“Play for and make the breaks and when they come your way, score!”
—General Robert Neyland
Austin “Shifty” Shofner (’37), who played tackle for the Vols under General Robert Neyland, kept this particular game maxim in mind while he was a Japanese prisoner of war in the Philippines during World War II. As a Marine Corps captain and company commander, he had been captured during the Battle of Corregidor in 1942, relayed word to the outside world of the infamous Bataan Death March, and spent 11 months in several POW camps in the Philippines.
While imprisoned at Davao Penal Colony on the island of Mindanao, Shofner recruited an escape party of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines and awaited an opportunity to make a break. It came on a work detail outside the camp, when the group took their chances and made it to safety by cutting their way through miles of jungle. According to Shofner’s New York Times obituary in 1999, it was the “first and only successful American team escape from a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp.”
The escape and information Shofner provided about the horrible plight of his fellow prisoners caused the Allies to change their strategy in the Pacific Theater, which saved the lives of thousands of servicemen. As recounted in the book The Pacific by Hugh Ambrose, Shofner told Neyland after the war, “I just did like you said we should do. You always told us to make our breaks on the field and when we forced a break, to score. Your words kept me alive.”
Shofner stayed in the Philippines for six more months after the escape, leading Filipino guerrillas who rescued 500 prisoners slated for death in one camp, for which he was decorated with the Army Distinguished Service Cross by General Douglas MacArthur. By then a major, Shofner later led marine assault battalions ashore on Peleliu and Okinawa, where he earned the Silver Star and the Legion of Merit with V for valor, two bronze stars, and two Purple Hearts.
Shofner became a brigadier general while serving in postwar China. He retired from military service in 1959 and returned to Bedford County, Tennessee. He died November 14, 1999, at 83. A diary that documents his time in the war now
resides in the Tennessee State Library and Archives.