Amidst the epic clashes of armies and navies that make war such a fascinating subject, lie the smaller human interest stories that prove just as compelling. One such story is that of World War II soldier Joe Johnson Jr., which is told by Marcus Brotherton in a newly published book called A Bright and Blinding Sun: A World War II Story of Survival, Love, and Redemption. Today on the show, Marcus shares how Joe sought to escape the pressures of a broken family and the Great Depression by joining the US Army at age fourteen. We discuss how Joe ended up in the Philippines, fell in love with a teenage prostitute named Perpetua there, and helped smuggle her out of her brothel. We then get into how Joe was captured by the Japanese, and the harrowing experience he had to endure as a prisoner of war, including being locked in a box smaller than a coffin. We end our conversation with a discussion of Joe’s life after the war, and Marcus shares what happened to Perpetua, how Joe dealt with all the trauma he had experienced when he was really still just a kid, and what lessons Marcus has taken away from Joe’s life.
Resources Related to the Podcast
- Marcus‘ previous appearances on the podcast:
- Articles Marcus has written for AoM
- Book Marcus wrote with Buck Compton — Call of Duty: My Life Before, During and After the Band of Brothers
Connect With Marcus Brotherton
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast, amidst the epic clashes of Armies and Navies that make war such a fascinating subject by the smaller human interest stories that prove just as compelling. One such stories is that of World War II soldier, Joe Johnson Jr, which is told by Marcus Brotherton in a newly published book called A Bright and Blinding Sun: A World War II Story of Survival, Love, and Redemption. Today on the show Marcus shares how Joe sought to escaped the pressures of the broken family and the Great Depression by joining the US Army at age 14. We discuss how Joe ended up in the Philippines, fell in love with a teenage prostitute named Perpetua there and helped smuggle her out of her brothel. We then get into how Joe was captured by the Japanese, and the heroine experience he had to endure as a prisoner of war, including being locked up in a box smaller than a coffin. We end our conversation with a discussion of Joe’s life after the war and Marcus shares what happen to Perpetua, how Joe dealt with all the trauma he had experienced when he’s really still just a kid and what lessons Marcus has taken away from Joe’s life. After the show’s over check at our show notes at aom.is/joe.
Marcus Brotherton, welcome back to the show.
Marcus Brotherton: Thanks, Brett. Great to be here.
Brett McKay: So here’s a little AOM podcast trivia. You were the very first guest on the AOM podcast way back in September, 2009. Where we discussed your book, We Who Are Alive and Remain, it’s about the Band of Brothers. That was 13 years ago, man.
Marcus Brotherton: 13 years, man. It seems like just yesterday.
Brett McKay: Yeah, no, and I wouldn’t listen to it and I think we did it on the phone… I didn’t know what I was doing. I think we did it over the phone. My questions weren’t that great. And I also didn’t have any kids now, I got a middle schooler. I think your kids… How old are your kids now?
Marcus Brotherton: I have three kids. Yeah. My oldest is 19. I’ve got a 19-year-old daughter, a 14-year-old son and then a nine-year-old daughter. So 10 years between the oldest and youngest.
Brett McKay: So nine… So when your daughter… When we started, your daughter was three, oh, no six, six, it should be six years. That’s crazy, man. Time flies. Well, you got a new book out about World War II and it’s called, A Bright and Blinding Sun. And it’s this amazing story about the exploits of a teenage boy who ended up fighting in the Pacific Theater, his name is Joe Johnson. How did you learn about Joe and his story?
Marcus Brotherton: It all started during COVID. Right when COVID hit, everybody hunkered down, including myself. And we were sort of figuring out what to do with our spare time. So when I hunkered down, I had this stack of very obscure World War II manuscripts to read because, who doesn’t love a good obscure World War II manuscript? And knee deep in the pile, there was this independently published manuscript by a guy named Joe Johnson who had fought in the Pacific. He was a teenage soldier. And I picked that out first to read, it just caught my eye initially and read it straight through in probably two nights. Amazing story. And Joe had passed away in 2017 aged 91. So he was no longer with us, but his family kept this very small Facebook tribute page, maybe 80 people on it.
So I found this page. I reached out to the family. I just… I wanted to convey my gratitude, “Just wow. Just thanks to your grandfather, to your uncle for what he went through.” And just… I was just so in awe of his story. So after I sent that message, and I sent it just not expecting anything, that was just it. I just did it just to say thanks. Pretty soon after that, the executor of Joe’s state, his nephew reached out to me and said, “Hey, I saw your message. And I recognize your name. I’ve read some of your books and let’s talk.” Because as the story goes, Joe had independently published this manuscript, his memoirs and he’d sold a couple hundred copies out of his garage type thing. And his story is just so fantastic we wanna bring it to a larger audience. Can you help us? Can you redo a story, rewrite it, research it, whatever you wanna do and present it as your own book? So I mulled this over, I knew there was literary precedent for doing it. Laura had done this with Louis Zamperini’s book and yeah, I jumped at the chance. I’d always wanted to tell a story set in the Pacific like this and Joe’s proved just the excellent vehicle to do that.
Brett McKay: Alright. So you based this off of Joe’s manuscript, and then what you did is you went through and just added research to it. You verified… ‘Cause like the story, we’ll talk about it. It’s like, you can’t believe that it happened, but you verified that all this stuff happened with people that he knew, other third party resources as well.
Marcus Brotherton: Yeah. It’s robustly footnoted and whatnot as readers will see. Joe had actually written two different manuscripts and this is the fascinating piece of the story as well. So he had written the one that I had read, and then he had written one before that, that was so rare even the estate didn’t have it. I think three people in the world had a copy of this first manuscript that he had done. I was able to track one of those down, fortunately, and then compare and contrast the kind of various stories that he did in there. The interesting piece is that he had written his first manuscript, the really, really rare one, he had written that in a third person voice, Joe did this, he did that. And then he had written the second one, the one that was independently published, he had written that in a first person voice, I did this, I did that. And so it was almost like when he initially sat down to write his story, it was just sort of so horrific that he had to detach himself a little bit to first just barf it out, just get that story out. And then once it was out, then he could enter into the trauma again himself. So you’ll notice in my book, there are pieces written in first person and pieces written in third person. Most of the book is written in third person, but I wanted to reflect that dynamic of Joe’s in initially getting his story out and the choices that he chose.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about Joe’s early childhood, ’cause that early childhood influenced how he ended up in the army as a teen. He was 14 years old when he ended up there. He grew up in the Depression. How did the Depression affect Joe and his family?
Marcus Brotherton: Yeah, he was born in 1926. It’s the height of the Great Depression. There’s a lot of pressure on this young family, his parents. Two more siblings are born after Joe. His parents are very young, they’re out of work, they moved to the big city, jobs are scarce, money is tight, a lot of pressure on the family. The father, he leaves the home looking for work and he never returns. The parents divorce. So this is a tough piece of the story right away. Joe finds himself the man of the family just as a kid and he’s out there scrounging coal so they can heat their house in the winter. He is the one who is hauling government food from the center of the city in his red wagon so that the family can eat, he’s looking after their younger siblings, he’s the man of the house.
Joe’s mother, Edna, she gets lonely. And so she takes up with this out-of-work barkeep by the name of Mr. Jake. Mr. Jake ends up moving into their tiny little shotgun shack and the pressure is even more increased. Mr. Jake’s out of work as well, he spends most of his days lounging on the coach and Joe, as a kid, goes, “Oh, fantastic. One more mouth to feed.” And he’s the responsible guy. He’s gotta do it. And there’s tension. Mr. Jake’s biological sons go to the same school that Joe goes to and these biological sons accuse Joe and taunt him of breaking up their parents’ marriage. And so there’s just… It’s tough for this kid and finally he goes, “I need to find my dad.” And so, he steals out of the house late one night, boards this freight car looking for his dad a couple of States away. He doesn’t know where he is. All that he wants to do is just find his dad. He’s 12 years old.
Brett McKay: No, that’s insane. Yeah. So 12. My son’s 12. Or he’s gonna be 12 in a few months. I couldn’t imagine my kid… Like, “I’m gonna just jump on a freight train and go from Tennessee to San Antonio, Texas.”
Marcus Brotherton: Yeah, it’s just crazy what he does at such a young age as well. My son is 14 and to picture my son in that situation… Brett, I think… And this is why Art of Manliness is so great. Joe’s story speaks to how much boys need their biological fathers.
Brett McKay: Yeah, he had that father… People talk about father hunger. He had that father hunger. So yeah, he takes a freight train, he gets there safely and he ends up with his dad. What was his time like with his father? Was it everything he thought it would be?
Marcus Brotherton: Initially, it’s great. He and his father get along well, his father has found work as this kind of itinerate horse trader and life is good. Joe is helping out around the stables, he gets this dog, this puppy, he names it Mippy, and he’s got a friend, this other boy his age who is working in the stables, he’s not going to school, he’s got the seventh grade education, but life is good. Joe and his dad move again from Texas to California ’cause his dad’s got a line on a different job in California, again at a stables. And once they move to California, pressure begins to mount again. Track officials find out that this boy is living at the track, he is really… And he is supposed to be 16 and he’s not.
And so eventually, the track officials go to Joe’s dad and they say, “The boy’s gotta go. He’s too young to be at the track.” So there’s a lot of discussions between Joe and his dad. A lot of them are angry. And finally the father gives this ultimatum that, “You can go here, here or here, but you can’t live with me. What’s it gonna be?” So Joe in his frustration, in his hurt, he goes, “Fine. Well, maybe I’ll just run away and join the Army.” Now, this is a bluff. He has no intention of doing that. But he goes to bed that night and he sleeps on it. And the more he begins to sort of think about this idea, he is going, “You know, I’m a hard worker. At least I’ll be eating three times a day.” So sure enough, the next morning he gets up early, he steals across town, he finds this recruiter’s office open and walks up the front steps intent on joining the Army.
