How World War II American POWs Made Pipes in Captivity

For many pipe smokers, prolonged periods without the comfort of a favorite blend and pipe is difficult. Smoking is a relaxing ritual and promotes camaraderie when surrounded by fellow pipe enthusiasts, allowing for friendships and lifelong connections to be established and cultivated. However, there have been times in history when smoking a pipe proved to be impossible, particularly for those held captive as prisoners of war (POWs). That didn't stop Captain Frank Schaf, Jr. and a group of soldiers from being resourceful and creative, handcrafting their own pipes as POWs during World War II.

In late spring 1942, following the fall of Bataan and a brutal loss at the Battle of Corregidor in the Philippines, thousands of American soldiers were taken prisoner by Japanese forces and stripped of their most prized possessions, such as photographs of loved ones, sentimental jewelry, and even the pipes that had accompanied them throughout the war. Among those taken prisoner was Captain Frank Schaf, Jr., who recounted his experience as a POW in the Cabanatuan prison camp north of Manila in the Philippines in an article that appeared in the November, 1946 issue of Pipe Lovers magazine.

Life As A POW

In addition to the physical and mental pain POWs were exposed to, their pipes were taken and smashed but their struggle to survive during the first few months of captivity overshadowed their pipe-smoking needs. They battled starvation, drastically low morale, physical abuse, fought off tropical diseases, and were exposed to grueling working conditions. POWs were forced to cut thick trees, rebuild roads and bridges, and work in rice fields, a task that Schaf noted was the worst of them all.

Friendships and tightly-knit groups developed over time, enabling POWs to briefly take their minds off their terrible situation. One group consisted of pipe smokers, and when working, the men would talk about their favorite pipe shapes as well as the tobacco brands and mixtures they enjoyed smoking. Initially, the only tobacco available to the POWs came in the form of leaf tobacco and Phillipine cigarettes the guards sold to them at exorbitant prices. Schaf notes, "A lot of us had secreted money — about our persons, under bandages covering battle wounds, sewed in belts or hat bands; but at ten Pesos (five dollars) for a handful of tobacco or a few cigarettes; our money did not last long — conse­quently no smokes of any kind."

Initially, the only tobacco available to the POWs came in the form of leaf tobacco and Phillipine cigarettes the guards sold to them

Camaraderie Amidst Hardship

Eventually, 1,200 POWs were transferred from the Cabanatuan prison camp to the southern is­land of Mindanao where the labor was even more difficult due to the 400 hundred acres of rice paddies that had to be cultivated. While the move disbanded Schaf's original pipe group, another one was founded and among the members was an Air Force pilot who was also a craftsman. After talking about and longing to enjoy a pipe, Schaf and the pilot were determined to have pipes again.

Schaf described the difficult task of pipe making without the proper tools:

We had no lathe, no imported briar wood from which to fashion the pipe, in fact we had nothing at all with which to fashion our tobacco burners, but we knew we wanted them, and when you want something badly enough, you usual­ly manage somehow to obtain it, even though you are in a prison camp far from civilization with its refinements, modern conveniences, and ample equip­ment for turning out any object, whether it be a shelf for the kitchen, a new handle for the hoe, or a smoking pipe. (pg. 370).

Desperate Measures

Though it was impossible for Schaf and the pilot to secure actual pipe-making tools, they decided to craft their own. Members of the pipe group were tasked with scavenging metal scraps, collecting them from broken files, rusty steel bars, and pieces from nearby abandoned Filipino shacks. After sourcing the parts, the men spent months with sharpening stones to produce an acceptable set of pipe making tools. Finding wood that was suitable for pipe smoking was the next task, and in the prison camp's vicinity were several options, including Phillipine mahogany; apitong, a light brown hardwood; and kamagong, a dense wood with a very dark color.

the men spent months with sharpening stones to produce an acceptable set of pipe making tools

Schaf noted that the first few pipes the group produced weren't particularly impressive or perfectly functional, but the men continued to improve and adopted new methods accordingly. "We saved time in drilling by making an adaptation of the old Chinese method of spinning the drill with a bow and string." Due to the lack of materials, wood was used for the stems and despite the wood's density and hardness, it was still possible for smokers to bite through the stem. Schaf created a more durable stem by utilizing horn sourced from a slaughtered water buffalo, and since the horn is dark and hard, it resembled vulcanite when it was cut and polished. Polishing pipes was a lengthy process, with Schaf noting, "There was no sandpaper so we made a pumice from soft rocks ground up in a stone rice mill. We polished every night while lying awake, every rest period during the working day, and when malaria struck and we were too sick to work in the fields."

