Anthony Zendejas, a sophomore high school student in Washington State, entered an essay contest for the voice of democracy and won 2nd place. He was invited to return over the next 2 years with more essays on what he is doing to promote awareness of the POW struggle. Here is his winning essay.

My Role in Honoring America’s Veterans: Portraying the Reality of True Sacrifice

By  Anthony Zendejas

Over the last two years I have embarked on a journey through history by learning about POWs of WWII in the Pacific. I have interviewed twenty-four former prisoners of war, and compiled over one hundred sources. From these interviews I have written a 10 minute, one-man play where I portray true-life struggles of POWs under the hands of their Japanese captors. I wrote this play for my 8th grade History Day Project. Since then, my play was translated into Japanese and posted on a bilingual Web-site in Japan. The American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor invited me to perform for them at their 62nd National Convention in Washington D.C. last April. I am keeping their memory alive by performing on Veterans’ Day and Memorial Day events in schools, churches, and around the community. I take my audience back in time with me as I portray the reality of true sacrifice. This is their story; the story of the men on Bataan and Corregidor:

April 9th, 1942 General Edward King surrenders Bataan. Seventy thousand POWs are taken prisoner by the Japanese. They fill the roads as far as the eye can see. The world of nature is disturbed. No birds are singing, for they seem to know the sadness that fills the stench filled air around them. Dogs bark menacingly beside bodies that lay stretched out on the side of the dirt road in pools of blood. Flies dart around sporadically, attracted by the stomach churning smell of fear and decaying flesh. Beads of sweat drip down the gaunt faces of walking skeletons. They are forced to continue walking or they will die. Those that make that forced seventy mile march finally wait for real food. POW Malcolm Amos ate rice balls encrusted with weevils and mold. He said, “I had to eat or I’da starved. The guy next to me didn’t want to eat it, and you know where he is now? He’s over there in his grave.” Bob Brown was seventeen years old on the Bataan Death March. He spent three years in a slave labor camp in Mukden Manchuria as a medic and translator. Joseph Alexander was fifteen years old when became a prisoner of war. I met these men when I was fifteen; and now I think to myself, could I have survived? 

Shakespeare wrote, “Cowards die many times before their deaths, the valiant never tastes of death but once.” I could only hope to live up to the standards set forth by the valiant men I have met. I dedicate what I do to their honor. I remember their eyes when they saw me perform for them. What I do is real to me because I have talked with these men and their families. I’ve heard the anguish in their voice, felt their brokenness and frustration, listened to their painful retelling of their struggle for survival. I am a witness to their heroism. 

We live in world where our freedom is often taken for granted, a world where the true stories of heroism and sacrifice are fading like the mist that dissipates in the morning sun. My goal is to move against the current and tell my peers what I have learned from the veterans I‘ve met. When I meet a veteran, I make it a point to say, “Thank you for your service.” I look them in the eye, shake their hand, and let them know I really appreciate what they’ve done.  Performing opens up opportunities for me to hear stories from other Wars. I wait as the veil to the past is removed, and suddenly they are back there; in the fox hole; in the cramped C-47 before the drop; in waist high snow; in the jungles of Bataan being treated by a brave Army nurse; in the prison camp battling malaria, dysentery, and dingi fever; in the Hell Ship thirsty for a single drop of water. Through their stories, I have been where they have been. Places like Bataan, Corregidor, Palawan, Leyte Gulf, Iwo Jima, Normandy, Hanoi, Pork Chop Hill, and Pusan all have real meaning to me.

I want to help my peers to begin to understand what our veterans went through when they faced unimaginable pain, sorrow, death, disease, anger, fear, and loneliness. I wish I could pour out everything that’s inside of me, all that is in my heart to give to show my gratitude. At times I am so overcome with emotion, I cry. I know I am making a difference in my world when a student comes up to me and tells me they never knew about what happened to our POWs before. I am honored when teachers thank me for bringing this story to life. The POW’s I’ve met want future generations to remember what they’ve done for America, and what they went through. I will continue to do research, interview veterans, and keep their stories alive. That is my goal and my role in honoring America’s veterans.    

Anthony with his parents

Anthony's one-man play on the struggle of POWs of the Japanese