POW Speech for 14 SEP 2023 at PACMOAA
Speech written to honor the Souls of Bataan & Corregidor
by © STEPHEN MELILLO IGNA 11 SEP 2023
Tomorrow, (15 SEP) is National POW/MIA Recognition Day.
The form of the presentation is as follows:
1. Play Kakehashi: That We Might Live (https://youtu.be/45JWWdNIqFg)
3. Play “God Bless America” from the recent, 21 APR 2023 NAVY BASE CONCERT,
beginning at 1:28:47. (Plays to 1:31:30, just under 3 minutes)
I am honored and burdened to share this with you. I am not in the military. I’m a not-famous civilian… and for that reason, these words are more powerful than if delivered by an Admiral, General, Politician, or Celebrity.
In 2025, 80 years ago, WWII in the Pacific came to an end, (see note at end), but NOT for the Defenders of Bataan & Corregidor, and the ex-POWs who put up a valiant 4-month fight, already beginning their starvation in ADVANCE of capture and using 1918 WWI issued ammo that failed 9 out of 10 rounds, with muzzle-bursts injuring their own Men.
It would take them as long as 40 years before they would begin to tell their stories, where for 3 years, 8 months, and 25 days, 31,095 Souls were sacrificed to subhuman, brutal conditions, and Auschwitz-like, Andersonville-like hardship.
They held off the Japanese invasion long enough to profoundly affect the outcome of WWII. 78,000 were “Surrendered.” Please note, “were Surrender-ed”… 10,000 died on the Death March.
On 9 April 1942, about 178 days and 81 years ago, during the hottest month of the year, Survivors of the Japanese invasion began UPHILL on a zig-zag road. To falter even for a moment meant a bayonet thrust, or a beheading.
Some were dragged and run over by tanks. One guy I’ll mention later had his legs run over by a tractor.
After surviving a step-by-step, desperate, mile-by-mile “Death” march to hell-hole POW camps like Camp O’Donnell, Cabanatuan, Mindanao & Palawan, they faced years of day-by-day torture, despair, abandonment and a thirst, and a hunger not just of the body, but of the Soul.
After 3 and ½ years of agonizing imprisonment, they were herded into filthy ship-holds, there to risk insanity and death, packed standing without rest… sweaty flesh to skin-and-bones flesh.
21,000 Allied POWs died at sea… in these “Hell Ships”, as they were called. Sadly, about 19,000 of the POWs were killed by US Forces.
Our guys faced continued “Agony” as slaves in the mines of Japan, and were paraded naked in the streets where they could be further debased and humiliated. Some were put into zoo-cages so children could laugh at them. Others were burned alive for sport.
Still wearing the same tattered clothes they had worn in extreme heat, they were now freezing, emaciated, and plundered from 190 to 67 pounds, carrying as many as 26 parasites in their bodies, while they dreamed of Home.
*** *** ***
When contemplating the Defenders of Bataan & Corregidor, a word I cannot imagine without a “capital S” is “Suffering.” Their Suffering.
Of the 31,095 who were on the Death March, only 14,473 were released after the war.
Who are these Men? They were reduced to the most base form of “animal.” Some hated themselves and claimed that it was only the “good” who died.
After years of imprisonment and punishment, they were freed by Americans wearing uniforms they did not recognize.
Food was dropped to shriveled, starving Survivors. In more unthinkable irony, some who had endured so much for so long were killed by the dropping canisters. And what did some of these battered Men do? They gave their food to starving Japanese children.
*** *** ***
Now, you and I are ready to talk! That was the set-up, the intro. You see, that’s history, a little background, some facts, but there’s a MISSION here.
Let’s take a small sampling of boys, like different spokes of the same wheel, and see if we can zoom in on a common hub... something they all shared. Maybe, it will help us… as we too, “fight the Good fight…”
The greatest “rock stars” I have ever known are the people I’m going to tell you about. Though largely forgotten even in American History books, these special people deserved groupies more than any Hollywood actor or rock star you can think of.
