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Threshed Rice, Got Salt From Sea Water and Fed an Army Despite Low Supplies

The Quartermaster Review
May-June 1942

Never in United States military history was the Army Quartermaster Corps called upon for greater feats of endurance and ingenuity than in the Battle of Bataan, which finally was lost mainly through hunger and disease. Frank Hewlett, who saw the siege through to the end, reports on that phase of the campaign. 

[Note: THE REVIEW is indebted to the Washington Times-Herald for this article on Quartermaster heroism at Bataan.]

General MacArthur’s Headquarters, Melbourne, April 24 (U.P.). Many of them died and few were decorated, but when the final heroic history of Bataan is written the men of the U. S. Quartermaster Corps deserve a place of honor beside the frontline fighting forces.

They were the men who fed an army from a woefully inadequate supply of food, who kept trucks and scout cars going when they were about to fall apart, and who buried the dead. They were too busy behind the lines to shoulder arms, only there was no behind the lines on bomb-spattered Bataan and many a quartermaster died in the debris of his warehouse or repair shop.


The quartermasters displayed an ingenuity probably never equaled in the history of warfare.

They personally threshed Bataan s meager rice crop after buying it from the farmers at sky-high prices. Then they milled it. They slaughtered native cattle, and toward the end, the army’s cavalry horses and pack-mules as well. They built fish traps. They refined salt from sea water. They built a coffee roaster from an old oil drum and boiled and re-boiled the limited supply of grounds until they. were nearly white.

The food shortage, of course, wore down the Bataan heroes in the end, but the quartermasters kept them going long after the peninsula had been drained dry.


The withdrawal from the Luzon mainland to Bataan came on such short notice that there was no opportunity to provision the peninsula properly. But the quartermasters went into action as soon as General MacArthur’s soldiers “shut the door” on the Japanese invaders.

Heroically slashing red tape, the quartermasters had bought up unthreshed rice stocks when the Japanese first struck – in the midst of the Philippine harvest – but much of these stocks never got to Bataan because of the bombing and confusion of the withdrawal.

To thresh what rice they had, the quartermasters bought up Bataan’s few rice mills, also at fancy prices, and removed them to places that were as safe as any on the peninsula.

The quartermasters threshed every stalk of rice from Abucay to Mariveles, until finally there wag no more, and on my last tour of the peninsula I saw their mills standing idle.


The way the quartermasters operated their slaughter houses and distributed the daily tons of meat to the various camps without spoilage was a masterpiece of management. They bought up every carabao (native cattle) bull, cow and calf, paying the owners in cash.

The larger animals were butchered in quarters and left unskinned to keep maggots away.

The quartermaster put the mess sergeants on a spot with their makeshift menu, but I’ve tasted carabao which, aside from its distinctive strong taste (just short of rank), was as juicy and tender as roast beef. Some cooks, however, could not even boil the stuff into a passable stew.

The salt supply dwindled rapidly because of the large quantities used for preserving meat and baking. The quartermasters tried several synthetic salt methods before settling on distillation of sea water.


Tea ran out long before coffee, and when the latter was gone the forces on Bataan had only water. Ice water was a luxury which could be obtained from hospitals and at the Navy section base at Mariveles which received a small amount of ice each night from Corregidor.

Food was the quartermaster’s major problem but they had many others.

They had the immense job of keeping hundreds of motor vehicles operating under most difficult conditions. Pack-mules had to be kept in working condition with minimum fodder so that rations could be delivered to the front-line troops.

When a command car or jeep broke down hopelessly, the quartermasters salvaged its usable parts and established repair pools. They often made repairs in total darkness and during raids.


The quartermasters had other tasks not listed in the handbook. They had to supervise teeming refugee camps whose occupants consumed food the soldiers needed. They obtained land for airports, they issued blue denim uniforms for Japanese prisoners with the letters “P.W.” (prisoner of war) on front and back.

They supervised burials, maintained cemeteries, kept death records, saved casualties’ valuables to be forwarded to next of kin.

A few quartermasters received silver stars and one was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

When the food ran out, the mills stopped and gasoline was dwindling fast, the quartermasters still cranked up the scout cars parked in the repair yards every day and idled their motors for a few minutes., I asked one why.

“That’s so when the reinforcements arrive we can be ready to take the offensive,” he replied.

It was the spirit of the quartermasters of Bataan.

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