Surviving the Bataan Death March: one POW’s story
copyright the Chronicle April 2, 2014
by Tena Starr
Karen Zale of Newport grew up knowing that her father, John Zale (born John Zubrzyck), was a veteran of World War II. What she didn’t know, until very late in his life, was that he was a survivor of the Bataan Death March, one of the more horrific events of the war and considered a Japanese war crime by an Allied military commission.
On April 9, 1942, more than 70,000 American and Filipino soldiers, who surrendered to the Japanese at Bataan in the Philippines, were marched roughly 75 miles with little or no food or water. Many were already wounded, malnourished, and sick, and hundreds died, either from illness, exhaustion, brutality, or outright slaying.
Mr. Zale went on to be transported on what’s come to be called the “hell ships” as the nervous Japanese moved their captives ever closer to their own territory. He was a Japanese prisoner of war for three and a half years in Mukden, Manchuria, under conditions that were unspeakably inhumane.
John Zale died at the age of 90 in 2012. It was only then that his daughter discovered just how horrific her father’s war experience had been. After her father’s death, she was contacted by a man who had been on a panel of military officials and VA personnel who had interviewed Mr. Zale some years ago and made a videotape. In the interview, he described experiences that shocked his daughter, things he had never mentioned.
“I’m finding that World War II POWs wouldn’t talk about it for years,” Ms. Zale said. “It wasn’t until years later, maybe two years before he passed away, that he started telling me stories. I’ve heard from other people, from Guardians of Bataan, that some never even knew their fathers were POWs.”
She doesn’t know why the family didn’t learn about the interview earlier. Perhaps it was confidentiality, she said. Or it could have been her father’s wishes that the tape not be released to his family until he died.
In any event, watching it convinced her that the story should be told — not just for her father’s sake, but for all soldiers who have sacrificed so much.
“I had a hard time watching it, seeing it in his eyes and face,” Ms. Zale said about the interview. “I felt like I was sitting across from him. My brother had the CD for a while and he said he couldn’t even watch it. Humans can’t be treated like this.”
Yet, in some countries and circumstances, they still are. “We haven’t learned the lessons of war yet,” Ms. Zale said.
Recently, she’s spent some time with her brother, who had heard more stories from their father than his sister had, probably because he’s a man, she said. “We were both amazed. How did he ever function in society?”
POWs generally received small mercy from the Japanese, whose own code emphasized that surrender was dishonorable and strongly implied that suicide was preferable to capture.
“Army intelligence already understood the contempt with which the Japanese Army viewed the prisoner of war status,” says the book Ghost Soldiers, which chronicles a dramatic rescue of American POWs in the Philippines. “The Military Field Code, which was promulgated by Hideki Togo in January 1941, had made it expressly clear to all Japanese soldiers that falling into enemy hands brought irrevocable shame not only to the captured soldier but also to his entire family.”
“The Field Code directed the Japanese soldier to direct the last round of ammunition to himself, or to charge the enemy in a suicidal assault.
Given that ideology, it’s not surprising that prisoners of war were treated abominably.
“World War II typically saw a ratio of four soldiers captured to every soldier killed on the battlefield,” writes journalist Hampton Sides in Ghost Soldiers. “In the Japanese Army, the ratio was one soldier captured for every 120 deaths.”
Many of the men forced to make the Bataan Death March died of human cruelty, but deprivation was also due to logistical fiasco. After the fall of Bataan, the Japanese had expected about 25,000 soldiers to surrender. Closer to 100,000 did, and they were in tough shape. The Imperial Army, which was poorly provisioned and largely expected to forage for its own food, was well short of rations for such a huge collection of prisoners.
They were also on a schedule, and the prisoners who could not keep up were simply killed.
Right around the time that her mother was dying, which was about 15 years ago, Ms. Zale said that her father, who had lived in the Buffalo, New York, area most of his life, began to go to group therapy sessions at the VA hospital there. That, she surmises, is how the interview came about.
Ms. Zale has since transcribed that videotape. But that’s not all. The weekend of March 22 she flew to New Mexico to participate in the annual Bataan Death March re-enactment, in honor of her father’s memory.
She had not known such a thing existed until, while still going through her father’s effects in December, she found an e-mail about it.