Brett McKay: And again, he’s only 14 years old at this point, right?
Marcus Brotherton: Yeah. He swears on a stack of bibles that he was 18 and… It’s the days before the internet. So there’s… He says, “Yeah. I don’t have my birth certificate with me and it’s back in Memphis where I was born.” Now, he actually wasn’t born in Memphis. He was born in Louisiana, which is part of his ruse. He figures by the time that the Army catches up with him, he’ll be deep in the system. So sure enough, the recruiter doesn’t… The recruiter has his suspicions. He’s like, “I don’t really think you’re 18,” but he says, “Look, fill out this paperwork and go stand in this line,” which Joe does. Joe keeps his head down. Sure enough, he gets lost in the shuffle. He successfully joins the United States Army. He is not 18, he is 14 years old.
Brett McKay: You’ve done a lot of research and writing about World War II. Did this happen a lot? Were there are a lot of teenage boys who were able to sign up for the Army even though they were underage?
Marcus Brotherton: A surprising amount, yeah. You had to be 18 without a parental signature or you could be 17 if you got a note from your parents. But there was a lot of guys, particularly after Pearl Harbor, who just went, “I’ve gotta do my job. I’ve gotta do my duty. I might be 16, but man, this is… I’ve just gotta get in this.” Now, this is before Pearl Harbor, about a year before Pearl Harbor. Joe does it anyway. He is not thinking globally, he’s just thinking very pragmatically, “I gotta go somewhere. I don’t wanna go back and live with my mom and the freeloader, Mr. Jake. So the Army provides three hots and a cot. I’m gonna do it.”
Brett McKay: So thanks to the bureaucracy, he’s able to sneak in. How did he manage in bootcamp?
Marcus Brotherton: He did just fine. Yeah. He was a good worker. He applies himself well. He shoots expert marksman on the riflery range. He fits in well. He’s made an assistant machine gun loader and eventually he becomes a bugler and army life suits him pretty well.
Brett McKay: S1: Did he fit in with the men? Like did other guys think, “Man, this is just a kid?” Were they in on it?
Marcus Brotherton: He makes friends with two guys, Ray and Dale, and they have their suspicions too, but they’re good guys. They’re affable dudes and they’re like, “Yeah, hang out with us. We’ll look out for you.” It’s kind of a big brother approach and they have an idea that Joe is younger. They don’t quite have an idea of how young he really is.
Brett McKay: And the thing too… Like Joe, he was able to do the… He did the Alpha move. He was able to… There were some bullies, basically, and he stood out. He held his own with these guys and beat the crap out of them.
Marcus Brotherton: He had vowed early on in life never to give into fear, and so yeah, there’s this one instance in the story where a guy insults him and this is a grown man. And Joe responds to that and the two get into a fight. Joe actually beats up the older guy, and he’s gotta be pulled off him. So it’s a traumatic thing. Imagine being… I think he’s just 15 by the time this fight happens. But when you’re 15 and you’re fighting a 22, 23-year-old man. There can be a big difference a 15-year-old and a 23-year-old. Joe holds his own. He’s not a big kid by this point. He’s 5 ft 7, he weighs 135 pounds, but he is scrappy and he’s independent and he is not gonna back down from a fight.
Brett McKay: Alright, so he’s holding his own in this boot camp, eventually he get his assignment. He gets shipped off to the Philippines. How did he end up there?
Marcus Brotherton: Yeah. He volunteers and it’s kind of on a whim. He’s like, “Why not? I’m in the army. I may as well see the world.” Keep in mind that America is not in the war at this point. And Joe is… He’s reading the news, but pretty sporadically. So he’s like, “You know Phili… Hey, I’m gonna go there, I’m gonna eat some coconuts, there’s gonna be girls in bikinis. It’s very much on a lark, on a whim. Let’s go to the Philippines. Sure. What could happen?” That’s his attitude.
Brett McKay: So yeah, the first thing he does, he’s thinking of the coconuts, girls in bikinis. Him and his buddies, they’re these army guys, US Army guys with money. They can go on leave in Manila. And one of the things they do is they end up at this brothel, where Joe meets a girl that will change his life. Can you tell us about Perpetua and how she and Joe met?
Marcus Brotherton: Yeah. As part of army life Joe is being influenced by his sphere of peers, which is what happens to us today as well. Some of the influence is really positive and good, and then other parts of the influence are not that positive and not that good. And as part of the negative experience here, some of the older guys incite Joe to go to a brothel. Now, certainly, we don’t condone this type of activity, but it happens and it happened in real life. So Joe goes to this brothel. He meets this girl who’s working in the brothel named Perpetua. The tragic piece of this story is that she is actually a year younger than Joe. He’s 15 by that point, and she is 14. So they do consummate the relationship once and only once. And then over the next several months Joe goes back to visit her several times.
And the cool thing there is they never consummate the relationship again, but they become genuine friends. And this genuine empathy begins to develop in Joe where he asks questions of her. He begins to see himself in her shoes, and he learns that she is an orphan and that female orphans who are on the streets didn’t have a whole lot of options if they wanted to keep eating. And so Joe begins to devise this plan with her consent to help get her out of there, and help get her to a better place of opportunity.
Brett McKay: No, that’s… You did a good job of pointing that out. That Joe… He didn’t have a lot of good positive male influences in his life. Dad was out of the picture for most of his childhood. He had a small experience with him, the Mr. Jake guy, not that great. His army buddies, they were good dudes, they looked out for him, but they also… They had their vices that rubbed off on Joe. But what’s interesting, Joe managed… Even though he was in this situation where he was being pressured to do things that were not great, somehow he’s able to… There was something in him that said, “You know what? I don’t need to do this. I can do something better.”
Marcus Brotherton: It’s an application to all of us, for sure. Do we make mistakes in life? Yes. All of us make mistakes in life, particularly in our youth. When you look back on your teenage years, you go, “How many knuckle head things did I do?” And yet the great thing about Joe and the great thing for all of us is that we can learn from our mistakes. We can learn how to be wise through them. We can… To admit that you made a mistake yesterday is to be that much more wiser today and to go, “Well, I don’t wanna go down that road again.” And certainly, that’s what happens in Joe’s life.
Brett McKay: And so yeah, as you said, they consummated the relationship the first time. After that, it just became this really sweet friendship. Joe would just go there so they could talk. Perpetua would cry. He would even cry. And what was so heart-wrenching about it is these are just two kids. These are kids that should be in 9th or 10th grade right now, but here we are. They’re in conflicts, they’re in a brothel and it’s just… I think, one of those heart-wrenching things about human existence, like sometimes you can end up in this place.
Marcus Brotherton: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. She becomes his only female peer 8,000 miles away from home. And the two… Joe is kinda the only guy who treats her well. And she says that several times. Like, “You are so kind to me. What’s up with this? I just don’t experience kindness in my life.” It’s a tragic commentary on the human existence, and yet it does happen.
Brett McKay: So he comes up with this plan to break her out of the brothel. This was… He was taking a big risk here. What were the consequences if he would have gotten caught?
Marcus Brotherton: So the brothel is run by a madam, and then she answers to basically her pimp, who’s this thug by the name of Many Tang. A real life character. And Many Tang will slit your throat if you cross him. So Joe ends up getting Perpetua out of there. And he… Well, I won’t tell the full story. You gotta read the book for that. But yeah, gets her to a place of safety and it could have been his life, for sure. Many Tang eventually, does come and confront Joe’s superior officers, and… But this is part of his ruse. Joe has made a deal with the guard at the base he’s at, and the records line up to his ruse so he’s able to confirm his story.
Brett McKay: Okay, so he’s able to get Perpetua out, and we’ll… The story is amazing what he did. It was some like TV show stuff going on there. After that, this is starting to lead… It’s starting to get hot in the Philippines. Pearl Harbor gets bombed. When did the conflicts start arriving in the Philippines? When did Joe first start seeing action?
Marcus Brotherton: Yeah, Pearl Harbor, December 7th, 1941, 10 hours later, the Philippines are attacked. Joe is thrust in the midst of this horrific battle. It takes a while for him to do so, only because different units get into battle at different times. But eventually, he’s right in the thick of it. And the US troops, they fight courageously for four months, five months for some of them, on Corregidor. But they’re outgunned, outmanned. Japanese troops are highly experienced by that point. The US troops are cut off from being re-supplied. Most of the ships are destroyed back at Pearl Harbor. So it is a slow battle of starvation and being… Catching these jungle diseases, beriberi and pellagra, and just everything that a jungle holds. And the men are gradually starving. Joe is a machine gun loader during this time.
He is also a runner, so he’s running between headquarters and the frontlines, some pretty horrific stories. I mean, he… Because the Japanese were often behind the frontline or ahead of the frontline, and so, Joe is traversing enemy territory. He does have his first kill during this time, he’s carrying a rifle. And several horrific events happening during this time. Troops, they fight until April 9th, 1942, the Peninsula of Bataan falls. That leads to the largest ever surrender of US troops, the atrocity of the Bataan Death March. Joe is actually in Corregidor at this time. Corregidor fights for another month, they fall May 6th, 1942. All of the troops in the Philippines are surrendered. General Jonathan Wainwright runs up the white flag. And it’s a horrible situation. Joe finds himself as a soldier, and then he is a POW, and it is not a good time.
Brett McKay: Is this the one McArthur escaped to? Is that… Is this… Am I mixing something up there?
Marcus Brotherton: Yeah, yeah. It’s a controversial piece of MacArthur’s story. He is ordered to go to Australia, yeah. McArthur is leading the troops initially, and then he’s ordered to go to Australia, escapes by PT boat and plane, and then Wainwright is put in charge. And it’s a mixed bag. The troops are on the ground doing the fighting. Some of them understand why MacArthur goes, but any number of the other troops, they’re like, “Yeah, we are abandoned. Our leader just left us. What gives?” So, it’s a controversial piece of US history, for sure.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors.
And now back to the show. And how old was Joe at this point? Was he still 15, or was he about to turn 16?
Marcus Brotherton: 16, yeah.
Brett McKay: 16, alright, so still a kid. Still a kid. And what’s crazy is, so he was at Corregidor. He wasn’t a part of the Bataan Death March, but he got really close to being a part of… He just escaped barely, basically got dragged in the water by boat to get away from that, right?
Marcus Brotherton: Yeah, kind of the luck of the draw. He’s hurt his back while fighting on Bataan, and so he and a buddy are… They’re fighting independently by that point, because they’ve been separated from their outfit. And they are given a choice by a random commanding officer. “You can join us as we go into the hills and try and fight as guerillas, or you can try and find a boat and escape to this little island off the coast of Bataan, called Corregidor.” And because Joe’s back is so bad, they go, “Man, I don’t think we can make it across the mountains. Let’s try and catch a boat.” So they do find a boat, the boat is overloaded, they can’t take any more guys onboard, so the guys onboard just throw Joe and his buddy a line, and they get dragged through the water several hours; cold, frigid water, over to the island of Corregidor, and that’s where they make their last stand.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and they eventually get captured, and he’s… Even though he escaped the Bataan Death March, which, as we all know, was awful, as a prisoner of war, Joe still didn’t have a great experience. What was his experience like as a POW?
Marcus Brotherton: Joe soon finds out that… He’s shuttled from one camp to another, and he discovers that all the camps are bad, but some of the camps are slightly better than others. So for a while, he’s in this camp called Bilibid Prison. Bilibid Prison, relatively speaking, is one of the better places to be a POW. The guys are eating at least twice a day, they’re working… They’re being forced to work. Work is brisk, but it’s not backbreaking. There are some American surgeons and doctors and medics who are in Bilibid. They’re still allowed to practice. Now, they don’t have any supplies, hardly at all, but there’s a little bit of medical care that can be given. Bilibid’s not too bad. So from Bilibid… And I say that very carefully. Bilibid is carceration, it’s not… It’s horrible. But relatively speaking, it’s one of the better camps to be in.
From Bilibid, Joe gets shuffled around a couple of times. He eventually lands at this camp called Nichols Field. Now, by contrast, Nichols Field is one of the worst places to be. It is dawn-to-dusk, backbreaking labor in the broiling sun. The prisoners are being ordered to build this airstrip, or actually, extend this airstrip by hand, so it’s pick-and-shovel work. They’re loading boxcars with dirt and rocks. And the pressure has been upped by then by the Japanese commanders. “We have gotta get this airstrip finished and finished quickly.” And so, the Japanese commandant of Nichols Field is feeling that, and he is just whipping these prisoners to a frenzy. Guys are getting killed right and left, beheaded, shot, you name it.
Joe, at this point, he’s been in the system for quite a while. He’s still a teen, but he is… He’s not doing well physically. He’s got several diseases. He’s running this constant fever from malaria every day, every night. He’s got open sores on his legs. Keep in mind that he is still a growing boy. So he starts the war at 5’7, 135 lbs. Eventually, he gets to 6’4, 109 lbs. He’s not doing well. One day, he commits this small infraction of the rules. The rules are arbitrary; there’s a lot of rules. And for that infraction, he gets beaten pretty savagely. He survives the beating, but he begins to realize, “I’m not gonna survive Nichols Field. I have gotta get out of Nichols Field. I’ve gotta get out of here. If I can just get sent back to Bilibid Prison, maybe I’ll stand a chance of surviving this thing.”
So he begins to think, and he’s like, “Okay, back at Bilibid, there was this ward that housed mentally insane prisoners. Maybe I can fake insanity, and maybe the Japanese will just go, “Oh, whatever, send him back to Bilibid, to that mental health unit.” So he’s got just a few possessions with him. In his canteen kit, he’s got this spoon. He begins to sharpen the spoon on a stone in the latrine. Every time he goes to the bathroom, he sharpens the spoon. Eventually, it’s razor sharp, and then his kind of his big day comes, his big act. He takes his spoon, he runs into this group of guards, he slices his arms until they’re bleeding, he takes the blood with his hands and he smears it on his face, and this all happens pretty quickly, and he begins to just shout that he’s going crazy.
So the guards are kind of unnerved at this site, and they hogtie him. He’s at the work site. They leave him hogtied in the dirt and the sun, and he’s bleeding all day long, and then they march him back to the Pasay schoolhouse, where the troops are staying while they’re working at Nichols Field. But instead of putting him in his barracks, and this is the tough part of the story, they put him in what’s called an ISO. An ISO is a small, slatted wooden container, smaller than a coffin. A man can’t stand, a man can’t sit upright. Joe is stripped naked and he’s put in this. He’s gotta huddle in a fetal position. He is bleeding still, fairly profusely. They don’t give him any food, and most importantly, they don’t give him any water. Now, you can survive, I don’t know, 45, 50 days maybe without food, but just maybe three days, four days at the most, without any water. So Joe knows he’s gotta have water. And he also knows… And this is the troubling thing. He knows that nobody that he knows has ever survived the ISO experience. So, life is really difficult here.
And a couple of days go by, and the troops are taking sticks and they’re prodding them through this ISO. Joe is not a person of faith at this point of his life at all, but this is where Joe begins to pray. And he’s learned this, kind of the snippet of a Methodist prayer back as a boy, “God have mercy.” And one of the cool pieces of the story is, that night, the sky opens up and it begins to rain, and Joe is able to stick his mouth between the slats of the board and drink and drink his fill on this rainwater, keeps him alive. Eventually, sure enough, he’s thrown in the back of the truck and he makes it back to Bilibid. His audacious plan eventually does work and he’s able to survive that just horrific experience.
Brett McKay: And during this time too, so he’s a prisoner of war, but Joe, besides getting the crap beat out of him and almost dying, he’s losing his friends, and that’s hard for anybody, but I imagine it was really hard for him as a kid.
Marcus Brotherton: Yeah, it is. Yeah, two of his close friends, Ray and Dale, eventually don’t survive the experience, and then Joe has no idea where Perpetua is by this point of the war. And so, he is isolated. He’s all alone. And troops are being shuffled around, so they don’t have the same group of guys all the time. This point of the story I think really got me, because it’s… Joe makes this decision, he’s been hurt so many times by other people, he makes this conscious decision not to befriend anybody, basically. He just goes into himself.
Brett McKay: And that’s something he comes to re-evaluate later in his life. He comes to realize when he’s older, after the war, that he does need other people in his life. So at this time, Joe gets put back into the not-so-bad prison camp, and then he gets kind of shuffled around again. When was he finally liberated?
Marcus Brotherton: Yeah, right at the end of the war, he’s actually… He’s sent to Japan at one point on one of… They call them hell ships, which is another just horrific story, where its conditions are really, really bad, and about a third of the troops actually survive that experience. Joe does. He’s sent to work in the mines in Japan. He gets in an accident there and his leg is pretty badly mangled. So he’s in the infirmary at the end of the war and not doing well at all. And that’s one of the big questions, is, can he make it to medical care before his time runs out?
Brett McKay: But he eventually gets to medical care, but this… It was a long and slow road to recovery. What was the state of his health like when he finally got to the hospital? And how long did it take him to recover physically?
Marcus Brotherton: Yeah, he’s just about dead. And again, by that point, 6’4, 109 lbs, badly mangled leg, he’s got several tropical diseases, severe malnutrition, so he’s in the hospital for several months before he’s finally shipped stateside. And then after that, he’s in the hospital for some more. And then really begins this fascinating story of what happens when you’ve been through all this trauma? I mean, the body keeps the score, right? And Joe has got to… It really becomes his life-long journey of figuring out how to deal with all the anger that’s inside him, how to deal with all this hate, how to deal with all this horror and trouble that he’s seen.
Brett McKay: Well, yeah, so he gets back to the States, and then what he does, he signs up again, like he’s back in the military, right?
Marcus Brotherton: He does, yeah. He re-enlists, he’s sent to Korea. He actually re-enlists because he wants just to play baseball, and he’s promised that he can play baseball for the regiment team, which he does for a while, and then Korea breaks out and then he’s probably sent to Korea, where he’s almost immediately shot in the stomach. And he kind of jokes later in life. I was able to view video tapes of him and audio tapes and whatnot, and Joe jokes in several places. He just goes, “Yeah, my war in Korea lasted like half an hour and then I was done.” But he’s upset of that too, because he didn’t want to… He never wanted to return to combat. That certainly was never his plan. But post-World War II, yeah, he’s in a hard place. He struggles in a couple of marriages, he struggles to hold a job, the whole Korea thing happens, and he is one angry, hurt guy for many, many years.
Brett McKay: How did the PTSD manifest itself in his life?
