Rocky planned to become a Priest of the Roman Catholic faith, and return to the country to help the orphaned children of Vietnam. His was a bright and shining future. One never meant to be.
Humbert Roque Versace was born in Honolulu on July 2, 1937, the oldest of five sons born to Colonel Humbert Joseph Versace. Writer Marie Teresa “Tere” Rios was his mother, author of the Fifteenth Pelican. If you don’t recall the book, perhaps you remember the 1960s TV series, based on the story. It was called The Flying Nun.
Like his father before him, Humbert, (“Rocky” to his friends), joined the armed services out of high school, graduating from the United States Military Academy at West Point, in 1959.
Rocky earned his Ranger tab and parachutist badge the same year, later serving as tank commander with the 1st Cavalry in South Korea, then with the 3rd US Infantry – the “Old Guard”.
Rocky attended the Military Assistance Institute, the Intelligence course at Fort Holabird Maryland, and the USACS Vietnamese language Course at the Presidio of Monterey, beginning his first tour of duty in Vietnam on May 12, 1962.
He did his tour, and voluntarily signed up for another six months. By the end of October 1963, Rocky had fewer than two weeks to the end of his service. He had served a year and one-half in the Republic of Vietnam. Now he planned to go to seminary school. He had already received his acceptance letter, from the Maryknoll order.
Rocky planned to become a Priest of the Roman Catholic faith, and return to the country to help the orphaned children of Vietnam.
His was a bright and shining future. One never meant to be.
Rocky was assisting a Civilian Irregular Defense (CIDG) force of South Vietnamese troops remove a Viet Cong (VC) command post in the Mekong Delta. It was unusual that anyone would volunteer for such a mission, particularly one with his “short-timer’s stick”. This was a daring mission in a very dangerous place.
On October 29, an overwhelming force of Viet Cong ambushed and overran Rocky’s unit. Under siege and suffering multiple bullet and shrapnel wounds, Versace put down suppressing fire, permitting his unit to withdraw from the kill zone.
Another force of some 200 South Vietnamese arrived, too late to alter the outcome. Communist radio frequency jamming had knocked out both main and backup radio channels.
Their position overrun, Captain Versace, Lieutenant Nick Rowe and Sergeant Dan Pitzer were captured and taken to a North Vietnamese prison, deep in the jungle.
For most of the following two years, a 2’x3’x6’ bamboo cage would be their home. On nights when their netting was taken away, the mosquitoes were so thick on their shackled feet, it looked like they were wearing socks.
Years later, President George W. Bush would tell a story, about how Steve Versace described his brother. “If he thought he was right”, Steve said to audience laughter, “he was a pain in the neck. If he knew he was right, he was absolutely atrocious.”
In 1964, Vietnamese interrogators were learning what Steve Versace could have told them, if only they’d asked. His brother could not be broken. Rocky attempted to escape four times, despite leg wounds which left him no option but to crawl on his belly. Each such attempt earned him savage beatings, but that only made him try harder.
Fluent in French, Vietnamese and English, Rocky could quote chapter and verse from the Geneva Conventions and never quit doing so. He would insult and ridicule his captors in three languages, even as they beat him to within an inch of his life.
Incessant torture and repeated isolation in solitary confinement did nothing to shut him up. Communist indoctrination sessions had to be brought to a halt in French and Vietnamese, because none of his interrogators could effectively argue with this guy. They certainly didn’t want villagers to hear him blow up their Communist propaganda in their own language.
For five months in 1964, reports came back through intelligence circles, of one particular prisoner. Paraded in chains before local villagers, with hair turned snow white and face swollen and yellowed with jaundice. With hands tied behind his back and a rope around his neck, even then this man still spoke in three languages, of God, and Freedom, and American democracy.
The affect was unacceptable to his Communist tormentors. To the people of these villages, this man made sense.
In the end, Versace was isolated from the rest of the prison population, as a dangerous influence. He responded by singing at the top of his lungs, the lyrics of popular songs of the day replaced by messages of inspiration to his fellow POWs. Rocky was last heard belting out “God Bless America”, at the top of his lungs.
Humbert Roque Versace was murdered by his North Vietnamese captors, his “execution” announced on North Vietnamese “Liberation Radio” on September 26, 1965. He was twenty-eight years old.
Rocky’s remains were never recovered. The headstone bearing his name in the Memorial section MG-108 at Arlington National Cemetery, stands over an empty grave. The memory of his name is inscribed on the Courts of the Missing in the Honolulu Memorial at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, and on Panel 1E, line 33, of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
This American hero of Italian and Puerto Rican heritage was nominated for the medal of honor in 1969, an effort culminating in a posthumous Silver Star. In 2002, the Defense Authorization Act approved by the United States Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush, awarded Versace the Medal of Honor.
In a July 8, 2002 ceremony in the East Room of the White House, the President of the United States awarded the Medal of Honor to United States Army Captain Humbert Roque “Rocky” Versace. Dr. Stephen Versace stood in to receive the award, on behalf of his brother. Never before had the nation’s highest honor for military valor been bestowed on a POW, for courage in the face of captivity.
“Sometime [the train] stop[ped], you know, fifteen to twenty minutes to take fresh air-suppertime and in the desert, in middle of state. Already before we get out of train, army machine guns lined up towards us-not toward other side to protect us, but like enemy, pointed machine guns toward us”. – -Henry Sugimoto, artist
In January 1848, carpenter and sawmill operator James W. Marshall discovered gold in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, in California. Prospectors flocked to the Golden State from across the United States, and abroad. The California Gold Rush had begun.
While not exactly welcoming, prospectors tolerated Chinese immigrants in the early period. Surface gold was plentiful in those days. Some even found the chopsticks and the broad conical hats of the Chinese mining camps, amusing. As competition increased, resentment began to build. Meanwhile in southern China, crop failures and rumors of the Golden Mountain, the Gam Saan, brought with it a tide of Chinese immigration. San Francisco saw a tenfold increase in 1852, alone. Now anything but amused, California lawmakers imposed a $3 per month tax on foreigners, explicitly aimed at Chinese miners.
Large labor projects like the trans-continental railroad and Canadian Pacific Railway fed the influx of Chinese “coolie” labor, eager to work for wages too small to be of interest to American laborers.
By 1870, a full 25% of the California state budget came from that single tax on Chinese miners. In 1882, President Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act, prohibiting the further immigration of Chinese laborers. It was the first and remains to this day the only law specifically targeted at one ethnic group.
Meanwhile, the “gunboat diplomacy” of President Millard Fillmore determined to open Japanese ports to trade, with the west. By force, if necessary. By 1868, internal Japanese issues and the growing pressure of western encroachment had brought about the end of the Tokugawa Shōgunate and restoration of the Meiji Emperor.
The social changes wrought by the “Meiji Restoration” combined with abrupt opening to world trade plunged the Japanese economy, into recession. Japanese emigrants had left the home islands since the 15th century, in pursuit of new opportunities. That was nothing compared with the new “Japanese diaspora” begun in 1868. 3.8 million “Nikkei” emigrated between 1868 and 1912, bound for destinations from Brazil to mainland China, the United States, Australia, Peru, Germany and others. Even Finland.
These were the Issei, first generation immigrants, ineligible for citizenship under US law. The immigrant generation kept to the ways of the land they had left behind forming kenjin-kai, social and aid organizations built around the prefecture, from which they had come. Not so, the second generation. These were the Nisei, American-born US citizens, thoroughly assimilated to the culture to which their parents had arrived.
As with the earlier wave of Chinese immigrants, west coast European Americans became alarmed at the tide of Japanese immigration. Laws were passed and treaties signed, attempting to slow their number.
In 1908, an informal “Gentleman’s agreement” between the US and Japan prohibited further immigration of unskilled migrants. A loophole allowed wives to join their husbands already in the United States leading to an influx of “picture brides” – marriages arranged by friends and families and executed by proxy – many happy couples meeting for the first time, upon the arrival of the blushing bride. The immigration act of 1924 followed the example of the Chinese exclusion act of 1882, outright banning further immigration from “undesirable” Asian countries.
By this time 200,000 ethnic Japanese lived in Hawaii, mostly laborers looking for work on the island’s sugar plantations. A nearly equal number settled on the west coast building farms, and small businesses.
From 1937, the rapid conquests of the Asian Pacific raised fears that the Imperial Japanese military, was unstoppable. As relations soured between Japan and America, the Roosevelt administration took to surveillance of Japanese Americans, compiling lists.
