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Fred Mack Hamel: Latter-day Saint, World War II POW

By: Ardis E. Parshall - May 03, 2010

An abbreviated version of this was published in the Salt Lake Tribune, celebrating the role that hometown newspapers have played in recording the history of ordinary people. Although I did not mention it there, Fred Mack Hamel was a Latter-day Saint — so it’s appropriate to recall his life here on Keepa.

They say that more and more of us are getting our news from TV and the Internet, that the new media are more exciting with a freshness that newspapers cannot match. That may be so. But newspapers have a track record that the new media have yet to challenge: Nothing beats the hometown paper for recording the life of a community and the people who live there.

Consider the life of Fred Mack Hamel, born in Marysvale, Utah in 1918. His local paper, the Piute County News, first took notice of Mack when he graduated from the eighth grade. The News featured Mack again when he graduated from Marysvale High and was awarded a scholarship to Utah State Agricultural College.

Late in 1940, the paper noted Mack’s departure to join the Marines, and the following April reported his transfer to a base in Hawaii.

Mack was stationed at Wake Island when that based was attacked on the same day that Pearl Harbor was bombed. The News reported: “Fear is felt for the safety of two Piute county boys … thought to have been among those attacked December 7 when Japan made her surprise attack on the United States fleet in the Pacific. Mack is the son of Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence Hamel of Marysvale and was stationed at Wake Island. He enlisted with the Marines a year ago and is thought to be among those who have so bravely defended the island.” Weeks later, the editor reported with hope, “Mack Hamel … is probably a prisoner of war, since his name does not appear on any casualty list thus far received.”

And finally, late in May 1942, “Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence Hamel were informed Sunday by the War Department upon the direction of the Provost Marshal General, that official information had been received that their son, Private Fred Mack Hamel, U.S. Marine Corps, has been made a prisoner of war by Japan and is now interned at Shanghai, China. Mack, who enlisted with the Marine Corps in 1940, was stationed at Wake Island at the time it was captured by the Japanese. The whole of Marysvale join with Mr. and Mrs. Hamel in their happiness in learning that their son is not among the missing.”

Four months passed before the News could report further. Then a shortwave radio operator living in California picked up a Japanese broadcast of letters from American prisoners.

Last week will long remain a memorable one in the hearts of Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence Hamel of Marysvale. On Thursday they received a letter from Mrs. Frank Bidwell of Palo Alto, California, reading that she had recently picked up a short wave broadcast from Kobe, Japan, in which a letter supposedly written by Fred Hamel, a prisoner from Wake island now interned by the Japanese, and intended for his mother, was broadcast.

It was the first definite word Mr. and Mrs. Hamel had received of their son, F. Mack Hamel, since the attack by the Japanese on the island in December of last year. However, they had been notified by the War Department that he was thought to be a prisoner of war.

Then on Friday of last week, Mrs. Hamel was the grateful recipient of the following:

From Fred M. Hamel, Bks. No. 2
To Mrs. Lawrence Hamel,
Marysvale, Utah

Shanghai War Prisoner Camp

Dear Mom and All:

Just a few lines to let you know that I am alive and well. I hope that you are all well too.

We work about five hours a day in our gardens and on our athletic field. For recreation we play cards, read, play baseball and volley ball.

I have also joined some educational classes given by our officers.

Please don’t worry about me as I can take care of myself. Tell everyone hello.

Love, Mack

The passing years brought more news, many months after the dates of these letters. Their content was not always truthful, but every contact was treasured, and Mack’s parents shared them publicly in the News:

January 1, 1943

Dear Mom and All:

We have another chance to write and I try to write a little each time. I received some letters from you and from Lorene, Norma and Marie Bertleson. They were all written in June. I got the one with the pictures in two days before my birthday and the rest since. I surely enjoyed them and hope to get more soon. Thank them all for writing.

I am in good health and hope everyone at home is well. We have had a mild winter here so far. I hope it continues. We have worked almost every day for the last while but have three days off for New Years.

We had a very enjoyable Christmas. The Red Cross sent out turkey and all the trimmings and the people in Shanghai sent us boxes sent from the States and Canada, which was really appreciated. So taking everything in consideration we had a better Christmas than anyone thought possible.

We can’t write much and there is nothing to say. Just tell everyone hello and I hope to see them all. Tell Grandma Hamel and Robbins that I think of them often and hope they are still in good health. Don’t worry about me. I’m all right. Will try to write more next time.

Love, Mack

and

September 5, 1943

Dear mother,

By special permission of the Japanese authorities, I am permitted to write an extra letter this month.

I am in good health and hope this finds everyone there the same.

We are still working every day except Sunday, and I do a lot of reading, so manage to keep fairly well occupied.

This is short, but it will let you know that I am still thinking of you.