She also found the journal her father had kept while a POW. “I felt that was a rare document,” she said. “I felt like I was holding the Holy Grail.”
She doesn’t know why he had information about the re-enactment march. It was in an e-mail dated in early 2012. Surviving POWs are asked to attend and participate in a “meet and greet,” Ms. Zale said. “Maybe he was contemplating going there.”
She Googled the event and decided to participate. “I thought, I’m going to sign up and do this.”
The Army ROTC Department at New Mexico State University began sponsoring the memorial march in 1989. Although it’s primarily for military personnel, civilians are welcome to participate.
“The Bataan Memorial Death March honors a special group of World War II heroes,” the march’s website says. “These brave soldiers were responsible for the defense of the islands Luzon, Corregidor and the harbor defense forts of the Philippines.
“The conditions they encountered and the aftermath of the battle were unique. They fought in a malaria-infested region, surviving on half or quarter rations with little or no medical help. They fought with outdated equipment and virtually no air power.”
The surrender at Bataan was the biggest U.S. surrender since the Civil War. Thousands of weary and emaciated troops were surrendered on April 9, 1942 — 72 years ago as of next week — following General Douglas MacArthur’s departure in March to Australia, where he’d been ordered by Washington, D.C.
“I have come through and I will return,” he said in his still famous speech, although soldiers knew very well that the U.S. had abandoned them, for the moment at least, and General MacArthur’s return would be too late for them. They fought on, nonetheless — hungry, wounded, sick, and with small hope of rescue.
This year more than 6,000 people walked through the sandy desert at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico in memory of the soldiers who died on that unspeakable march from Bataan to San Fernando, Pampanga, in the Philippines. The soldiers’ destination was Camp O’Donnell, originally a Filipino training camp designed for 9,000 men. It would end up housing tens of thousands in conditions hard to contemplate.
“It doesn’t compare to anything they went through,” Ms. Zale said referring to the re-enactment walk. “You can’t compare a 15-mile march with food and water to the death march.”
But the New Mexico march is not intended to be easy. “Marching in deep sand in the hot desert sun doesn’t begin to compare to the conditions the men had in 1942,” Ms. Zale said in an e-mail. “They were already malnourished and suffering from diseases when they were surrendered to the Japanese.”
She finished the shorter 14.5-mile course in four hours and 19 minutes. Many continue on to complete the 26-mile course. Ms. Zale said she saw one marcher with just one leg and another who had a metal prosthetic leg.
“I did cry a couple of times. I felt like Dad was with me. I felt a presence, I guess. I can’t even articulate it. It was a moment of clarity, of Dad being there.”
“I’d love to have people understand what people went through, how it affected them,” Ms. Zale said. “So many didn’t make it home. They made such a sacrifice.”
There is no accurate record of how many men died on the Bataan Death March, or in Japanese POW camps later, but it was in the thousands. Some lucky ones may have escaped the march, melting into the civilian population.
Later, some died from friendly fire, in the holds of Japanese transport ships, killed by American bombers who did not know U.S prisoners were on board. The ships themselves were deadly. POWs were packed into the holds of merchant ships with no room to even lie down. For nearly a month, they stood, or collapsed, where they were, in the mess of their own bodily functions.
Some died at the hands of American planes while in camps — again because the attackers had no idea they were killing fellow Americans.
Mr. Zale survived it all, returning to his family at war’s end, to a mother who fainted at the sight of him. Like so many, it was years before he was willing to revisit his experiences.
“The men of Bataan are famous for their iron reticence,” Mr. Sides writes in Ghost Soldiers. “Seldom in our history has such a large group of men endured so much and complained so little. Many of them never told their stories when they returned home, not even to their own families.
“They resumed their lives, burying the past to the extent possible, suffering quietly.
“Some felt as though they were branded by a certain shame when they returned to American shores — shame for having surrendered in the first place (even though they were ordered to do so), shame for having survived when so many of their friends didn’t….”
And many were bitter, writes Mr. Sides who interviewed many former POWs, including Abie Abraham, who knew Mr. Zale.
