By George Morris
When their ship passed under the Golden Gate Bridge on Nov. 1, 1941, all J.S. Gray and his buddy, Cletis Overton, knew was they were heading to Manila, Philippines. As they left Hawaii, though, ships carrying their airplanes left the convoy. Gray, an ordnance specialist, and Overton, an airplane mechanic with the Army Air Forces, received no explanation. They learned after the war that the planes went to Australia.
“We were looking out watching them, and they just turned south, and we never saw them again,” Gray said.
They would soon see airplanes, but they weren’t American.
Less than three weeks after their arrival, and eight hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese aircraft destroyed most of the modern U.S. warplanes on the ground. The United States had been dragged into World War II, and Gray and Overton were a small example of how unprepared America was for that situation.
“We were officially infantrymen from then on with no infantry training,” Gray said.
They had outdated rifles and equipment — some was World War I issue — and not enough of either. When Japanese Gen. Masahuaru Homma invaded Luzon with 150,000 troops a short time later, Gray and Overton were part of an army that was completely overmatched.
Homma’s goal was to take Luzon, the Philippines’ largest and northernmost island, in as swiftly as possible, so that Japan could turn its attention toward Indonesia, New Guinea and Australia. American generals set out to make that as difficult to possible, moving U.S. and Filipino forces into Bataan, a peninsula between the South China Sea and Manila Bay.
There, they yielded ground grudgingly. But, after four months, combat hunger and tropical diseases had sapped the defenders. Gray and Overton saw the hopelessness of the situation. Food had been cut to half rations, then to quarter rations as soldiers and civilians flooded into the peninsula.
“The roads were jammed with them retreating,” Overton said.
“Like an LSU football game,” Gray said.
On April 9, Gen. Edward King, commander on Bataan, surrendered the nearly 12,000 American and 66,000 Filipino troops. King did so to prevent a quick slaughter. Instead, they received extended brutality. It began with what history records as the Bataan Death March.
Already exhausted and hungry, soldiers were sent marching north. Many prisoners’ helmets — the only protection from the tropical sun — were taken away and their canteens emptied. They were given no water in a trek that lasted from five to 10 days.
Japanese soldiers lined the road, hitting POWs with rifle butts. Those too weak to continue were shot or bayoneted.
They passed artesian wells and weren’t allowed to drink.
“They’d just break like cattle for these artesian wells, and the Japs would shoot in there,” Overton said. “If you had a container, you’d grab you some water and get back on the road and fall back in.”
“One or two would get away with it,” Gray said. “But (Japanese soldiers) would watch, just like they were waiting for a covey of birds to get up. They’d wait for a bunch of them to go out and get water, and that’s when they got their bayonets and their guns working. They’d just leave them scattered.”
Some, including Gray, drank out of puddles. He remembers others who ran to a stream to drink, ignoring the bodies rotting in the water. Dysentery became epidemic.
When they stopped, sometimes for hours, to let southbound Japanese troops pass, they were made to face the sun. When they marched, they were not allowed to stop. If a soldier was lucky, he was not separated from his friends. Overton does not remember a couple of days of the march; he’d passed out, and buddies carried him until he recovered.
The march ended after 60 miles, in San Fernando, where they were crammed into boxcars and taken 30 miles farther north to Capas. From there, they hiked another six miles to Camp O’Donnell.
About 650 Americans and from 5,000 to 10,000 Filipinos are thought to have died on the Death March.
“That was when we got our first lesson in what we were going to have for the next three and a half — cruelty,” Gray said.
Camp O’Donnell was the first stop for the Death March survivors. Gray and Overton recall it as hell on earth. If the German concentration camps were places of well-planned, industrial-scale slaughter, Camp O’Donnell was made terrible by malign neglect.
Rations were barely enough to keep men alive. One spigot served thousands of men; the line was so long that those who finally got a drink would simply return to the back of the line. Toilets were open trenches in which flies swarmed.
Medical care was virtually nonexistent. Gray saw maggots growing in men’s untended wounds. There was one “treatment” area, he said: “Zero Ward,” so named because that was considered the likelihood of getting out alive.
It is estimated that about 1,500 Americans died in the first 40 days of Camp O’Donnell. At least 25,000 Filipinos died in the first year. They died so fast, prisoners worked from daylight to dark carrying bodies to an inglorious burial.
“You would walk up to a pit that was dug out with a bulldozer, and a Jap didn’t give you time to take the litter off your shoulder,” Gray said. “He just took the butt of his gun and pushed it over. And that man may still be alive, hollering, ‘Don’t leave me here.’ He was so weak he couldn’t get out, but he could talk. That’s the way they were thrown in this pit.
“There was no lining them up or nothing. They just threw them in there, and when they figured they could get enough dirt over them not to smell them, that’s the way they covered them up. When rainy season came, those bodies floated up and dirt would wash off of them. Dogs would dig out an arm or a leg. It was nothing to see a dog carrying one around.
“That’s the way we lived.”
Or not. Only 43 percent of those who surrendered on Bataan returned home after the war, according to records at the U.S. Army Center for Military History.
From O’Donnell, most of the Bataan POWs went to a larger prison at Cabanatuan, where about 3,000 Americans are believed to have died. Then, on to prison camps scattered throughout Japanese-held territory.
Liberation would come, but it would be a long, brutal wait.
Burying the dead at Camp O’Donnell following the Bataan Death March.