“Without him,” he said, “I would never have survived. If one of us got a crust of bread, we broke it in half and shared it with the other . . . If you didn’t have someone like that, you died. That’s all.”
When the Japanese Imperial Army captured the Philippines a few months after Pearl Harbor, it was the largest surrender of U.S. troops since the Civil War, and the largest ever of American and Filipino military together. The Japanese were unprepared for the responsibility of such a number of people with not enough men to guard them, and they had to keep on the move. The exact count has never been determined, but it has been estimated there were up to 75,000 military prisoners, 12,000 of them American.
Starved, beaten, shot, the ranks were quickly thinned. Thirst was an all-consuming torture in the tropical heat. Although they sometimes passed places with water, few were allowed to stop long enough for more than a few mouthfuls, and often the water was contaminated. The destination was Camp O’Donnell, a distance of 65 miles from where they were captured.
I have been honored to interview veterans from World War I to Desert Storm. But my most memorable interview was with a survivor of the Bataan Death March.
Without a clipping of the newspaper article I wrote, I can’t remember the man’s name, and it pains me to admit it. It’s been too many years. So I will call him “The Captain”, though I can’t recall his rank, either. But though I’ve forgotten much, there are some things still etched in my memory. I can still hear his voice and see his eyes, feel his soft intensity.
It was like meeting someone who was mostly spirit, with only a tenuous thread tethering the physical. It was like carrying on a conversation with someone from a world on a different plane from my own. I had never encountered anyone like him before, and never will again on this earth.
I had to listen hard for his answers, so soft was his voice. I could barely look away from his face long enough to write down notes. His eyes seemed lighted from within, capturing me in the present, while looking backward upon a time of indescribable horror, and a friendship that sustained life on the world’s most infamous march of death.
It was not of the march itself so much that he spoke, but of his buddy. His friend. When they were liberated, the captain was taken to Camp Lucky Strike. He weighed 67 lbs. His friend was taken to a different camp.
“Without him,” he said, “I would never have survived. If one of us got a crust of bread, we broke it in half and shared it with the other. If one of us could not put one more foot in front of the other, we leaned on an arm. One would not let the other fall behind. Not being able to keep up was certain death. We shared everything that would help us to go on, no matter how small. If you didn’t have someone like that, you died. That’s all.”
As the captain convalesced, he asked repeatedly after his friend. Was he alive? Where had they taken him? None of his questions could be answered. The captain was finally released. He was sent home. He picked up the broken threads of his life as best he could. But he could not stop thinking about his friend. Where was he? What had happened to him?
These were questions he never stopped asking, and was still asking the day I sat down across from him so he could share his experience with his neighbors and friends. It was a small town and I was probably writing the article for Memorial Day. He was an older man now, gray-haired, retired. His wife was in the kitchen. His children grown and gone. And still his unanswered questions hung over him, bound him to life as nothing else.
“I’ve searched for years,” he said. “I couldn’t let go. The bond between us was beyond any other — even of husband and wife, father and child, brother and brother.”
I couldn’t help glancing quickly toward the kitchen where I could see his wife at the sink. She must have heard it all before, and understood this was no reflection on her. Though it must have been hard having to compete with that ghost from the past, it was a ghost who had kept the man she married alive, able to come home, raise a family.
I could only imagine all the things this man longed to say to his absent friend. He was saying them now to a point. But those eyes still looked beyond me, searching, as if his friend could be found just outside the door, just at a turning in the road. — Someday, I have no doubt, he will.