“While their patriotism is beyond question, many of the Bataan veterans have been unable to shake their belief that their country abandoned and forgot them, that Washington for all intents and purposes turned its back. They’re still proud to recite their company slogan — “No mama, no papa, no Uncle Sam…and nobody gives a damn.”
What follows is an edited version of Ms. Zale’s transcription of the interview conducted with her father. It meanders, she said, because he did. Sometimes he didn’t answer the questions asked. Sometimes he elaborated. But his account of the atrocities he lived through tended to wander back and forth through time as he recalled those dreadful years.
His motto, said his daughter, was “Freedom is not free.”
John Zale was interviewed in 2007 on videotape for over two hours at a military base in Niagara Falls 62 years after being liberated. As a World War II veteran and a POW for three and a half years, this is what his experience was as he told it and as was written down by his daughter Karen Zale of Newport.
Dad turned 18 years old on February 9, 1940, and five days later, on February 14, Valentine’s Day, he enlisted in the Army. He was a staff sergeant when he was discharged. As a private, he made $21 a month and sent $5 of that home to his mother. When dad told the recruiting officer that he wanted to go as far away as possible, the officer told him that would be the Philippines. But, he warned: “Son, you don’t want to go there. It’s sitting on a keg of dynamite and the fuse is getting shorter.”
That was before the U.S. was formally involved in the war. He started his tour of duty in the Philippines on November 3, 1941.
While stationed with the Thirty-first Infantry (also known as the American Foreign Legion) in the Philippines, he volunteered to go out to the ammunition ship to get supplies and load them onto a barge. A typhoon hit, and he had to ride it out. With waves over 30 feet high, the men tied themselves to the ship so they wouldn’t be swept overboard.
Dad was already in the Philippines prior to December 7, 1941, when Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese. He was being bombed in the Philippines at the same time Pearl Harbor was being bombed. They hit the air base and knocked out the planes. Dad had his formal orders to go home to the States from the Philippines, but that ship never arrived.
Dad was a corporal and had a squad during the battles of Bataan and Corregidor before the surrender to the Japanese. On January 21, 1942, on the way to Abucay he got hit and was wounded in the gut. When U.S. troops withdrew, they left him behind, wounded. But a soldier, Abie Abraham, came back and carried him out. (Editor’s note: Abie Abraham survived the war and went on to write two books about his experiences: Ghost of Bataan Speaks and Oh God Where Are You?
Dad was operated on in a schoolhouse and recalled that his intestines were outside of his body. Medical care was very primitive. Word got out that the schoolhouse was going to be bombed, so they carried Dad and the other wounded soldiers outside. Their cots were on the ground with mosquito netting around them. The school did get bombed. Dad was operated on and another guy gave him a direct blood transfusion. There was no medication. He was given his Last Rites since they thought he was going to die.
The soldiers had malaria and pellagra. Dad also had dengue fever (both “dry” and “wet”). That was before the long forced march that came to be known as the Bataan Death March.
He was told by his company commander that if he could get back to the squad he would get a third stripe. Dad could have gone home, but he wanted that third stripe. On March 3, 1942, he returned to duty as a platoon leader, although he was still too weak to carry his rifle.
He was on guard duty for General Douglas MacArthur when he was in the Philippines. They called MacArthur “Dug-out Doug” because he got out through the Malinta Tunnel to escape and was flown to Australia. That’s when he vowed as he was leaving, “I will return.” The fall of Bataan came on April, 9, 1942, when the Americans surrendered to the Japanese.
General Jonathan Mayhew Wainwright surrendered Corregidor to the Japanese on May 6, 1942.
As far as meals, in the Philippines it consisted mostly of “lugao” (a rice porridge popular in the Islands). Food was so scarce the men were shooting monkeys and cavalry horses.
Conditions were already bad before the death march, and many of the soldiers had malnutrition. If a soldier didn’t have a fever he had to go to work. If he was sick, rations were cut in half. The soldiers had been abandoned and chanted: “No momma, no papa, no Uncle Sam.” They were known as the Battling Bastards of Bataan.
The Bataan Death March started on April 9, 1942, the day of the surrender. The number of prisoners, both American and Filipino, was estimated at 72,000. Most of them were very sick.
Dad had malaria and was weak from having been wounded. It was generally 120 degrees or so in the tropics, and the soldiers had no water and no food through the march. During the march some of the Filipinos threw food to the soldiers even though, if they were caught helping the prisoners, they were bayoneted. Some of the men were able to pick up the banana peels that the Japanese discarded in the dirt. If a soldier fell down, that was the end. They were shot if they couldn’t keep up.
Dad was hit in the head so hard with a rifle butt that it knocked his helmet off and he believes he sustained a concussion. The soldiers had dysentery and marched in their own feces. The prisoners were sometimes bayoneted to death; they also died of scurvy and malaria.
Thousands of men died during the march, which was estimated to be 65 or 70 miles and lasted about a week.
Then the prisoners were shipped in boxcars by rail, ending at Camp O’Donnell. Dad barely made it. When the march was over he said he wouldn’t have made it another mile.
In Cabanatuan he ended up in a makeshift “hospital” and was in what they called the “Zero Ward.” Very few made it out of there. The next step was the “Saint Peter’s Ward” (also considered the morgue). Only one guy made it out of the Saint Peter’s Ward. When he was in the Zero Ward Dad was in a coma for three days and a soldier spoon fed him. He never knew who it was.
He was at Cabanatuan Prison Camp around October 10, 1942, and then at Bilibid Prison where soldiers slept on a concrete floor. In Cabanatuan they slept on lice infested bamboo straw bunks. In Bilibid Prison he was severely beaten because he did not bow to one of the Japanese guards.
From the Philippines he went to Korea and then finally to Mukden, Manchuria. (Mukden is known today as Shenyang, China.)
What was worse even than the Bataan Death March was the trip in the “hell ships.” My dad was on the Tortori Maru. There was no place to lay down in the hold and soldiers either squatted or stood for 30 days. Men just waited for someone to die to make more room. Dad said they were packed like sardines in a can but the sardines had it better because they were dead and the POWs were alive. They were infested with lice, they had dysentery but no latrine. There was no air, the smell was overwhelming, and they were suffocating.
Plenty died. About 1,400 men were jammed into a hold meant for 200. Americans torpedoed the ships not knowing that POWs were in the hold. Dad said he heard the torpedoes going past them. Some of the hell ships got hit and men died, but they missed his ship. He said maybe it would have been a good thing to have been torpedoed rather than go through that horrific nightmare.
The ship stopped in Formosa to load up on fuel and the men were unloaded, stripped naked, and hosed down with a fire hose to get the lice off them. Dad said they were so infested with lice he thought it was the lice that kept the ship afloat. They were put back on the ship to Pusan (now called Busan), Korea, arriving around November 11, 1942. Again, the starving men just talked about food.
Next they were put on a freight train that took them from Korea to Mukden. Dad recalled getting some decent food at that railroad station — a boxed lunch of rice and some pickled salty carp.
In Japanese-held Manchuria, there were camps one and two, plus satellite camps and coal mines. Dad worked in the tool and die factory, the textile factory and also worked at farming, coal, and on the railroad. At some point, he worked on the Great Wall of China, chipping off mortar from stones.
He stole medication for one of his men. Dad knew there was medicine in the dumps, and equipment was lying around everywhere. He picked up a Filipino’s first aid kit and used the medicine for bartering. He actually sneaked out of the camp to get the first aid bag and then sneaked back in (risking his own life in order to save a fellow prisoner). He gave some medicine to the fellow prisoner, but that man died regardless. The POWs were to turn over any medications to their officers, but they didn’t and used it for themselves because they didn’t trust the officers.
In Mukden, the POWs were largely given only soup to eat. It came in wooden buckets and each solider was given one dipper. In the fall there were more vegetables, such as rotten potatoes. Once a year, on the Emperor’s birthday, they were given an orange to eat. There never was any meat. Fights started over food, and soldiers talked incessantly about food and recipes.
The camp had barbed wire around it, but dogs could get in. The men ate dogs and whatever vermin that they could catch. Dad beat a dog to death and ate it. The guys who refused to eat the dogs died. A guy who was next to dad said he wouldn’t eat dog meat and the very next day he died.
They had a tub that they cooked the dogs in and would trade the dog skin with the Chinese for cigarettes. A POW by the name of Jack Williams knew how to cut up the dog meat and find the filet portion. They also ate sparrows to supplement their meager diet.
