Las Vegas Sun

November 29, 2023

Veterans can’t forget Bataan Death March

It is said that to really know a man, you must walk a mile in his shoes.

If so, you would need to walk at least 65 miles in the shoes of a prisoner of war who, 54 years ago this week, began the Bataan Death March -- an atrocity that killed an estimated 22,000 Americans, Filipinos and other Allied soldiers.

You would need to march with no food and little water through the densest of Philippine jungles, watching Japanese soldiers routinely bayonet or shoot fallen comrades who could not get up with what little strength they had left.

You would need to march with blazing fever brought on by malaria, while blood and feces oozed down your legs as a result of amoebic dysentery -- with no medicine to treat either ailment.

You would need to march while watching men on hands and knees forced to dig their own graves and wretch as you saw laughing Japanese soldiers swing machetes and lop off the heads of their defenseless captives.

You would need to march sometimes in one boot -- many victims were amputees -- using makeshift crutches, staggering ever northward to the POW camp that would be your home for the balance of World War II.

Death march survivors Harvey Earl Hunter, 81, of Henderson and Ralph Levenberg, 75, of Reno saw all of that and more.

Lucky to survive

On yet another anniversary of the April 10 start of the death march, they are reminded how lucky they were to have survived not only that horrible incident, but to have lived and flourished for so many years thereafter.

"It makes me feel good still being here," said Levenberg, a retired Air Force major who today serves as voluntary POW consultant at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Reno.

"That I have survived for so long is very satisfying -- especially since I am still very active in POW and veterans issues and able to help others."

Hunter, who after the death march spent two years in an Osaka steel mill performing slave labor, said he, too, is glad to have lived for so long, considering the peril he was in more than five decades ago.

"We never knew how hopeless our situation was until early April (1942)," said the former Army sergeant and machine gun operator, who was working as a cook in a field hospital when the enemy closed in.

"One day, a Japanese plane flew over and dropped a bomb right through the center of the big red cross painted on the hospital tent. I was working in the kitchen at the time and dove into the middle of some flour sacks. When I got up I saw how the shrapnel had torn up the sacks that had protected me."

As for the march, Hunter said he weighed 145 pounds and was in the best shape of his life.

No preparation for march

The logger's son from Poplar, Minn., recalled that as a child he walked nearly three miles to school, sometimes in weather as cold as 30 degrees below zero -- impressive, but hardly the training needed for the torture he was about to experience.

"The Japanese allowed us to take one canteen full of water with us for the march," Hunter said. "Some of the men drank theirs too quick. When they ran out, they attempted to refill them from artesian wells. Every man I saw who tried that was shot or bayoneted to death."

Hunter took only small sips from his water supply, which lasted the entire trek -- the last two miles of which he had to be carried by a fellow soldier, who later died in the POW camp.

Hunter said he survived by staying in the middle of the pack, as far away as he could from the Japanese soldiers who led the POWs on the crippling journey.

Levenberg said the march was bad enough, but the "hell ships" used to transport prisoners after the march may have been even worse.

"They stuffed 900 men in a 50-foot-square hole and transported us with very little food or water," Levenberg recalled, noting that the ships were unmarked to draw fire from Allied vessels.

4,500 march survivors

It is estimated that today there may be 4,500 Bataan Death March survivors nationwide, about 55 of whom live in Nevada, said Levenberg, a member of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor Inc.

Levenberg, who also serves as executive secretary of the National Advisory Commission of Former Prisoners of War, has reluctantly given up what has been a long fight for reparations for death march survivors.

The U.S. government, in effect, signed away American soldiers' rights to compensation by signing the peace treaty with Japan on Sept. 8, 1951. Under that agreement, Allied governments seized and disposed of Japanese territorial assets to satisfy all war claims.

The U.S. War Claims Commission used those funds to pay each American soldier $2.50 per day served in a Japanese POW camp -- an amount ex-POWs say is nowhere near what they deserved in comparison to the agony they suffered.

Hunter, who weighed just 84 pounds at the time he was liberated, was given some disability benefits when he left the service on July 3, 1946. But he had to fight for many years to get other honors and benefits he felt he was due:

* It was not until 1962 that Hunter received his Bronze Star with oak leaf cluster for distinguishing himself in battle.

* It was not until 1976 that he received most of his additional service-connected benefits.

* And it was not until last year that, with the help of Levenberg and others, Hunter received the last of his disputed benefits.

Those benefits, along with money put aside from his successful post-war career as a Las Vegas carpenter, has allowed Hunter and his wife of 49 years, Betty, to enjoy a quiet retirement in an apartment alongside a Green Valley golf course.

A remarkable comeback

It is indeed a glowing example of a remarkable comeback from the dark days of Bataan and its aftermath.

"Life as a prisoner was about as rough as the march," Hunter said, noting that in the prison camp he was fed a small daily ration of rice -- hardly enough to sustain him for the back-breaking burial detail to which he was assigned. He helped dig graves for up to 75 POWs a day.

"Once in awhile, we were lucky enough to kill a snake and chop it up into the rice," Hunter said.

Upon his release from captivity, Hunter feasted on a chicken dinner in an Army mess hall, only to experience a shutdown of his system that nearly killed him. His stomach had to be pumped of the first decent meal he had in three years. He was rehabilitated on milk shakes, followed by soups and, finally, solid foods.

When he arrived home, the first thing Hunter recalled treating himself to was an evening at an Illinois nightclub where "we had a party and got drunk."

Hunter said if any lesson is learned from Bataan, it should be that the United States never again send troops into a fray as poorly equipped as he was -- lacking rations, ammunition and medicine.

Levenberg said when he reads reports of modern war incidents, including ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, he believes the lessons that should have been learned from atrocities like Bataan were not.

"I doubt we have learned anything," Levenberg said. "In our schools, children are taught little or nothing about World War II. And when they are taught about the war, they are not told the truth about its severity.

"As evidenced by what has happened in recent years in Bosnia, incidents like the Bataan Death March can and do happen again."