Thursday, January 11, 2018

A Most Unusual Christmas Gift

At my age, Christmas gifts are discouraged—unless it’s something to eat. I mean, really, I already have far too much stuff and one of my goals is to get rid of things rather than acquire more. My wife and I attend Christmas functions for the joy of being with friends and family and nothing more, except perhaps the food. So, this year I was especially surprised to receive a gift from my daughter that almost blew me away. The gift was something I would never have thought of myself, yet something I am moved to the core for having received. She gave me two bricks. Yes, two bricks; however, they are not normal bricks. These bricks are engraved with the names Otto Whittington, Japanese POW, Army—and Harold Whittington, U.S.S Mizar. The bricks will soon be installed in the Walk of Honor at the National Museum for the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, TX, the home of the Admiral Nimitz Museum.
The lives of Harold and Otto Whittington are the subjects of my latest book, Ordinary People; Extraordinary Lives. They are heroes of the Greatest Generation in every sense of the word, and my daughter was so moved by their story that she purchased the bricks as a memorial to their lives. Her gift left me in tears, as the book did her. I believe, in all my many years, no gift has touched my heart as much as this one.

Ordinary People; Extraordinary Lives chronicles the struggles of Harold Whittington and his brother, Otto, from birth through the Great Depression and on to WW II. Otto joined the Army and subsequently endured the surrender of Bataan and the Bataan Death March. During Otto’s 3.5 years as a Japanese POW, he was a slave conscript for building roads in the Philippines. Few POWs survived that duty. Later, after a harrowing trip from the Philippines to Japan on a “Death Ship,” Otto was a slave in the Japanese steel mills. Somehow Otto survived two near beheadings, beriberi, malnutrition, malaria, and torture—and twice the steel mills where he labored were targeted for nuclear destruction. Otto could hear the B-29 circling overhead; only the weather spared him. While Otto struggled through severe torture and sickness, Harold joined the Navy and searched for Otto throughout the Pacific theater whenever his supply ship put into port. After the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, Otto escaped the POW camp and made his way to a small POW collection point outside Manila. His exit from Japan was also remarkable because the aircraft just ahead of his exploded about 100 feet off the end of the runway. Harold subsequently located his brother in Manila, although, after years of torture, Otto did not recognize him. Harold and Otto returned to the USA after the war. Otto became an attorney and Harold became a professor of sociology at Temple Junior College. The incredible lives of these men, fraught with daunting labor, terror, and pain, serves as a poignant example of why they and others like them, are called “The Greatest Generation.”

Below are reflections by Otto Whittington, an excerpt taken from the book:

Late in the afternoon, my Hong Kong flight departed, climbing in a southwest direction. A few minutes into the flight I looked down and saw the large white cross standing like a sentinel over the largest military cemetery in the Pacific—Mount Samet where the bloodiest battles of Bataan were fought. Memories and emotions hit me like a sledgehammer. The small jungle covering the peninsula looked peaceful and insignificant in the late afternoon tropical sun, but I remembered a different Bataan—a Bataan where, nearly thirty-nine years ago, my friends, comrades-in-arms, and I started on one of the most brutal and cruel exoduses ever suffered by man. It was called the “Death March” because of the bodies left along the road. Men were shot, bayoneted, or beat to death—the Death March was my introduction to nearly four years of living HELL.

Emotions became more intense and my mind swirled with scenes thought long forgotten, now fresh and vivid. Blood smeared jungles filled the horizon and the sickening stench of death filled the air. Mallett and I were sent to contact the Philippine Army Division on our right. At an aid station behind where the front lines had been, we found wounded Filipino soldiers on litters with their throats cut—the whole division had pulled out. I returned to my regiment to hear the same report from the left flank. With another Philippine Division gone, only one skeleton regiment remained to fill the gap left by two divisions.

The 31st U.S. Infantry troops were ragged and sick with malaria, dysentery, and tropical infections. We had no medical supplies to treat our diseases. We were starved, low on ammunition, and our automatic weapons had burned out in previous battles. Still, the “Battling Bastards of Bataan” would try to hold back General Yamashita's fresh 100,000 troops, just brought in from Singapore.

We were told to keep the enemy engaged, to hold a ridge while other companies fell back. As the enemy advanced, we dropped back, trying to find a place where a small force could hold a line. My squad was blown off a ridge by heavy mortar fire. Falling back, Crowell’s foot was blown off, and he stumbled along on one leg and a bloody stump. He was crazy with shock and pain and fought anyone who tried to help him. Borden fell on his back screaming in pain and with legs kicking. I put my hand under him and felt his heart beating where his back was blown open. I dragged him down the slope as he screamed, begging to die. Time stood still until someone helped me carry him away. We passed bodies—shredded by mortars, artillery, and bombs—in grotesque positions of death. Our last line was on the beach across Cabcaben Airstrip from the ever advancing Japanese.
If you are interested in history, I encourage you to go to Amazon.com and key in James L. Hatch. Buy the book Ordinary People; Extraordinary Lives. It will leave you with a deep sense of thanksgiving for the lives we lead now.

Thank you for reading,

James L. Hatch


Tina Donahue said...

Sounds fascinating. Thanks for sharing, James.

James L. Hatch said...

Thanks, Tina. So far, the reaction to this book is stronger and more positive than all my other books together. Maybe I should just write true stuff.

jean hart stewart said...

Loved your comments and the excerpts......thanks for your posting...

James L. Hatch said...

Hi Jean Hart:

Thanks for your kind words. They are always appreciated. I truly look forward to the brick laying ceremony. I wish all the WW II heroes could be recognized as these two finally will be.