Tell everyone hello for me. I hope both grandmas are well. Hoping to see you all soon. I remain your loving son,

Mack

and:

Shanghai War Prisoners Camp
Feb. 6, 1944

Dear Mom and all:

The Japanese have given us permission to write again, so will let you know I am all right.

I remembered your birthday today, but I can do little but think about it.

I received a letter from Norma the other day, date May, 1943. She said that you were all well.

We have had a mild winter up to now, but the rainy weather has started and it is damp and chilly the last few days. Next month should be warmer, as spring comes earlier here than it does at home. We have been here two years last January 24, which is quite a while to stay any place. But then I am not spending any money, so should have quite a stake by the time I get back. Tell both grandmas hello for me and that I think of them often and hope to see everyone soon.

Lots of Love, Mack

and:

Japanese Prison Camp
April 10, 1944

Mrs. Lawrence F. Hamel
Marysvale, Utah

Dear Mom and All:

I have the opportunity to write a few lines again, so will take this chance to let you know I am well and unhurt in any way. I have had only one sickness and that was in the spring of 1942, when I had pleurisy.

I received thirty odd letters and a lot of cards lately, mostly from home and some from all over. The letters ranged from May 1942 until August of 1943. I surely enjoyed them.

It is getting quite warm now. We have quite a few clothes and we have had two food boxes sent from the States. We have a few more boxes and some more clothes coming yet. I am still waiting for that package you said you sent. It will probably be here soon.

Yesterday was Easter and over our galley, with the aid of the Japanese and the local Red Cross, put out quite a meal. It was followed by a cup of coffee and an Old Gold Cigarette, which made me feel quite content for a time.

There are more letters yet to be issued, so I may get more later. Max, Dana and Andy Frandsen are both well. Give my love to everyone. Tell them I think of them every day. I hope the grandmas are both well now.

I remain your loving son, Mack

Other brief letters were received throughout 1944, some of which contained news of other Utah boys held as prisoners of war. “Tell Max Dana’s and Andy Frandsen’s folks that they are all right.” Mack’s parents sought out the families of prisoners throughout the U.S.; all shared anything they heard, and everything to do with Mack or the camp in which he was interned found its way to the pages of the News.

Finally, Mack was liberated on Sept. 16, 1945. The News celebrated then, and celebrated again when Mack came home at the end of October.

FRED MACK HAMEL ARRIVES HOME AFTER TIME IN JAP PRISON

Private Fred Mack Hamel arrived home Saturday evening to spend a 90-day furlough with his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence F. Hamel, and family and other relatives and friends. His sister, Miss Evelyn Hamel, a student at the Utah State Agricultural college, dame from Logan Sunday to spend the week with him.

Pvt. Hamel enlisted in the Marine corps on November 26, 1944, and was inducted into the service on December 10, 1940. He received his training at San Diego, California, and was assigned overseas early in 1941 without a furlough. He went to Hawaii and from there was sent to Wake Island, one of the group of 150 hand-picked men where he was taken prisoner by the Japanese on December 22, 1941, and held as prisoner of war until September 16 of this year, when he was liberated in Japan.

After his furlough, he will report for reassignment until discharged.

He reports that the treatment given to prisoners wasn’t so bad, although they sometimes went without food. His 4th of July dinner this year consisted of grasshoppers and rice. He said, “the grasshoppers were fried and tasted good to a hungry man.”

He lost weight, but has regained most of it, and aside from being a little weak, is fine and happy to be home with his family.

The News and other Utah newspapers reported Mack’s 1947 marriage, the births of this children, and his career progress. The Piute County News went out of production in 1948, but other Utah newspapers reported Mack’s death. This, from the Deseret News:

Mack Hamel, our much loved husband, father, and grandfather, 79, died unexpectedly at his daughter’s home, the morning before Christmas.

Born October 25, 1918 in Marysvale, Utah, the son of Lawrence and Jennie Robins Hamel. Married Joy Edwards on May 5, 1947. He was a US Marine, stationed at Wake Island. On December 24, 1941 he was captured by the Japanese and taken to POW Camps where he was tortured and starved for 44-1/2 months. He was the recipient of an FDR Presidential Citation and received two letters from Harry S. Truman, one personal. Graduated from Marysvale High and the USU, followed by a very successful career with the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Survived by his wife, Joy, son, Larry and daughter, Susan, two grandchildren, Ben and Hilary, two sisters, Lorene Reynolds and Evelyn Henrie, one brother, Keith Hamel.

Memorial services will be held Saturday, January 10, 1998 at 11 a.m. in the Marysvale, Utah Ward, where friends may call one hour prior to the service. Interment with complete Military Honors, will be in the Arlington National Cemetery.

In lieu of flowers the family suggest contributions be made to the American Lung Association, 1930 So. 1100 E., SLC, UT 84106.

Our hometown newspapers are an irreplaceable treasure of current history, unmatched by the new media with their differing emphases. May our newspapers adapt and survive to continue recording the stories of our lives.



