Anthony Zendejas Essay

 

Bataan Death March Revisited: Kitsap Boy's Eighth-Grade Essay Sends Ripples Across the Pacific

A Central Kitsap teenager unwittingly introduced a World War II tragedy to a new generation of Japanese.

By Chad Lewis | clewis@kitsapsun.com   January 28, 2007

Buried in American history books and banished from Japanese history books, the gruesome story of the Bataan Death March during World War II has nearly gone untold for decades.  Americans didnít want to relive the biggest surrender in U.S. history. And Japanese didnít want to acknowledge that their soldiers beheaded and incinerated prisoners of war.
But a 2005 essay by a Central Kitsap eighth-grade student has sent ripples across the Pacific Ocean, thanks to the Internet. It has introduced the massacre and the famous rescue mission that followed to generations of Japanese that had been sheltered from the story.

Anthony Zendejas, now a 15-year-old freshman at Klahowya Secondary School, admits that in "The mark was made," he said, "but the ax missed, so itís still alive. I never thought it would keep going like this."
The most surreal moment came in April 2006, when the author of the book that inspired Zendejas to write about the death march called him at his home near Wildcat Lake. Hampton Sides, who wrote the 2001 best-seller "Ghost Soldiers," had heard from several readers around the world about a Kitsap teenager who had been doing extensive research. Zendejasí mother, Margot, answered the phone.

"(Sides) didnít tell me his name for the first three minutes," she said. "He just wanted to know if this was for real and if he could help." Sidesí brief attempt at anonymity was futile. Both Zendejas and his mother instantly recognized his voice from the many documentaries on the Bataan Death March they had watched together.
"Normally, itís the student trying to track down the author," Margot Zendejas said, "not the other way around."
Sides, who lives in Santa Fe, N.M., provided Zendejas with contact information for survivors and offered him guidance on how to do more research.
"He was very tenacious, asking a lot of questions," Sides recalled during a telephone interview. "He was respectful but not the least bit shy."

Zendejas eventually interviewed more than 40 relatives of POWs and two survivors. He also interviewed Robert Prince, the Army Ranger captain who led the mission to rescue the remaining soldiers who had been POWs for nearly three years. Depicted in the 2005 motion picture, "The Great Raid," it is still regarded by historians as one of the most heroic efforts during World War II.  Zendejas interviewed Prince, 86, at his home in Port Townsend.
"It was the only time I was really nervous," Zendejas said. "I mean, hereís this famous war hero, talking to me. It was incredible."

SURRENDER IN BATAAN

On April 9, 1942, more than 75,000 U.S. and Filipino soldiers commanded by Gen. Douglas Mac-Arthur formally surrendered to the Japanese following the three-month Battle of Bataan in the Philippines.
During what became known as the Bataan Death March, prisoners were brutally beaten and killed. Those who fell behind were executed in a variety of ways. Some were beheaded, some were bayoneted. They were forced to march under the blistering April sun without water or helmets for shade, which led to many of the deaths.  During nearly three years of captivity, 10,000 of the Bataan prisoners died.
"A lot of them wished and willed themselves to die," Zendejas said. "It took a lot of courage just to stay alive."
With the assistance of Filipino guerrillas, Army Rangers staged the Raid at Cabanatuan to rescue the 500 remaining prisoners. The POWs had been in captivity for so long they didnít know the U.S. Army had changed its uniform color from khaki to green.
"A lot of the American prisoners were afraid it was a trap," Zendejas said. "They said the Rangers looked like aliens because their uniforms looked so different."   Military historians consider the raid a stunning success. Itís still used at military colleges as a model for rescue missions.
"They had no (military) intelligence going in," Zendejas said. "They didnít know how many guards there were or how many tanks there would be. All they cared about was getting their buddies out of there."

A STORY SELDOM TOLD

A Life magazine article published a month later predicted that, "Every American child of coming generations will know of the 6th Rangers, for a prouder story has never been written."
Yet, it was nearly forgotten. Most American history books give the Bataan Death March and The Great Raid cursory space, if any at all.
The Pacific theater of World War II historically has received far less attention than the European effort. Jeff Kreifels, the U.S. history teacher at Klahowya Second School who assigned the essay to Zendejas, said there are a few reasons for the unbalanced coverage.
"Most of the fighting in the Pacific was going on in the middle of the ocean or on islands," Kreifels said. "In Europe, it was happening in major cities like Paris, where there were more witnesses and reporters."
That the Bataan Death March in particular has received little attention is not a surprise to Sides.
"Americans like to dwell on their successes," Sides said. "We donít lose wars ó we donít even lose battles, or so we think. But hereís a loss, and not just a loss, but an excruciating loss."
Sides himself knew little about the death march until he moved to New Mexico, which was home to the largest number of POWs in Bataan. The death march is commemorated each year near Las Cruces with a 26-mile march.
Inspired in the late 1990s by the homages in New Mexico and the national wave of appreciation for World War II veterans as their numbers quickly declined, Sides began his work on "Ghost Soldiers."
Sidesí book became a New York Times best-seller, and eventually more than 1 million copies were sold. Margot Zendejas read the book in 2004 and passed it on to her son, Anthony.
While he was doing research, Zendejas interviewed a Port Ludlow woman whose father was killed while he was a POW in Bataan. The daughter then forwarded his essay to a Japanese journalist living in California, who translated the essay into Japanese and posted it on her Web site. Within a few weeks, the essay crossed the Pacific and reached a new auidence in Japan.
"Even today, a lot of Japanese had never heard about what happened at Bataan," Margot Zendejas said.

Searching for another way to tell the story, Anthony Zendejas wrote and performed a brief one-man play. He decided to use the method-acting technique to get into the character of a POW.
During spring break in 2006, he spent nearly three days in a simulated prison camp at his home. He barely had anything to eat or drink and listened to a recording of gunshots so he would be deprived of sleep. He kept a small bowl of moldy rice next to him, just like the actual POWs did. At the end of the simulation, he hiked three miles in the forest near his home.
"I was exhausted and weak, even after three days," he said. "I donít know how they did it for three years."

CURTAIN CALL

Zendejas has performed his 10-minute play four times, including at a Veterans Day event in front of all of his classmates at Klahowya.
His ultimate goal is to perform in April at the annual Bataan Death March reunion in Washington, D.C. Several family members of the survivors have encouraged Zendejas to come.
"This could very well be the last reunion," Margot Zendejas said. "Time is running out for a lot of the survivors."
Zendejas is trying to raise $2,000 for the trip. Friends, fellow church members, staff members at Klahowya and family members so far have donated nearly $500.  Kreifels, his former history teacher, hopes Zendejas makes it.
"The fact that heís still working on it says a lot about him," Kreifels said. "Heís not doing this for a grade or a contest. He just wants to honor these soldiers."

Note: Anthony made it to DC and met some of the very men he portrayed in one-man play,
bringing tears to the eyes of many and a standing ovation from the crowd.

Click here for Anthony's play

Staff photo illustration by Jessica Randklev
Anthony Zendejas' (lower left) eighth-grade essay on the Bataan Death March was translated into Japanese and spread across the Web.

 


 

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