80 Years Later: A Journey with a Bataan Death March Survivor

80 Years Later: A Journey with a Bataan Death March Survivor

Eighty years ago this week, my late friend Bob Brown, a seventeen-year-old U.S. Army Air Corps medic at that time, was walking the Bataan Death March in the Philippines.

Eighty years ago this week, my late friend Bob Brown, a seventeen-year-old U.S. Army Air Corps medic at that time, was walking the Bataan Death March in the Philippines. He was among some 12,000 U.S. troops who were surrendered and were taken prisoner, together with 66,000 Filipino soldiers, by invading Japanese forces on April 9, 1942.

It was the largest surrender in the history of U.S. foreign wars. 

Bob enlisted when he was sixteen, lying about his age, and arrived in the Philippines in November of 1941.

He dropped off his first letter home at the post office at Clark Air Field base in the morning of December 8, but it was never delivered as the Japanese bombers wiped out the base in the afternoon. It had only been ten hours since the Pearl Harbor attack. Within a few weeks, massive Japanese forces landed on Luzon and quickly took Manila. For four months, U.S. and Filipino soldiers, including Bob, fought valiantly against overwhelming enemy forces.

When they were surrendered, they were starving and many were stricken with malaria, beriberi, or dysentery. “Thousands of troops and hundreds of planes” that Douglas MacArthur had assured were on the way never arrived.

Young Bob survived the March, but he was forced to watch three of his fellow prisoners of war (POWs) be decapitated along the road. No one knows exactly how many died on the Bataan Death March, but even by the most conservative estimate approximately 6,000 Filipinos and 650 Americans lost their lives.

Walking for five days under the scorching sun, Bob reached Camp O’Donnell, where 1,500 American POWs and many more Filipino POWs would die in the next few months due to lack of adequate medical care and food. Camp O’Donnell’s condition was so bad that the Japanese moved POWs to another camp, Cabanatuan, where more than a thousand would still die. Meanwhile, the island fortress of Corregidor fell on May 6, resulting in another 12,000 American soldiers becoming POWs of the Japanese.

Bob survived the camps and was sent to Mukden, a city in Japanese occupied Manchuria, in the fall of 1942. Bob was determined to live and made every effort to survive by learning ten Japanese words a day. He soon became fluent enough to become a medical assistant/interpreter at the hospital of Mukden POW camp where some 1,500 Allied POWs were held. Almost all of them were forced to work at nearby factories. During the first bitter cold winter, nearly 200 POWs perished.

But Bob was lucky to work under a kind Japanese Army doctor. He remembered this doctor:

He didn't have the hate that a lot of Japanese soldiers had. He and I had camaraderie. I don't know how to describe it. It was a friendship.

Bob worked so hard that he even received two commendation letters from the Japanese camp commander. But life in the camp was harsh; three POWs who tried to escape were recaptured and executed. The hardest thing for Bob was not knowing if he would ever go back home alive. He was held in this camp until Soviet forces liberated it a few days after the Japanese surrender on August 15, 1945. Bob just turned twenty-one.

Coming home and readjusting to normal life was not easy for Bob. For three and a half years, he was just trying to survive each day. What else could he do? All he could do was drink. There was very little understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in those days. His first marriage failed. Eventually, he picked himself up, went back to school, and rejoined the military; this time in the Air Force.

As Bob advanced the ranks, he applied for the position at the U.S. Air Force base near Tokyo. He wanted to visit the doctor he had worked for, who had given Bob his address in Tokyo when the two parted in Mukden.

More than ten years had passed when they met again. Bob found out that the doctor had been taken to Siberia by the Soviet forces and was held there for four years. They were now both former POWs.

Bob retired from the Air Force in 1969 with the rank of chief master sergeant. 

I met Bob at a reunion of former American POWs of the Japanese in 2004. As I was writing about their stories for Japanese publications at that time, they kindly allowed me to join this very special event. Bob introduced himself in Japanese and we immediately hit it off.

Bob was in his early 80s and still active. What we did together in the next four years became one of my most treasured memories.

In 2005, we visited the family of the doctor Bob had visited in Tokyo in the 50s. The doctor had passed away many years ago, but his widow was still alive. They met again in the same room they had met a half-century earlier. The doctor’s children, including the daughter who had met Bob as a teenager, and their families welcomed us. What a reunion.

I also arranged a meeting between Bob and Japanese veterans who had been taken to Siberia after the war for hard labor. They found out that their paths had crossed with Bob’s in Mukden right after the war as they headed in different directions. Elderly men were shocked when Bob started talking to them in Japanese.

We also met with members of the Japanese Parliament and toured the Japanese Diet. I wanted him to feel he was welcomed and respected by today’s Japan.

But the highlight of my friendship with Bob was our trip to Mukden, today’s Shenyang, China. A local historian was our guide. Amazingly, the old buildings of the POW camp and the hospital were still standing. The hospital had become a senior citizen home. When Bob entered one room, he exclaimed, “This is it! I worked in this room with the doctor every day!” I saw no bitterness in Bob for all the cruelty he had endured as a POW of the Japanese. He was just amazed that he was able to come back to this place.

The U.S. Consul General in Shenyang invited us for dinner and showed great interest in Bob’s POW experience.  We also met the Japanese Consul General. Bob’s POW journey came full circle.

Then in 2006, I participated in a trip to the Philippines organized by children of POWs whose fathers never came back. I stood at the point where Bob started the march, walked some portions of the Bataan Death March, and explored the field where Camp O’Donnell was, where he witnessed hundreds of deaths of his fellow POWs. After coming home, I reported everything I saw during the trip to Bob. He was so happy that I took this trip.

In the early spring of 2008, Bob was diagnosed with lung cancer. It was a huge blow to him as he was always proud of his physical and mental strength. He often told me that he had inherited his strength from his ancestors who came to California from the Midwest on the wagon train. He believed that strength helped him survive the POW ordeal.

To cheer him up, I decided to participate in the Bataan Memorial Death March, an event annually held at White Sands in New Mexico to honor Bataan marchers. Bob, still feeling well enough to travel, was one of the guests of honor—actual Bataan Death March survivors. I finished fifteen miles in a little over five hours and Bob was so proud of me.

Bob’s condition rapidly deteriorated after the Memorial March. By summer, he was under hospice care at his home. We chatted over the phone often, reminiscing about our trip to Shenyang. He lived in a cabin he built on the foothills of the Sierra Nevada homesteaded by his great-grandfather.

I visited Bob in late September of 2008 as I sensed that the end was near. He was lying in his bed. He thanked me for visiting him and having been genuinely interested in his POW stories. I thanked him for trusting me to share so many stories, including his suffering at the hands of my country. He asked me to continue to tell the story of the Japanese’s American POWs. I said, “I promise,” seeing tears welling up in his eyes.

We reminisced about our good times together for a while. “The only thing I regret,” Bob said, “was I did not bring you to see the chestnut tree my great-grandfather had planted. It is still growing not far from here.”

Then he said he would be in his military uniform the next time I see him.

I would go back to Bob’s funeral two weeks after this meeting. He was lying in the casket wearing his Air Force uniform, so dignified.

Bob gave me so many precious memories while alive. His last gift to me was the honor of writing an obituary of him. His family kindly offered me to do so. English was still my second language, but I poured my soul into this incredible honor—a Japanese person writing an obituary of a Bataan Death March survivor. It was published in a local newspaper of his beloved hometown.