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Bataan Survivors Recall Horrors
By Jackie Ellithorpe, Mike Chisum, Roman Sandoval and Adrianna AlatorreJust a few hours after attacking Pearl Harbor in 1941, Japanese forces struck Clark Field in the Philippines, wiping out U. S. air power. American and Filipino troops began withdrawing south to the Bataan Peninsula. General Douglas MacArthur directed operations from Corregidor, the island across the peninsula. About 200,000 Japanese forces invaded the island of Luzon, where 10,000 Americans resisted them for almost four months. When he was ordered to Australia in March 1942, MacArthur vowed, “I shall return."
Image caption: Young Filipino boy and Julio Barela are shown on a water buffalo before the Japanese took Barela prisoner. Photo courtesy of Anita Dawson
The Americans, with little food and ammunition, gave the Japanese a good fight, but General Edward King, who commanded the Luzon forces, knowing he was outmanned and outgunned, finally was ordered to surrender.
Sources say from 10,000 to 15,000 men died on what has become known as the Bataan Death March, a transfer from Mariveles in the Bataan Peninsula to Camp O'Donnell, a former Filipino training camp. Another 23,500 died at Camp O'Donnell, victims of starvation, disease and cruelty at the hands of the Japanese. Among these prisoners were members of the New Mexico 200th Coast Artillery, a National Guard unit, and the 515th Artillery, consisting of 500 men of the 200th who were sent to Manila.
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Bataan survivor William P. Skelton of New Mexico writes, “The 200th Coast Artillery had a heavy representation of Hispanic officers and enlisted men included in the death march and they had been selected because of their combat readiness and because of the many men who spoke Spanish, a principal language of the Philippines.”
The unit also included Native Americans who used their native languages for military communications, a technique used later in the war by the Navajo code talkers. The Japanese were unable to break these codes.
According to Steen, after marching part of the way to Camp O'Donnell, the men were put on trains leaving the town of San Fernando located in west central Luzon. “From there we got on these metal boxcars. You talk about hot, Holy Christ! They put about 100 of us in where about 50 could have been. You couldn't fall down because you were standing so close together that if a guy fainted he just stood there until the doors opened after we got to Capas, which was … three or four hours.” The men walked the remainder of the way to Camp O'Donnell.
Steen avoided death when he fainted from the effects of malaria upon arrival at the camp. Had he fallen during the march, he would have been shot or bayoneted immediately. Two months later, Steen and others were transferred to Cabanatuan Prison Camp in central Luzon. Steen suffered not only from malaria but dysentery and remained hospitalized in the zero wards (isolation wards of dying men) in the camp at Cabanatuan.
Always hungry or sick, Steen and the other prisoners found ways to survive, eating anything they could find: plants, bugs, and once, a stray dog. Steen later went to Niigata, Japan, aboard one of the infamous “hell ships.” There he worked with other prisoners as slave labor in a coal yard. After three years of hell, Steen returned home weighing about 90 pounds. He arrived in San Francisco in October 1945. After spending time in a hospital in Santa Fe, he was discharged from Fort Bliss on May 10, 1946. He now is in his 80s and lives in East El Paso.
Julio T. Barela's account of the Bataan Death March and subsequent experience as a POW were recorded by his daughter Anita Dawson on Feb. 24, 2006, for this story. Barela was raised in San Ysidro, a small community north of Las Cruces. He left home at 16 to enlist in the Navy because he always had wanted to travel around the world. But his mother found out and followed him to California where she told officials her son was underage, and she brought him home. The Army drafted Barela on May 14, 1941. He trained at Fort Bliss where he and several men were merged with the New Mexico National Guard unit known as the 200th Coast Artillery, Battery A.
Shipped to the Philippines, Barela was assigned to Clark Field on a searchlight crew. The Japanese destroyed Clark Field in 40 minutes. Barela recalled, “The smoke was so thick it turned day into night.” General King ordered the men to go to the mountains of Mariveles on the Bataan Peninsula of Luzon. When food ran out, the men ate water buffalo and horses until they were gone.
With no ammunition, little food and many men sick, General King surrendered.
Barela said, “We formed a long line and waved white t-shirts.” The Japanese thought that surrender was disgraceful; in their eyes, it was suicide that was honorable. “My mother brought me up in the Catholic religion. I was taught that to take one's life is a mortal sin,” Barela said, noting the difference in values of the Japanese and the Americans. Barela remembered that any soldier found with Japanese souvenirs was shot and killed.
“The Japanese put us in a large area in the jungle and their tanks and machine guns were positioned on us. I thought they were going to kill us. Then a large earthquake hit and all their tanks pointed away from us and their guns fell,” Barela said. The Japanese then ordered the men, wounded, sick and starving, to march to Camp O'Donnell.
“We were slapped, pushed, beaten and yelled at while we marched. If we slowed down, they would hit us with the butt of their rifles. I was hit often, and it made walking so much harder. Once you fell, you would be bayoneted and shot, sometimes beheaded,” recalled Barela.
Barela said, “During the march we would come upon heads on poles which the Japanese had put there so we could see what would happen to us if we fell or spoke back or looked at them with hate.” Barela thought about his mother and how she would suffer if he died. He almost fell several times from exhaustion and pain caused by his bleeding feet. “Then I would remember her and the prayers she would say for me, and this gave me the courage to continue on.”