Following the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, public sentiment came down largely on the side of Japanese Americans. The Los Angeles Times characterized them as “good Americans, born and educated as such,” but that would soon change. A member of the second attack wave on December 7, “Zero” pilot Shigenori Nishikaichi downed his crippled fighter on Ni’ihau, the westernmost island of the Hawaiian archipelago. Ignorant at first of what had taken place, Ni’hauans showed the downed pilot, hospitality. By the time it was over the whole thing turned violent, pitting the pilot and a small number of Issei and Nissei, in a deadly struggle against native Hawaiians.
The “Ni’hau incident” combined with fears of 5th column activity to turn the tide, of public opinion.
General John Dewitt, a vocal proponent of what was about to happen, opined: “The fact that nothing has happened so far is more or less . . . ominous, in that I feel that in view of the fact that we have had no sporadic attempts at sabotage that there is a control being exercised and when we have it it will be on a mass basis”.
On January 2, a Joint Immigration Committee of the California legislature attacked “ethnic Japanese” citizen and non-citizen alike, as “totally unassimilable”. The presidentially appointed Roberts Committee assigned to investigate the attack on Pearl Harbor accused persons of Japanese ancestry of espionage, leading up to the attack. By February, California Attorney General and future Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren was doing everything he could to persuade the federal government, to remove all people of Japanese ancestry from the west coast.
On January 14, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Proclamation 2537 requiring “enemy aliens” to procure identification and carry it with them, “at all times”. The War Department, and Department of Justice were sharply divided but, no matter. Executive order 9066 signed February 19 directed the establishment of exclusion zones.
Secret Presidential commissions were appointed in early 1941 and again in 1942, to determine the liklihood of an armed uprising among Japanese Americans. Both reported no evidence of such a thing, one reporting: “the local Japanese are loyal to the United States or, at worst, hope that by remaining quiet they can avoid concentration camps or irresponsible mobs.”
That didn’t matter, either. The Senate discussed Roosevelt’s directive for an hour and the House, for thirty minutes. The President signed Public Law 77-503 on March 21 providing for enforcement, of his earlier directive.
Roosevelt’s measure made no specific reference to ethnicity. Some 11,000 ethnic Germans and 3,000 ethnic Italians were sent away to internment camps but the vast preponderance, were of Japanese descent. Throughout the west coast some 112,000 ethnic Japanese were rounded up and held in relocation camps and other confinement areas, throughout the country. Surprisingly, only a “few thousand” were detained in Hawaii itself despite a population of nearly 40% ethnic Japanese.
Below: “A moving van being loaded with the possessions of a Japanese family on Bush Street in San Francisco’s Japantown, April 7, 1942. At right are the offices of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), the oldest Asian American civil rights organization in the United States. Shortly after this photo was taken, the Wartime Civil Control Administration (WCCA) took over the JACL building and repurposed it as a Civil Control Station for the collection and processing of “people of Japanese descent” prior to their transport to detention camps”.
H/T Encyclopedia Britannica
Following the events at Peal harbor, Oakland California-born Fred Korematsu attempted to enlist, in the Navy. Ostensibly rejected due to stomach ulcers, Korematsu believed the real reason was his Japanese ancestry. Korematsu refused deportation orders and went into hiding. The ACLU’s northern California director Ernest Besig brought Korematsu’s case before the courts despite opposition from Roosevelt allies in the national ACLU. Korematsu lost in federal court and the US court of appeals, becoming a pariah even among fellow detainees who felt he was nothing but a troublemaker. The US Supreme Court agreed to take the case and, on December 18, 1944, upheld the lower court verdict. A 6-3 opinion penned by Justice Hugo Black opined that, though suspect, internment was justified due to national circumstances of “emergency and peril”.
“Fourteen Days to Flatten the Curve, “right?
A second decision released that same day in the case, Ex Parte Endo, unanimously declared it illegal to detain Americans, regardless of ethnicity. In effect the two rulings established that, while eviction was legal in the name of military necessity internment was not, thus paving the way to their release.
“There is but one way in which to regard the Presidential order empowering the Army to establish “military areas” from which citizens or aliens may be excluded. That is to accept the order as a necessary accompaniment of total defense”.
Washington Post, February 22, 1942
The Japs in these centers in the United States have been afforded the very best of treatment, together with food and living quarters far better than many of them ever knew before, and a minimum amount of restraint. They have been as well fed as the Army and as well as or better housed. . . . The American people can go without milk and butter, but the Japs will be supplied.
Los Angeles Times, December 8, 1942
Among internment camps many were eager to prove themselves, loyal Americans. Some were recruited for service in the armed forces. Many, volunteered. In April 1943 some 2,686 Japanese-Americans from Hawaii and 1,500 incarcerated in mainland camps, reported for duty at camp Shelby, in Mississippi. While many still had families in internment facilities, graduates were assigned to the segregated 442nd Regimental Combat team and sent off to fight the war, in Europe.
With something to prove every one of these guys, fought like tigers. From Naples to Rome to the south of France, to central Europe and the Po Valley, the all-Nisei 442nd infantry lived up to its own motto’ “Go for Broke”. 14,000 men served in the 442nd earning over 4,000 Purple Hearts, 4,000 Silver Stars, 4,000 Bronze Medals and 21 Medals of Honor.
With 275 Texas National Guardsmen hopelessly cut off by German forces in the Vosges Mountains of France, ‘The Lost Battalion”, the 442nd infantry was sent in to get them out. In five days of savage combat, 211 of the Texas men were rescued. The Nisei of the 442nd suffered 800 casualties. Of 185 men who entered the fray from I Company only 8 emerged, unhurt. Company K sent 186 men against the Germans 169 of whom were either killed, or wounded.
For its size and length of service the 442nd became the most highly decorated unit, in US military history.
Fun fact: Ralph Lazo was so angry at the forcible relocation of his friends he voluntarily joined them, on the train. Deported to the Manzanar concentration camp in the foot of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, he stayed there, for two years. The only non-spouse, non-Japanese-American, so detained. Nobody ever asked the man about his ethnicity (half Mexican, half Irish). Lazo was inducted into the US Army in 1944 and served as a Staff Sergeant in the South Pacific where he earned a Bronze Star for valor, in combat.
By this time, many younger Nisei had left to pursue new lives, east of the Rockies. Seven others were shot and killed, by sentries. Older internees had little to return to with former homes and business, gone. Many were repatriated to Japan, at least some, against their will. By the end of 1945, nine of the top ten War Relocation Authority ( WRA) camps were shut down. Congress passed the Japanese-American claims Act in 1948 but, with the IRS having destroyed most of the detainees 1939-’42 tax records, only a fraction of claims were ever paid out.
By the late 1980s, powerful Japanese-American members of the United States Congress such as Bob Matsui, Norm Mineta and Spark Matsunaga spearheaded a measure, for reparations. $20,000 paid to every surviving internee. President Ronald Reagan signed the measure into law on August 10, 1988. Over 81,800 qualified, receiving a total of $1.6 Billion.
Some thirty to forty managed to escape the killing zone, only to be hunted down and murdered, one by one. Eleven managed to escape the slaughter, and lived to tell the tale. 139 were burned, clubbed or shot to death.
Today, the city of Cabanatuan calls itself the “Tricycle Capital of the Philippines”, with 30,000 motorized “auto rickshaws”. 79 years ago, Cabanatuan became home to one of the worst POW camps of World War 2.
1942 was a dreadful year for the allied war effort in the Pacific. The Battle of Bataan alone resulted in 72,000 prisoners being taken by the Japanese, marched off to POW camps designed for ten to twenty-five thousand.
20,000 died from sickness, hunger or murder at the hands of Japanese guards on the “death march” from Bataan into captivity at Cabanatuan prison and others.
Cabanatuan held 8,000 prisoners at its peak though that number dropped considerably as the able-bodied were shipped out to work in Japanese slave labor camps.
Two rice rations a day, fewer than 800 calories, were supplemented by the occasional animal or insect caught and killed inside camp walls or by the rare food items smuggled in by civilian visitors.
2,400 died in the first eight months at Cabanatuan, animated skeletons brought to “hospital wards”, nothing more than 2’x6′ patches of floor, where prisoners waited to die.
