How World War II American POWs Grew, Cured, and Smoked Pipe Tobacco in Captivity

In a previous blog we explored how American POWs crafted their own pipes while held captive in a Japanese prison camp in the Philippines. In the November, 1946 issue of Pipe Lovers magazine, Captain Frank Schaf, Jr. recounted his experience as a POW and the great lengths he and fellow pipe smokers went to make their own pipes from local hardwoods and stems from water buffalo horn. Schaf wrote a second installment that appeared in the December, 1946 issue and explored how POWs secretly grew, cured, and smoked their own pipe tobacco. Finding tobacco was the final step for the POWs who spent countless hours making their own pipes and proved to be as difficult as sourcing and building their own pipe-making tools.

Schaf admitted that the pipes painstakingly and secretly crafted by POWs would be mere souvenirs without tobacco to smoke. Several months had passed since the men were captured by Japanese forces and the POWs had no money left to purchase tobacco at extortionate prices from the guards. Since the prison camp was located deep in the Phillipine jungles, procuring leaf from outside sources was also unlikely. However, the POWs learned that the fields they were working on was originally a penal farm before the war and the convicts that tended the crops also grew a significant amount of tobacco, though after the convicts were released from the area, the farm's condition began to deteriorate and the jungle began to take over. After the POWs arrived, all that was left of the tobacco were a few thin, weak plants but they were determined to cultivate their own crops under the close supervision of guards.

Growing and Curing Tobacco

Each member of Schaf's pipe-smoking group was assigned a tobacco patch outside of the farm's enclosure that they would be responsible for while working the fields, covertly planting seeds and transplanting crops to more hidden areas. When the crops were ready, they were cut and hung up to dry in the structures where the POWs slept. The leaves had abundant access to the proper ventilation for curing tobacco as the roofs leaked and the buildings had no walls.

Schaf noted, "After the first drying we found that the tobacco was too strong to smoke. It had to be soaked in water for periods of time in orders to take out the strong juices. After a few tries at this we came to know just how long to soak the tobacco to make it suitable for our individual tastes." The byproduct of the tobacco soaking was quite potent and useful with Schaf writing it "was so strong that we used it to kill bed bugs and lice — DDT had nothing on this stuff."

Sketch of Capt. Schaf's Prized Pipe

Schaf further explained the process, noting, "The tobacco, after soaking, was laid out in stacks of about five or six leaves each, and each stack was rolled tightly, tied, and left to dry. When it was dry it was cut." When handling the tobacco in any way, the POWs were constantly mindful of the guards' presence and would only bring tobacco out when their captors weren't around. Schaf noted that some prisoners who were frequently sick or recuperating from wounds weren't able to leave the farm's enclosure to forage for seeds and tobacco plants, which unfortunately meant they couldn't partake in smoking their pipes. But a system was implemented so that everyone was able to enjoy the tobacco with Schaf writing, "the pipe making group overcame this by having these men cut the tobacco (a very tedious job) on a commission basis. In this way everyone had something to smoke."

While the POWs finally had tobacco to pair with their handcrafted pipes, tobacco was hardly plentiful in the camp despite the men using the stems and stalks in addition to the leaves. The shortages would become more severe when the guards become angered from a prisoner escaping or learning Allied forces had won a battle, and would search the camp to confiscate any tobacco that was discovered. When desperation truly set in, the POWs resorted to tobacco substitutes — tree leaves. Schaf voiced his displeasure, writing, "Not only did we try papaya leaves, but those of many other trees. All of them tasted terrible, and the smoke was hot and burned the tongue. And what is more, they also burned out the pipes."

Schaf's pipe smoking group attracted the attention of other prisoners who expressed interest in learning how to craft their own smoking instruments. "Men, sick men, wounded men, able bodied men, men who had never before in their lives made anything with their hands contacted members of the pipe group and asked about the details of pipe making," Schaf wrote. "They were interested not so much in making the pipes as they were in a good smoke once again." Such interest was beneficial for the group as more hand tools were being made and the number of amateur pipe smokers rose steadily.

A New Lease On Life

Crafting pipes was more than a hobby to pass the time in the camp with Schaf noting, "Sick and wounded men, men weakened by starvation and inhuman treatment, who had begun to despair, got a new lease on life; they had an interest. They began to become entangled in the lure of pipe lore. This morale builder saved many lives." While Schaf mentions that some pipes were aesthetically atrocious, due to a lack of craftsmanship or too vivid of an imagination, he noted, "they served a purpose, represented an achievement, and, after all, were smokable."

When Allied forces returned to the Philippines in 1945, Schaf lost his pipe collection, including his most prized piece — a large, bent pipe made from kamagong, a dense wood with a very dark color and featuring a stem fashioned from water buffalo horn. Though losing the pipe lingered in Schaf's mind, he expressed his gratitude in having survived the camp. He expressed interest in returning to the Philippines in the future, collecting the same materials and crafting a similar pipe, though it wouldn't be nearly as meaningful as the original that took six months to finish. Schaf strongly doubted he would ever produce tobacco the way he did as a POW, writing, "It served the purpose, yes, but those days are over, and for real enjoyment from now on, I'll purchase my tobacco in a package or tin at the corner tobacco shop."

Category:   Tobacco Talk
Tagged in:   History Pipe Culture Tobacco


    • D. on April 15, 2021
    • Another beautiful piece. In the last installment you wrote that pipe smoking is a beacon of hope, so true. No matter what life throws at you, solitude, sickness, poverty, loneliness, imprisonment, or total despair, if you have a pipe and some tobacco (whiskey, bourbon, wine, or beer helps too)...if you know how to enjoy that moment of pipe smoking, you can find a moment of peace.

    • DAVE SOMMER on April 18, 2021
    • Another story from a darn good writer. I am sure glad that we don't ever go thru what they did. Which leadsme to say once again.....THANK YOU SMOKIN' PIPES.COM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1

    • Phil Wiggins on April 18, 2021
    • WOW Pipes Awesome A!!!

    • Terry Wilde/ Wildewoods on April 18, 2021
    • What books are available on this topic? I could find none on Amazon.

    • Phil Wiggins on April 18, 2021
    • Beautiful Pipes A!!!

    • Saurasri Sen on April 19, 2021
    • The POWs proved the proverb,"Necessity is the mother of invention." Another inspiring article.

    • The Chicken Hawk on April 21, 2021
    • @ Phil Wiggins: I have gone through a mix of emotional responses to your replies, but lately I find myself laughing at them.

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