Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Amazing Survival, Inspiring Courage

I first spoke to Ken late in the year 2000. I was visiting my parents at their home just outside Saginaw, Michigan. Before my visit, they had told me that a gentleman lived down the street, an ex-marine like myself, who had lived through the Bataan Death March of 1942 in the Philippines. This small hint of what turned out to be a truly epic survival story stimulated my historic sensibilities; I told them with all eagerness that I must meet him, and in fact I couldn’t wait to meet him. At my persistent insistence they arranged a get-together.

What first struck me about Ken was the humble nature of the then 80-year old gentleman. As we got to know each other, sitting at my parents’ dining table, he told me that he really couldn’t understand why I would care about his experiences. At the time I was in my 25th year of active military service, first with the U.S. Marines and then the Air Force, and knowing this, he thanked me for my service. He said it was fellas like me that made it possible for him to survive his ordeal during the war, and if the war hadn’t been fought and won by the people of the U.S. military, he would most certainly have died as a slave prisoner of the “Japs.” I was embarrassed by his praise, especially after learning that this man had earned The Silver Star for bravery because of his actions while a prisoner.

Ken was 18 years old when he joined the United States Marines in 1938. The Corps trained him to fly, and so he did as an enlisted man, piloting cargo planes. Many years before the U.S. was drawn into the war against the axis powers, the Japanese had already invaded China. It was there that Ken found himself supporting the Chinese defensive effort with the 4th Marines, the famed “China Marines.” During this period, he clandestinely flew supplies to Colonel Claire Chenault’s legendary Flying Tigers, a group of volunteer American fighter pilots. To bring supplies to the "Tigers" Ken and his fellow cargo pilots had to fly over the "top of the world," from Indea over the tallest mountains in the world, the fearsome Himalayas. These "civilian" mercenaries he helped support flew combat missions for the Chinese against the Japanese. Ken had met the celebrated Chenault, but the person who really impressed him was the wife of Chinese President Chiang Kai-shek, Madam Mayling Kai-shek. Ken said she was a down-to-earth gal who showed a lot of concern and appreciation for American’s, like himself, for helping her country against the aggressor Japanese. I don’t think he realized she was still alive at the age of 102 at the time we spoke. (She died October 23, 2003 at the age of 105).

As the war engulfed the Philippines, at the time still a commonwealth of the United States, his unit, the 4th Marines, was ordered there to assist in it’s defense. Before the fall of Bataan, Ken was piloting a DC-3 along with his co-pilot and some passengers, when he was surprised by a Japanese fighter and shot down. His aircraft “pancaked” flat into the ground, killing everyone else on board. His back was compression fractured, and he was taken prisoner. This was only the first of a series of “close calls” that could easily have resulted in death, but dying was not yet in the cards for this brave young man. He still had a whole lot of suffering and surviving left to do!

After running out of food, ammunition, and all hope of the relief promised by Douglas MacArthur, the tens of thousands of sick and starving American and Filipino fighting men were ordered to stack arms and surrender their fighting positions, where they had made their last stand on the peninsula of Bataan. Along with the rest of these hard fighting and emaciated men, his cruel captors forced Ken to make the deadly march to the railhead at San Fernando, about 65 miles away. During this march-of-death, he witnessed the brutal and capricious killings of many of his fellow prisoners, usually by bayoneting or a rifle shot, as they struggled to walk in files of four in searing heat without food and water over endless miles of macadam and gravel. His voice became emotional as he recalled how ordinary Filipinos endangered their own lives, and to be sure, some were killed when they were caught sneaking food and water to the hapless prisoners. If truth be told, every time I speak with him, he tells me to thank the Filipino people for their selfless kindness. He managed to endure the endless march and the senseless killings and made it to the temporary prison enclosure called Camp O’Donnell outside of the town of Capas Tarlac. But this was only after undergoing a grueling and seemingly endless ride in a suffocating railcar—again without food, water, and almost without air—a ride that many of his fellow POWs did not live through.

During captivity, like many of his compatriots, he was forced to work on labor details throughout the country. At one point, he was the ranking prisoner in a detail of POWs at Nichols Air Field in Manila. They were manually lengthening its runway so it could accommodate the large Japanese “Betty” bombers. For hours, the weakened men worked in scorching heat without water and sustenance. When he realized his men were going to die, he ordered them to stop. He confronted the guards and told them his men could not go on without water. His words incensed a Japanese sergeant. The wrathful sergeant ordered two subordinates to hold Ken by the arms. The sergeant took an axe handle and beat Ken with it from his buttocks to his ankles. The beating continued as Ken lost consciousness, but again his life was spared, this time through the intercession of a relatively humane Japanese major. The POWs called him the “White Angel,” for his other acts of humanity, and this "angel" ordered the beating stopped. It was for this action that Ken was awarded The Silver Star medal for bravery. He suffers nonstop pain to this day because of the nerve and tissue damage he sustained that day, and it has worsened over the years. He has had to learn to live with constant agony with the help of drugs and therapy. No one can blame him for his feelings of bitterness and anger toward Japan even until now, especially as you hear the rest of his story.

