The Bataan Death March

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 17, 2004

Andy Damiani and I did our Roundtable Talk show from the MacArthur Memorial where Andy interviewed James Zobel, the archivist who keeps track of over 2,000,000 pages of documents, 90,000 photographs, 300 films, 300 audio recordings, and thousands of magazines, newspapers, and other materials. I was in the European Theatre and heard very little of MacArthur until after the war. But the &uot;Japanese&uot; war was brought home to me before I was drafted when the Japanese captured one young man I knew in our hometown and was presumed dead. He has finally agreed to have his experience related in book form. Get it if you are interested in important but perhaps forgotten events of World War II. The book written recently by William J. Duggan is called &uot;The Silence of the Soldier.&uot; It details the Bataan Death March as revealed by Smith Merrill, known to us as &uot;Bub,&uot; who was subjected to the march and horrors of 3-1/2 years of captivity.

Bub and many thousands of others from the United States and the Philippines had been stationed at Del Carmen Field on the Bataan Peninsula before Pearl Harbor. On Dec. 8, the day after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese forces attacked them. Five months later, backed up to the South Channel of Manila Bay, out manned and poorly equipped the American and Filipino forces surrendered to the Japanese. Bub buried his personal belongings by a large tree on the base, hoping to retrieve them one day.

Some 70,000 American and Filipino solders were rounded up and began what would become known as the Bataan Death March. They were herded to Camp O’Donnell, 63 miles to the north. Sixteen thousand, read that again, 16,000 died during the torturous 16-day forced march from disease, malnutrition, many killed by the Japanese. To prevent escape they were put in groups of 10. If one escaped they killed the other nine. Then 42 months as a POW and everyone but his high school sweetheart assumed he was dead.

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Only after Japan had surrendered in 1945 did his family hear that he had survived. Now 85, Bub agreed to provide the details of his life as a prisoner of war in a camp thousands of miles from home. It took him many years to fully recover from the ordeal and he was a hero of mine from the moment he was captured. He says now that he survived only because of his love for the girl who waited patiently, still with him, and the toughness of his father and his grandfather, Christopher Smith, who founded the once famous Chris Craft Corporation, maker of luxury craft.

Bub’s story &uot;The Silence of the Soldier&uot; is a gripping read and makes you wonder how anyone could have survived the march, let alone a hellish prison. It made me think about how America today is shaken when an American soldier is wounded or killed, or taken as hostage. Can you imagine the outrage and fear if 70,000 soldiers were captured tomorrow in Iraq? Is it that all things are relative, or that our nation’s courage is falling apart? Bub has given me permission to use vignettes from his book in future columns.

How does Congress explain the following? During those glorious meetings at the United Nations (?) Egypt, that gets $2 billion annually in foreign aid from us, votes against us 79 percent of the time. Dear Jordan picks up $192 million each year but votes against us 75 percent of the time. Pakistan got nearly $7 million but voted 78 percent &uot;no.&uot; Kuwait 67 percent negative, Morocco 70, Saudi Arabia 73, and Lebanon 80 percent. Why are we a member of the United Nations, better known as the &uot;against America Divided Nations?

Early in July we could have, but I hope not, a new mayor. The boys and girl on Council will begin, if they haven’t already, to whisper to each other their choice for mayor and vice mayor. And those who would like one position or the other let it be known in hopes that any three others will agree and be part of the deciding vote. But if there is a change in the mayorship how could it be good for Suffolk?

Robert Pocklington is a resident of Suffolk and a regular News-Herald columnist. He can be contacted via e-mail: