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Lou Goldbrum: Jap POW

Story by Gary Greenberg
Photo by Mike Price
Courtesy of Boca Raton Magazine

September 2001--Lou Goldbrum was an Army Signal Corps photographer in the Phillippines when war was declared on December 7, 1941. Within weeks, the Brooklyn native was reassigned and suddenly found himself the leader of a guerilla troop. 

    “We ambushed Japanese columns trying to get to the interior of the island, blew up bridges and sabotaged what we could,” he says. “In 13 months, we only lost one man and had one injury. That was me. I was shot in the left knee and hit with shrapnel in the right arm.” 

    Despite his wounds, Goldbrum led nearly two hundred Filipinos on a series of successful missions on the island of Luzon. But his luck ran out after they killed a Japanese colonel who happened to be a member of the royal family. 

    “The Japanese sent hundreds of troops to find us,” Goldbrum says. “So at that point I disbanded the unit and sent them home.” 

    He hooked up with a couple other displaced soldiers and set off to join the American forces on the other side of the island. 

    “On the third morning, I was awakened by a bayonet poking me,” he recalls. “We said our prayers because it was well known that the Japanese always killed guerillas on the spot. But their commander was American-born and ordered his men to treat us honorably.” 

    What followed was hardly honorable. On July 24, 1943, four days after his twenty-second birthday, Goldbrum was put on a ship with five hundred other American prisoners and sent to Omuta, a brutally dehumanizing slave labor camp on the Japanese island of Kyusha. 

    “One moment you’re a free human being, the next you’re being told what to do and your very existence depends on an enemy who doesn’t care if you live or die,” Goldbrum says. “POWs fight in two wars: one with guns and weapons and the other against starvation, cold and brutality.” 

    He worked fourteen hours a day in a coal mine, even after his left hand was crushed in a cave-in. At times, it was too much to bear. 

    “When I heard planes overhead, I used to pray they’d drop a bomb on us just to end our misery,” he says. “Hunger was one of the worst things. You never saw anything alive at the camp. If it moved, we ate it.” 

    Goldbrum endured for nearly two and a half years, until August 1945 when the A-bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, which lay just across a bay. 

    “We didn’t see it because we were underground,” he says of the historic blast. “But the Japanese all  left. We broke into a warehouse and found it stacked floor-to-ceiling with Red Cross packages. They didn’t give it to us because they didn’t want us eating better than their own troops.”

    Goldbrum was soon shipped home and spent eighteen months in hospitals recuperating from the physical and psychological abuse. But even fifty-six years later, the wounds remain. 

    “I still have nightmares,” he says. “And I’ll carry these thoughts to my grave.” 

    Although the scars of war would never fully heal, Goldbrum managed to marry, raise and support a family and retire in paradisaical South Florida. When he discovered that today’s youth knew little about the World War II, he founded the Former American Prisoners of War Speakers Bureau, a program in which ex-POWs talk to kids at schools, clubs and other organizations. 

    Despite his ordeals, Goldbrum, 81, still manages to see a silver lining in his tarnished memories. 

    “My experience hardened me for adversity, made me religious and humble, and gave me a love of life,” he says. “Also, I’m very complacent now. Nothing bothers me. It comes from the Japanese prison guards goading you into taking a swing at them so they’d have a good excuse to beat you. I learned to just grit my teeth and take whatever punishment they dished out. 

    “But I’m lucky. I’m here, and a lot of my buddies aren’t.”

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