O'Donnell Re-Visited 1945 

 

A Visit To Recaptured Camp O'Donnell Where Martyrs Of The Famous “March Of Death” From Fallen Bataan Now Sleep.

      By Clark Lee – INS Staff Correspondent - January 1945
 
Camp O'Donnell Prison Camp, Tarlac Province, Luzon – (INS) –
 
Here are the graves where they sleep – these martyrs in American uniforms who were victims of the cruelest mass atrocities in our country's history.
 
Here are the crosses, the broken, charred, weather-beaten, rotted patches of pitiful wood – unmarked and unnumbered – that are scattered helter-skelter over the grass-covered mounds where at last, free of misery beyond human endurance, each man shares his final resting place with his comrades.
 
Here is their Calvary, these grass-grown slopes with the paths which dying men trod up to the graveyard with their lifeless burdens – paths up which soon-to-be-dead-men carried the unlettered crosses that now mark their own graves.
 
Here are the covered dugouts where, safe from sun and rain, the Japanese sentries thumbed triggers and their machine-guns and laughed at the living skeletons who wearily scooped out the shallow graves in which they were to lie.
 
Beer bottles are still there – beer bottles from which the Japanese drank while Americans and Filipinos fell to the ground gasping from thirst.  Yellowed butts from their cigarettes are still there, and cans from which they ate while their prisoners collapsed from hunger.
 
It will take some days to determine the final ghastly toll of the dead in this prison camp where the men of Bataan lie.
 Today alone, I counted the graves of more than 3,500 Filipinos and several hundred Americans.
 There are the names of some of the Bataan heroes who came to the end of the road on these slopes – a few names on crosses and a few on metal identifications attached to broken crosses and thrown carelessly into clumps of grass by Japanese sightseers.
 You read American and Filipino names – names that still can't be announced because of the possibility their families have not been notified.
 There is the name of a private of the 71st Philippine infantry regiment who died May 19, 1942.
 There is the name of a Janesville, Wis., tank-man who died in the summer of 1942.
 There are the names of boys from Hartford, Conn., from New York City, and from Pennsylvania towns.
 
Camp O'Donnell, formerly an American army installation and afterward the barracks for a Philippines division, stands on the grass-covered, uncultivated western Tarlac plains, a few miles from the Purple Zambales mountain range.
 
It was here that the Death March from Bataan ended in April of 1942.  Prisoners were marched from Bataan to San Fernando with only scraps of food and those who fell by the wayside were bayoneted or shot.  The sick, starved, thirsty, wounded men were forced to march northward to this camp.  In O'Donnell, the real torment began.
    
Today the only buildings standing are those formerly occupied by the Japanese commandant and prison guards.  
 
Most of the Filipinos were released, by September, 1942.  Later, in a gesture of friendship, the Japanese puppet Republic of the Philippines was inaugurated.
 
The other buildings on the treeless slope were burned down, most of them apparently some time ago, but one was still smoldering when we arrived.  All that remains is ashes and triple strands of barbed wire that surrounded each small weather-beaten gray-black shack where the prisoners were crowded together and slept on the floor.
    
The camp area was surrounded by double fences of barbed wire while around the Japanese quarters were circular dugouts with fire-ports pointing in all directions and barbed wire with tin cans tied to the strands to give warning if the prisoners attempted to attack. From the Filipinos who were released, we already have the story of a deliberate program of starving prisoners to death.  Crosses marking the graves show that some, already terribly weakened in the battle of Bataan, gave up the fight early while others, already human skeletons with each bone showing through near transparent skin, clung grimly to life for over two years  The prisoners had no medicine.  Emaciated and suffering from malnutrition, they fell easy victims to disease.
 
Much of their working time must have been taken up with digging graves, fifteen feet long, sixteen feet wide and only eighteen inches deep in which five bodies were laid crosswise.
 Too weakened to do any unnecessary digging – or perhaps feeling that even in death each man's body should not touch his neighbor – the prisoners left foot-long piles of earth projecting toward the center of the grave from the head and from the foot of each scooped out hole that now shelters an American or Filipino.
    
