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April 10, 2012

In Memoriam: The Bataan Death March at 70

My father’s uncle, Thomas O’Connor, or the Chief, as he was known to the family, lied about his age to get into the US Navy just before the outbreak of WWII. At 17, he was shipped overseas. Shortly afterwards, he was captured by the Japanese and became part of the infamous Bataan Death March, which started 70 years ago today.

The following account was written by my father’s cousin, Al O’Connor, who was a boy of eight when the war broke out. He and my dad lived with their Grandmother O’Connor, Thomas’s mother, so Al was on the scene for much of what happened, but of course, his memories are those of a child.

With his permission, I have pasted together two emails he sent to younger members of the family, but when I read them, I realized that even though this is the oral history of a family, this is something that needs to be kept alive and shared with interested people.

I haven’t edited his language, so some might find his term “Japs” offensive. I left it in because on some levels, he went back to that young wartime boy as he wrote this. The Japanese were America’s enemies, they had his uncle, and hatred simmered.

According to Al, the Chief had such hateful memories of all things Japanese that he wouldn’t even eat rice pudding for the rest of his life.

My memories of the Chief are all good—a tall fair man who smoked turkeys in a converted oil barrel. Quiet, red-faced, nice to me, but probably not one to cross. He died in 1990 when I was pregnant with my son, so I missed his funeral. He would have been in his mid-60s. So young, but since he survived Bataan and lived another 48 years, that was a ripe old age.

And now, my cousin, Al O’Connor

***

The Chief was a crew member aboard a submarine tender, the U.S.S.Canopus. Imagine being aboard a submarine tender in the middle of Manila Bay when some bad guys started a war! You are aboard a ship that is not only a floating arsenal with torpedoes and ammo for deck guns but also a floating supermarket! A ship made to resupply submarines at sea, loaded with clothing, munitions and food! This vessel had cargo of frozen meat, vegetables and dairy products. The Canopus was a floating super market! The wise Captain of this vessel, after a few air attacks, wisely chose to play dead. He flooded a few compartment to give the ship a list, then he arranged to burn rubber to make black smoke. The result was to appear as a derelict in the harbor, bent over and smoking. The result was no more air attacks!
Now imagine how Tom felt when ordered to go ashore and act as infantry. Tom told me how when the Japs attacked his position he tossed a hand grenade which was tossed back at him (he did not hold it long enough before tossing). It exploded and he wound up with shrapnel in his rear end, which was removed when the war ended.
Information [about the Chief’s time as a POW] is sketchy. Grandma O’Connor [his mother] did receive a telegram advising her that Tom was a prisoner of the Japanese. During the war, she received at least three post cards from Tom via the International Red Cross. These cards were a multiple choice type card. Check the box and sign it. I am well, Not well, I am hospitalized, that type of stuff, can’t recall it all. It was very vague but there was a space where the prisoner could write a sentence. Tom wrote, “I am well, and in as good shape as Arthur Barret.” Grandma took that to mean he was on the thin side. Also during the war there was a time when Grandma got a phone call from somewhere from a HAM Radio guy telling her he had intercepted a radio broadcast from the Japanese who had allowed some prisoners to speak on the radio. One of them was Tom and his message was a sort of Hello Mom, I’M ok.
Tom was moved from the Philippines to Osaka, Japan. Prisoners were stuffed into the holds of three ships with little food or water; it was like an oven. Two of the ships were sunk by our forces as they were not marked as POW ships. The Japs did not open the hatches so the prisoners went down with the ships; a few that did get out were gunned down in the water by the Japs.

Once in Japan, Tom was put to work as a lumberjack. He told me about a day when a young Jap boy on a bicycle rode by where the prisoners were doing some work on a bridge. The boy was so intent on looking at the prisoners that he misjudged where he was headed and wound up in the drink. Tom dove in the river and saved the buy. After that, the Japs gave Tom a Red Cross Parcel of which they had a warehouse full.
As the war was ending, B-29 bombers after their runs would sometimes fly low over the POW camps and drop canned fruit on the prison along with vitamin pills. The understanding was that if the cans fell inside the wire it was for the POWs, outside the wire it was for the Japs. Tom told me he saw Japs lying on their bellies lapping at a can of peaches that had burst open when it hit the ground.

Back in the Philippines, Tom had escaped once with another fellow. They floated on a log to another Island on a foggy night but were picked up by a Jap patrol boat and returned to camp. The POWs were doing well on the vitamins dropped to them by the B-29s. The Japs who were always hungry and malnutritioned noticed this and demanded their share of vitamins. So a prison Industry was born. The prisoners made vitamin pills out of plaster from the walls of their huts and sold them to the guards for food.

When the day of liberation arrived, the Jap Commander called an assembly of all the Prisoners and announced, “The war has ended and Gentlemen you are free”. American Paratroopers descended on the camp to maintain order. Tom was amazed at them, big, healthy guys in uniforms he did not recognize. Nothing like the skeletal POWs! On the way home on a Hospital ship, they were fattened up, had medical and dental attention. When Tom came home he was in a Marine uniform instead of a Navy uniform. I never knew why. After the war Tom spent some time at a Naval Hospital. Eventually he returned to active duty in the Navy as a Chief.

***

So, that is a slice of the story of my great uncle, Thomas “The Chief” O’Connor, former POW and survivor of the infamous Bataan Death March.  There are no details of the actual march as that was something that I was told he never spoke of.  In fact, I’m surprised and pleased that my cousin Al has so much detail.  My father would have known these things as well because he was there on the scene with Al, but my father died when I was a child, when he was 39, so almost all of his memories are lost to us. And my younger aunts and uncles were either infants during the war or were post war babies. As with many families, bad times were not really spoken of once they were past, so thanks to Al, we have these stories, but he was just a boy, and there aren’t many older than him who are left. It might be a cultural stereotype, but I do know that the Irish are very good at burying the bad.  This might work well for family sanity, but it’s a great loss to history.

There are very few of the survivors left now, as so few survived, and of those who did, many faced health problems in connection with their imprisonment, and even the youngest would be in their 80s now anyway. But the world needs to remember. And I offer my thanks to the sacrifice of those who died and those who lived, which by all accounts, was the much harder path.  Theirs was a blood sacrifice that must never be forgotten.

I’m proud of my great uncle, both for having the tenacity to survive, but also for being human enough to save a child, even the child of his enemy. To me, that speaks to his character more than survival.

Because of Uncle Tom, I’ve grown up knowing a little about Bataan, but I fear it’s being forgotten.  World War II, something very real to me growing up in the 60s as I was surrounded by a family of veterans, to my students is nothing more than a war from the middle of the last century, no more real to them than the Civil War was to me.  This is the nature of history. For my Virginian grandfather the War of Northern Aggression, or the Civil War to history books, was a real thing to him, though born 25 years after its end, as he was surrounded by those who had lived through it.

To learn more about Bataan, PBS provides some details and memories in the show The American Experience and there are a number of US history sites on line with information.  A news story from a memorial yesterday gives words of a few survivors who gathered in Sante Fe.

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