I first read about “The Bataan Death March” when I was a kid. I went to New Mexico to meet an authority on the Subject. Instead, her husband came out… bright blue eyes, big smile, a cane. He sat down and started talking about this thing… “The Bataan Death March.”
His name was JACK ALDRICH. We talked for over an hour before I finally said, “Wait a minute… You were there!?”
“Jack,” I said in a reverent whisper. “You’re a Hero!”
He closed his eyes in quiet reflection… tired of having heard it so often and said, “I never had to storm a beach, or hold a hill. I never jumped from a plane or liberated a town. All I did was survive. The Heroes are the ones still over there.”
Then he said… “I have seen men die, and, dying say, ‘Tell them how it was.’”
Jack also neglected to say how he fought for 4 months in the jungle with failing ammo, eating shoe leather, insects, and leaves, with “no Mama, no Papa, no Uncle Sam,” but hopefully you’ve already heard that.
The Poem from the guys?
“We’re the battling bastards of Bataan;
No mama, no papa, no Uncle Sam.
No aunts, no uncles, no cousins, no nieces,
No pills, no planes, no artillery pieces.
And nobody gives a damn.
Nobody gives a damn.
by Frank Hewlett 1942
LORENZO BAÑEGAS said, “We didn’t Surrender. We were Surrendered.”
Then he said. “We were in the hold of that ship (the hell ship) and I looked at the cross in the beam and I said, ‘Lord if it is your will for me to live then I’ll live, and if it’s your will for me to die then I’ll die.’ I gave myself… (in other words, THIS was the first time he Surrendered himself …) to God.”
EVANS GARCIA was 92 when I met him back in 2002. By the way, I also met a guy who was 14 when he was captured.
Evans stole medicine from the sick bay. A guard caught him. They stood him up to face 9 Japanese soldiers with rifles. The officer raised his stick to give the order.
“Nine Japanese,” yelled Garcia!
“What?” screamed the officer.
“Nine Japanese!” yelled Garcia.
“What?” screamed the officer again.
“It takes 9 Japanese to kill ONE American!” said a defiant Garcia.
An enraged officer said, “I’ll show you how many Japanese it takes!”
Garcia was then beaten, supposedly to his death by the guard. After all of that, he and a small group stitched together an American Flag. Ever see “The Patriot?” Keep in mind, these guys were beheaded for humming “God Bless America.” That was a very important “code” to them and a way of communicating their longing for Home.
WARD “Big Red” REDSHAW was born in New Mexico. With the 200th Coastal Artillery, he defended the attack on the Philippines, was captured, went on the march, survived the camps, the hell ships, slave labor, and get this now, watched the New Mexico-built A-bomb hit Nagasaki from his prison cell. He passed away from throat cancer which is believed to have been a result of the radiation from that bomb. Embodied in that one human life is all of the Beginning and the End of WWII in the Pacific... and ALL of that, in Suffering.
BEN “Bull” BENINI, our last, and most recent and local ex-POW from the Bunny’s Breakfast group was put into the Hospice and went 7 weeks longer than the doctors predicted. He said, “They wrote me off… well, I’ll show them.”
When the doctors deprived him of having a beer outside, I spoke with them… politely. “Do you know who this guy is?” I asked. “Do you know what this guy DID?
Consider the physical state of the POWs described earlier. After 6 thirsty, Life-taking days on one of the hottest days on record in the Philippines, and up to 90 miles on the Death March depending on where you started, and after being carted into a train, denied water, with buddies being executed along the way, some tied to barbed wire to be eaten by ants, and dying from dysentery, dehydration, malaria and many other tropical diseases, with Men in his camp dying at a rate of 30-50 a day… under THOSE conditions, here is what Mr. Benini did.
“Our Mission,” he said to me, “Our MISSION was to take out Jap planes. The airstrip was our detail. Me and this other guy took the rocks they used for night landings and slowly changed them using seashells to reflect the light differently. We eventually crashed a plane.”
