Even after he retired from the Army to spend many long, good years reading books, playing bridge and leading a quiet life with his family in Colorado Springs, Col. Nicoll “Nick” Galbraith maintained the dignified demeanor of an officer. He wore a coat and tie every day and was a man of few spoken words … unless you knew the right questions to ask.
Whitney Galbraith now knows what those questions would be. But it’s too late; his father died in 1986, at age 89.
Luckily, the Army officer who played a key role, 80 years ago this week, in the evacuation of Manila prior to the Fall of the Philippines during World War II — including the safe evacuation of nurses, the Angels of Bataan, to Corregidor — was a prolific writer.
He left behind his words, for history and his children, to discover.
“So much of what I knew about my father, when he was alive, was through osmosis,” said Whitney Galbraith, who’s 83. “I knew the rough outline of his experience, but I was a young child during World War II and was only aware of the surface … that he was gone, that he spent the war in prison camps, and that we got him back in 1945.”
Whitney Galbraith knew his father had been a rigorous recorder and keeper of diaries, documents and artifacts during his time in the Philippines and throughout the 3½ years he’d spent as a prisoner of war, in Luzon and camps in Taiwan and China, where he was when Japanese forces surrendered in 1945.
He didn’t realize just how comprehensive the collection was until he and his older brother, Nicoll Jr., set about selecting items for a 2010 Pioneers Museum exhibit about American POWs during World War II.
“That’s when I just stumbled on this, on a dark, dusty shelf,” said Whitney, sitting at his kitchen table next to a box filled with reams of sepia-toned pages stored in plastic.
More than 1,000 “flimsies,” some typed, many handwritten in loose lines of slanted script. A memoir, in third person.
“His cursive tells me that it’s rapid forethought, that he’d had this whole thing in mind all the while during his POW years,” Whitney said. “He knew exactly what he wanted to write. Just stacks of it. Just amazing.”
And so he started reading.
Col. Nick Galbraith was a slender man in his early 40s, maybe 5 foot, 9 inches tall, with a wisp of a mustache and Clark Gable good looks.
Born in Williamsport, Pa., in 1896, he began his professional military career at age 20, expecting to be sent overseas to serve in what would come to be known as World War I. To his disappointment, he was ordered to the U.S.-Mexican border, to serve as a horse cavalry soldier.
He hadn’t seen his last wartime service, though. Not by a long shot.
Twenty-three years later, the world was again on the brink of war. Duty called the commissioned Army officer and married father of three to Fort Stotsenburg, now Clark Air Base, on Luzon Island in the Philippines, the stronghold of Allied operations in the South Pacific. The Army sent his wife and three young children along, too, only to evacuate them back to the States in the summer of 1941.
Leila Galbraith was “an Army wife and had no idea where to go,” but she had an aunt who lived in Colorado Springs, and an open invitation, Whitney Galbraith said.
The family settled temporarily to wait out the war with Leila Galbraith’s sister, Sally Whitney Robinson, and her husband, the well-known artist and illustrator Bordman Robinson.
Meantime, half a world away, Col. Nick Galbraith’s saga was just beginning.
The island nation where he and thousands of American and Filipino troops and support staff were stationed had been a U.S. territory since 1898. Operations in the Southwest Pacific, under Gen. Douglas MacArthur, were headquartered there until defeat by the Imperial Japanese Army became imminent. The general and his family were evacuated by submarine to Australia in March 1942.
On April 9, after months of intense fighting, bombing and bloodshed, the Bataan Peninsula fell to the Japanese. The infamous Bataan Death March — the forced transfer of as many as 80,000 U.S. and Filipino troops more than 60 miles to a prison camp in the north — began. Thousands wouldn’t survive the journey, and the episode would lead to international charges against Japanese commander Lt. Gen. Masaharu Homma and two of his officers, for allowing their men to commit war crimes.
The day before, on the afternoon of April 8, 1942, Logistics Officer Galbraith had been ordered to leave Bataan for Corregidor by Gen. Johnathan Wainwright, who was in command of Philippine forces after MacArthur’s departure to Australia. The tiny island off the southern coast of Bataan was the last bastion of Allied operations in the South Pacific, and Galbraith was to report the “impending collapse” to the command there.
He took a number of staff officers, and the Angels of Bataan, with him, to sit out another month of siege. As a result, no nurses were captured on Bataan.
