While the mention of war in the Pacific always turns my thoughts to Marine Corps landings and Navy salvos and Army Air Corps B-29s bombing the Japanese homeland, there were 1000s of nearly forgotten American heroes who endured horrors that can only be compared to those of the Holocaust. They were known as "the battling bastards of Bataan."
I have had the privilege of interviewing dozens of World War Two veterans from the first moments of war to the final victory. Recently I met several survivors of Bataan -- resilient men who reflected a resilient time. The USA didn't just become a world power from that test of fire"it became THE world power. WWII isn't merely an echo of history. It resonates. That war was the blast furnace that forged the new America.
The US forces in the Philippines witnessed and endured unspeakable atrocities, including the infamous "Bataan Death March" a 55 mile journey into hell. At least 75,000 American and Filipino soldiers laid down their arms on the Philippine peninsula of Bataan and were marched for ten days without sleep in 99 degree heat and 90 percent humidity. Postwar official reports tabulated that only 54,000 prisoners survived long enough to reach their initial destination. Tens of thousands more died before their ultimate liberation in 1945.
The hardships endured by these men is unfathomable. Men suffered body and soul for more than a thousand days where no Geneva Convention rights were extended to them"it was our own scaled-down Nanking with the cruelest of conduct by their captors. They were starved on contaminated rice, riddled with malaria and dysentery, left to share a dripping spigot of water for 1000 men waiting on a line that would last for days before reaching the front.
Those strong enough to survive the initial camps were shipped off to Japan as slave labor. They were crammed into overcrowded cargo ship whose holds were packed to standing-room on steel decks caked in feces and blood.
But as history recedes, those heinous events are being lost to the sands of time"though its survivors still march among us, and 22 of them were recently honored in White Sands, New Mexico.
Over 5,700 men, women and children went on the 21st Annual Memorial March to remember these heroes -- men who once shared grains of rice and sips of water as they faced a fearsome enemy who would bayonet their victims in order to save a bullet. The memorial marchers were a mix of military and civilians"but mostly military whose policies have undoubtedly been forever amended by that 1942 surrender.
Yes, WWII is long over, but these men of Bataan ordered to surrender by their commanders are long overdue for their proper place in the sun. With the success of "The Pacific," it is time to rekindle the memory of those POWs who languished and starved but could not be exterminated by the inhumanity they suffered.
The men of Bataan are some of our oldest veterans enlistees who were the tip of the spear in the Pacific and are now in their mid-eighties and even older. Every year there are less of them, and every year we are taught about even less about them. As we continue into this century, let us not forget the men who helped us get here.