One Master Sergeant Gaston saw one of these wards in July 1942 and described the horror: “The men in the ward were practically nothing but skin and bones and they had open ulcers on their hips, on their knees and on their shoulders…maggots were eating on the open wounds. There were blow flies…by the millions…men were unable to get off the floor to go to the latrine and their bowels moved as they lay there”.
The war was going badly for the Japanese by October 1944, as Imperial Japanese High Command ordered able bodied POWs removed to Japan. 1,600 were taken from Cabanatuan leaving 500 sick, weak and disabled prisoners. The guards abandoned camp shortly afterward, though Japanese soldiers continued to pass through. POWs were able to steal food from abandoned Japanese quarters; some even captured two water buffalo called “Carabao”, which were killed and eaten. Many feared a trick and didn’t dare leave the camp. Most were too sick and weak to leave in any case, though the extra rations would help them through what was to come.
On December 14, some fifty to sixty soldiers of the Japanese 14th Area Army in Palawan doused 150 prisoners with gasoline and set them on fire, machine gunning or clubbing any who tried to escape the flames. Some thirty to forty managed to escape the killing zone, only to be hunted down and murdered, one by one. Eleven managed to escape the slaughter, and lived to tell the tale. 139 were burned, clubbed or shot to death.
The atrocity at Palawan sparked a series of raids at Santo Tomas Internment Camp, Bilibid Prison, Los Baños and others. The first such behind-enemy-lines rescue, took place at Cabanatuan.
Lieutenant Colonel Henry Mucci of the US Army’s elite 6th Ranger Battalion selected Captain Robert Prince to plan the rescue. “We couldn’t rehearse this”, Prince said. “Anything of this nature, you’d ordinarily want to practice it over and over for weeks in advance. Get more information, build models, and discuss all of the contingencies. Work out all of the kinks. We didn’t have time for any of that. It was now, or not”.
On the evening of January 27, 1945, a 14-man advance team formed from the 6th Ranger Battalion and a special reconnaissance group called the “Alamo Scouts”, separated into two groups and began the 30-mile march behind enemy lines to liberate Cabanatuan.
The main force of 121 Rangers moved out the following day, meeting up with 200 Filipino guerrillas serving as guides and helping with the rescue.
Other guerrillas assisted along the way, muzzling dogs and corralling chickens so that Japanese occupiers would hear nothing of their approach.
Japanese soldiers once again occupied the camp, with 1,000 more camped across the Cabo River outside the prison. As many as 7,000 more were deployed, just a few miles away.
On the night of January 30, a P-61 Black Widow piloted by Captain Kenneth Schrieber and 1st Lt. Bonnie Rucks staged a ruse. For 45 minutes, the pair conducted a series of aerial acrobatics, cutting and restarting engines with loud backfires while seeming to struggle to maintain altitude. Thousands of Japanese soldiers watched the show as Rangers crawled on their bellies, into position.
Guard towers and pillboxes were wiped out in the first fifteen seconds of the assault. Filipino guerrillas blew the bridge and ambushed the large force across the river while one, trained only hours before to use a bazooka, took out four Japanese tanks.
In the camp, all was pandemonium as some prisoners came out and others hid, suspecting some trick to bring them out in the open. They were so emaciated, Rangers carried them out two at a time.
The raid was over in 35 minutes, POWs brought to pre-arranged meet-up places with dozens of carabao carts. The long trek to freedom had only begun. Defiant, one POW said “I made the Death March from Bataan, so I can certainly make this one!” Over three days, up to 106 carts joined the procession, their plodding 2 MPH progress covered by strafing American aircraft.
Two American Rangers were killed in the raid. Another 4 Americans and 21 Filipinos were wounded, compared with 500-1,000 Japanese killed and four tanks put out of action. One prisoner died in the arms of a Ranger, before leaving the gate. Another succumbed to illness on the long trip back.
Edwin Rose was a civilian, a purser on a ship plying the Singapore – Hong Kong run, when the war broke out. He was caught in Manila and spent 929 days in captivity. One of the longest-held POWs of the war in the Pacific. Rose awoke the night of the raid, and “heard all the shooting”. He “knew the Americans had arrived” but rolled over and went back to sleep, thinking they were there to stay. On awakening the following morning, Rose found he was alone with “Cabanatuan all my own.”
He dressed and shaved, put on his best clothes and walked out of camp. Passing guerrillas found him and passed him on to a tank destroyer.
Give the man points for style. Edwin Rose strolled into 6th army headquarters a few days later, with a cane tucked under his arm.
The Cabanatuan raid of January 30, 1945 liberated 464 American soldiers along with 22 British and 3 Dutch soldiers, 28 American civilians, 2 Norwegians and one civilian each of British, Canadian and Filipino nationalities.
In 1982, the Cabanatuan American Memorial was erected on the grounds of the former POW camp and dedicated by survivors of the Bataan Death march and the prisoner-of-war camp, at Cabanatuan. A large mural depicts Filipino and American soldiers helping each other, in combat. A marble altar bears the names of 2,656 Americans with this dedication on the back of the Cabanatuan sign:
SITE OF THE JAPANESE PRISONER OF WAR CAMP 1942 TO 1945 THIS MEMORIAL HONORS THE AMERICAN SERVICEMEN AND THE CIVILIANS WHO DIED HERE AND GRATEFULLY ACKNOWLEDGES THE EQUALLY HEROIC SACRIFICES MADE BY FILIPINO SERVICEMEN AND CIVILIANS IN A MUTUAL QUEST FOR HONOR, FREEDOM AND PEACE IT ALSO REMINDS MANKIND OF MAN’S INHUMANITY TO HIS FELLOWMAN
ERECTED AND DEDICATED 12 APRIL 1982 BY AMERICAN AND FILIPINO COMRADES, FAMILIES AND FRIENDS.
It is the only place in the province of Nueva Ecija where the Filipino flag stands side-by-side, with the Stars and Stripes.
One day of fresh horrors ended to reveal the next, and still they lived. It was unusual for even two or three siblings to survive the Auschwitz death camp. I don’t believe there was another instance where an entire family lived to tell the tale.
Shimson Eizik Ovitz was a Romanian rabbi, and a WWI-era “merrymaker’ or traveling entertainer. He was also a man afflicted with pseudoachondroplasia. Shimson Eizik Ovitz was a dwarf. Ovitz fathered 10 children by two normal sized wives: Brana Fruchter and Batia Bertha Husz. All ten survived to adulthood. Three grew to normal height. The other seven were “little people”, the largest dwarf family unit, in history.
On her death bed in 1930, Batia gave the kids a piece of advice that stuck with them, all their lives: “through thick and thin” she said, “never separate. Stick together, guard each other and live for one another”.
Circus-like performing dwarves were common enough at this time but the Ovitz siblings were different. These were talented musicians playing quarter-sized instruments, performing a variety show throughout the 1930s and early ’40s as the “Lilliput Troupe”. The family performed throughout Romania, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, with their normal height siblings serving as “roadies”. And then came the day. The whole lot of them were swept up by the Nazis and deported to the concentration camp and extermination center, at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The train arrived around midnight on May 19, 1944. Thoroughly accustomed to a degree of celebrity, one of them began to give out autographed cards. The family would soon be disabused of any notions of celebrity.
Even so, cultural currents run deep. Not even concentration camp guards could resist the irony of seven dwarves. Knowing of his perverse fascination with the malformed and what he called “blood” (family) experiments, Dr. Josef Mengele was immediately awakened. The “Angel of Death”was delighted, exclaiming “I now have work for 20 years!”
The ten siblings were spared from the gas chamber that night, along with two more family members, a baby boy and a 58-year old woman. Families of their handyman and a neighbor were also spared, as all insisted they were close relatives. All told, there were 22 of them.
The family was housed in horrific conditions, yet seven dwarves didn’t come along every day. Where others were directed to the gas chambers, these were kept alive for further use. As bad as it was, the food and clothing was better than that received by most camp inmates. Mengele even allowed them to keep their hair, and arranged special living quarters.
The bizarre and hideous “experiments” Mengele performed in the name of “science” were little more than freakish torture rituals. Three dwarf skeletons were on prominent display, the bones of earlier arriving little people, ever-present reminders of what could be. Boiling water was poured into their ears, followed by freezing. Eyelashes and teeth were pulled without anesthesia. Blood was the holy grail in the mind of Josef Mengele, and the stuff was drawn until each would throw up and pass out, only to be revived to have more blood drawn.On one occasion, the Angel of Death told the family they were “going to a beautiful place”. Terrified, the siblings were given makeup, and told to dress themselves. Brought to a nearby theater and placed onstage, the family must have thought they’d be asked to perform. Instead, Mengele ordered them to undress, leaving all seven naked before a room full of SS men. Mengele then gave a speech and invited the audience onstage, to poke and prod at the humiliated family.
