Terry Kirk spent his military service in World War II not fighting on the front lines but enduring years of abuse as a Japanese prisoner of war.
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Kirk was stationed with 23 other U.S. Marines at a camp east of Beijing. The enemy advanced on the camp and captured Kirk and his comrades.
It was the first day of the United States’ participation in the war and the last day of freedom for the Marines for the next three-and-a-half years. Shuttled between prisons and labor camps in China and Japan, many of the men died of starvation and disease. The dead were cremated and their ashes stored in crocks.
Kirk wanted to document the atrocities for evidence in future war crimes trials. His brother had taught him years earlier how to build a pinhole camera. Thus, his “secret camera” was born.
Six decades later, Kirk’s step-daughter, Carolyn Noonan, sat at a dining room table in a house south of Glen Rose and showed a visitor a reproduction of Kirk’s camera. It was made of two simple cardboard boxes and tape. The “lens” was a pinhole. A patch of tape served as the shutter.
With a camera like it, Kirk took six photographs showing starving prisoners that looked like walking skeletons, medical staff, barracks and an electric plant where the men were forced to work. A sympathetic translator who was a Japanese-American from San Francisco smuggled photographic plates into the prison, then had the exposed plates developed, made prints and smuggled them back to Kirk.
The prints are believed to be the only existing images of the atrocities committed against American soldiers in Japanese prison camps.
Noonan decided to document Kirk’s work in a film. She filmed a trailer and then produced a rough-cut documentary. It was shown last August at the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg.
She’s now looking for an experienced editor who can collaborate with her and edit and polish the 90-minute documentary. She's already submitted the rough-cut to Glen Rose’s first film festival, the Neo-Relix Film Festival, to be held in August.
“People are always astounded by Terry’s story,” said Noonan, who also works as a financial planner but has devoted countless hours to helping Kirk. She and her husband, J.P., also have raised longhorns on their Texana ranch outside Walnut Springs. They are in the process of selling that property and moving to Eagle’s Nest east of Glen Rose.
Kirk’s courageous story, though, didn’t end with a medal. At least, not right after World War II.
Instead of being recognized, rewarded or even thanked for risking his life to take the prison camp pictures, military authorities suppressed his photographs.
After the war ended, Kirk thought the U.S. military would be interested in the pictures. He gave copies to the U.S. Army, Navy and FBI officers who were debriefing POWs. On the way home, while in Guam, Kirk said he was told to sign a gag order that silenced him from talking publicly about the POW camp treatment without military clearance. He didn’t like it, but he followed orders.
Years went by. Then decades. No one seemed to remember the POWs held by the Japanese or paid tribute to their sacrifices. In the 1970s Kirk decided it was time for the world to see his pictures.
“He began to feel that people didn’t care,” Noonan said. “He said, ‘I just don’t want to die and my sacrifice not have made any difference.’”
He wrote a memoir called The Secret Camera but could find no publisher that would take it on. He self-published the book in 1982. In 1996 he gave the negatives from his prints to the U.S. Marine Corps archives.
Finally, in 2000, the U.S. government began to give Kirk some recognition. The Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony from former POWs who were trying to sue Japanese companies that profited from their labor. Kirk’s work was cited during the testimony.
He later was held up as a hero by Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch for “perseverance through circumstances most of us can barely imagine.”
But that wasn’t enough for Noonan. She spent years trying to get a Bronze Star or Purple Heart for Kirk. She also convinced the publisher Globe Pequot to reprint The Secret Camera in 2005. Ted Nugent wrote the forward. The book and Noonan's tireless work on Kirk's behalf landed an interview on Oliver North's TV show and a story on The History Channel.
“I really dedicated that period of time to getting his story out so he could be recognized before his death,” Noonan said. “It was a great story about a real hero.”
Unfortunately, Kirk didn't live to get to see the film. He died in 2006.
Noonan is still working on behalf of the North China Marines, whose numbers are dwindling. Only six out of 203 are still alive. Kirk wanted to make sure that their stories aren’t forgotten – and now Noonan is taking on that mission.
“Terry wanted to know that his life made a difference – that he would leave a footprint,” Noonan said. “I don’t think he fully understood what kind of a giant footprint he made.”
She making sure, though the documentary, that others will.