A preserver of history, Larsen has harrowing link to the past

Chris Larsen.jpg

Staff Writer

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The vice chairman of the Edgecombe County Veterans Military Museum has never worn a uniform. But Chris Larsen said he knows firsthand the heroism of U.S. troops as a liberated civilian prisoner of War World II.

Larsen was born in the Philippines in 1940 where his father was a sales manager for Standard Oil in Manila.

On Dec. 8, 1941, just nine hours after the attack at Pearl Harbor, Japanese planes bombed U.S. air bases near Manila. Larsen and 7,300 other Allied civilians including businessmen, lawyers, doctors, teachers, engineers and missionaries were trapped for the duration of the war.

Larsen and his parents were rounded up by Japanese troops and held at a university campus converted into an internment camp.

“The Japanese told everyone to bring enough food and clothing for three days,” Larsen said. “Three days turned in three years of constant fear, misery, starvation and death.”

Since his mother was Russian, Larsen was allowed to spend part of the time at home with his mother under house arrest.

“The Japanese got mean as hell toward the end of the war,” Larsen said. “I remember hiding in the basement and hearing boots upstairs. We never knew when we would be raped or killed.”

Larsen’s father worked with U.S. Navy Intelligence to help smuggle in food and medicine to military prisoners. His actions were punishable by beheading. One day, Japanese soldiers grabbed another American with a similar name and executed him. Word got back to Larsen’s mother that his father had been killed.

“My father lived with survivor’s guilt until he died at 92 years old,” Larsen said.

When U.S. troopers liberated the camp in February 1945, Japanese soldiers began burning the residential areas of Manila. Fearing for their lives, Larsen’s mother carried him through the Battle of Manila, one of the fiercest urban fights of the war, which resulted in the death of more than 100,000 civilian men, women and children.

“I was only 4 and a half years old, but I remember that day as if it happened yesterday,” Larsen said. “It was a hot January day and the battle raged around us and we went from building to building.”

After a day of surviving a hail of bullets, nearby explosions, hiding from Japanese soldiers and a column of tanks, Larsen and his mother finally reached safety. Allied soldiers found them and took Larsen and his mother to Larsen’s father. The once big man weighed only 89 pounds.

One of Larsen’s clearest memories of that time is riding in a Jeep after being rescued.

“My mother was in the back seat and I rode in the front, sitting on a general’s lap,” Larsen said. “They saved us.”

As a lover of history, Larsen’s hobby is preserving and presenting history and historic artifacts for posterity and to the general public. That passion led him to join the museum’s board eight years ago.

He has also worked with other outfits to help build the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum at Cape Hatteras, an $8 million project, which was donated to the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh. It’s considered one of the top maritime museums on the Atlantic Coast.

Larsen serves as director of the Bay Area Civilian Ex-Prisoners of War, a national organization.

With World War II veterans dying at the rate of 1,300 a day, soon there will be no one left to tell younger generations about what happened on the many battlefields of the war, Larsen said.

“What information we have is no longer being taught in classrooms around the world,” Larsen said.

He now lectures at museums, schools, colleges, universities and civic organizations to honor the millions of men, women and children who were casualties of World War in the Pacific theater.