New Mexico State University
66 years ago, my grandfather got into an argument with his direct superior. As it happens, that argument is probably the only reason I was born. At the time, he was serving in the New Mexico National Guard, which was preparing to ship overseas. While he never told me exactly what the argument was about, it was apparently severe enough that my grandfather decided not to reenlist, and joined the regular Army. His old unit was shipped out to the Philippines a month later. Many of his comrades, members of the New Mexico’s 200th Coast Artillery, became victims of the Bataan Death March. Even without this personal attachment, it is difficult to live in New Mexico without learning something about the March. The highway college students routinely take to the movie theatre, for example, is called the Bataan Memorial Highway. New Mexico bears many of the scars left by the March, both the families of men who never returned and the veterans who did return, but could never forget. M y grandfather has been dead for 7 years now, and he lived to be an old man. Increasingly, it falls to later generations to decide how to remember the terrible experiences of POWs, and how to heal the wounds these experiences caused.
Reading through the narratives of POWs, it impossible not to be struck by the inhumanity of their treatment. American soldiers and Filipino prisoners, already weak from malnourishment, were forced on a brutal march. As recalled by Louis B. Read, a Bataan survivor, prisoners were starved and beaten. Water was scarce, as was food. Treatment by Japanese soldiers was so cruel as to be incomprehensible.
Read remembered an incident where Japanese soldiers randomly picked one of his comrades to be used for bayonet practice, while Melvin Rosen recalls watching a soldier casually bayonet a prisoner and push his body into the latrine pit. Lester Tenney even recounted a horrifying incident in which a wounded man was buried alive. Bad conditions and cruelty meant that thousands, both Americans and Filipinos, died on the road. For those that survived, new horrors awaited. Carlos R. Montoya was crushed into a railroad car so full that those in the center were suffocated and “died standing.” Many POWs were transported on “Hell ships,” surviving, or not, for weeks at a time crammed into the holds with no ventilation and unbearable heat. Donald L. Versaw, a United States Marine, recalled that some 1500 men were herded into a space that should not have held half of them. The filth and terror was “unspeakable.” In addition, many POWs were used as forced labor in Japanese mines, with treatment that James Murphy could only describe as “horrifying physical and mental torture and abuse.” POWs that were in no condition to walk were given workloads unreasonable for healthy men. At POW camps such as Camp O’Donnell, inmates died by the thousands from mistreatment and malnourishment. Diseases, such as dysentery and malaria, added their own horrors to the experience. The toll of these conditions was huge. According to the research of survivor Roy Weaver, some 40% of American POWs died while confined by the Japanese, as compared to 1% of POWs confined by the Germans.
For the POWs, the experience would leave scars both physical and mental. Starvation and overwork took their toll on the health of survivors, many of whom had dropped to alarmingly low weights. According to survivor Robert Phillips, many POWs had physical ages far beyond their chronological ages, and had to deal with the infirmities of old age early. Even more disturbing were the emotional wounds, described most poignantly by Carlos R. Montoya. Montoya drank heavily after his return, and at one point even attacked a Japanese civilian he met in an elevator. It is surprising, then, that many of POWs embedded in their narratives truly positive impressions of the Japanese people. When Robert F. Goldsworthy crashed his plane in Japan, a crowd gathered to beat him to death. A Japanese man, obviously a leader in the community, intervened to save his life. Later, he was treated by a doctor, “a very kind man and very gentle,” who helped heal his burned hands. Robert Brown, who learned Japanese during his confinement, became fast friends with one of the Japanese doctors, Dr. Oki. Dr. Oki even attempted to give him his saber as a gift when the war ended. Jack Leaming remembered having friendly relations with his guards, who would bring him candy and cigarettes while they chatted, even suggesting that they might visit him in America when the War was over. Roy Weaver similarly recalled his Japanese boss buying him and his POW colleagues a bottle of scotch for Christmas. “They were not having it easy,” Goldsworthy said of the Japanese people, “and I found out that the Japanese people were not so unlike us after all.”
It is amazing to me that, even after all they had suffered, none of POW contributors to this page penned messages of hate. In fact, a great many of them had returned to Japan and forged positive relations with the Japanese people. Goldsworthy made several trips and, under the direction of his friend Nori Nagasawa, participated in a “Going in Peace” ceremony at the spot where his plane went down and had a touching birthday celebration on Japanese television. Weaver was able to sincerely enjoy two years that he spent in Japan in the 1950s, traveling to national landmarks including Mount Fuji and the Great Buddha of Kamakura. Hap Halloran first returned to Japan in 1984, making 8 trips in all. Some of his many Japanese friends were able to visit him in a tour group at his home in California. Even Carlos Montoya, who first went to Japan with a gun, vowing to find the guard who had contributed to his misery in order to shoot him, was eventually able to deal with his feelings . Unable to find the guard, he instead encountered Japanese who were kind and even apologetic. The Japanese guards, he realized, had been indoctrinated to hate Americans. Japanese were, in truth, “not any different than we are.”
As a history student, I believe in the necessity of remembering what happened to American POWs. History must be recounted accurately because it is important for people to realize that these things can happen, that people are capable of such cruelty. As we consider a world wrought with conflict, it is vital that we curb these tendencies in ourselves, and treat all people with dignity and respect, no matter what our differences may be. I also believe in the necessity of relegating ill-feeling to the past. As survivor Robert Phillips put it, “ . . . holding onto old grudges and hatreds is harmful to our souls: it will corrupt our souls.” America and Japan have much to offer each other, even more so considering that our cultures are so very different. The POWs featured by the U.S.-Japan dialogue have learned to forgive. It dishonors their courage and fortitude for our generation to mistrust and resent. As he was leaving O’Donnell internment camp, John Olsen encountered an American supply officer with a bag of cement. The officer explained that a Japanese supply officer had given it to him for the purpose of building a shrine to the Americans who had died. “We are not going to build a shrine,” Olsen replied, “but we can build a cross.” Many years later, when returning to the Philippines, Olsen found the cross, dedicated to the memory of the 1, 565 Americans who died in the camp. He arranged to have it brought back to America, and today it stands at the National Prisoner of War Museum in Andersonville, Georgia. In the city of Niigata, Japan, the inmates of the Prisoner of War camps, as well as the thousands of Koreans and Chinese who were enslaved, are acknowledged by a monument on the harbor, while in Subic Bay the prisoners of the “Hellships” are honored with a memorial. Here, in New Mexico, the dead of the Bataan Death March are remembered through a unique event. Beginning in 1992, White Sands Missile range has hosted the annual Commemorative Bataan Death March, in which members of the community, ranging from military members to students, march in teams across the desert.
Survivors and their families are invited to attend the opening ceremonies. I believe that these memorials, found both in the United States and Japan, indicate a willingness to both remember and forgive. Many of the trials during the war were based on bad communication: soldiers who could not make their prisoners understand their orders, or who believed that a soldier’s willingness to surrender was a sign of weakness or cowardliness. Today, by understanding our differences, we can overcome them. Both of my grandfathers fought Japan in the war. I would like to believe that I, their granddaughter, can contribute to peace.