The 200th Coast Artillery was a very close unit, and the men all helped each other to walk. “We were all brothers,” Barela said. Colonel Zeke Ortiz, a New Mexico National Guard historian, said only 40 men from the 200th died in the months leading up to the Bataan Death March, and according to Ortiz, none of the men died on the march either. However, hundreds would die at Camps O'Donnell and Cabanatuan, on the Japanese hell ships and in locations where they worked as slaves. Of the more than 1,800 who went to the Philippines, only about half returned.
Occasionally on the march, the men would see grass or a banana peel on the road. Barela said, “I encouraged my friend David Tellez to chew on this and it would create some moisture in our mouths.” The march was about 65 miles long and took five days because of the sick and wounded and the effects of hot weather (more than 100 degrees and high humidity) and little or no water.
Many of the men had malaria and dysentery. “I saw a lot of death and suffering,” Barela said. “The village people were shot, set on fire and beheaded for trying to help us.”
The Japanese took pictures of some of their prisoners to show the outside world how well they were treated. Barela was shaved by a fellow POW who made a razor from an aluminum can. He tried to shape a mustache on Barela, who also pulled his long hair back and braided it so it would look short.
The clothes Barela wore in the photograph were only loaned to him for the occasion. In reality, the men had few clothes, only rags barely covering them, and no shoes. Barela had weighed between 150 and 160 pounds before becoming a POW. When he was liberated, he weighed only 80. Barela and his wife now live in Las Cruces.
Some of the men stayed in Cabanatuan only for a short time and then ended up in Manchuria, in northeastern China, such as Private David Tellez, also of Battery A, 200th Coast Artillery. In a January 2006 phone interview with Borderlands, Tellez said he volunteered to join the Army on Dec. 7, 1941, the day Pearl Harbor was attacked, and trained at Fort Bliss before leaving for the Philippines. He fought the Japanese up until his capture; the last order General MacArthur gave was to “keep fighting until the last man,” recalled Tellez. When MacArthur departed for Australia, things went from bad to worse.
Image caption: David Tellez returned to his family in 1945 after more than three years as a POW. Photo courtesy of David Tellez
Tellez remained on the Bataan Peninsula for six months and worked burial duty at Cabanatuan. Afterwards he went to Manila where he, too, would board one of the Japanese hell ships. The unmarked transports were attacked by U. S. air and naval forces, resulting in thousands of POWs dying in the holds of these ships.
Conditions aboard ship were horrendous. Tellez remembers that the hold he was kept in was so cramped that in order to sleep, the men had to get into a line, each with another man sitting between his legs, and lean on the chest of the man behind. Packed like sardines in a can, 500 men were crammed into a space meant for 100. Prohibited from going topside, Tellez and his companions endured the 31-day voyage, leaving Manila on Oct. 8, 1942, and arriving in Korea on Nov. 8. He was then transported to Manchuria.
When asked what type of diseases he contracted during his imprisonment at Cabanatuan and in Manchuria, he replied, “You name it, I had it.” Tellez said that, sick and starving, he longed for the war to end, but he knew it to be wishful thinking.
In Manchuria, he worked as a barber although he had never cut hair before. He recalled the day that a buddy of his, a friend from Ohio, insisted he cut his hair with a pair of snub nose children's scissors. “Four or five guys crowded around us so the Japanese guards would not catch us with scissors,” Tellez said. Being caught with anything that could be considered a weapon meant certain death. Tellez did such a good job that the commanding officer, a full colonel from Deming, asked him to cut his hair as well. Maintaining any semblance of normality in appearance and behavior was important in retaining one's sanity.
Tellez said upon the return of the 200th stateside, the unit was only half its original size. Out of the 1,800 that had gone to the Philippines, only about 900 survived. Skin and bones when rescued, Tellez weighed 88 pounds. He gained 40 pounds before reuniting with his family. Tellez said that at that time he felt “very happy, very lucky.” Tellez now lives in Las Cruces with his wife.
In April 2001, an eight-foot bronze sculpture entitled “Heroes of Bataan” and created by Kelly Hestir was dedicated in Las Cruces to veterans of the Bataan Death March. The bronze shows two POWs holding up another as they make the march. This memorial is the only federally funded monument to honor the defenders of Bataan. In front of and behind the bronze are casts of footprints of 38 survivors, including those of Steen, Barela and Tellez. Visitors are invited to honor local and other POWs at this memorial located in Veterans Park along Roadrunner Parkway.
Image caption: Las Cruces bronze honoring Bataan soldiers shows one looking back at the past, another down at the present and a third ahead to the future. Photo by April Vise
Besides monuments in New Mexico and other states, the Bataan defenders are also honored by several memorials in the Republic of the Philippines, among them one at Camp O'Donnell and another at Subic Bay, which is dedicated to the thousands of POWs who were transported by the Japanese hell ships to serve as slave labor. April 9 is a national day of remembrance in the Philippines.
Editor's note: Lorenzo Banegas, also a survivor from Las Cruces, wrote a corrido about the POW experience. He died on Dec. 15, 2001, without knowing that his ballad would be included in a Smithsonian exhibit in Washington, D. C., in 2002.