Marcus Brotherton: Yeah, yeah. Back then, they called it combat fatigue. Many of the veterans… I’ve interviewed veterans for a number of years now, and many of them talk about how when they first came back from World War II, nobody was really encouraged to talk about the hard things that went on. There was kind of this spirit in America, of, “Well, we’ve just won the war, and now let’s get on with our lives,” so it’s time to… It’s happy days. It’s, “Let’s buy that house and get married and settle down and buy a new refrigerator and get that Chevy we’ve always been dreaming of, and… Good times are here.” And yet, many of the guys were really, really hurting. So Joe was experiencing nightmares, tons of anger, which comes out in any number of ways, he is struggling to relate to people, he’s not a very good father at first, he’s kind of a horrible husband, even though he deeply loves his… The first wife, he barely knows, the second wife, he deeply loves her. They actually get married and divorced, and then they remarry for a while and they divorce again. They just can’t make it work. Joe eventually goes into a third marriage, and the third marriage does work, fortunately, to Marilyn, and she’s a pretty compassionate person who goes through a lot with Joe as well.
Brett McKay: So how did Joe start coming to peace with what happened when he was a boy in the Philippines?
Marcus Brotherton:It gets darker before it gets lighter, and in Joe’s case, his anger and his rage comes to a boiling point in his… Kind of his middle age, to the point where he checks himself into a mental health unit in a psychiatric hospital in California. It actually proves to be one of the best things that he does. The counselors and psychiatrists there are really good. And they begin to counsel him that he’s got to learn how to forgive or at least extend forgiveness. You gotta leave that trouble behind you. If you’re not forgiving, if you’re sort of mad and storming around all the time, then that only keeps hurting you. And Joe realizes that, and he’s like, “Yeah, I’m not gonna spend the rest of my life filled with rage.”
So he decides, “Yeah, I’m not gonna harbor hate.” It’s this deliberate choice to set down the hurt. And Joe talks about how he’s gonna set down that hurt and set it down and set it down again. It takes more than one choice to learn how to forgive. It becomes a way of life, however, for Joe, where he’s like, “I am… That war is behind us. And certainly, there was wrongs done, but I’m not gonna hold it against my former enemy.” And it works. It works for Joe. And Joe says in his vernacular, “Yeah, those doctors, they got a hold of my brain and they straightened my butt out.” And Joe later in life… In fact, he would never… He would always use the term Japanese to describe the enemy. He would never refer to them in the derogatory term. And that was just one indication that he had truly learned to forgive his enemies.
Brett McKay: What happened with his relationship with Perpetua? ‘Cause during this time, he would always think about her. After the war, he was thinking about her. She was like his first love. That had a big impact on him and that she was very connected to his experience with the war. So, what… Was he able to find her again? Did they have a connection after the war?
Marcus Brotherton: Yeah, it’s a fascinating piece of the story. And toward the end of the book, there are some interactions between them again, which I’ll let your viewers and readers read. Joe never does forget his first love. He eventually goes… He returns to the Philippines in the 1970s, with the blessing of his third wife, Marilyn. And he goes looking for Perpetua and her family. And Joe has some suspicions that part of her family may be part of his. He does not find her. He finds her grave and finds this gravestone where he just weeps and kinda kicks himself that he had not gone back to look for her earlier. It’s believed that she died in the Marcos regime, which was kind of a horrific situation as well. But Joe was able to track down a priest who knew her. And he does discover that her life was indeed lifted. She got out of the brothel, things went well, she was able to have a baby because she was pregnant at the time. She became a nurse and trained in this obviously better occupation. And the priest describes how she was a caring and benevolent person and really just turned out to be an upstanding person all around.
Brett McKay: Well, you mentioned Joe and Perpetua, they had some interactions after the war and how they ended up meeting again while Joe was still in the Philippines is another amazing story in the book, and people gotta read that to see that story. But when they’re talking, they really did consider maybe being together, maybe getting married. And then after Joe went back to the United States, they went their separate ways again, they kept writing each other. But then eventually, Joe stopped getting letters from Perpetua. And so he thought, “Okay, well, I guess she’s moved on.” But then Joe found out later that she had kept writing him, but his mom had been hiding the letters from him. What do you think was going on there? Why did Joe’s mom do that?
Marcus Brotherton: Yeah, his mother is really an interesting person. And I’ve had readers actually write to me about the mother. And some are pretty upset. They’re like, “Man, that mom just didn’t care for her kid.” And, “What was she thinking?” And people are generally angry toward her. And then others are like, “Wow, that was some weird stuff that went on, but I get why his mother did it.” The mother describes how when Joe came back from the war, here he is writing this girl in the Philippines. And at the time, race relations are just different in America. And Joe’s Mother believes that it’s gonna be really difficult if Joe does indeed take this war bride, if he does return to the Philippines and marry Perpetua. And so Joe is using his mom’s address to get all his mail and Joe’s mom intercepts the mail and she hides the mail. And Joe doesn’t know this. He just concludes that Perpetua has lost interest in him, or maybe she’s found some other guy, or maybe she doesn’t wanna get involved with this former POW or… “What’s the deal? Hey, I gotta get on with life. It’s happy days. I gotta buy that refrigerator.” So that’s when he gets married to this American girl who he doesn’t really know that well.