He laughed. Even as a wasted-down, abused POW he was on a Mission.
GENRO LAMBIOSA learned to speak some Japanese before the war. As a NAVY Diver, he wound up unloading supplies for the Japanese who were searching for the submerged Philippine Gold Treasury. Genro and Charlie Dowdy used to joke about keeping some of that gold for themselves while hiding significant portions from the Japanese! While putting a wrench in the works, Genro raised pigeons for food on the dock.
He shipped with the American Rover, in Norfolk, climbing masts with vigor until he passed away in his late 80s working, ironically, on a ladder. These guys never gave up.
CHARLIE DOWDY was a tough one. It took 3 years before he felt comfortable speaking with me. (that is 3 years plus 40 years, remember?) One day he said, “You can’t understand what happened over there.”
I said… “You’re right. No one could except you guys, but if it’s okay, I’d like to hang around with you.”
Charlie was a NAVY Diver too. His story begins on the USS ARIZONA. He left for the Philippines, supposedly to make more money, and worked on the USS Pigeon, a Submarine Rescue Vessel reconfigured from a minesweeper. They helped evacuate the 4th Marines from Shanghai in 1941. Charlie was 160 in 1941 and 90 pounds in 1945. The WWII portion of his story ends in Fukua Prison Camp as a Slave laborer. In the defense of Bataan, Charlie told the story of General Wainwright sacrificing his horse to the butchers, and then, after capture, had many stories about “lugao”. He shared stories about how he made deals for things like a piece of rope, or half of an old tent from which he could stitch new pants. Charlie named his Guard/Torturers “Mickey Mouse” and “Donald Duck.” Like so many others he was defiant, even in his gutsy humor.
(There’s so much compression here! So much more for you to discover… Each of these guys need a novel!)
DAVID “Top” TOPPING was a walking encyclopedia. He knew everyone from Jesse Owens to Louis Zamperini. After the war, he took it upon himself to keep records of all the American POWs and the Hell Ships they had endured. Dave was almost 190 pounds when they captured him. He was 84 pounds when he was liberated.
One morning he said, “We couldn’t even sit.”
In a studious, articulate Dave-manner, he said, “At that weight, the coccyx bone is so exposed, it’s difficult to sit.”
I thought I had heard enough, but there was always one more story, one more unimaginable nightmare for these guys to overcome.
JIM DOWNEY was Filipino. His ordeal began with not one, not two, but THREE ships being shot out from underneath him. Three times he went into the water, and three times he went treading with sharks. Ironically, he was training for the Olympics as a swimmer when the War snatched him. Jim survived the 3 sinkings and sharks only to be captured and then… well… You know the rest.
Jim would hold up his hand and say, “See that? Steady as a rock. I can still shoot. I’d go again if they let me. I love America.” He would get teary-eyed and repeat with a tremor. “Yeah, I really love America.”
Another guy who went into the water was STANLEY WOODY. Woody was on the USS HOUSTON and was one of only 249 Americans to work on the River Kwai rail system. Watch the movie, “Bridge on the River Kwai.” Woody used to joke, “Yeah, they got William Holden to play me.”
He also said and always with a laugh, “I was only 19 when they got me. That’s why I look so young!” He once said, “I fought for Freedom, and I would do it again. After I read the book they did on us, that’s when I got scared.”
Interestingly enough, the Japanese used to BOW to Woody before giving him a small can of rice for the day. Why? Because the USS HOUSTON kept firing and went down while firing.
(Love that. Used to tell young baseball players that story. Quick aside to the Films made by the Japanese, Volleyball, etc.)
SAM RING was a 6th Army Ranger, who after living next to our Bataan Vets for 60 years, finally learned about Mr. Blair’s Breakfast at Bunny’s Bunch. Sam turned 18 on 18 January 1945. For his birthday, he was shot through the thumb with a Japanese .25 mm machine gun bullet and was ripped up the right side by a hand grenade. For the remainder of his life, he had 21 pieces of shrapnel in his body.