One day of fresh horrors ended to reveal the next, and still they lived. It was unusual for even two or three siblings to survive the Auschwitz death camp. I don’t believe there was another instance where an entire family lived to tell the tale.
Auschwitz was liberated by the Soviet Red Army on January 27, 1945.
Traveling by foot to their Transylvanian home village of Rozavlea, the family found the place ruined. The gold coins buried for safekeeping before the war were right where they had left them. Otherwise, there was no future in this place.
Only 50 of the 650 Jewish inhabitants of the village ever returned. In 1949, the family emigrated to Israel and resumed their musical tour, performing until the group retired in 1955.
Josef Mengele never did face justice. The man who had directed victims by the hundreds of thousands to the gas chamber, fled to South America after the war. He was living under a false name in Brazil in 1979 when he suffered a stroke, while enjoying an afternoon swim. The cause of death for one of the great monsters of modern history, was accidental drowning.
The youngest and last of the Ovitz dwarves, Piroska or “Perla” to her friends, passed away two days before the terrorist attack on the World Trade Towers. She spoke for the whole family, I think, when she said “I was saved by the grace of the devil”.
The hour-long film “Standing Tall at Auschwitz” fills in a lot of the details. It’s worth watching.
Across 130 Japanese prison encampments, the death rate for western prisoners was 27.1%. Seven times the death toll for allied prisoners in Nazi Germany, or Fascist Italy.
With increasing tensions between the Unites States and the empire of Japan, the “China Marines” of the Fourth Marine Regiment, “The Oldest and the Proudest”, departed Shanghai for the Philippines on November 27-28, 1941. The first elements arrived at Subic Bay on November 30.
A week later and 5,000 miles to the east, the radio crackled to life in the early – morning hours of December 7. “Air raid on Pearl Harbor. This is no drill!”
Military forces of Imperial Japan appeared unstoppable in the early months of WWII, attacking first Thailand, then the British possessions of Malaya, Singapore and Hong Kong, as well as US military bases in Hawaii, Wake Island, Guam and the Philippines.
On January 7, Japanese forces attacked the Bataan peninsula. The Fourth Marines, under Army command, were ordered to help strengthen defenses on the “Gibraltar of the East”, the heavily fortified island of Corregidor.
The prize was nothing less than the finest natural harbor in the Asian Pacific, Manila Bay, the Bataan Peninsula forming the lee shore and Corregidor and nearby Caballo Islands standing at the mouth, dividing the entrance into two channels. Before the Japanese invasion was to succeed, Bataan and Corregidor must be destroyed.
The United States was grossly unprepared to fight a World War in 1942. The latest iteration of “War Plan Orange” (WPO-3) called for delaying tactics in the event of war with Japan, buying time to gather US Naval assets to sail for the Philippines. The problem was, there was no fleet to gather. The flower of American pacific power in the pacific, lay at the bottom of Pearl Harbor. Allied war planners turned their attention to defeating Adolf Hitler.
General Douglas MacArthur abandoned Corregidor on March 12, departing the “Alamo of the Pacific” with the words, “I shall return”. Some 90,000 American and Filipino troops were left behind without food, supplies or support with which to fight off the onslaught of the Japanese 14th Army, under the command of Lieutenant General Masaharu Homma.
Battered by wounds and starvation, decimated by all manner of tropical disease and parasite, the 75,000 “Battling Bastards of Bataan” fought on until they could fight no more. Some 75,000 American and Filipino fighters were surrendered with the Bataan peninsula on April 9, only to begin a 65-mile, five-day slog into captivity through the unbearable heat and humidity, of the Philippine jungle.Japanese guards were sadistic. They would beat marchers and bayonet those too weak to walk. Tormented by a thirst few among us can so much as imagine, men were made to stand for hours under a relentless sun, standing by a stream from which none were permitted to drink. The man who broke ranks and dove for the water was clubbed or bayoneted to death, on the spot. Japanese tanks would swerve out of their way to run over anyone who had fallen and was too slow in getting up. Some were burned alive, others buried alive. Already crippled from tropical disease and starving from the long siege of Luzon, wanton killing and savage abuse took the lives of some 500 – 650 Americans and between 5,000 – 18,000 Filipinos.
For the survivors, the “Bataan Death March” was only the beginning of their ordeal.
United States Marine Corps 1st Lieutenant Austin Shofner came ashore back in November, with the 4th Marines. Shofner and his fellow leathernecks engaged the Japanese as early as December 12 and received their first taste of aerial bombardment, on December 29. Promoted to Captain and placed in command of Headquarters Company, Shofner received two Silver Stars by April 15 in near-constant defense against aerial attack.
For three months, defenders on Corregidor were required to resist near constant aerial, naval and artillery bombardment. All that on two scant water rations and a meager food allotment of only 30 ounces per day.
I don’t know about you. I’ve eaten Steaks, bigger than 30-ounces.
Beset as they were, seven private maritime vessels attempted to run the Japanese gauntlet, loaded with food and supplies. The MV Princessa commanded by 3rd Lieutenant Zosimo Cruz (USAFFE), was the only ship to arrive in Corregidor.
Japanese artillery bombardment intensified, following the fall of Bataan. Cavalry horses killed in the onslaught were dragged into tunnels and caves, and consumed. Japanese aircraft dropped 1,701 bombs in the tiny island during 614 sorties, armed with some 365-tons of high explosive. On May 4 alone, an estimated 16,000 shells hit the little island.
The final assault beginning May 5 met with savage resistance, but the outcome was never in doubt. General Jonathan Wainwright was in overall command of the defenders on Corregidor. Some 11,000 men comprised of United States Marines, Army and Navy and an assemblage of Filipino fighters. The “Malinta Tunnel” alone contained over a thousand, so sick or wounded as to be helpless. Fewer than half had even received training in ground combat techniques.
All were starved, sick, utterly exhausted. The 4th Marines was shattered, and ceased to exist as a fighting force. With the May 6 landing of Japanese tanks, General Wainwright elected the preservation of life over continued slaughter in the defense of a hopeless position. Maine Colonel Samuel Howard ordered the regimental and national colors burned to prevent their capture, as Wainwright sent a radio message, to President Roosevelt:
“There is a limit of human endurance, and that point has long been passed.”
Isolated pockets of marines fought on for four hours until at last, all was still. Two officers were sent forward with a white flag, to carry the General’s message of surrender. It was 1:30pm, May 6, 1941.Nearly 150,000 Allied soldiers were taken captive by the Japanese Empire, during World War 2. Clad in unspeakably filthy rags they were fed a mere 600 calories per day of fouled rice, supplemented only by the occasional insect or bird or rodent unlucky enough to fall into desperate hands. Disease such as malaria was all but universal as gross malnutrition led to loss of vision and unrelenting nerve pain. Dysentery, a hideously infectious disease of the large intestine reduced grown men to animated skeletons. Mere scratches resulted in grotesque tropical ulcers up to a foot in length exposing living bone and rotting flesh to swarms of ravenous insects.
The death rate for western prisoners was 27.1% across 130 Japanese prison encampments. Seven times the death toll for allied prisoners in Nazi Germany, or Fascist Italy.Given such cruel conditions it’s a wonder anyone escaped at all but it did happen. Once.
Austin Schofner and his group were moved from camp to camp. Bilibid. Cabanatuan. Davao. Throughout early 1943, Schofner and others would steal away from work details to squirrel away small food caches, in the jungle. On April 4, Captain Schofner, nine fellow Marines and two Filipino soldiers brought into the scheme to act as guides, slipped away from work parties.
The group moved through the jungle over the long hours of April 5-6, dodging enemy patrols and managing to avoid detection, arriving at a remote Filipino Guerrilla Outpost on April 7. Guided by wild mountain tribesmen of the Ata Manobo, the Marines rejoined the 110th Division, 10th Military District, at this time conducting guerrilla operations against the Japanese occupiers.
Emaciated, sick and weak, these men had reached the end of an ordeal a year and one-half in the making. It would be perfectly understandable if they were to seek out the relative safety of a submarine bound to Australia, but no. These were no ordinary men. Those physically able to do so, joined the guerrillas in fighting the Japanese.
