Conceived in infamy, born of the Essex clan months later, that Intrepid warrior,
called the Fighting I, she of the seas; Pacific, Atlantic, one vet of two wars.
I walked your decks, thought about men who died there.
Torpedoed. Kamikazied four times.
Now you survive, tall on the Hudson, alive in Manhattan.
Look both ways, from bow to stern, port to starboard.
Mind the gaps for a time to reload.
Poem We’re the battling bastards of Bataan;
No mama, no papa, no Uncle Sam.
No aunts, no uncles, no cousins, no nieces,
No pills, no planes, no artillery pieces.
And nobody gives a damn.
Nobody gives a damn.
~ by Frank Hewlett ,1942
One Survivor’s Story
I was fortunate enough to meet Professor Ben Steele on the day before I completed my fourth Bataan Death March Memorial Marathon: 26.2 miles through a portion of the Chihuahua Desert located in Southeast New Mexico. On 26 March 2011, Ben signed my book of the drawings he had made as a prisoner of war (POW), following the fall of Bataan and Corregidor in 1942. I shook Ben’s hand and we talked about his art.
Three Parts of the Story
This is one of three blog posts about our two journeys that converged when I met this heroic Montana cowboy and historic American icon. The first post is about the war, which the US entered immediately following Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. The second attack, which followed within hours of the first, was the invasion of the Philippines by Japanese military forces. It happened about four years prior to my birth, but Ben was there.
Next Tuesday, a second post will be about my experiences with the Bataan Memorial Marathon, an annual event that takes place at White Sands Missile Range, near Las Cruces, NM. It’ll cover that part of my experience as a 65-year-old runner, in way over his head, leading up to my meeting with Ben, then age 93.
If you’re a marathoner/runner/endurance walker, or even a wannabe, registration signups for this annual patriotic event close on March 5th. The marathon will be on Sunday, March 19th starting early in the cold of the high desert military post, located just east of the breathtaking Organ Mountains. For the link to the web page and instructions, click here. You need be in good physical condition, but not all are. This thing is a rigorous challenge for the average person, and the “casualty rate” is high. The good news is that 85% of the participants walk it – as I did four times.
The third post will be about the man I met and his experience. He and others were survivors of the Bataan Death March, and long-term confinement into slave labor. He was a POW survivor, an artist, and a Professor of Art at Eastern Montana College: Benjamin Charles Steele.
The Death March
As we should know, on December 7, 1941, Japanese military forces attacked the USA by dealing a devastating blow to our forces at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Few know that ten hours later, the Japanese attacked the Philippines. The Philippines Campaign (Filipino: Labanan sa Pilipinas), or the Battle of the Philippines, raged from 8 December 1941 to the fall of Bataan on 9 April (105 days), and the following surrender of the island of Corregidor on 8 May 1942.
The Japanese military conquest of the Philippines may have been the worst military defeat in United States history. 23,000 US military personnel, and another 100,000 Filipino soldiers, were killed or captured.
Bataan is a peninsula on the southwest end of the large Philippine island of Luzon. As the battles raged on, General MacArthur’s forces retreated to Bataan and the small island of Corregidor. Due (in part) to the breakdown of supplies and logistics (in my opinion), the Americans and Filipinos began to lose strength. Following the decision to surrender, the Japanese were overwhelmed with POWs. A torturous and deadly forced march of 65 miles by approximately 75,000 sick, injured, and defeated Filipino and American troops to prison camps ensued. The march took about eight days.
While the exact death toll on the march is uncertain, credible sources report that casualties prior to reaching their destinations were from 5,000 to 18,000 Filipino deaths, and 500 to 650 American deaths. Marchers reported severe physical abuse and wanton killings. The Bataan Death March was later judged by an Allied military commission to be a Japanese war crime.
On January 27, 1944, the U.S. government informed the American public about the march, when it released sworn statements of military officers who had escaped.
My first assignment following Air Force basic training in 1964 was to Dyess Air Force Base, Texas. Over 30 years later, I lived for three years in Albany, Texas. It was not until years later, when I started reading and learning more about the Death March that I learned about Lieutenant Colonel William E. Dyess. Dyess Air Base was named after him, and he was from Albany, Texas (population ~ 2,000).
Dyess was a Death March survivor, and one of the few officers who escaped the Japanese POW camps in the Philippines. Following his return, Colonel Ed Dyess wrote extensively about the March and the prison camps prior to his death in an airplane crash in late 1943.
The drawings you see in the following video are Ben Steele’s. The survivors pictured in wheelchairs are at the starting line of the marathon.
Never Ending Wars
Japan formally signed to surrender on September 2, 1945, ending World War II. After 14 years of war, “nearly three million Japanese were dead, many more wounded or seriously ill, and the country lay in ruins,” most Japanese (not to mention those who had suffered at their hands during the war) saw the end of hostilities as a blessing. The USSR and China suffered the greatest loss of life during WWII – in the tens of millions, mostly civilians, who were killed due to brutal war crimes.
There is no shortage of stories about man’s inhumanity to man, particularly in time of war. The Bataan Death March, and the subsequent treatment of prisoners, was one example. Knowing these realities, meeting those who experienced them, and listening to or reading their stories should serve to teach us the truth of what General Douglas MacArthur said, “In war there is no substitute for victory.”
Life is good and it can be better. But, pay attention. Look both ways and mind the gaps.
It will not happen again unless we allow it.