Men lost the will to live and were dying like flies, maybe 100 per day, both Filipino and American. The POWs figured that at the rate the men were dying they had only about 20 to 30 days to live. In Mukden, the ground was frozen in the winter so they just stacked up the bodies.
Soldiers who tried to escape were likely to be executed. Dad thought about hiding out in a manhole. In the barracks they slept on a deck off the floor and once he took a loose nail from the floor and moved the board and he thought he could crawl in and lay there if he needed to hide. They slept in lice. Their pastime was killing lice and they had a saying, “Who die, you or the fly.”
He was always plotting how he could sabotage something, break something or steal something without getting caught. The POWs staged their own private war against their captors. While working at the textile factory, when the guard wasn’t looking Dad would loosen up the weave of the fabric to weaken it. Once he flung a piece of metal up into the electric wires and knocked the power out. A group of guys were making cement, and when the Japanese weren’t looking they took a lathe and buried it in the fresh cement. The Japanese never found the lathe, and dad said the Chinese were blamed for the incident.
When the prisoners stood in lines a captain charged down the middle with a saber to straighten them out. Any soldier who wasn’t in line would get stabbed. They had to learn how to count in Japanese, and they had to learn some Japanese to follow their orders. Dad got hit in the mouth with a shoe for not counting correctly in Japanese.
He said that three or four of the POWs formed a group that he was a part of and they looked out for each other. He talked some of the guys out of trying to escape. He got caught redhanded with a handful of brown sugar and was beaten for it. But he said it was worth the beating to get some sugar. Since the Japanese were short, they stood on a box when they beat the POWs.
Dad and some of the other guys got court-martialed in the prison camp over stealing alcohol. There was a difference between alcohol and sake, and alcohol was more for medicinal use. So dad claimed it was sake that he stole, which would give him a lesser penalty than for stealing alcohol. For four days they beat him and he got 16 days in solitary. There were times when he spent two weeks in solitary confinement, which meant being locked into a small box about four feet square. He kept his sanity by watching a spider build its web and killing maggots.
At Mukden, he was in Camp One, and after the first winter, guys were dying of pneumonia and dysentery. They had intestinal worms and fungal infections.
Then he was moved to Camp Two. At some point, dad said, the American planes bombed the camp and some POWs were killed. He said the planes were like “silver jewels” flying over them, and it was a good sign to see the American planes because they didn’t know what was going on in the war. The camp commander told the POWs to write a telegram to President Roosevelt saying that they were being bombed by U.S. planes. One of the guys had a missing arm and said, “Send the planes back. I have one more arm.”
When dad was working at the textile factory one guy couldn’t take being a POW any longer and he put his arm into the gears of the textile mill. Dad got beat with a rifle by a guard for trying to stop the power to the main switch in order to help the man get out of the gears.
In winter they marched five miles to work. They got one bowl of what seemed like cornmeal and potato soup, which went right through the undernourished soldiers, who were not allowed to stop marching even to take a “bathroom” break. One time a guard shoved dad’s face in feces.
They were in primitive Chinese turn-of-the-century barracks, low buildings that were half-buried under the ground. Water froze in their canteens. There was no heat in the barracks, but some heat was rationed.
They had a bucket of coal and a bundle of kindling and the fire lasted maybe one or two hours. It was 30 to 40 below in Mukden and it was hard to breathe in the cold weather. They were given old coats that had bullet holes in them, and footwear. At first, before it got cold, they only had open wooden clogs for their feet. When the weather got more severe they were given blankets. But by a certain date, regardless of the weather, they had to turn in the blankets and coats. They were always getting called out for roll call regardless of how cold it was. Once they had the POWs strip naked and threw cold water on them, making them stand at attention in the freezing weather.
At night dad’s feet would hurt from having beriberi and he would hang his feet off the end of his bed. The guards would hit his feet with a rifle because they were hanging over the edge.
He said the Japanese were even mean to their fellow men. The Japanese captain was getting punished by a colonel for something he did and had to carry a cement bag over his head. The POWs knew it would trickle down the ranks to them and they would get punished too.