The Japanese obviously attempted to conceal evidence of their crimes.  In addition to burning buildings which had housed the prisoners, and thus destroying any torture instruments that may have existed, they set fire to grass in the Filipino graveyard and most of the crosses were burned destroying records.  They apparently hoped the American graveyard which is across a dirt road from the main camp would go unnoticed and accordingly allowed grass, weeds and tall reeds to grow to heights up to ten feet.
    
We sighted the American burial ground only when the wind blew back the reeds giving us a glimpse of a white monument.  A path leads there from the ashes of the huts. The site is so overgrown that it is impossible even to tell the size of the cemetery but is appears to be about 100 by 150 yards with the grass covered grave mounds separated from each other by about a foot.  It is a mass of tangled graves completely untended and some graves are still unfilled.
 
The monument is a seven foot cross made of white cement and on the base of it in barely readable letters is inscribed: 
                       “In Memory of the American dead - O'Donnell War Personnel Enclosure."
    
The wooden crosses are made of laths, two feet long by one foot wide and fastened together with two rusted nails.  The crosses had apparently been ripped from the graves which they marked and thrown deliberately into the underbrush.  A few of them had identification tags attached to the nails and were lying nearby.
 These crosses appeared to have been broken off as if torn from the earth.
There were other crosses too, fifty newer ones lying awaiting victims near the monument which the Japanese built in memory of the helpless men they deliberately killed.
 
A large white monument arising from a twenty foot base with a low stone wall around it, attracted us to the Filipino burial ground a quarter of a mile across the fields from the main camp.  Here some effort had been made to keep track of the total victims of Japan's “Greater East Asia” program.  The graves were in sections numbered in Roman characters.  There were thirty sections, each four rows deep and up to fifteen plots wide.  The whole covering more than a quarter of a mile in depth.
    
“The officers' section” with individual graves is in front of the monument on which is written in Filipino:  “In deep remembrance of the Filipinos who died in this place.  The whole hearted thoughts of their friends and comrades are with them.”
    
Beyond the monument are row after row of common unmarked graves covered with burnt grass and each holding bodies of five Filipinos. Several large graves were unfilled and besides one there were the wooden handles of two stretchers which were charred but not destroyed by fire.
    
It was easy to picture the living ghosts of men staggering out of the barracks with the bodies of their comrades who escaped from this tortured hell in death during the night and stumbling down the long, now, charred duck-board path, past the well kept Jap latrines, through the ten foot high wooden Jap “tori” gate, up past the monument and on across the field to the latest grave where the un-coffined remains were laid and dirt shoveled in the still faces.
    
In the ashes of a burned building we found three old style fire rusted helmets of the type Americans wore on Bataan.  We found one battered American canteen cup, and one piece of leather from a shoe.
Those and the graves and the ashes and the monument which the imperial Jap army built and the one constructed by the Filipino soldiers were all that were left to tell of the terror and the torture and the torment...
    
Those things and one other.  On one cross in the Filipino cemetery – a cross larger than most – was carved:  “Men have died so that their country may live and only those who are willing to die...”
    
The sentence stops there where death stayed the hand of the man who was willing to die so his country might live.
 
*********************************
 
I was a Filipino soldier.
A soldier of MacArthur.
My denim pants were short cut
My helmet made from a coconut
And the Japs killed us each day.
D'you think it was that easy
To be a soldier of MacArthur?
The coffee was weak and cold
The rice was moldy and old
and all for five pesos a day.
 
                 Anonymous.....
 
Clark Lee was an AP reporter who was on Bataan, before being evacuated to Australia.  Lee was one of the few reporters who visited the front lines. 
Lee wrote a book titled, "They Call It the Pacific." 
 
Credit: Billy Baker and the BBB.