Monday, March 26, 2012

Remembering Bataan

The vast majority of Americans reading that headline will ask, "Remembering what?"

If you are interested, search "Bataan Death March" and learn what "Bataan" is all about. Americans charged with defending the Philippines just before World War II erupted, were ill-equipped and poorly armed. Still, they resisted bravely, proclaiming, "We're the Battlin' Bastards of Bataan; no mama, no papa, no Uncle Sam!"
With the pacific fleet destroyed at Pearl Harbor, America could not defend the defenders of the Philippines. They were indeed bastards, written off by their government.

In April, 1942, after delaying for four months the Japanese conquest of the Western Pacific, American and Filipino forces, 76,000 unarmed, starving troops, surrendered. We did not learn their fate until 1944, when Lt. Col W. E. Dyers, who had escaped the Japanese, reported to General MacArthur. Col. Dyers said,

"You might call it the Death March from Bataan, for that is what it was. The Japs marched us from Bataan to the first of our prison camps. At the start of that march, they beheaded an American Captain for having a few Japanese yen in his pocket.

"I saw Japs bayonet malaria-stricken American soldiers struggling to keep marching down the dusty roads that led to hell. I saw them flog an American Colonel until his face was unrecognizable.

"I saw laughing and yelling Jap soldiers lean from speeding trucks to smash their rifle butts against the heads of the struggling prisoners.

"I saw Jap soldiers roll unconscious American and Filipino prisoners of war into the path of Japanese Army trucks which ran over them."

How could anyone survive? In the late 1930s, when employment of any kind, for any wage was impossible to find, many poor boys joined the National Guard. Their patriotic choice (over the WPA and other welfare programs) to earn a few dollars for their families. Many were under age but officers neglected age verification because the boys were big, strong, and urgently needed to earn the few dollars the Guard offered. These boys were accustomed to deprivation. They had experienced long days working in the hot sun and going to bed hungry. They were tough. As clouds of war darkened, National guard units were activated. New Mexico alone had 1,800 such boys on Bataan when the Japanese attacked. 

More hell followed Col. Dyers' escape, and when the Japanese Government surrendered and the surviving American prisoners were released, we learned the details. So, how could we forget Bataan? Many have. Then, 23 years ago, a group of patriots began what has become a tradition: a Bataan Memorial March at the White Sands Missile Range, in New Mexico. Yesterday, March 25, was the date of the 2012 event. This year, 6,700 marchers participated. Teams came from military units all over the world. There were many college ROTC students. Some families marched, one with two boys, 9 and 10 years old.

Joanna and I helped at one of twelve watering stations set up along the route.
Joanna, in yellow T-shirt, filled thousands of cups with either Gatorade or water, which was quickly downed by dehydrated marchers finishing the 26-mile route.
 New Mexico weather offered a day of clear skies... a blessing and a curse. It was a beautiful day, but under our desert sun, temps soared into the 90s! Estimates place the still living survivors of the 1942 Bataan march at 61, and several were on hand to greet marchers at the finish line.
The Memorial march is well organized, with ample plans for any emergency. There were, indeed, some marchers who suffered severe leg cramps as they crossed the finish line. A few were carried off on stretchers!
At a lunch break, we visited with two U.S. soldiers who had driven 1,800 miles to participate in the march. After lunch, one remarked that they were going to try to leave. Joanna asked if they were concerned with traffic leaving the base. The soldier, a veteran of two tours in Iraq replied, "No, we're concerned about walking to the parking lot!"
We didn't march, buy we, too, were exhausted.

It was an exhilarating experience. To see so many young people having traveled so far, willing to endure blisters, leg cramps and total fatigue to honor and remember Americans who suffered so greatly seventy years ago.

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