A local life: Herbert L. Zincke, 91, spent 40 months in captivity as WWII prisoner of war

Bullets were spitting at the dirt underneath Herbert L. Zincke as he dove into the drainage ditch. He watched as Japanese planes turned U.S. hangars into molten skeletons billowing with smoke.

When the air raid was over on Dec. 8, 1941, he combed through the charred and twisted metal searching for the dismembered bodies of his fellow airmen.

Only hours earlier, Mr. Zincke and the others stationed at Clark Field, an Army Air Forces base in the Philippines, had learned of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor the day before.

It was Mr. Zincke’s first harrowing experience of World War II — but not his last.

The next spring, he became a Japanese prisoner of war and spent 40 months in captivity. It was an experience that haunted him until he died at age 91 on Dec. 11 of pneumonia at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring.

Mr. Zincke had been in the Philippines for three months before the raid at Clark Field, which killed more than 100 people.

In the weeks that followed, he and many other survivors took refuge in the jungles and prepared to wage a guerrilla campaign against the invading Japanese. By May 1942, American forces across the Philippine islands were outnumbered and surrendered.

Mr. Zincke was among a group of U.S. prisoners roped together and forced to march for miles over rocky terrain to be shipped to Japan.

As he recalled in a secret diary he kept throughout the war, Mr. Zincke saw a fellow soldier collapse from exhaustion in the sweltering heat of the march.

A Japanese guard, noticing the straggler, shot the American in the forehead.

Later, Mr. Zincke saw a group of Japanese soldiers gathered around the convulsing body of a horse.

Each guard took turns bayoneting the horse for throwing a Japanese officer from the saddle. The guards then had the cooks grind the meat into burgers and fed them to the prisoners.

Later, when Mr. Zincke was in a forced-labor camp outside Tokyo, which he and other prisoners called the Mitsui Madhouse, he was happy to have any food at all.

Before the war, Mr. Zincke was a burly 6 footer who weighed 180 pounds. After months of severe diarrhea, hookworms and ulcers, he weighed 122.

He spent his days shoveling coal and stacking lumber in a train yard. He hauled 120-pound bags of rice on his back.

When he became too weak to rise from bed, he was beaten by the guards. Many of his fellow prisoners died during captivity from malnutrition and disease.

Mr. Zincke developed beriberi, a disease caused by lack of thiamine in the diet. His legs swelled from the knees down.

“They felt like lead weights,” he wrote in the 2003 memoir based on his diary, “Mitsui Madhouse.” “I felt like I was walking on pins and needles.”

On his worst days, he wrote that he felt depressed, even suicidal, but mostly murderous toward his captors. He noted that he was elated when the Allies firebombed Tokyo.

He was released shortly after the Japanese surrender in August 1945 and was on his way back to the United States by September.

Herbert Lloyd Zincke was born in New York City on Feb. 24, 1919. He enlisted in the military after his 18th birthday.

Returning home after the war, Mr. Zincke hugged his mother for the first time in six years and ate all the chocolate he craved.

After the war, he extended his enlistment and became an Air Force warrant officer before retiring from the military in 1960. His decorations included the Bronze Star Medal.

In 1962, he moved to the Washington area as an employee of a government contractor. A longtime Silver Spring resident, he retired again in 1983.

An early marriage ended in divorce. His wife of 41 years, Maudenya Burns Zincke, died in 1997.

Survivors include a stepson, Joseph Dollar, of Silver Spring; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

In 1999, Mr. Zincke and a group of other former prisoners of war filed a class-action suit against several large Japanese companies, claiming the businesses had profited from their forced labor during the war.

“I’m not much interested in the money,” Mr. Zincke told The Washington Post in 1999. “I want Americans to get the truth. The younger generation has no idea about what went on.”

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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