The Japanese had the POWs in groups of ten. If one escaped the other nine would be killed. Dad had wondered if one was going to try to escape when the guy asked him to trade bags with him. Dad had a Filipino first aide bag, which was small. The other guy had a larger musette bag. It turned out that a group of three tried to escape. The rest of dad’s group was punished and had to sit at attention with their legs crossed for 14 days until the other three were eventually found. They were only allowed to get up to go to the bathroom.
The three men (one was a Marine) were caught and brought back to camp. They had been beaten almost into oblivion and were semi-conscious. They were paraded around wearing a steel ball and chain, then they were executed.
Later, there was a stake in the ground where the three were buried on “Boot Hill,” with not even a cross to mark the grave. No one tried to escape after that.
The Japanese did human experimentation on dad and the other men. They found out later it was called Unit 731. It was rumored that the Japanese doctors were coming in from Japan to see if the POWs were okay for “breeding.” The doctors measured literally everything on the men. They were given unknown stuff to drink as experiments. Different guys had different reactions.
The Chinese suffered the most.
Besides drinking unknown fluids, dad recalled them taking a feather that contained some virus and tickling it on his nose.
During the time he was a POW Dad only got one card from home through the Red Cross and it was limited to 25 words. Receiving that one card from home was, “like lighting one candle in a dark room,” he said. He could put no monetary value on that one card and what it meant to him to receive it.
After the war started, it was a whole year later that his parents were notified that their son was alive and taken prisoner. Near the end, some of the men got packages through the Red Cross. Dad only received one package from home, which he said had already been “burglarized” and contained only a bag of peanuts and a bottle of vitamin pills by the time he got it. The Japanese kept the mail and packages in a warehouse and never gave it to the POWs, he said.
In early August 1945 the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On August 15, 1945, the Japanese surrendered.
The POWs were liberated by the Russians and it was a great day. The first team parachuted into the camp at 11 a.m. on August 15, 1945. The Russians wanted to keep the Japanese commander from executing the POWs because the war was now over. One team member was an interpreter. The Japanese were already burning their records. The commander only knew that he had orders to execute the men and the team that parachuted in had to inform him it was over.
When the Russians arrived, they lined up all the Japanese and their machine guns and equipment in front of the American POWs. Now the Japanese were the POWs.
After the Americans were liberated they, in turn, had to guard the Japanese.
At the gate to the camp, dad was on duty and a company of Japanese wanted to come into the camp for protection because they were being attacked on the outside. The Japanese company commander surrendered his saber to dad, who took the saber but then told the Japanese to keep going and closed the gate. We still have that saber.
When the American POWs were guarding the Japanese they had orders that they could not touch them or retaliate. Dad reminded one of the Japanese that they were to commit hari-kari rather than being taken prisoner. He offered him a knife, but the man refused to kill himself.
It was weeks to months before they could leave the camp because the railroads needed to be repaired. After they did leave and were in town in China, dad and his fellow POWs and some Russian soldiers held up a bank and loaded up with money and then hit a brewery and got beer.
Cigarettes and coffee were what they wanted. They would give the money away to the Chinese.
The now free POWs were then put on a hospital ship, the USS Relief, (1945) to be taken from Manchuria to Korea, in order to get back to Okinawa, arriving in September.
But as bad luck would have it, a typhoon hit that they had to ride out. The force of the typhoon was such that the upper structure of the ship was bent to hell.
When they were flying from Okinawa to the Philippines and another storm hit, the plane before dad’s crashed and they had to wait for the debris to be removed off the runways before they could land.
Dad weighed 89 pounds and was emaciated when he was liberated. He said they never could have lived through another winter, after three and a half years as prisoners of war.
From Okinawa he was transported to Letterman Army General Hospital in California and then to Rhodes General Hospital. He was honorably discharged from the Army in Georgia, but he didn’t want to go home right away because he couldn’t face it.
When he got home, his mother passed out when she saw that he was alive. It was seeing his mother, also one of his schoolteachers, that kept him going all those years as a POW.
Later, he became interested in the Boy Scouts and he was Scout leader of Troop 192 for 15 years. His mission was to teach the boys about survival and patriotism.
contact Tena Starr at [email protected]