Just 11 days after his birthday, Sam took part in The Great Raid, the rescue of 522 Allied POW’s at Cabanatuan. Sam simply referred to that as just “another mission.”
Unknown to him at the time, Sammy saved Sergeant Sam Ring, Sam’s Father who was captured at age 41, put on the March, and survived until his own Son rescued him at Cabanatuan.
While doing research for the Musical Tribute, Beyond Courage, Kakehashi: THAT WE MIGHT LIVE, we found footage made by the Army Signal Corps. I showed the Footage to Sam.
“Steve! That’s my Dad!.”
“Where did you get this?” he said getting choked up.
“Don’t you remember ever doing this interview? It had to be a big set-up with tripods and everything else?”
“No... I don’t remember.”
Maybe Sam didn’t remember, because AFTER the Great Raid on Cabanatuan, he was on the front lines against the Japanese until the End of WWII. Then he fought in Korea. Then he did 3 tours in Vietnam. I always joked with my “Uncle Sammy”.
“Hey, man, you just didn’t do enough for your country.”
He would say, “I’d do it again if they’d let me. I fought for Freedom and I’d do it again.”
NORMAN “Jack” MATTHEWS began the Death March wounded. Both he and his Brother, Ed were captured. Ed died in Jack’s arms. The Japanese commanding officer said on their arrival, “It would have been better for you if had you died on the march.”
After 3 and ½ years of Suffering and anguish and the loss of his Brother, Jack went into the sardine-like confines of a Hell Ship. In the hold of that ship, there was no fresh air.
There was a bucket for defecation. There was unending heat, thirst, sweat, stench, vampirism, and every other horrible torment you might imagine. The ship was damaged by US Forces and it took 69 days to repair. 69 Days in THOSE conditions… 69 days on a CRUISE SHIP would be a nightmare... but can you imagine? That ALONE would be Hell.
But Jack survived “HELL” only to wind up as a Slave-laborer in Japan, and when finally liberated, he chose not to come home, but to remain as part of the occupying force.
One day, Jack was talking about his Brother.
“Jack? Why do you think he died?”
In his whispery quiet, soft-spoken, years-of-carrying-a-heavy-burden-way, Jack simply said, “He was good.”
In so many words, Jack was saying, “ I am not good,” and that is why he believed he survived and that is what he carried inside for so many years. Jack Suffered his own private HELL like all the guys did… and yet, he would say things like, “It’s so great to be able to get up in the morning and have some breakfast. Life just doesn’t get any better than this.”
DANIEL CROWLEY. As small worlds would have it, Daniel Crowley was born in Greenwich, CT., where I went to High School. Did we get to meet him? No… wasn’t on any History Class agenda, I guess.
Dan fought on Corregidor with the 4th Marines until they were officially surrendered by General Wainwright on 6 May 1942. Dan went from Camp O’Donnell to Cabanatuan and then to Palawan. Dan helped build an airfield in the blazing sun with little clothes, no hat, and no shoes. Half the prisoners died there, and if it were not for an American doctor’s convincing act, Dan would have been returned to Palawan and burned alive with the remaining prisoners at the airfield. (I met a POW who escaped from Palawan!) Dan was then hell-shipped to Japan where he slaved in an ancient copper mine until 14 August 1945. He was liberated on 4 September 1945 and has spent his life fighting for the legacy of those who fought with him against all odds.
JOHN MIMS went in at 190 lbs and came out at 67 lbs! On the march, his teeth were broken out with a bottle and his legs were broken for trying to escape. He watched his friends killed in random firing squads. When asked how it was that he survived, he said, “God intended it. I think God was looking out for me.”
LOUIS SACHWALD, who had his legs run over by a Tractor during the March, and Marion “Turk” Turner passed away on the same day. Separated only by distance, the guys were, and probably still are “connected.”
Louie was forced to dig his own grave and lie in it until he died. When he didn’t die, he was allowed to get out and face 3 months on the Hell Ships.
