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Cool Things - Japanese Footwear

Col. Hughes' prison camp sandals

These sandals are a reminder of one Kansas soldier's powerful experiences during World War II.

Born and raised in Topeka, Colonel James C. Hughes arrived in the Philippines about two months before the Japanese invaded the islands in late 1941. He commanded a field artillery regiment of Filipino soldiers on the Bataan peninsula. Hughes' regiment had four U.S. officers, about 20 Filipino officers, and about 90 Philippine soldiers. Communication was a problem, not only between the U.S. officers and the soldiers, but also among the Filipinos who spoke a variety of dialects. Dust storms, average temperatures above 90 degrees Farenheit plus near 100 percent humidity, and bugs, rats, and snakes added to the troops' misery. Many Filipino soldiers were untrained and were using equipment from World War I. Hughes remembered, "most of them were infantrymen and knew nothing about artillery."

Battle of Bataan

American and Filipino forces defended the islands as best they could, but were outnumbered and outmaneuvered by the Japanese when the latter began invading the Philippines in December 1941. By early April of the following year, these troops had been battling the invading Japanese army for over three months in what is now called the Battle of Bataan. Over many days, the armies slowly and repeatedly advanced and retreated, much like the trench warfare Hughes experienced as a commander in France during World War I. As a result of the siege, many soldiers became malnourished and contracted malaria. The fighting became intense. The heavily reinforced, supported, and rested Japanese army broke through the U.S.'s defenses on April 3, causing chaos and confusion. The U.S. commander on Bataan decided to surrender his weary and starving troops to the Japanese on April 9th. James Hughes' whereabouts were unknown for the next nine months. The War Department officially reported him as missing in May.

Bataan Death March

Hughes' wife and parents were relieved in January 1943 when they finally heard he was alive. They learned that he had been one of the 12,000 U.S. and 64,000 Filipino prisoners marched up the coast of the Bataan peninsula in the infamous Bataan Death March. Captives received almost no food or water and were beaten to keep moving. Weakened soldiers who fell behind were executed. After reaching San Fernando, groups of as many as 115 men were forced into boxcars intended to hold only 30 to 40, and were transported to Camp O'Donnell. Between 5,000 and 11,000 prisoners of war did not survive the journey. After about 30 days, the colonels and generals--including Hughes--were transferred to a series of other camps. It was at a location in Taiwan that the Kansas native was heard on a Japanese radio broadcast saying, "everything goes all right with me."

Hughes next spent three weeks imprisoned aboard a so-called "hell ship." These ships transported captives to Japan and China to work for the Japanese war industry. Hughes was taken to a factory at the edge of the Gobi desert in Manchuria, China. Temperatures there dropped to 20F below zero, although Hughes and his fellow prisoners were given fairly warm blankets. Some prisoners at the factory made deals with the Chinese who smuggled in food wrapped inside newspapers hidden in their shoes.

James Hughes finally was liberated by Russian soldiers in August 1945, ending his three years and five months of imprisonment. He was lucky, being one of few to survive the inhumane conditions of Japanese prison and labor camps. Two out of every three prisoners did not. After the war, Hughes spent some time in Okinawa, Japan, and Manila while waiting to return home. It is believed he acquired these geta sandals during this time. Geta are a traditional style of Japanese footwear. They have a V-shaped toe thong that is centered, making the left and right sandals identical. Geta have a flat wood sole raised up on two wooden strips. This raises the wearer's feet and clothing about 2 inches off the ground. Geta are practical footwear in situations where streets are unpaved, because they keep one's clothing above the dust and mud.

This pair of geta are a reminder of the powerful experience that James Hughes, and countless other soldiers, endured during iconic events in the history of World War II. They are in the collections of the Kansas Museum of History.

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Entry: Cool Things - Japanese Footwear

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: December 2008

Date Modified: December 2014

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.