Family History Series: Hell on Earth

Your soul is oftentimes a battlefield, upon your reason and your judgment wage war against your passion and your appetite.

—Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

Dwight never mentioned keeping a war diary. My great-aunt Helen, his wife, found it in a locked desk drawer after he passed away.

It’s a violent telling. Dwight was captured by the Japanese from his base on the island of Corregidor in the Philippines during World War II. Maybe all that blood was too much for his war-burdened mind. Perhaps burying the journal in that drawer was the sanest thing he could do. I often wonder if he ever turned to it alone.

The diary and a 1968 hardbound copy (the year I was born) of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet are all I have of Dwight’s—pages of pain and grief and hope, along with my own brief reels of memory from his last days.

In December 1944, the ship Oryoku Maru, where he was held along with a passenger load of Japanese nationals, was bombed by U.S. fighters but didn’t immediately sink. Hellish hours ensued. The diary reads:

Promised water, but none was sent down…that night was ugly, a REAL HELL ON EARTH. Men raving, crawling naked in the darkness, covered with slime – eels – making speeches – threatening to kill…defecating in place, drinking urine, stealing canteens, slashing wrists and drinking their own blood.

The story gets worse from there—another ship, more bombings, multiple prison camps, and starvation.

Dwight Journal 3I was only three when Colonel Dwight E. Gard died at 62. He was a large man but physically weak in my memory. One of my last recollections of him is of me handing him a white paper pill cup during a hospital visit. I think he’d had a stroke. I recall the triangle bed trapeze hanging above him and that I was fascinated by it and wanted my mother to lift me onto it and give me a push.

Thankfully, Helen donated many of Dwight’s documents from his post-war career as a bank founder and president, as well as the diary, to the Portland, Oregon, Historical Society. The large white box in the basement of the society library holds not only answers and clues, but a tangible connection. There, I can hold a life in my hands, piece together what I don’t know and what I think I should know, and perhaps what we should all try to understand.



Helpful Resources to Assist in Research

1. National Preservation Organizations:

2. National Newspaper Archives:



Gina Williams


About the Author

Gina Williams is a mixed-media artist and former journalist. She lives and creates in the Pacific Northwest with one husband and one cat. Her writing and visual art have been featured most recently in Carve, The Boiler Journal, Kudzu House, The Sun, Fugue, Great Weather for Media, Palooka, Whidbey Art Gallery, Black Box Gallery, and tNY Press, among others. Learn more about her and her work at View her photography published in Poor Yorick.