This Veteran’s Day, I offer an excerpt from my latest book, Ordinary People; Extraordinary lives. No one can tell the plight of many veteran’s like a veteran himself. Below is Otto Whittington’s Moment of Reflection. If you find this glimpse of history interesting, please consider reading the entire book. It will keep you spellbound.
Reflecting on a life of trials, tribulations, and triumphs, with more peaks and valleys than the high Sierras, is similar to turning a kaleidoscope at high speed. I rode the rails as a hobo kid during the Great Depression, became a transient ranch and farm worker, and chased wild horses in New Mexico. I built mountain fire trails as a member of the CCC; worked as a forest fire fighter; lived alone above the timber line on the Forest Service fire look-out tower; and was a lumberjack, sawmill worker, and circus roustabout. I also served as a horse soldier in the U.S. Cavalry, a Remount Rider and stud-monkey in Remount Service, and as an infantry soldier in Philippines. I took part in the Battle of Bataan, the fall of Bataan, the Bataan Death March, and was one of the less than 10% survivors of Tayabas, most brutal of Japanese work details. I was also one of few survivors of the Bilibid POW Camp death cell in Manila. I survived the journey to Japan on a Hell Ship, was twice placed in kneeling position for beheading, was on the receiving end of U.S. planes firebombing Japan, and was twice threatened by atomic bombs dropped in Japan—first as the secondary target for the Hiroshima blast, and then as the primary target for the Nagasaki bomb. In both cases, I was spared due to weather. I returned to the U.S. after five years of terror and subsequently graduated from the University of Arkansas with honors, even without a high school education. I then attended the George Washington University Law School and became an attorney. I was threatened with being run out of town by businessmen in a small Texas town and, instead, took on the local political group before being elected Mayor in Bartlett’s first contested election in sixteen years. My term as mayor resulted in the best financial record in the history of the town. My kaleidoscope is indeed an endless array of colors and patterns.
My life has been one of high drama and low comedy; adventure and misadventure; fear and courage; success and failure; and pain, suffering, and starvation. Through it all, I never succumbed to Man's most deadly malady—self-pity—a condition that leads to anti-social behavior, envy, prejudice, and all other negative traits. Always with a high sense of humor, I enjoyed every mile of my trip through life, whether bumpy or smooth. The kaleidoscope stops now, not at a bright colored pattern of high adventure, excitement, or romance, but at this soft colored quiet reflective moment with deep emotions and painful memories.
In 1980, taking a Philippine Airlines plane on a business trip to Hong Kong, I had a four-hour layover when I changed planes in Manila. Not having a visa, I was restricted to the airport transient lounge with limited outside access. Prior to World War II, Manila International Airport was called Nichols Field, a U.S. Army Air Base. As a member of the Army Veterinary Corps attached to the 26th Cavalry, Philippine Scouts, I was stationed near Nichols Field. As I stood outside the lounge looking across the long remembered countryside, forty years rolled away and my mind was flooded with poignant memories of persons and places. In my mind, I visited scenes from years ago, such as racing across the countryside and jumping barrio bamboo fences on a beautiful sorrel jumper named Red Napoleon.
Talking to a young lady lounge attendant, I told her of my connection with the Philippines. She passed the word that an old soldier from Bataan was in the lounge. After that, over a dozen young Philippine soldiers came by to meet me and have pictures taken with an old soldier who had served with fathers and relatives during a dark time in Philippine history—a dark time well remembered. 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.
Word passed that General King was negotiating surrender. A Japanese staff car with Maj. Hurt and Japanese officers inside, and flying a large white flag, came across the airstrip from the Japanese lines. Behind the car came Japanese tanks with soldiers hanging all over them.
We were ordered to stand up and throw down all our arms. I felt the sickest I have ever felt, completely empty and hollow, and a sergeant standing near me started to cry. I heard him say, "What will my little girl think of me?" just before he shot himself in the head. The whole world was in complete chaos.
Looking down at the small peaceful strip of land, I wondered if we had accomplished anything at all. Was it worth the thousands of American, Filipinos, and Japanese who died there? Bataan, almost forgotten but still fresh in the minds of those who were there, is now perhaps only an answer to a trivia question. Bataan is not a word known by younger generations; most would likely think it the name of a rock group. I thought of other wars and battles—Korea, Viet Nam where my son served, and present turmoil throughout the world—and wondered if Man will ever reach an emotional and intellectual level of maturity where differences can be solved without mass slaughter. Man's major religions—Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism—all have prohibitions against the killing of his fellow man. Even the godless nations proclaim their ethics and high morals. But these are only religions and ethics a man gives lip-service to. Man’s real religions—the quest for political and economic power, materialism, and superiority—allow for the periodic mass slaughter of other men within the framework of co-called “civilized warfare”. We eradicate a disease by isolating the germ or virus. We know the virus which causes war is Man's self-appointed authority and self-righteous attempts to ram HIS political, economic, social, and religious beliefs down the throats of his fellow Man—we know the virus but not the cure. Looking out at the peaceful, undisturbed vastness of sky and water, I silently cried for Man's hypocrisy and inhumanity to Man as we continued across the China Sea.
Otto W. Whittington
Thank you for reading,
James L. Hatch