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As he labored under the broiling sun over the next two days, Ed clung to a singular imperative. ED HAD REACHED THE PHILIPPINES seven months before with the 19th Bombardment Group.The circuitous flight from California’s Hamilton Airfield to Luzon’s Clark Field exceeded 6,000 miles, mostly over open ocean with only celestial signposts—just the sort of bold journey that fired Ed’s imagination.The Philippines was bracing for war when the 19th touched down at Clark in October 1941.As Ed’s squadron flew reconnaissance near Japanese-held Formosa, though, he wondered how the putative enemy could presume to challenge them.There, a concrete-floored, crescent-shaped arena overflowed with POWs.A partially demolished garage housed the sickest and most seriously wounded.A single quarter-inch pipe supplied drinking water.Open-air latrines swarmed with vermin; dysentery was rampant. A rifle company commander in the 4th Marines on Corregidor, Bill immediately impressed Ed—not least because the tall, thin, and resourceful Kentuckian, son of a Leatherneck general, was, in Whitcomb’s words, “dead serious about escaping.” Across Manila Bay they could see the shore of Cavite, eight miles to the south.
“Our B-17s could fly beyond the reach of the Jap’s anti-aircraft and planes, and we could pinpoint targets and destroy them with miraculous accuracy.” Japan’s riposte came from a clear afternoon sky on December 8—December 7, Hawaiian time—as dozens of enemy bombers and strafing fighters savaged Clark. “Crews standing by their planes were destroyed along with the ships,” Ed recalled.At 14, Ed had left his Hayden, Indiana, home one Sunday morning determined to see the outside world.His six-week hobo odyssey along the Eastern Seaboard ended with a vagrancy charge and sentencing to a North Carolina work gang.Thousands of prisoners would die en route; thousands more succumbed at Camp O’Donnell, a squalid POW compound.Weeks later, as Ed Whitcomb contemplated the swim back to Bataan, he grasped a wartime reality: full freedom required constant escape.