Austin Shofner and his Marines were evacuated in November 1943, aboard the submarine USS Narwhal. For the first time, Japanese atrocities came to light. The Death March, the torture, mistreatment and summary execution, of Allied POWs. The public was outraged, leading to a change in Allied war strategy. No longer would the war in the Pacific, take a back seat to the effort to destroy the Nazi war machine.
Now-Colonel Shofner volunteered to return to the Pacific where his experience helped with the rescue of 500 prisoners of the infamous POW camp at Cabanatuan on January 30, 1945.
An American military tribunal conducted after the war held Lieutenant General Homma Masaharu, commander of the Japanese invasion forces in the Philippines, guilty of war crimes. He was executed by firing squad on April 3, 1946.
Austin Shofner served in a variety of posts before retiring from the Marine Corps in 1959, with the rank of Brigadier General. He settled in Shelbyville Tennessee, two hours up the road from his hometown of Chattanooga. He died in November 1999. The senior officer and leader of the only successful escape from a Japanese Prison camp, in all WW2.
The 4th Marine Regiment was reconstituted on February 1, 1944, from members of the first marine raiders, who fought with distinction at fought with distinction in the Makin Island, Guadalcanal, Central Solomons and Bougainville. Among 30 currently serving Marine Regiments, the 4th alone has not been stationed in the continental United States since that time. If you ask the old hands from the war in the Pacific, they’ll tell you it was a big deal, when they renamed those guys, the 4th Marines.
“The Corregidor Hymn”
Written by an unknown Marine during the Battle for Corregidor. Neither it nor the Marine who wrote it, were ever seen again.
“First to jump for holes and tunnels And to keep our skivvies clean, We are proud to claim the title of Corregidor’s Marines. “Our drawers unfurled to every breeze From dawn to setting sun. We have jumped into every hole and ditch And for us the fightin’ was fun. “We have plenty of guns and ammunition But not cigars and cigarettes, At the last we may be smoking leaves Wrapped in Nipponese propaganda leaflets. “When the Army and the Navy Looked out Corregidor’s Tunnel Queen, They saw the beaches guarded by more than one Marine!”
Telegraph operator Douglas “Duff” Kent had one job that day, and that was to hold that eastbound coal train, until West #171 passed Shohola station. It didn’t happen. He may have been drunk, but nobody’s sure. Kent gave the all clear at 2:45 on this day in 1864. The main switch was opened, and Erie #237 joined the single track heading east out of Shohola. Only four miles now separated the two speeding, 30-ton steam locomotives.
The wood burning steam locomotive #171 left Jersey City, New Jersey on July 15, 1864, pulling 17 passenger and freight cars. On board were 833 Confederate Prisoners of War and 128 Union guards, heading from Point Lookout prison in Maryland, to the Union prison camp in Elmira, New York. “Hellmira”.
Engine #171 was an “extra” that day, running behind a scheduled train numbered West #23. West #23 displayed warning flags giving the second train right of way, but #171 was running late. First delayed while guards located missing prisoners, then there was that interminable wait for the drawbridge. By the time #171 reached Port Jervis, Pennsylvania, the train was four hours behind schedule.
Telegraph operator Douglas “Duff” Kent was on duty at the Lackawaxen Junction station, near Shohola, Pennsylvania. Kent had seen West #23 pass through that morning with the “extra” flags. His job was to hold eastbound traffic at Lackawaxen until the second train passed.
Duff Kent had one job that day, and that was to hold the eastbound coal train, until #171 passed Shohola station. It didn’t happen. He may have been drunk, but nobody’s sure. He disappeared the following day, never to be seen again.
Erie Engine #237 arrived at Lackawaxen at 2:30 pm pulling 50 coal cars, loaded for Jersey City. Kent gave the all clear at 2:45. The main switch was opened, and Erie #237 joined the single track heading east out of Shohola.
Only four miles of track stood between two speeding, 30-ton steam locomotives.
The trains met head-on at “King and Fuller’s Cut”, a pass blasted out of solid rock and named after the prime engineering contractor. The section of track followed a blind curve with only 50-feet visibility.
Engineer Samuel Hoitt was at the throttle of #237. Hoitt would survive, having just enough time to jump before the moment of impact. One man in the lead car on #171 was thrown clear. He too would live. There were no other survivors among the 37 men on that car.
On the 100th anniversary of the wreck, historian Joseph C. Boyd described what happened next. Let him pick up the story:
“[T]he wooden coaches telescoped into one another, some splitting open and strewing their human contents onto the berm, where flying glass, splintered wood, and jagged metal killed or injured them as they rolled. Other occupants were hurled through windows or pitched to the track as the car floors buckled and opened. The two ruptured engine tenders towered over the wreckage, their massive floor timbers snapped like matchsticks. Driving rods were bent like wire. Wheels and axles lay broken. The troop train’s forward boxcar had been compacted and within the remaining mass were the remains of 37 men”. Witnesses saw “headless trunks, mangled between the telescoped cars” and “bodies impaled on iron rods and splintered beams.”
Pinned by cordwood against the split boiler plate and slowly scalded to death, engineer William Ingram lived long enough to speak with would-be rescuers. Frank Evans, one of the guards, remembered: “With his last breath he warned away all who went near to try and aid him, declaring that there was danger of the boiler exploding and killing them.”
Evans describes the scene. “I hurried forward. On a curve in a deep cut we had met a heavily-laden coal train, traveling nearly as fast as we were. The trains had come together with that deadly crash. The two locomotives were raised high in air, face to face against each other, like giants grappling. The tender of our locomotive stood erect on one end. The engineer and fireman, poor fellows, were buried beneath the wood it carried. Perched on the reared-up end of the tender, high above the wreck, was one of our guards, sitting with his gun clutched in his hands, dead!. The front car of our train was jammed into a space of less than six feet. The two cars behind it were almost as badly wrecked. Several cars in the rear of those were also heaped together…Taken all in all, that wreck was a scene of horror such as few, even in the thick of battle, are ever doomed to be a witness of.”
Estimates of Confederate dead are surprisingly inexact. Most sources report 51 killed on the spot or dying within the first 24 hours. Others put the number as high as 60 to 72. 17 Union guards were killed on the spot, or died within a day of the wreck. 5 prisoners appear to have escaped in the confusion.
Captured at Spotsylvania early in 1864, 52nd North Carolina Infantry soldier James Tyner was in the Elmira camp at this time. Tyner’s brother William was one of the prisoners on board #171. He was badly injured in the wreck, surviving only long enough to avoid the 76′ trackside trench outside of Shohola. William Tyner died three days later in Elmira, never having regained consciousness.
I’ve always wondered if the brothers saw each other, that one last time. James Tyner was my Grandfather twice removed, one of four brothers who went to war for what each saw as his nation, in 1861.
We’ll never know. James Tyner died in captivity on March 13, 1865. Twenty-seven days later, General Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse. Of the four brothers, Nicholas alone survived the war, laying down his arms when the man they called “Marse Robert” surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant, to walk home to the Sand Hills of North Carolina.
Two Confederate soldiers, the brothers John and Michael Johnson, died overnight and were buried in the Congregational church yard across the Delaware river, in Barryville, New York. The remaining POWs killed immediately or shortly thereafter were buried in a common grave that night, alongside the track. Individual graves were dug for the 17 Union dead, and they too were laid alongside the track.
As the years went by, signs of all those graves were erased. Hundreds of trains carried thousands of passengers up and down the Erie Railroad, ignorant of the burial ground through which they passed.
The “pumpkin flood” of 1903 scoured the rail line uncovering many of the dead, carrying away at least some of their mortal remains, along with thousands of that year’s pumpkin crop.
On June 11, 1911, the forgotten dead of Shohola we’re disinterred and reburied in mass graves in the Woodlawn National Cemetery, in Elmira, New York. Site of the largest mixed mass grave, of the Civil War era.
77 Americans of the Army and Navy Nurse Corps and a handful of civilians were captured with the fall of Corregidor, becoming the largest group of female POWs, of the war.
Military forces of the Japanese Empire appeared unstoppable in the months following the attack on Pearl Harbor, invading first Thailand, then the British possessions of Malaya, Singapore, and Hong Kong, as well as American military bases in Wake Island, Guam and the Philippines.
