FATHER ROBERT McKEE, C.S.C. (1912-1990)
P.O.W. WORLD WAR II
Robert McKee was born in New York and entered Holy Cross in 1927 and was ordained in 1940. His first assignment was in 1941 to serve as a missionary in India. While he and 18 other Holy Cross priests, sisters and brothers were en route, their ship was detained by the Japanese in Manila. They were interred in concentration camps until American troops took the Philippines in 1945.
In a 1985 History Conference paper, “Holy Cross P.O.W.’s in the Philippines – 1941-1945,” that Father McKee delivered at King’s College, Wilkes-Barre, PA, he said about the CSC internment in Manila that “At a meeting in the morning [January 3, 1942] between officers of the Japanese Army and the Jesuit superiors, it was decided that all of us would move to Santo Tomas University, the designated concentration camp for all Americans and Europeans. All other Americans, with the exception of the Sisters [whose convents would serve as their concentration camps], were to go to Santo Tomas.”
On July 8, 1944, Fathers McKee and Jerome Lawyer and other male religious were loaded into a covered truck under the cover of darkness and taken to Los Banos, an internment camp 40 miles south of Manila, because the Japanese had discovered that the foreign missionaries were at the root of the guerrilla activities in the Philippines. They were stationed in a barrack with 96 other persons. He recalled that fending off starvation was a daily grind. “We received two cups of watery boiled rice per day, one at 7:30 AM, the other at 5:30 PM. In our cubicle we augmented this with so-called cheese made of fermented shredded coconut and garlic or with deep-fried banana skins, at times with grass said to have vitamin value. One morning I found one of the Canadian brothers frying something. He told me it was grub worms found beneath the plants. Several times he invited me to a plate of these gritty but deliciously fatty worms.”
As the time of this final internment was coming to an end, McKee continues, “Many persons died of starvation. Our little cemetery was gradually filling up. All told, at least 150 persons were buried there—victims of starvation and malnutrition [and two by execution].” On February 23, 1945 he writes, “Suddenly our lives were completely changed. [Nine planes of the 11th Airborne Division were coming from the north] …on the fuselage of one of the planes was the word RESCUE in big white letters shown against the dark green background.”
After returning to the States to regain his strength, he was appointed the assistant editor of the mission publication The Bengalese. In 1946 he retuned to Dhaka and was the first full-time language student for the study of Bengali. He then joined the faculty of Little Flower Seminary, just outside Dhaka. In 1948 he became rector of the seminary and was appointed Holy Cross superior of the Dhaka District in 1958. During the twelve years he held this position, he built Notre Dame College in Dhaka. After his term as superior, he remained in Bangladesh until 1983 serving in the business office of Notre Dame College as the chief organizer and director of the Renewal Program for priests in East Pakistan, and later in Manila as manager of business affairs of the Asian Pastoral Institute. When he returned to the States, he briefly served as chaplain to the brothers at Flushing, NY and a few years later as the spiritual director for the Sisters of the Holy Cross at St. Mary’s in South Bend, IN.