But he does describe in later in life, how… And I think this is real for all of us. It’s like, you never forget your first love, whoever that person is. And it’s okay. It’s like, you don’t have to marry that girl, but she’s a piece of your life and hopefully a warm piece of your life and a good and positive memory in the sense that she helped form you, you helped form her. And Marilyn is aware of this, his third wife, and… Yeah, Joe always describes Perpetua warmly in how he talks about her.
Brett McKay: And when he went back to the Philippines and he found out that Perpetua had died, how did that influence his trying to come to terms with what happened to him in the Philippines? Did it take him to a dark place again and he had to deal with that and… On top of the other stuff?
Marcus Brotherton: It did. Yeah, he’s really kicking himself for a lot of reasons, really beating himself up. And finally, as the story goes, Marylin sits him down and just says, “You know, look… Life throws curves at everybody. And it’s not a great thing what happened to this woman that you cared about. And yet at the same time, the good thing is that you were in each other’s lives, you were able to help each other. And just imagine where Perpetua would have been if you hadn’t been in the story. Like, you helped her get out of a really bad situation, and in that, there’s some consolation. And from here on out, get on with life and quit beating yourself up. And yes, you made mistakes, but those mistakes are behind you and you’re a wiser person because of them.”
Brett McKay: Have you personally taken away any life lessons from Joe’s story?
Marcus Brotherton: He’s a fascinating character in so many levels, and I did find myself identifying with him in the sense that, yeah, we all make mistakes in our youth, and yet we gotta learn from them and grow and keep going forward. I think Joe’s resolve, he makes it pretty early on in life never to give in to fear. I think that’s something we can all learn from as well, like yeah, life throws us any number of difficult and challenging situations, and fear often holds us back. You know, when I started writing books about World War II, I had been trained as a journalist, and I had a lot of training. I’d done my Master’s degree and worked in a newspaper for a number of years. I really didn’t know anything about World War II, and yet this opportunity came, literally fell into my lap, “Do you wanna work with Lieutenant Buck Compton from the Band of Brothers?” I jumped at that chance, mostly because my agent knew Buck.
And then I was like, in a quiet moment, “My goodness, what have I done? I don’t know anything about World War II, and I’m trying to compete against books here that are written by just masters in the profession.” And if I had let fear hold me back from that decision, so many years would have been affected by that. Now, fortunately, I didn’t. I went forward. I threw myself into the work. I read books by the dozen. I talked to every veteran I could. I talked to guys in the military. I immersed myself in the subject. And yes, books, plural, have come from that one decision not to give in to fear. I think it’s encouragement for all of us as men today. Do what you fear the most.
Brett McKay: And for me personally, I think the big takeaway is how Joe dealt with the after-effects of the war. So, I mean, if any of you guys has got some demons, whatever they are, it might feel like it’s hopeless, like this is never gonna get better. But Joe says, “No, it’s possible.” It might take till you’re in your 70s or 80s, but you don’t give up. You just… You keep trying to get better.
Marcus Brotherton: Absolutely. Yeah, Joe describes how the adversity that we go through actually can help form our lives in really good ways if we so work with it and allow it to. And we learn more from adversity than we do from ease.
Brett McKay: So, as you said, you’ve written multiple books about World War II. What continues to draw you to that event and time period?
Marcus Brotherton: You know, some guys, I think, who read World War II are very interested in facts and figures, and sort of, this army positioned on this flank, and very technical things. I like that because I am kind of a history nerd. But what really intrigues me is the humanity. You take these ordinary guys, and you throw them into these extraordinary events, and it prompts this big question: “What would I do in a similar situation?” I think that’s the real intrigue for readers today, “What would I do if I was thrown into a horrific situation? Would I have the fortitude to overcome that?” Or, “What would it take to develop the fortitude?” That’s probably the better question, because we all encounter fearful and challenging situations. And yet, it’s rising above that, it’s overcoming that really separates us and keeps us going forward and helps us find that better life.
Brett McKay: Well, Marcus, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Marcus Brotherton: Yeah, my website, marcusbrotherton.com. The book is available in many bookstores. It’s on Amazon, on Barnes & Noble, if you wanna get it online. It’s called A Bright and Blinding Sun.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Marcus Brotherton, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Marcus Brotherton: Thanks, Brett. Always great to connect with you.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Marcus Brotherton. He’s the author of the book A Bright and Blinding Sun. It’s available on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at his website, marcusbrotherton.com. Also, check out our show notes at aom.is/joe, where you can find links to resources and delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Make sure to check out our website at artofmanliness.com, where you can find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles written over the years about pretty much anything you can think of. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com, sign up and use code, “MANLINESS” at checkout for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS, and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcast or Spotify. It helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think will get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, it’s Brett McKay reminding you to not only listen to the AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.s