Bending horn stems was a difficult task but Schaf and his fellow pipe smokers found a practical solution after the horn stem was crafted, "It was then placed in boil­ing water and after some time had elapsed the horn would soften and could be bent into the desired shape. The horn thus treated would perma­nently hold the new shape once it re-hardened." After about six months, Schaf estimated that each group member owned four or five quality pipes that performed exceptionally well and were suitable substitutes for the briar pipes that had been destroyed.

While crafting pipes from scratch with handmade tools was challenging, it deepened the bond between POWs and allowed them to work toward a common goal while surviving the harsh conditions they were forced to endure. Schaf concluded his piece with the summation, "Although in some ways it was work to make these pipes, it didn't seem a hardship because all the time we were looking forward to the pleasure that we knew would be our reward when the pipes were finished." Even while held captive and exposed to excruciating physical and mental pain, pipe smoking remained a beacon of hope for American POWs, with Captain Schaf's story highlighting pipe smokers' dedication to enjoying a smoke no matter the circumstances.


Category:   Pipe Line
Tagged in:   History Pipe Culture Pipe Making


    • D. on April 2, 2021
    • Nice piece, Mr. Sitts. So much in life can be taken for granted.

    • Jack Koonce on April 3, 2021
    • It makes more sense then ever why this has been called the greatest generation. Thank you for a great article.

    • Howard R. Houck on April 4, 2021
    • This would've been a toughy to research for anyone who wasn't there at the time. Glad you were able to find it. Looking through the pages of the ancillary1946 "Pipe Lovers" mag itself was especially fun.

    • El Pirulin de la Habana on April 4, 2021
    • ...great article!

    • Phil Wiggins on April 4, 2021
    • Awesome Pipes Love

    • M. on April 4, 2021
    • Interesting story, well written. I was excited to learn how they sourced the tobacco, hid it, and what kind they were able to find. They portrayed it hanging in the rafters in the illustration.

    • B.V. on April 5, 2021
    • What a great article! My late grandfather was deployed to Mindanao, Phillipines with the 31st infantry division back at the tail end of the war. His stories about life in the army are cherished memories of mine. This article made me think of him, and has once again polished my respect for the terrible sacrifices our troops make for us. On a lighter note, I'll certainly be looking at my 'cheaper' pipes a whole lot differently.

    • Stan Ruszkowski on April 5, 2021
    • The Greatest Generation

    • Thomas Rowan on April 5, 2021
    • Fantastic article!!!

    • Lew Nanna on April 5, 2021
    • Fascinating!! It reminds me of the book, The Great Escape", that was made into a movie. Great read and also terrific film. It tells the story of WW 2 POW's and how creative they were in planning their escape.

    • Saurasri Sen on April 5, 2021
    • What an excellent piece of writing! I wonder whether any of those POW made pipes still survive to this day. This essay is also a testimony to the fact how hard-working and creative those great people were. I salute them.

    • T.K. on April 6, 2021
    • As I do respect the creativity and endurance of the POWs, I must say I am disappointed of your article referencing to a article full of discriminatory words. I do understand the referenced article is a historical one, just my thoughts from the other side of the Pacific.

    • T.K.O. on April 6, 2021
    • The Greatest Generation as opposed to the current New and Improved Sensitive Snowflake Generation. But, hey, we're all human here...can we just put the abundance of knit-picking on the shelf beside the rise of righteous indignation? I apologise, I'm upset that another Nanna Ivarsson pipe escaped my grasp...

    • Manuel Pintado on April 7, 2021
    • Thank you so much for having shared this unique story of pipe making under so difficult situation.

    • Ken on April 17, 2021
    • A Vietnam POW made pipe is on display at the Nixon Presidential Library. I think it was crafted from mud or clay. An extraordinary testament to the healing powers of pipes in the hardest of times.

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