Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States’ entrance into the Second World War sounded a new call to sacrifice for all Americans, especially the young, college-aged men eligible for the draft. Between 1942 and 1943, SAE’s average chapter size dwindled as members went off to war, and by 1944, the few chapters that had substantial membership consisted of servicemen and recent veterans. Of the 18,920 members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon who went to arms, 870 made the supreme sacrifice, a number unmatched by any other fraternity. It would require volumes to describe the record of service and the acts of heroism performed by members of the Fraternity. Even in the darkest days of the war, a group of members who were Japanese prisoners of war in the Philippine Islands at Cabanatuan succeeded in keeping hope and their fraternal spirit alive. Twenty brothers who fought together at the Battle of Bataan and Battle of Corregidor were among the men interred. In defiance of prison regulations, which forbade any meetings of prisoners, they met on the night of Sunday, February 21, 1943, and organized the “Cabanatuan Alpha Alumni Chapter of SAE, the first, to our knowledge, ever formed in a military prison camp.” Lt. Richard P. Fulmer (UCLA ’41), one of the 20, told of the reason for founding the chapter:
“Sigma Alpha Epsilon was conceived in a pre-war era. The spirit that moved its eight Founders has since survived two great conflicts and exists even more strongly within the hearts of its present-day members. We in Bataan and on Corregidor have found comfort and respite from war’s horror in our Fraternity relations. The wretched conditions of prison camp life are no bar to the rekindling of this spirit in our hearts as we meet in secrecy, telling in whispers, and singing our Fraternity songs softly.
We, of ΣAE, take pride in our respective war records as emblematic of adherence to the ideals of our order. May it serve to urge those who follow us to a greater display of patriotism and an even greater reluctance to compromise any of our principles. We need to have no fear of the world of law and order being overthrown as long as men cherish such ideals as we in ΣAE hold to be dear and are willing to forfeit our lives to protect and preserve. Our eight Founders met originally in secrecy; now, we in a Japanese prison camp must also gather surreptitiously with the threat of punishment, if discovered, hanging over our heads. Each member here in camp dreams of home, food, and the renewal of friendships. On the following pages, we have set down our respective war histories and the notes of our meetings.”
Over time, eight other members of the Fraternity joined with the original 20. Between February 21 and October 1, 1942, the chapter held 11 meetings, all secret. They elected officers, discussed ongoings of the prison, strategized how to improve camp life, and even initiated a member. To provide a badge, the men handmade one from a silver Philippine peso. Work on it required several months, all of which took place at night in utmost secrecy. After the badge was completed, “E.A. Ellis (Captain John C. Ellis, Nebraska ’36) informed the chapter that Neophyte Meier had been duly pledged to Sigma Alpha Epsilon and that the meeting was now open for the purpose of conferring the initiation ceremony, which shall be conducted in the hospital chapel set in a flower and vine-covered surrounding,” as the notes read. Thus, on October 1, 1943, the members of the chapter, repeating the Ritual from memory, initiated Philip H. Meier into Sigma Alpha Epsilon.
Of the 28 men who were recorded as members of Cabanatuan Alpha, only 12 returned from the war. The other 16 paid the ultimate sacrifice, most of them lost on a Japanese ship that sunk while carrying them to another prison. It would be difficult to find a more fitting illustration of loyalty, brotherhood, and courage than those of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon men amid the horrors of a prison camp. Although there are many more accounts of valor, this one speaks for all the brothers who served and respectfully laid their lives for it. Let us honor their memory by sharing this story on the 75th Anniversary of the Raid at Cabanatuan, which freed the prisoners of war at Cabanatuan.