The United States was grotesquely unprepared to fight a World War in 1942, and dedicated itself to beating Adolf Hitler. General Douglas MacArthur abandoned the “Alamo of the Pacific” on March 11 saying “I shall return”, leaving 90,000 American and Filipino troops without food, supplies or support with which to fight off the Japanese offensive.
Some 75,000 American and Filipino troops surrendered on April 9, abandoning the Bataan peninsula to begin a 65-mile, five-day slog into captivity. Starving and sick with any number of tropical diseases, Japanese guards were sadistic in the 100-degree tropical sun. Marchers were beaten, decapitated or shot at random and bayoneted, if too weak to walk. Japanese tank drivers swerved out of the way to run over those who had fallen and were too slow in getting up. Some were burned alive.
Already crippled from tropical disease and starving from the long siege of Luzon, thousands perished in what came to be known as the Bataan Death March.
The American nurse Margaret Elizabeth (Doolin) Rowley came to the Philippines the late 1920s, a twenty-something widow and single mother to her young son, Charles. There she met and fell in love with John “Jack” Utinsky, a former Army Captain working as a civil engineer. The couple was married in 1934, and settled down to a life in Manila.
As the likelihood of war came to the far east, the US military ordered American wives out of the Philippines. Utinsky refused and took an apartment in Manila, while Jack went to work on the Bataan peninsula.
Margaret was forced aboard the last ship to leave as Japanese troops occupied Manila on January 2, 1942, but sneaked off the ship and returned to her apartment. Years later, Margaret Utinsky wrote in her book, “Miss U”:
“To go into an internment camp seemed like the sensible thing to do, but for the life of me I could not see what use I would be to myself or to anyone else cooped up there. … For from the moment the inconceivable thing happened and the Japanese arrived, there was just one thought in my mind—to find Jack.”
The weeks came and went while Margaret remained undiscovered. She ventured out in mid-March and sought help from the priests of Malate Convent, there using contacts to gain false identity papers as Rena Utinsky, a fictional nurse from the non-belligerent state of Lithuania.
On the eve of the American surrender, Lieutenant General Jonathan Wainwright ordered all military and civilian nurses off the Bataan peninsula, and onto the island of Corregidor.
77 Americans of the Army and Navy Nurse Corps and a handful of civilians were captured a month later with the fall of Corregidor, becoming the largest group of female POWs, of the war.
The group was sent to Santo Tomas prison camp in July, joining a group of Navy nurses who had been there, for six months.
Conditions were horrendous in these camps, with disease, starvation and cartoonish levels of violence from sadistic guards. Up to and including summary execution. Army nurse Mary Bernice Brown-Menzie entered into captivity weighing 130-pounds in 1942. By the time of her liberation in February, 1945, she weighed 75.
Brown wrote in her diary of one prisoner who was tied up for three days and nights in the burning sun before being shot in the back, and left to die. ““Whether he died instantly or wounded and bleeding lived on until he finally died, we will never know. But this cruel, heartless and brutal treatment filled us all with deep grief and sorrow.”
Carlos and Tina Makabali Jose talk about their mother, Adelaida Garcia Makabali, a nurse in Bataan and Corregidor. H/T BataanLegacy.org
Margaret Utinsky used her false identity papers to secure a position with the Red Cross by this time, and went to Bataan looking for Jack. Dismayed by conditions among survivors of the Death march, Utinsky began to do little things for the thousands of prisoners of Camp O’Donnell. Money. Quinine. A little medicine.
Learning that Jack was dead, Utinsky became part of a small clandestine network, determined to do what they could for American POWs and Filipino resistance movements. Code named “Miss U”, she joined with 22-year-old Filipina hairdresser Naomi Flores (code name “looter”), American club owner Claire “High Pockets” Maybelle Snyder, a number of Filipino priests and a Spaniard named Ramon Amusategui.
Suspected of aiding POWs, Utinsky was arrested and brought to Fort Santiago prison. There she was sexually assaulted and tortured, for thirty-two days. When confronted with that ship’s passenger log showing her real name, she claimed she had lied in order to secure work as a nurse. Imagine being beaten, and then beaten again, and again. For thirty two days. When that failed to gain a confession, her jailers decapitated five Filipino prisoners, in front of her cell. Another night, an American POW was tied to the bars of her cell and beaten so savagely that chunks of his flesh, wound up in her hair. Even beating the man to death in front of her was not enough, and she was thrown into a dungeon. For four days, without food or water.
She was finally released, provided she sign a statement attesting to her “good treatment”.
Utinsky was six weeks in hospital, recovering from the ordeal. Doctors wanted to amputate a leg infected with gangrene but she refused. The place was teeming with Japanese spies. She feared what she might give up, while under the influence of gas. In the end, the gangrene was cut out, without benefit of anesthesia.
Amusategui was found out and executed. Flores and Utinsky took refuge in the mountains, working with guerrilla groups for the remainder for the war. By the time it was over, Utinsky had lost 45 pounds, 35 percent of her body weight, and lost an inch in height. Her face was aged twenty-five years and her once auburn hair, turned white.
Back in the camps, POWs fashioned nurse’s uniforms made from khaki, under the leadership of Veteran Army Captain Maude Davison. Despite themselves suffering from disease and starvation, each was expected to finish her shifts, providing what care they could for the “The Battling Bastards of Bataan.”
It was the same for Navy nurses, led by Lieutenant Laura Cobb. In 1943, these women volunteered for transfer to Los Baños. The work gave them purpose. A reason to live.
Following the December 14, 1944 massacre at Palawan, United States Army Rangers and their Filipino allies staged a daring raid on Cabanatuan on January 27 and Camp O’Donnell, three days later. Santo Tomas was liberated on February 3, 1945 along with nearby Bilibid Prison and Los Baños on February 23.
Emaciated, tormented by tropical disease and without a day’s survival training between them, every one of the 66 Army nurses, eleven Navy nurses and one Nurse Anesthetist: Angels of Bataan and Corregidor lived to tell the tale and continued to perform their nurse’s duties, to the end.
On the inside, most would have told you the men they cared for were the heroes of this story. They never sought recognition. After the war, many of those men credited their survival to the Angels of Bataan and Corregidor. It was they who sought the recognition these women so richly deserved.
Today, none of the Angels of Bataan and Corregidor are believed to survive. Lieutenant Colonel Nancy Cantrell is an historian with the US Army Nurse’s Corps “They were a tough bunch,” Cantrell said in an interview with Soldier’s Magazine. “They had a mission. They were surviving for the boys … and each other. That does give you a bit of added strength.”
Without order and work we will never survive.
This camp is guarded, you see, by Japanese
but we run it ourselves. And I was the one
(though many take credit) who labelled the quinine
Soda Bicarbonate so it wouldn’t be taken
and the one who said we’d care for the internees
imprisoned with us: Aussies, Brits, French —
other enemies of the Rising Sun, men, women,
children, all of them civilians. In khaki clothes
we’ve made by hand, we work our shifts.
No days off for heat waves or monsoon.
Only the bedridden are excused. These girls
are unprepared, call me Battle-Axe, but I know
how to whip them into shape. No whining.
No complaints We may be short on emetine
or anesthetic and have no reserves of insulin,
but what we do isn’t free choice. It’s a higher calling.
From ANGELS OF BATAAN, Susan Terris (Pudding House
A Trivial Matter
Some 76,000 prisoners of war (66,000 Filipinos and 10,000 Americans) began the Bataan death march in April 1942. There are no precise numbers of those killed over those 65-miles. Estimates of the dead range from 2,500 Filipinos and 500 Americans, to 30 per cent of the entire force.
Arriving at Nagoya #7 prison camp, Tonelli was handed a piece of paper. Scribbled on it was a 58. He was prisoner number 58, the same number he had once worn on his football Jersey. “From that point on,” he said, “I knew I was going to make it”.
The game was November 27, 1937. Late in the 4th quarter, Notre Dame was tied 6-6 with Southern California. The “Fighting Irish” needed a miracle. Notre Dame #58 Mario “Motts” Tonelli took the hand-off deep in Notre Dame territory and ran the ball 70 yards back before being tackled. Seconds later, the 5’11”, 195-pound fullback scored the game winning touchdown.
In some ways, Mario Tonelli himself was the miracle. Years earlier at the age of 6, he’d been burned over 80% of his body, when a trash compactor toppled over on him. Mario’s immigrant father Celi, a laborer from a northern Italian marble quarry, refused to believe the doctor who said his son would never walk again. Fixing four wheels to a door, the elder Tonelli taught his first American-born son to move about with his arms.