11 Comments »

  1. I’ve got a brother in law who is a part owner of a local paper in Southern Idaho, and they are doing fairly well with a focus on being extremely local in news and advertising. Everybody loves to see which high school kid hit a home run in the last game, or who came and asked questions at the city council or school board meetings. Plus, news exactly like your story, only it now is who is serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, who just returned from deployment. For now, at least, I think local papers in small towns still have a place, and news like this is what those folks like to read.

    As a side note, my brother in law’s father (also my wife’s dad), just missed going to Wake Island in the fall of 1941 to work construction for Morrison Knudsen. Several of his friends did, and also spent the war in a prison camp.

    Comment by kevinf — May 3, 2010 @ 10:30 am

  2. Amazing how small the world is: a man from my dad’s hometown (Snowflake, AZ) was on Wake Island on December 7, 1941, and, sadly, he was killed on that first day of the war.

    There were only 450 sailors and marines on Wake on that day–what are the odds that two of them would be LDS men from tiny towns in the Mormon corridor?

    Comment by Mark B. — May 3, 2010 @ 1:58 pm

  3. Thanks for this.

    We just re-subscribed (after a 3-year break) to the print edition of our local paper. The New York Times online is great and all, but nobody else is doing local stuff and we missed it.

    As for Brother Hamel, what a nice thing to have all of this history collected in one resource (then) and re-published (now).

    Comment by Hunter — May 3, 2010 @ 2:22 pm

  4. You know how I loves me the Piute County stories, Ardis. Thanks again.

    Comment by Chad Too — May 3, 2010 @ 9:07 pm

  5. Ardis, thank you for posting this! I remember having dinner with Uncle Mack while visiting my grandmother Evelyn Hamel Henrie. It would have been about 1995. My father told me afterwards that Mack couldn’t chew well; his teeth had been ground down by sand in the rice rations.

    You mentioned that Mack was not always truthful in his letters. Was he simply reporting that he was fed well when such wasn’t the case? Or were there other lies to ease his parents’ worries?

    Comment by Ariel — June 6, 2010 @ 12:59 pm

  6. Knowing from general historical reports of the slave labor conditions, the starvation, the lack of medical care, the appalling death rates, and the general horrors of life as prisoner of the Japanese, Ariel, any time Mack said that he was fine, or that he felt well, or that he had not been sick, or that he was comfortable or well treated, he was lying. POWs of the Japanese had it far worse than POWs of the Germans or the Russians.

    He may not have been allowed to write truthfully of conditions even had he wanted to, but I am amazed by his upbeat attitude in every letter, how he sends his love and concern to other people, and how he always *sounded* cheerful regardless of what was really going on. That, to me, is as heroic as his survival in the first place.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 6, 2010 @ 2:23 pm

  7. I remember the occasion my daughter Ariel referred to. It was surreal to sit in Jim and Evelyn’s beautiful livingroom overlooking the St. George temple and hear Mack tell stories of his life as, essentially, a slave.

    Comment by Sally Henrie — June 6, 2010 @ 10:56 pm

  8. I’m not sure how to compare relative horrors, but the Russians’ treatment of German POWs was, if not as bad as the Japanese treatment of prisoners, a close second.

    For example, estimates are that the Russians took about 91,000 prisoners at Stalingrad. Of those, only 5,000 survived and were ultimately released. Overall, estimates are that the Russians took 3.5 million Axis POWs and that about 1 million died.

    Anthony Beevor’s book Stalingrad describes the survival rates of the German POWs taken at Stalingrad. About 95% of the senior officers survived, but nearly 95% of enlisted men died. Some of that was undoubtedly due to the terrible condition the men were in when they surrendered on February 2–and the lack of food, medical care and shelter as they were moved to POW camps.

    According to a Wikipedia article, about 27 percent of Western prisoners died in Japanese POW camps (but 37 percent of Americans). That compares to fewer than 4 percent of western POWS held by the Germans and Italians.

    But all those pale compared to the horror of the Japanese treatment of Chinese POWs. Whatever the number taken–and I can’t find any estimates–only 56 (!) were released at the Japanese surrender.

    Comment by Mark B. — June 7, 2010 @ 9:52 am

  9. And to this day many Chinese citizens loath everything Japanese. The sheer brutality not just of the treatment of POWs but also the treatment of civilians is shocking. It colors Chinese-Japanese diplomatic relations even today.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — June 7, 2010 @ 10:38 am

  10. miss u grandpa

    Comment by ben hamel — February 9, 2013 @ 1:16 pm

  11. I haven’t seen this one before. Great article. I think that he was hinting that the good conditions he described weren’t true when he said he had a cup of coffee and a cigarette. He knows his family wouldn’t believe that. I’m glad he got home.

    Comment by Carol — February 10, 2013 @ 1:04 pm

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