“That’s one of my dad’s proudest moments, was his ability to do that,” Whitney Galbraith said.
What remained of the Battling Bastards of Bataan would continue their doomed campaign for another month on Corregidor, as Japanese forces closed in and aimed flame-throwing tanks at the entrance to the Allies' ad hoc base in the Malinta Tunnel. Gen. Wainwright’s men were trapped and being massacred.
Surrendering would turn out to be a battle all its own. In an attempt to stop the carnage, Wainwright sent an officer out with a white flag. The Japanese officer he met wasn't authorized to accept a surrender. After several more days trying and failing to broker a surrender, Wainwright ended up in Manila, at a meeting he hoped would bring an end to fighting.
“There’s a photo of my dad sitting with Wainwright preparing the surrender speech, which I’m sure was an interesting, and difficult, moment for my dad,” Whitney Galbraith said.
Homma was afraid of a potential guerrilla war, and steadfastly refused to accept surrender until every American in the field surrendered, too.
“He wanted more than Corregidor. He wanted the entire Philippine Islands cleaned of American forces,” Whitney Galbraith said.
Wainwright tried to find a way forward: If somehow he was able to round up the remaining forces in the field, then could a formal surrender happen? With a formal surrender, the American captives in the Philippines would become prisoners of war, protected by international conventions and laws. Lives would be saved. Wainwright’s Hail Mary worked. The Japanese allowed him to send emissaries to different parts of the archipelago where it was thought Allied field commanders were still operating.
Col. Nick Galbraith was one of those emissaries.
Galbraith set out for the "boondocks" of Northern Luzon, on a "Heart of Darkness"-style quest over mountains and through jungles to find a U.S. commander thought to be in charge of units there. He was accompanied on the trek by a Japanese escort, and he carried three dime-store flags given to him by the Imperial Japanese Army.
One was an American flag. One was Japanese. And one was the white flag of surrender.
“So depending on what line he thought he might be crossing, he’d wave the right flag. I don’t know how often he had to use them, and somehow it worked,” Whitney Galbraith said. After six weeks, “The Japanese finally said, ‘OK, you’ve tried enough.’”
Formal surrender of the Philippines to the Japanese occurred on May 6, 1942. Col. Galbraith rejoined his men at a prison camp in Central Luzon.
From there, Galbraith and the other men were moved around the island and then packed onto various vessels — Japanese Hell Ships, including the Oryoku Maru — bound for prison camps, first in Taiwan and then China. As the Allies gained ground and the perimeter of the war continued to move west, Col. Galbraith found himself and other officers at a prison camp in Mukden, Manchuria, in August 1945.
That’s where he was when the war ended — at least, for those in the field who had access to a radio.
A six-man rescue/release team from the Office of Strategic Services was dispatched to the Hoten Camp, to secure the safe release of prisoners.
Sgt. Hal Leith, of Golden, was one of those OSS officers. In his diary, Leith wrote about parachuting from a B-24 and landing near an American POW camp run by a Japanese commander who was unaware of the surrender.
Col. Nick Galbraith’s diary entry for that day records what he saw on the ground. Six Americans floating to the earth, to save them.
“And all these years later, Hal Leith is in Golden and Dad’s in Colorado Springs. … I would have loved to get those two together, but it wasn’t possible,” said Whitney Galbraith. “We lost dad in 1986, and I only learned about a dozen years ago that Hal Leith was so close. I wish I would have known earlier.”
But along with regrets and missed moments is gratefulness for what he does know now, and for a memoir that answers so many questions he didn't get to ask. About his father and the lesser-known, but just as dramatic, chapter of World War II in which he played such a critical role.
Whitney Galbraith turned those pages his father furiously churned out, then stashed away in the years after his service overseas, into a book, “Valley of the Shadow: An Account of the American POWs of the Japanese.” He self-published the almost 500-page account, including photos and archival documents from Galbraith’s collection, in 2018.
He hopes that sharing his father's words, and the 80th anniversary of the Fall of the Philippines, will help bring attention to an important story that's far more than a personal journey.
“Getting to know your father that you didn’t know in earlier times is, for anybody, thrilling,” he said.
Getting to know a father who was a war hero, and being able to share his story with the world?
Thrilling doesn’t even come close.