By 1935, Mario Tonelli was a football, basketball and track star at Chicago’s DePaul Academy.
After a year coaching at Providence College in 1939 and a year playing professional football for the Chicago Cardinals in 1940, Tonelli joined the Army in early 1941, assigned to the 200th Coast Artillery Regiment in Manila.
He’d hoped to fulfill his one years’ commitment and return to the Cardinals for the 1942 season, but it wasn’t meant to be. The radio crackled to life at 2:30am local time on December 7, 1941. “Air raid on Pearl Harbor. This is no drill!”
Military forces of Imperial Japan appeared unstoppable in the early months of World War Two, attacking first Thailand, then the British possessions of Malaya, Singapore, and Hong Kong as well as US military bases in Hawaii, Wake Island, Guam and the Philippines.
The United States was grotesquely unprepared to fight a World War in 1942, and dedicated itself to beating Adolf Hitler first. General Douglas MacArthur abandoned the “Alamo of the Pacific” on March 11 saying “I shall return”, leaving 90,000 American and Filipino troops without food, supplies or support with which to fight off the Japanese offensive.
On April 9, 75,000 surrendered the Bataan peninsula, beginning a 65 mile, five-day slog into captivity through the heat of the Philippine jungle. Japanese guards were sadistic. Some would beat the marchers at random, or bayonet those too weak to walk. Japanese tanks would swerve out of the way to run over anyone who had fallen and was too slow in getting up. Some were burned alive. Already crippled from tropical disease and starving from the long siege of Luzon, thousands perished in what came to be known as the Bataan Death March.
Exhausted, sunburned and aching with thirst, Tonelli still refused when a Japanese soldier demanded his Notre Dame class ring. As the guard reached for his sword, a nearby prisoner shouted “Give it to him. It’s not worth dying for”.
Minutes later, a Japanese officer appeared, speaking perfect English. “Did one of my men take something from you?” “Yes”, Tonelli replied. “My school ring”. “Here,” said the officer, pressing the ring into his hand. “Hide it somewhere. You may not get it back next time”. Tonelli was speechless. “I was educated in America”, the officer said. “At the University of Southern California. I know a little about the famous Notre Dame football team. In fact, I watched you beat USC in 1937. I know how much this ring means to you, so I wanted to get it back to you”.
Nearly 700 Americans and more than 10,000 Filipinos died on the Bataan death march. For the survivors, the ordeal was only beginning. For 2½ years Tonelli suffered starvation, disease and endless beatings in the squalid prison camps known as O’Donnell and Cabanatuan. He was later transferred to Davo Penal Colony (“Dapecol”), in Panabo City. Of an estimated 2,009 to enter Dapecol between October 1942- June 1944, only 805 survived the war.
Throughout the ordeal, Tonelli kept his ring. Buried in a soap dish. He’d take it out from time to time to remind himself. Life used to be better than this. It gave him something to hope for.
The hellish 60-day journey aboard the filthy, cramped merchant vessel began in late 1944, destined for slave labor camps in mainland Japan. Tonelli was barely 100 pounds on arrival, his body ravaged by malaria and intestinal parasites. He was barely half the man who once played fullback at Notre Dame Stadium, Soldier Field and Comiskey Park.
Arriving at Nagoya #7 prison camp, Tonelli was handed a piece of paper. Scribbled on it was a 58. He was prisoner number 58, the same number he had once worn on his football Jersey. “From that point on,” he said, “I knew I was going to make it”.
An American military tribunal conducted after the war held Lieutenant General Homma Masaharu, commander of the Japanese invasion forces in the Philippines, guilty of war crimes. He was executed by firing squad on April 3, 1946.
Mario Tonelli always hoped to meet the officer who’d returned his ring, but it wasn’t meant to be. He probably didn’t survive the war. Mario “Motts” Tonelli passed away in 2003, at the age of eighty-six. He still had that ring.
In 1989, ROTC students at New Mexico State University held a memorial “Death March”. Since 1992, the Army installation at the White Sands Missile Range near Las Cruces has been host to the memorial. It’s two events, really, participants competing in “heavy” and “light” division wearing full uniform with rucksack or full running gear. Marchers in both divisions compete over a full marathon course of 26.2 miles of hilly desert terrain, or a shorter 14.2 mile course.
Two weeks ago, 8,631 registered participants gathered from fifty states and a dozen nations, to commemorate the Battle of Bataan and the death march, 77 years ago.
Five actual survivors were in attendance for the opening ceremony, wrapped in blankets to ward off the pre-dawn cold. They were Harold Bergbower, age 98. James Bollich, age 97. Valdemar DeHerrera, age 99. Paul Kerchum, age 99. Ben Skardon, age 101.
Mister Skardon actually marched in the March 17, 2019 event, covering three miles at the head of Skardon’s Brigade”.
The day began with a symbolic roll call. Most of the names were met with silence. Twelve more than the same event, last year.
A Trivial Matter
Japanese guards made prisoners roast for hours the scorching Filipino sun, a torture known as “the sun treatment.” With little food and no water, Filipino civilians tried to throw food at the marchers. Most who did this were killed on the spot, by Japanese soldiers.
“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me”. – Martin Niemöller
Before the age of the internet meme, office jokes and bits of folk wisdom were passed around and copied and copied again. There was one, “The Last great of Defiance“, which will live for all time as my favorite. The picture speaks for itself. I had one on the wall, for years.
This is one of those stories.
The last great effort of German arms burst out of the frozen Ardennes forest on December 16, 1944, aiming for the vital port at Antwerp.
“Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein“, (“Operation Watch on the Rhine”) was a tactical surprise for the Wehrmacht, as allied forces were driven back through the densely forested regions of France, Belgium and Luxembourg. Wartime news maps showed a great inward “bulge” in the lines, and the name stuck. The Battle of the Bulge was the largest and bloodiest battle fought by American forces in World War 2, fought in the harshest winter conditions in recorded history and involving some 610,000 GIs.
Prisoners were swept up by the thousands, and faced an uncertain future. In Malmedy, Belgium, seventy-five captured Americans were marched into an open field and machine gunned by members of the 1st SS Panzer Division (Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler), a part of 6th Panzer Army.
On December 16, the all-black 333rd Field Artillery Battalion of the racially segregated US Army put up an heroic defense outside the town of Wereth, Belgium, using their 155mm guns to delay the German advance. Desperately outnumbered, the 333rd was overrun the following day, groups of men scattering to escape as best they could. Eleven soldiers made their way to the home of Mathias Langer, the Mayor of Wereth.
To shelter allied troops under German occupation was to risk summary execution. Despite the obvious risk to their own lives, Matthias and his wife Maria took these men in and attempted to hide them, in their home. When German troops arrived, the eleven surrendered rather than risk the lives of their benefactors.
The prisoners were marched out of sight and murdered, every one of them. The Wereth 11 were lost in the confusion of the Bulge, their bodies hidden under the snow until Spring melt. Their story was lost to history, for the next fifty years.
Nazi atrocities were not limited to Allied troops. By some accounts, more civilians were killed during the Battle of the Bulge than the last four years. When the fighting was over, more than 115 bodies were found in the towns of Ster and Parfondruy, alone.
For Master Sargent Roderick “Roddie” Edmonds, the war ended on December 19, swept up with hundreds of American troops and taken prisoner. These were the lucky ones, escaping those first white-hot moments of capture to be sent to a German prisoner-of-war camp. He was later transferred to another camp near Ziegenhain, Germany. At 24, M/Sgt Roddie Edmonds was the senior non-commissioned officer at Stalag IX-A, responsible for 1,275 American POWs.
The Wehrmacht had harsh anti-Jew policies and kept Jewish POWs in strict segregation. In the East, Russian Jewish POWs were sent directly to extermination camps. The future was more uncertain for Jewish POWs, in the west. Many were worked to death in slave labor camps.
On January 27, the first day at Stalag IX-A, commandant Siegmann ordered Edmonds: All American Jews were to identify themselves, at the following day’s assembly. The word went out to all five barracks: “We’re not doing that. We’re all turning out“.
The following morning, 1,275 POWs presented themselves. Every. Single. Man.
Siegmann was perplexed. “They can’t all be Jews!” As senior NCO, Edmonds spoke for the group. “We’re all Jews here“. The Nazi commandant was apoplectic, pressing a Luger into Edmonds’ forehead. This is your last chance.
