Not many Marines survived more hell than Warren Jorgenson.
The veteran from Bennington witnessed the attack on Manila at the outset of World War II. He was wounded just before the fall of Corregidor, endured a “hell ship” journey to Japan and spent three years as a prisoner of war.
“Jorg,” as friends called him, lost a high school sweetheart who married another man, thinking Jorg had died in the war. He married three times before they finally reconnected.
On June 1, the Marine sergeant died after a monthlong battle with COVID-19. He was 99.
“He was such a sweet man,” said Jan Thompson, president of American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor Memorial Society, who had known him for many years.
She said there are only about 60 known veterans still living who survived the Japanese POW camps.
In 2014, Thompson selected Jorgenson along with several other World War II POWs to travel to Japan as a guest of the Japanese government, on a tour of goodwill and reconciliation. The former POWs, in their 90s, appeared on television, gave talks and met with senior diplomats from both the U.S. and Japan.
Though Jorgenson endured harsh treatment at the hands of the Japanese, he told The World-Herald at the time that he made an early decision not to be bitter about it.
“I decided life’s too short,” he said. “I’m not going to be angry.”
Jorgenson was born in 1921 in Bertram, Iowa, a whistlestop town near Cedar Rapids. His father was a railroad foreman, and his childhood revolved around trains.
He graduated from high school in 1938, got a job in a factory, and planned on marrying his high school sweetheart, Ruth Harrison. He lost the job the following year, and joined the Marines after seeing an ad in the paper about the adventure of serving in Asia.
“When I broke the news to her, she was distraught,” Jorgenson said in 2014. “We were two church kids, straight-arrow. We tentatively figured we’d marry when I got back.”
After boot camp, Jorgenson was sent to Shanghai — at the time described as the “Paris of the East.”
In late November 1941, Jorgenson and the Shanghai Marine garrison were evacuated to the Philippines as the Japanese menaced the city. On the morning of Dec. 8 — Dec. 7 in the United States, across the International Date Line — he crowed to his gunnery sergeant that his Marine Corps tour was half over.
“Ten minutes later, someone came up and said, ‘Oahu’s been bombed!’ ” Jorgenson recalled, referring to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
That day he saw Japanese aircraft fly overhead to bomb Manila. By the end of December, his unit, the 4th Marine Regiment, was sent to guard the island fortress at Corregidor, in Manila Bay.
During the four-month siege that followed, Jorgenson grew to hate the whine of the air raid siren.
“I was in terror,” he said. “But you finally adjust, because you’re not dead yet.”
He was shot in the side the day before the garrison fell. The bullet missed his heart because it was deflected by his gas mask canister.
Jorgenson was sent to Fortress Corregidor’s massive underground hospital. He was lying on a blood-soaked cot when the loudspeaker announced the garrison was being surrendered.
“They said the Japanese will be entering the tunnel in a few minutes,” Jorgenson said.
He said the Japanese didn’t disturb operations in the hospital and left the wounded to heal.
While he was recovering, Jorgenson missed a critical roll call. As a result, his family in Iowa received a message that he was missing and presumed dead.
He spent two years in the Philippines doing manual labor. He felt his treatment was harsh but not brutal.
“I’d gotten hit a few times, but that was just part of the territory,” he said. “You feel like you want to get up and clobber them — but you don’t.”
Jorgenson was shipped with 1,035 POWs to Japan in August 1944 on one of the notorious hell ships, the Noto Maru. They were crammed into a hot cargo hold with no room to sit. They were given only a little rice and water each day. An open vat in the middle of the room was a communal toilet.
“There were no fights. Just a lot of congestion and smells,” Jorgenson said.
Once in Japan, he was among about 900 POWs sent to the Hanawa prison camp in the mountains of northern Japan to work as slave laborers in the Mitsubishi copper mines. Twenty-seven of them died.
Jorgenson was one of only two of the POWs still living in 2015, when Mitsubishi officials delivered a formal apology to the POWs in Los Angeles.
Characteristically, Jorgenson tended years later to recall moments when his captors showed their humanity. In a 2014 interview, he remembered talking in English with a Mitsubishi engineer who had studied at Columbia University in New York. And the memory of a Japanese officer who was a Christian and gave each prisoner at Corregidor a pack of cigarettes moved him to tears. The officer told them he hoped they got home safely at the end of the war.
“There were times when you saw the brighter side of things,” Jorgenson said.
The Hanawa prisoners heard rumors of the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Within weeks, they were rescued by American troops. He lost 70 pounds while in captivity.
After traveling by ship to the West Coast, Jorgenson called his parents, who were stunned to hear from him. He asked about Ruth.
“My mom said, ‘Sonny boy, just cool it. She’s married,’ ” he said. Ruth had moved to California with her new husband.
Jorgenson was crushed, but he moved on. He married Louise Messick and used his GI Bill to go to Drake University and earn a degree in radio broadcasting. He worked for decades in the music industry.
The couple had three sons and divorced in 1959. Jorgenson remarried and settled in Omaha. His second wife, Betty, died in 1981.
Fourteen years later, Ruth — who was widowed and living in Pebble Beach, California — learned Warren was still alive. She wrote him a letter. They rekindled their youthful romance and spent 18 years together, until she died in 2013 after a fall in their California home.
“It was really a honeymoon,” Jorgenson said.
He moved back to Nebraska, near two of his children, to live in a retirement home in Bennington.
Jorgenson had long participated in American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor events, which Thompson said were therapeutic for the veterans (including her own father) who survived the often brutal imprisonment by the Japanese. Few received any kind of treatment for their trauma.
For many, she said, the bitterness they felt dissipated after goodwill trips like the one Jorgenson joined in 2014.
“Since we started sending them back, it’s been a night-and-day difference,” Thompson said. “That’s the power of these trips.”
Jorgenson published a pair of books through a Christian bookseller after turning 90. The first was a politically charged indictment of modern parenting called “Daisies & Dandelions.” The second, “The Expendable Garrison,” was a memoir of his Iowa childhood and his military service, including his POW experience.
In 2017, the then-commander of his wartime unit, Col. Kevin Norton, visited Bennington to film an interview with Jorgenson about his Marine Corps experience. The interview (which can be seen on YouTube) was intended to educate later generations of Marines on their heritage.
“We’re going to evangelize this,” Norton said at the time. “The young Marines eat it up. They appreciate this part of the history.”
Though knee troubles limited Jorgenson’s mobility in the last several years, his son, Loren Jorgenson of Omaha, said he remained healthy — until the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
The Marine veteran was hospitalized twice during May. Despite the pandemic restrictions, Loren was able to spend time with him before he died. Others talked with him on video.
“Everybody got to say goodbye,” Loren Jorgenson said.
There will be a small ceremony followed by burial July 11.