Stolen from Paul Reuter

In the annals of Naval history, there are no more famous brothers than the Sullivans…five brothers whose lives were lost aboard the USS Juneau CL-52 at Guadalcanal in 1942.

Less well-known are the Northcott brothers, John, Robert, and Thomas…three Seamen Apprentices who became Hospital Corpsmen and who miraculously survived a gauntlet of disease, torture and deprivation over their first years in the Navy.

Born in what was then the American territory of the Philippines to a British-born American father and a Spanish mother, the Northcott’s grew up in Manila as war clouds spread across Asia.

Anxious to do their part and serve their country, the brothers enlisted in the Navy together in January 1941.

They were assigned to the USS Vaga YT-116, a tug used for patrolling the Filipino coastline from the Cavite Navy Yard to the island of Corregidor.

Soon after the Japanese invaded, the Northcott’s helped scuttle the USS Vaga off Corregidor and join a Navy unit attached to the 4th Marine Regiment in defense of Corregidor until they were capture on 6 May 1942.

Along with fellow defenders of Corregidor, the Northcott’s were transferred to Bilibid. From the Tagalog word meaning “prison,” Bilibid was the name a detention facility located in the heart of Manila.

Bilibid would be used to process thousands of American, Filipino, Dutch, British, Australian and Kiwi (NZ) prisoners to labor camps throughout the Philippines and Japan.

Among Bilibid’s internees were physicians, dentists, and hospital corpsmen who had once staffed the US Naval Hospital Canacao.

Despite suffering from tropical diseases, malnutrition, and lacking sufficient medical supplies and equipment, the personnel of this “hospital unit” would continue to treat the sick and wounded, operating what was called the…

“Bilibid Hospital for Military Prison Camps of the Philippine Islands.”

The Northcott brothers worked as “sick-bay strikers” working Bilibid’s makeshift hospital wards and receiving special instruction from doctors and pharmacy warrant officer in nursing, first aid, and administration.

Bilibid’s hospital unit even had regular examinations (promotion) for rate advancement. John, Robert, and Thomas would each be examined and promoted to pharmacist’s mate third class in November 1942.

In spite of many setbacks, including bouts of dengue fever and amebic dysentery, the Northcott’s remained on continuous duty.

As it was later reported in their Bronze Star citations, each carried on with their duties despite limited rations, constant harassment by guards and each willingly shared their meager supplies of food, clothing, and other necessary articles to less fortunate and ill prisoners.

On 21 October 1943, John, Robert, and Thomas were among 228 Bilibid prisoners, including 72 patients “drafted” for work detail on an old rice farm in Cabanatuan, 90 miles north of Manila.

There the brothers would remain working in malaria-rife conditions until they were finally broken up.

John and Thomas were sent to mainland Japan aboard the “hell ship” Oryoko Maru.  Robert would remain at Cabanatuan until his liberation.

In December 1944, John and Thomas were loaded into the ship’s cargo hold with 1,617 others.

Each was given only one-fifth of a canteen cup of steamed rice, two ounces of water, limited air, and no sanitary facilities.  On that first night at sea 70 POWs would suffocate or die of dehydration.

Two days later, while off Olongapo, the ship was strafed and bombed by aircraft from the USS Hornet CVA-8 killing another 270 prisoners.

Those lucky enough to survive the sinking were herded onto a cattle boat which would be sunk off the island of Formosa killing an additional 268 prisoners.

The remaining POWs were then loaded onto a third ship.

Over the course of its 17-day voyage an additional 656 prisoners would die of exposure, starvation, and disease before arriving in Japan on 30 January 1945, the very same day Robert Northcott was rescued from Cabanatuan.

John and Thomas Northcott would spend the remainder of the war at prison camps in Japan before finally being liberated in September 1945.

After the war, the Northcott brothers would remain in the Navy.

John and Robert would retire from the Navy in 1961, rising to the rank of Chief.

Thomas would be promoted to Chief in 1950 and serve with the First Marine Division in Korea until wounded in action in September 1950.

While recuperating he contracted pulmonary tuberculosis and would be medically discharged in 1951. For his actions in Korea, he would later be award the Silver Star.



  1. Good story and history. I often wonder where have all of these heroes gone. I can only hope that we would have the same caliber of people in today’s Navy when the balloon goes up. Hand salute to these heroes!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s