Edmonds gave his name, rank and serial number, and then said: ‘If you are going to shoot, you are going to have to shoot all of us because we know who you are and you’ll be tried for war crimes when we win this war.'” Siegmann was incandescent, white with rage, but the moment had passed. He was beaten.
The 1,275 American POWs held at Stalag IX-A were liberated this day in 1945, including some 200 Jews.
Roddie Edmonds was again recruited for the war in Korea. He never told his family about any of it.
Chris Edmonds is the Pastor at Piney Grove Baptist Church in Maryville, Tennessee. Following his father’s death in 1985, Chris’ mother gave him his father’s war diary, where he found a brief mention of this story. Chris scoured the news for more information, around the time Richard Nixon was looking for his post-Presidential home. As it happened, Nixon bought his posh, upper-east side home from Lester Tanner, a prominent New York Lawyer who mentioned in passing, he owed his life to Roddie Edmonds.
So it was, this story came to light. In 2015, Edmonds was honored as “Righteous among the Nations”, the first American soldier, so honored. It’s the highest honor bestowed by the state of Israel, on non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews from the Nazi death machine. President Barack Obama recognized Edmonds heroism in a 2016 speech before the Israeli embassy. The United States Congress bestowed the Congressional Gold Medal in 2017. As I write this, Pastor Edmonds and the Jewish veterans saved by M/Sgt Edmonds are pushing for the Knoxville, Tennessee native to receive the Medal of Honor.
Pastor Edmonds says he always looked up to his father, the man had always been, his hero. “I just didn’t know he had a cape in his closet“.
For POWs of officer rank, escape was the first duty.
Stalag Luft III was a German POW camp in the province of Lower Silesia, built to house captured Allied airmen. The first “Kriegsgefangene” (POWs), arrived on March 21, 1942. The facility would grow to include 10,949 “kriegies”, comprising some 2,500 Royal Air force officers, 7,500 United States Army Air officers, and about 900 from other Allied air forces.
Barracks were built on pilings to discourage tunneling, creating 24” of open space beneath the buildings. Seismic listening devices were placed around the camp’s perimeter. In the German mind, the place was the next best thing, to airtight.
Kriegies didn’t see it that way, three of whom concocted a gymnastic vaulting horse out of wood from Red Cross packages.
A Trojan horse was more like it. Every day, the horse would be lugged out to the perimeter. Above ground, prisoners’ gymnastic exercises masked the sound while underground, kriegies dug with bowls into the sand, using the horse itself to hide diggers, excavated soil and tools alike. Iron rods were used to poke air holes to the surface.
Every evening for three months, plywood was placed back over the hole, and covered with the gray-brown dust of the prison yard.
On October 19, 1943, the three British officers made their escape. Lieutenant Michael Codner and Flight Lieutenant Eric Williams reached the port of Stettin in the West Pomeranian capital of Poland, where they stowed away on a Danish ship. Flight Lieutenant Oliver Philpot boarded a train to Danzig, and stowed away on a ship bound for neutral Sweden. Eventually, all three made it back to England.
RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bushell was shot down and forced to crash land on his first engagement in May 1940, but not before taking two Messerschmitt Bf 110 fighters with him. Taken to the Dulag Luft near Frankfurt, Bushell formed an escape committee along with Fleet Air Arm pilot Jimmy Buckley, and Wing Commander Harry Day.
For POWs of officer rank, escape was the first duty. Roger Bushell escaped twice and almost made it, but each time his luck deserted him. By October, Bushell found himself in the north compound of Stalag Luft III, where British officers were held.
By the following spring, Bushell had concocted the most audacious escape plot in the history of World War Two. “Everyone here in this room is living on borrowed time”, he said. “By rights we should all be dead! The only reason that God allowed us this extra ration of life is so we can make life hell for the Hun… In North Compound we are concentrating our efforts on completing and escaping through one master tunnel. No private-enterprise tunnels allowed. Three bloody deep, bloody long tunnels will be dug – Tom, Dick and Harry. One will succeed!”
The effort was unprecedented. Previous escape attempts had never involved more than twenty individuals. Bushell, soon to be known by the code name “Big X” was proposing to get out with two hundred.
Civilian clothes had to be fashioned for every man. Identification and travel documents forged. “Tom” began in a darkened hallway corner. “Harry’s entrance was hidden under a stove, “Dick”‘s entrance was concealed in a drainage sump.
The Red Cross distributed high calorie, dehydrated whole-milk powder called “Klim” (“Spell it backwards”) throughout German POW camps. Klim tins were fashioned into tools, candle holders and vent stacks. Fat was skimmed off soups and molded into candles, using threads from old clothing for wicks.
Of fifteen hundred prisoners in the compound, six hundred were involved in the attempt. 200 “penguins” made 25,000 trips into the prison yard, sacks sewn from the legs of long underpants, disposing of soil. The tunnels were some kind of engineering marvel. 30′ down to avoid seismic detection equipment, and only two-feet square, the three tunnels extended outward for the length of a football field and more.
Penguins were running out of places to put all that soil, around the time the camp was expanded to include “Dick’s” planned exit-point. From that time forward, “Dick” was refilled from the other two. “Tom” was discovered in September 1943, the 98th tunnel in the camp to be found out.
Flight Lieutenant Nathaniel Flekser reflected on his own experience: “How lucky I really was dawned on me when I later met RAF prisoners who were shot down while on bombing missions over Germany. They were attacked by angry civilians, brutally interrogated by the Gestapo, and packed into cattle cars. One crew was thrown into a furnace.” H/T warfarehistory.com
The escape was planned for the good weather of summer, but a Gestapo visit changed the timetable. “Harry” was ready by March. The “Great Escape” was scheduled for the next moonless night. March 24-25, 1944.
Contrary to the Hollywood movie, no Americans were involved in the escape. At that point, none were left in camp.
The great escape was doomed, nearly from the start. First the door was frozen shut, then a partial collapse required repair. The exit came up short of the tree line, further slowing the escape. When guards spotted #77 coming out of the ground, it was all over.
German authorities were apoplectic on learning the scope of the project. 90 complete bunk beds had disappeared, along with 635 mattresses. 52 twenty-man tables were missing, as were 4,000 bed boards and an endless list of other objects. For the rest of the war, each bed was issued with only nine boards, and those were counted, regularly.
Gestapo members executed German workers who had not reported the disappearance of electrical wire.
In the end, only three of the 76 made it to freedom: Norwegians Per Bergsland and Jens Muller made it back to England via Sweden. Dutch pilot Bram van der Stok made it to Gibraltar. Hitler personally ordered the execution of the other 73, 50 of which were actually carried out.
General Arthur Nebe is believed to have personally selected the 50 for execution. They were 22 Brits (including Bushell), 6 Canadians, 6 Poles, 4 Australians, 3 South Africans, 2 Norwegians, 2 New Zealanders, and one man each from Belgium, Czechoslovakia, France, Greece, and Lithuania. All but seven were RAF airmen.
Nebe himself was later implicated in the July 20 plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler and executed on this day in 1945. Roger “Big X” Bushell and his partner Bernard Scheidhauer were caught while awaiting a train at the Saarbrücken railway station. They were murdered by members of the Gestapo on March 29, who were themselves tried and executed for war crimes, after the German surrender.
New camp Kommandant Oberst Franz Braune was horrified that so many escapees had been shot. Braune allowed those kriegies who remained to build a memorial, to which he personally contributed. Stalag Luft III is gone today, but that stone memorial to “The Fifty”, still stands.
Dick Churchill was an HP.52 bomber pilot and RAF Squadron Leader. One of the 76 who escaped, Churchill was recaptured three days later, hiding in a hay loft. In a 2014 interview, Churchill said he was fairly certain he’d been spared execution, because his captors thought he might be related to Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
The last surviving veteran of the daring escape which inspired the 1963 movie died at his home near Crediton, Devon, England, on February 12. Five weeks ago. Dick Churchill was ninety-nine years old.
A Trivial Matter
Rumors that Stalag Luft III’s American POWs were to be moved to another compound sped up work on Tom, raising German suspicions and leading to the tunnel’s discovery in September 1943. The tunnel was blown up using dynamite, causing a nearby guard tower to sink into the hole. The discovery was bad news for the Kriegies, but no end of amusement from watching how much work went into rebuilding that tower.