Ken’s life was again in the balance when he came down with acute appendicitis. For most prisoners this was a death sentence. Without an operation he was dead anyway, so an American POW doctor performed the appendectomy under unsanitary and primitive conditions. There was no anesthesia and only rudimentary surgical instruments. Some men restrained Ken as the doctor prepared to cut him open while he was still fully conscious. Just before being opened up, Ken was given an ampoule of weak opium-based painkiller, a kind commonly issued to Japanese infantryman. It did little to allay the agony to not only his body, but to his mind. He watched the whole operation through eyes almost closed with pain. He can describe today, more than 60 years afterwards, what it looked like to watch his own skin, muscle, and peritoneum sliced open to expose his intestines, and finally the swollen appendix. He continued to watch through delirious eyes as the doctor excised it. Most people would not have lived through such a thing, but again Ken persisted.

I asked him if he could explain how he managed to live when so many of his comrades did not. One explanation he offers is that while stationed in China he was introduced to Oriental concepts based on Kung Fu that had made his mind and body sturdy enough to undergo those three and a half years of physical and mental challenge. Ken also said that he ate anything green that he could find. Men who lost all interest in food did not last long. Ken never stopped looking for food no matter where he might find it, and instinctively he knew that green was good. Whatever it was, whether Kung Fu, his marine training, or his steadfast midwestern background, it kept him going through unimaginably difficult hardships, even as his days in the Philippines became numbered.

In 1943, the Japanese began shipping the fittest POW survivors to Japan for use as slave laborers. Ken’s turn came and he was loaded with scores of others into the black hold of a freighter. It was of a type American prisoners aptly called “hell ships.” The unventilated, dimly lit cargo spaces deep below the decks of these rusting old derelicts were indeed hellish, and became more so, as sick and weakened men filled the holds with the stench of diarrhea, stale sweat, and vomit. The Japanese intent was to keep as many of them alive as possible, so they could be used to support their war effort by toiling in tasks considered too dangerous or difficult for Japanese. They also had a serious shortage of workers due to the millions of Japanese serving in the imperial armed forces.

The conditions in the first hell ships caused many Americans to die. The Japanese sought a way to keep the death toll down. It became standard practice on POW ships to bring the prisoners up in shifts to deck level and hose them down with seawater. One benefit was the few breaths of life-prolonging, disease-free air they managed to suck into their lungs in that short time topside. This was the situation Ken found himself on his hell ship, cruising slowly towards hell’s continuation. One day while it was his turn on deck, he and some fellow POWs enjoyed a view of blue skies and fresh air. Implausibly, a sudden explosion threw him skyward, over the side and into the water. Along with a few enemy sailors, Ken held onto some floating wreckage for hours, until they were found and picked up by another Japanese ship. An American submarine, not knowing that it was filled with fellow citizens, had scored a direct hit on his freighter. Once again, amazing luck and Ken’s unfaltering fortitude enabled him to survive. Incredibly, he was the only POW to make it, along with only a handful of Japanese sailors. His days of misery continued.

In Japan, Ken spent the rest of his POW years mostly deep underground, buried alive, so-to-speak, as a miner of coal. Again he lived from day-to-day, watching fellow prisoners waste away and die off by ones and twos. He knew that if the war did not end soon that his own end was inevitable. Like most survivors, he did not dwell on the possibility of his coming death, only on continuing to live. Then the long-sought day arrived when he once again saw the light of that day as a free man. As he emerged from the blackness of the mine, back into the world of the living, he looked across across an expanse of water. Spread out below him were the charred, smoldering remains of Nagasaki, just destroyed by an American atomic bomb. He looked upon that destruction with satisfaction, realizing that its devastation was his salvation. Today, he doesn’t wring his hands about whether it was right or wrong to destroy that enemy city, because his own destruction was only days away. As far as he is concerned, Japan had reaped what it had sown.

Surviving allied POWs were offered the chance to witness the execution of those Japanese who were tried and found guilty of class A war crimes. Ken took them up on it, and he says he was only a few feet away when he beheld the hanging of General Yamashita. Even after almost six decades, he recalled that moment of justice with great pleasure, if not elation, as he also recalled his own suffering and the needless deaths of so many of his fellow prisoners.

The war was over. Ken had managed to survive almost four years of misery and unnecessary cruelty. Incredibly, he had lived through the shooting down of his airplane, the misery of The Bataan Death March, an agonizingly malicious beating, a crudely accomplished appendectomy, slow starvation, hellish diseases, the sinking of his hell ship, and spirit sapping months slaving beneath the earth as a coalminer. I would suppose that anyone going through such things would have a life shortened by those terrible events, but he’s alive and kicking today at the age of 85. God willing, he’ll be with us for many more years, but no matter how long he is with us, his story will serve as a stirring tribute to the power of the human spirit.

Men like Ken make me proud to be a fellow citizen. I hope his kind still exists, especially in this time of war when our enemies gather in dark places, plotting our ruin and destruction. They’ll never have their way, however, if as a nation, we show even a small percentage of Ken’s perseverance and courage.

(Ken does not like the limelight, and asked me to keep his complete name and address anonymous).

No comments: