Bataan march survivor, 92, passes

Published 10:27 pm Thursday, March 12, 2009

Half a century after the horror ended, the physical wounds had healed, but Senior Master Sgt. Norman R. “Jack” Matthews still struggled with the bitterness that he felt inside.

“War is terrible,” he told a Lakeland High School U.S. history student during an interview for a school project in 2000.

Sgt. Matthews, who died Sunday at the age of 92, knew better than most just how terrible war could be.

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A World War II veteran of the U.S. Army Air Corps, Sgt. Matthews spent 41 months as a prisoner of war in Japanese prison camps, including one where he saw his own brother die of starvation.

But none of Sgt. Matthews’ war experiences affected him quite so strongly as the Bataan Death March.

Trained as an aircraft gunner, he found himself stationed with others in Manila in late 1941, awaiting the arrival of their airplanes, when the Japanese army invaded. He and the other members of the Air Corps were put into service as infantrymen, despite their lack of experience, training or proper equipment.

“We never got credit for the good fighting we did with what we had to fight with,” he told Suffolk author Ben Plewes while Plewes was researching his book “Suffolk Went to War: World War Two Remembered.”

Still, the U.S. troops could not hold back the Japanese advance, and they were surrendered by Gen. Edward King. More than 70,000 U.S. and Filipino soldiers, already weakened after months of short rations, were then forced to march more than 90 miles from Mariveles to Camp O’Donnell.

It was a brutal march, and the Japanese captors were — by all accounts — merciless to their prisoners.

“When these fellows would, uh, go off the road to get some water, the Japanese would shoot ‘em. Immediately,” Sgt. Matthews said in the 2000 interview.

Prisoners marched for a week in tropical heat, and those who were unable to continue for any reason were viciously killed, according to historical accounts. More than 600 Americans and as many as 10,000 Filipinos are thought to have died on the march.

For Sgt. Matthews’ brother, Edward Matthews Jr. — who enlisted in the Army the day after Jack Matthews and served in the same squadron as his brother — the harsh treatment at the hands of the Japanese proved too much. He died in captivity in October 1942.

“It made me bitter, and it made me hate the Japanese,” he matter-of-factly told another student interviewer in June 2007.

“Jack was not vague,” Plewes confirmed in a telephone conversation Wednesday. “He was very open. He was a pretty interesting man.”

Sergeant Matthews received the Purple Heart for wounds received on the day of Gen. King’s surrender to the Japanese, according to his obituary. He also received the Bronze Star for meritorious achievement.

After 27 years in the Air Force, Sgt. Matthews retired and returned to Suffolk, where he worked for many years as a building inspector until he retired from that career.

He was a member of Liberty Spring Christian Church.

Sgt. Matthews will be buried at 9 a.m. March 25 in Arlington National Cemetery. His family, which includes two living daughters and grandchildren, will receive friends in the R.W. Baker & Co. Funeral Home near downtown from 4 to 6 p.m. today.