TURK TURNER was buried at Sea courtesy of the USS BATAAN. (one of many reasons we love the Officers and Crews of the Bataan!)
At Turk’s Funeral, I played Taps… and for the echo Taps, I played Reveille. That’s who this guy was… who he remains. And if it was good enough for Winston Churchill then it was good enough for Turk.
Turk came out of the Depression, like most of the guys, and when the War started he said, “Well, if we gotta fight, I ain’t walkin’. I’m gonna ride this one out.” So he joined the NAVY and served on the USS PERCH.
Now, in a scene that rivals anything you’ll ever see in a John Wayne movie, Turk was the 2nd to last man to get off the scuttled submarine. He was half-way up the cargo net on the Japanese ship when he looked back and saw his Captain staying with the Perch. With one of his arms wounded, Turk dove back in and rescued his Captain, pulling him up that cargo net.
One day I asked him,“What can you tell me about Corregidor?”
Always with a smile, “Oh that place had the most beautiful sunrises!” One day he said, “I could only get to the number 12 when they beat me. Then I would pass out on my feet. Didn’t know what was happening after that.” Then he would say, “One of the hardest things to do is kill a man if he don’t want to die.”
Every day, Turk would say to fellow POWs ready to let go and die, “They’re comin’ tomorrow. They’re comin’ tomorrow!” He said that for 1,294 days. On the 1,295th day, he was right!
I think Webster’s should replace their definition of Optimism with a photo of TURK TURNER. He was holding Spencer (my 11 September 2001-born Son) on his lap, both of them with blue eyes blazing… when he said, “My Life just keeps getting’ better and better.”
My Sons and I were darned fortunate to rub our elbows with these Great Souls, and many more. I can’t help but REALLY love these guys. I hope you do too.
So here’s the MISSION WRAP: Ready?
It is said that we stand on the shoulders of giants. True… but we also stand… maybe even kneel… on the shoulders of average, common, often unknown, never-really praised or singled-out, forgotten by history, completely ordinary, day-to-day people who have been called, or have indeed volunteered to do the EXTRA-Ordinary and the UNCommon… some of whom... Sacrificed EVERYTHING … that we might live.
They were called the “Greatest Generation,” though these guys in particular, the greatest of the great, saw themselves as anything but Great. So to you, the Greatest Generation of the more recent past, and the Greatest Generation still in progress and yet to come, upon whose shoulders will stand more of the unnamed, and their children and their children’s children, let’s recap:
Surrendered but never surrendering
Fighting on even while you’re going down
Unswerving Audacity & Optimism while looking out for your friends…
Carrying the Torch into Future Generations...
The Love of Freedom…
That’s just some of it.
I offer these small, edited stories in words and in Music. But they… They lived those stories in Blood.
(If you serve in the Military or if you support them in any way, I come to you with unmeasurable Love and Respect. You’re the next Greatest Generation… and it’s not possible to thank you.)
Thank you for your Time and listening, for getting inspired to learn more… and for becoming part of their story, a story that will go on and on and on, for as long as we remember them, and for as long as there is a need to defend Freedom.
Godspeed! Stephen Melillo, Composer
*** *** ***
Charles Melillo, an ex-POW of the North Koreans, and since passed on.
Dennis Chiarella, an ex-POW of the North Vietnamese.
Pat Viscusi who served in World War II, Korea, and Viet Nam.
Dominic Melillo, Rudy Antonucci, Bruce DeFilippo, and Dominic Vallette who served in World War II.
Ray Primm, who served in Korea.
Don Marturano who served aboard the Intrepid during the Viet Nam War.
Technically: Most say that WWII, the state of war, formally ended when the San Francisco Peace Treaty came into force on 28 April 1952. On 31 December 1946, President Harry S. Truman officially declared the end of a state of war in the United States with the signing of Presidential Proclamation 2714 (61 Stat. 1048), Cessation of Hostilities of World War II.