Death March survivor can testify to perseverance

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 7, 2003

Suffolk News-Herald

Everyone remembers Dec. 7, 1941 – &uot;a day that will live in infamy&uot; – as one of the darkest days in American history.

As a stunned nation watched, the Japanese bombed Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor, killing thousands of American troops and drawing the country into World War II.

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That dark moment quickly got worse for Norman Matthews, then a young soldier from Suffolk who was stationed in Manila.

Matthews was captured by the Japanese, and forced on the infamous Bataan Death March, in which 20,000 soldiers died. Although he survived the deadly march, Matthews was forced to watch his older brother, Edward, and many of his friends die.

After the march, he was placed in several prisoner-of-war camps, where he was forced to work as a slave for his country’s then-enemies.

But his story doesn’t end with heartbreak. It’s not a tragedy. There’s still a light at the end of a tunnel that probably once seemed endless.

Because Matthews won. He’s a man who can look unspeakable evil in the eye and say, &uot;I beat you, and I proved that good always triumphs in the end.&uot;

&uot;I went into the Air Force on June 2, 1941,&uot; he recalls. &uot;I was at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C., and then went to Hunter Air Field. I was a member of the 27th United First Bombardment Squadron.&uot;

Trained as an aircraft gunner, he was transferred to Manila just weeks before the Hawaii attack.

&uot;The planes didn’t come with us (to Manila),&uot; Matthews says. &uot;We had to fight in the infantry against the Japanese. They were just a rice paddy away. We were in combat everyday.&uot;

Hampered by obsolete supplies (many of which had been built during World War I) and a lack of food, it wasn’t a battle they could win.

At first, he says, &uot;the Japanese couldn’t take us because we were hiding in the hills, and they were on the ground.&uot;

Then came the date which would live in infamy. In Manila, it was the early morning hours of Dec. 8.

&uot;They bombed a field about 40 miles from where we were. Then they bombed one about two miles away. Our commanding officer woke us up at 3:30 in the morning and told us we were in a precarious position.

&uot;They couldn’t get supplies to us. There were very few rations. We were lucky if we got two meals a day.

&uot;We ate snakes, monkeys, dogs, horses, everything. We watched bombs fall out of planes daily, hourly.&uot;

By mid-January, Matthews knew that if he weren’t killed, he would be captured. In April, his commanding officer told the soldiers to go to the southern end of Bataan in the Philippines to turn themselves in.

The Japanese forced their prisoners to walk to Camp O’Donnell, 50 miles away. For the next eight days, the men walked all day with few – if any – rations.

&uot;They didn’t give us a thing,&uot; Matthews recalls. &uot;If someone fell down, they’d bayonet or shoot them.&uot;

Some were run over with Japanese tanks or trucks, others were forced to dig their own graves and be buried alive, the Grove Avenue resident says.

Finally, the men reached the camp. But it wasn’t much better -1,800 soldiers died the first month there.

&uot;I found out that the only way to survive was to work,&uot; Matthews said. &uot;They fed people who worked more than people who didn’t.&uot;

Eventually, he was sent to Camp Davoa, 500 miles south of Manila, where he worked in rice paddies and butchered cattle for 12 hours a day.

After over two years of living in the most unthinkable of conditions, Matthews was sent to Japan.

&uot;We were on a ‘hell ship,’ where we had to stand all day. You couldn’t sit down or lay down. We were getting fired upon by American submarines. They didn’t know that there were prisoners aboard the ship.&uot;

Upon reaching the Japanese city of Moji, Matthews was given a job in a copper refinery. &uot;We used to make charcoal, and trade it to the women for food.&uot;

Eventually, an earthquake destroyed the plant, and Matthews was shipped to Toyama.

Working in a steel mill on day in the summer of 1945, Matthews’ superior arrived with some news.

&uot;They said, ‘The Americans are getting close, and we’ve been ordered to kill you.’&uot;

Perhaps fate, after turning such a dark frown toward the hapless American for so long, decided to cast a smile. The Japanese officers failed to follow through with the order, instead evacuating themselves.

&uot;They left their guns,&uot; Matthews says, smiling for the first time in over an hour. &uot;Once we got those guns, we were kings of the valley. I looked out of our barracks, and saw that there weren’t any Japanese. I went to their office, and got a rifle and bullets. Then I got my picture out of the file.&uot;

Reaching into his wallet, he holds up a picture of the young man he once was.

&uot;When you survive something like that, it’s just amazing,&uot; he says. &uot;Hardly a day passes when I don’t think about it. I sometimes dream about it, and I have flashbacks. But now, hardly anything bothers me.

&uot;I have a lot of friends who were also POWs, so we have something in common. I told myself that I wasn’t going to let those damn Japanese bury me over there, and I didn’t.

&uot;The thing to do is never give up. Never.&uot;

Name? Norman Matthews.

Age? 87.

Hometown? Suffolk, born and raised.

Family? Mary, wife of 27 years, passed in September. Two daughters, Luellen and Jacklin, and two grandchildren.

Career/Occupation? 27 years in Air Force, retired as senior master sergeant.

Favorite thing about life in Suffolk? Nice, easy, comfortable place. There’s not much crime.

Why did you pursue your chosen career? I was about to be drafted, so I went ahead and joined the U.S. Air Force.

What accomplishments are you proudest of? My two daughters. They have really good jobs. My granddaughter is almost a genius.

What motivates you? Visiting friends and having a good time.

Favorite way to spend your free time? Deep sea fishing in the Oregon Inlet.

What are the ingredients in the recipe to a &uot;good life?&uot; Marrying a good woman.

What words of wisdom would you like to share with others? Persevere. Don’t give up. That’s what got me through the prison camps.