Abel  F. Ortega
Born: El Paso,  TX (1919)

- US Army, the 192nd Tank Battalion
Bataan Death March, Camp O’Donnell,
Camp Cabanatuan, Hokusen Maru
Camp Wakinohama (Osaka 18-B)
Camp Maibara (Osaka 10-B)

The Followings are excerpts from Courage on Bataan and Beyond written by Abel Ortega Jr. whose father was a survivor of the Bataan Death March, several prison comps, Hellship Hokusen Maru and forced labor in Japan.

The Bataan Death March

As soon as we were ordered off the truck, we were grouped up and made to kneel at a makeshift assembly area. The Japanese officer in charge made a speech, first in Japanese then in broken English, and expected us to understand. He instructed us to put all of our personal belongings out in front of us so they could take them. Some of the officers would not give up their rings, so the guards would chop off the finger and take the ring. They took watches and whatever else they thought they could use. Some of the guards looked into your mouth to see if you had gold fillings. There were a couple of guys who had their teeth knocked out because of that. As a Christian boy growing up, this was very hard to deal with.  The situation was very chaotic because some of the guys were taking their time. We were hot, thirsty, hungry and sick. We did not know what they were saying but we learned quickly by the point of a bayonet. At this location, they were separating the civilians from the soldiers. In the distance you could hear the cries of the mothers as their sons were taken away because the Japanese thought they were part of the war.

Before I put my bag down in front of me, I dug a small hole and put my compass in it and covered it up. I then put my bag on top of it and hoped they would not find it. I had thought to myself that if I was ever in a situation where I had to get away into the jungle, I wanted my compass so I could find my way around. Well, they didn't find it and I was able to put it back into my pocket as we stood up to start the march. As we started on our march, the noise of war got fainter and fainter. In a way, I was glad to get away from the noise of war, but little did I know it would last for three and a half years.

We saw some ghastly scenes as we first started this march and they got worse as it went on. There were burned-out trucks, buses, and military trucks littered all over the place. There were dead Filipino soldiers bloated up, with flies swarming around them. The smell was unbearable and is something I'll never forget.

Due to the enormous amount of prisoners, we were put into groups of about forty. There were about ten rows with four in each row. I managed always to stay in the middle because I felt that was the safest place to be. As we would march, the Japanese guards who were on horseback would ride by and whack the guys on the outsider with their swords as they rode by. By the first mile or so it was more of a mass group than an organized march.

I was not used to brutality and terror; I had never seen this before. I had never seen soldiers treated like this and it really struck me deep down inside especially for a boy who never missed a day of Sunday school. On this march it was really hard for us to understand what they wanted us to do. We wanted to learn their language, but under these circumstances it was hard. There were many a skull cracked by the butt of the Japanese rifles if you didn't do what they wanted.  Some of the guys would just stand there and try to figure out what they wanted us to do. Some of those guys got bayoneted or hit by rifle butts, sticks, or whatever the Japanese had closest to them at that time. I thought to myself, I am going to have to get used to this brutality or die trying to fight it...

We continued on the march, leaving the combat areas and getting closer to the rear echelon of the Japanese lines. The brutality would get worse as the march continued on. I could see prisoners in front of me for miles and the same far behind me. We started to see the dead bodies of American soldiers on the side of the road that had become victims of the Japanese bayonets and swords. Their bodies were swollen and covered with blow flies. They had been stabbed for falling out of line and had been unable to get up. Some of the prisoners were even decapitated along with being bayoneted. On the sides of the road were algae-covered caribou wallows, full of flies. The prisoners who had not had any water for days couldn't hold back. They ran to the water and drank what they could before they were shot or bayoneted. Those that made it back to the line didn't last long. They would eventually become victims of dysentery and malaria....

There were times when you were walking and all you would see was a smashed bloody uniform in the tracks of a tank or truck. The Japanese would not drive around the dead or the ones that had fallen and were laying there still alive. They would just drive right over them again and again, smashing them into the ground until there was nothing left to recognize as a human.

Camp O'Donnell

Camp O'Donnell was an old, abandoned, diseased-infested Philippine Army Post near Tarlac. It was around April 20th, 1942, when I arrived here. They had old rundown nipa huts with wooded posts holding them up. There was a rusty old barbed wire fences surrounding the camp and the weeds were waist high. With all the confusion, I lost contact with the two friends I had on the march and didn't know what happened to them. It was mass chaos from the time we got off the train. There was no sense of organization or leadership on any side. As soon as we entered the camp, we were ordered to stand at attention so we could be searched again and have all of our belongings we had left taken.  After that, the Camp Commander, Captain Tsuneyoshi, ordered us to fall in formation so he could tell us what we could and could not do as prisoners. He had a huge sword hanging on his left side. He said,

"You men are cowards! You should have committed suicide. You are lower than dogs and do not deserve to live. We will fight you until you have been destroyed. It is regrettable that we were unable to kill each of you on the battlefield. We do not consider you to be prisoners of war. You are members of an inferior race, and we will treat you as we see fit. We had nothing to do with the Geneva Convention. Whether you live or die is of no concern to us. If you violate any of the rules, you will be shot immediately. Your country has forgotten your name. Your loved ones no longer cry for you. You are the enemy of Japan. You men will soon find out that your dead comrades were the lucky ones! You will salute a Japanese soldier when you see him and bow when he talks to you."

This speech went on for a couple of hours, and all the while he was screaming and hollering in Japanese with a translator telling us all of this in English. Quite a few guys passed out from the heat. We couldn't help them until the speech was over. It seemed like there was a few thousand POWs there at that time. As the train would unload POWs, the next group came in and heard the same speech. That was the first stop for the POWs, so eventually all the men who survived the march ended up there. By this time most of us were starved, emaciated, and had dysentery and cholera. There were a lot of guys who looked like walking skeletons.

(An estimated 1,600 Americans and 25,000 Filipinos died in Camp O'Donnell.)

Hokusen Maru

I would spend thirty-nine days aboard the Hell Ship Hokusen Maru. Those thirty-nine days were the worst I would ever experience as a POW. It was hell on earth from the beginning. I was put in the forward cargo hold of the ship with about 500 other men. Since the hold had been carrying coal before our trip, the floor was covered in coal particles and dust. It was about forty-five feet by forty-five feet. We were so cramped in there that there was no room to move, yet the Japanese guards kept poking at us with their rifle butts and clubs until we were crammed in. There was no sense of reality. I was thinking that this could not be happening to me. The temperature in there was unbearable. Due to the heat of Manila, combined with the overcrowded conditions, men were passing out, and some were starting to go insane. It felt like it was at least 110 degrees in there with hardly any ventilation. It was as if I was having a horrible nightmare that I could never wake up from...

People were stepping and tripping over each other, and that just added tot the already insane and demoralizing conditions. There was no room to lie down unless you were to lie on top of someone else, so you either stood up or knelt down. There were men in a daze without any signs of life. When you would look at them, it was as if they were looking right through you. Other men would yell, scream, and cry. One minute, they would be alive, and then the next thing you knew, they were dead...

Liberation at Maibara Camp

Mr. Ortega arrived in Moji in January of 1945, and did slave labor at two camps in Japan, Wakinohama and Maibara, until the end of the war.

Since I was the camp artist, the Warrant Officer in charge, Frank Schratz, asked me to take the different colored parachutes and have some flags made. I had to draw the different flag designs for all the POWs who were there, including Americans, Australians, British, and Dutch. I drew the designs and took the material to a Japanese tailor who lived close by. I gave him three days to make the flags. On the third day I went to get the flags and paid him with some vegetables and supplies we had there at camp. You see the Japanese civilians were just as bad off as we were, so he was glad to get the food and supplies.

I took the flags back, tied them to some bamboo poles and hang them up right outside the gate. As we started to raise the flags someone said, "hey we need some instruments to play our national anthems." So some of the guys went back into town and found some so that National Anthem was played for each country as we raised each flag. It was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. Freedom is something that is treasured by me very deeply. After suffering beating, torture, and starvation for three and a half years, I cried and cried. It was so beautiful to see that American flag flying in the air. So many great men and women had died for those flags and the countries they represented.

Maibara camp after liberation
Flags of the U.S. and Allied nations flying proudly
(photo: National Archives)

The Trip Home

Mr. Ortega came home in Austin, Texas in October of 1945.

I took a taxi home and when I pulled up to the steps, dad was waiting there for me. I went to give him a big hug but he would not take it. He wanted mama to get the first hug. He yelled, "menna," which is what he called her, "Your son Abelito is here!" I saw mama walking toward the door as she was wiping her hands on her apron. That was the most beautiful sight I had seen in my life. I cried and hugged my mama for a long, long time. It was my mother's prayers that kept me alive all those years. My sister said she could hear mama praying all night long for me to be safe and for God to bring me back home. I was truly blessed to have such a wonderful family that prayed for me. I was so glad to be back home.  

After word by his son

Throughout this book I have tried to tell about Dad's experiences through his words. This book covers just a small portion of what he actually went through. I am glad that Dad has shown the courage to talk with me about his experiences, because some POWs will not talk at all. Three and a half years worth of beatings, starvation and torture carry painful memories. I know it was painful recollection for him  at times, but he knows that these stories must be told. The men of WWII are dying by the hundreds everyday without their stories being told, and that is a tremendous loss for us. Those men on Bataan who were abandoned, forgotten, and surrendered to the Japanese showed extraordinary perseverance, courage, and a will to survive beyond their years. This is something that cannot be fully explained in this book or for any of us to try to understand. These men were part of the greatest generation to have lived. The sacrifices these men made on the battlefields for our freedom should not be forgotten.  

The immeasurable strength and fortitude my dad showed, and the promise to God he made to help his fellow soldiers, even when he had chances to escape, tells what kind of man he is. Over the years, may family and I have always looked to him for strength and guidance when needed it. I know his fain in God has helped keep him a strong man, both mentally and physically, even at 85. He has been a pillar of strength and wisdom for our family and always will.

To me, this man is the true meaning of what a Hero is. If I could be just a quarter of the man he is, it would be an honor. Thanks, Dad, for what you did for our country, and always remember that you are my hero. God has blessed me with the greatest father anyone could ever ask for. I love you, Dad and I am honored to be your son!

Mr. Abel F. Ortega with his son, Abel Ortega Jr. 

More information on Courage on Bataan and Beyond can be found at: http://www.powbook.com/