that future generations have local access to her husband’s account. She will be making a public presentation of three copies of the limited edition, donating one to the Woodstock Historical Society, another to the Barnard Historical Society, and a third to the Library itself.
To the gathered public, Lillian will read from the book, show its illustrations, and answer questions. Surely this presentation, which is being sponsored by the Woodstock Learning Collaborative (The Learning Lab), will fascinate anyone who has an interest in the history of World War II. It may also delight romantics who still believe that love can conquer all. Admission is free.
This article first appeared in the July 8th print edition of the Vermont Standard.