Saturday, April 18, 2009

Bataan Death March - A Story from an Aviatior - Lest we Forget

April 9, 1942. That’s a date 87-year-old Billy D. Templeton would like to erase from his memory. But he can’t.
The atrocities of the Japanese Imperial Army, which began that day on the Baatan Peninsula in the Philippines and continued for Templeton three and one-half years as a prisoner of war, are vividly etched in his mind some 67 years later.
Billy was one of about 76,000 American and Filipino prisoners forced to trudge through blistering heat to prisons some 80 torturous miles away. They became prisoners April 9 when Maj. Gen. Edward King Jr. formally surrendered to a Japanese force of 54,000. 
Tagged the Bataan Death March, the infamous walk is known for its brutality, executions and inhumane treatment. Thousands died before reaching the end of the line.
Billy, an Army Air Corps radio operator with the 19th Bomb Group, was one of the prisoners.
In an interview at his Lee’s Summit home, Billy says it was “hope” that got him through the weeklong ordeal.
“You had to think you were going to make it; otherwise, you could give in,” he says pausing. “What was your alternative?”
Billy, whose military career began in 1939 as a 17-year-old, made aviation history on Nov. 3, 1941, when he landed at Clark Field on Luzon Island in the Philippines in one of the  26 history-making B-17 bombers.
Why all the hype about a mission that resulted in Billy and all the other participants receiving the Air Medal?
This marked the first time a mass flight of heavy bombers had attempted to fly from the West Coast of the United States to the Philippines.
“In those days, planes were moved long distances over water by ship,” Billy explains, noting the 26 “Flying Fortresses” were dispatched to beef up bases in the Philippines in case hostilities erupted in the Pacific.
One month later, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and Clark Field, destroying numerous B-17s – including Billy’s bomber. War had come to the Pacific.
Following the attack, a radio group in Headquarters Squadron – of which Billy was a member – received orders to assist the Signal Corps. So, on Christmas Eve 1941, a contingent of 13 men left Clark Field and set up a radio communications shack in the jungles on the  Bataan peninsular.
With the small detachment suffering from lack of food, dysentery, malaria and beriberi, the men were not ready for what faced them – the Japanese invasion of Baatan, which led to the capture of Billy and his companion Glenn.
Unarmed and trying to cross a jungle road, Billy and Glenn encountered two armed Japanese soldiers who captured them without firing a shot.
“They pointed in the direction they wanted us to go, and with a rifle butt to the kneecap, we headed out,” Billy recalls.
As they walked along the dusty road, Billy and Glenn saw more Japanese rounding up other prisoners who had surrendered and searching them for valuables.
“We joined the larger group,” he says, recalling everything of value was taken off them except their canteens, which were full. “We didn’t realize that such a small thing could be the difference between life and death in the coming days.”
With atrocities occurring one after another – sometimes hourly – it didn’t take long to figure out that only the strong, obedient and fittest would survive.
Some of the soldiers carried swords and used them to behead those who disobeyed their orders. Others found with Japanese currency, guns or knives in their possession were executed on the spot. There was no mercy.
Marching four abreast, Billy says it was instant death for anyone who couldn’t keep up or fell out of line. To  keep that from happening, the weak were put  between the strong.
Keeping the weak in the middle for support wasn’t foolproof, though. Once, a captain suffering from malaria fell out of rank and into a ditch. While kneeling and pleading for his life, a guard executed him.
Executions were common and carried out in many sickening ways. Like the man who was stabbed, strung to a tree and “used for bayonet practice.”
Even villagers weren’t immune.
Billy remembers villagers tossing rice balls wrapped in leaves to the weary prisoners passing by their bamboo huts when the guards weren’t looking. 
Touched by what he saw, Billy’s joy turned into sorrow and fear when an observant guard spotted one of the tossed rice balls in flight. He entered a house, killed the occupants and came out wiping blood off his bayonet.
Walking on dusty roads in 100-degree heat, the hot, dirty, smelly prisoners lived in their own squalor. There were no bathroom breaks.
 Death was everywhere, Billy says, recalling the stench of death, infection and other smells “stung their senses,” as did the rancid, decaying bodies strewn on and along the “road to hell.” 
  At Capas, the exhausted prisoners were jammed into boxcars and taken to Camp O’Donnell, where the only source of water for some 9,300 prisoners was from a single spigot. They remained there four months before boarding a “hell ship” for their final destination – Manchuria, where they spent the rest of the war doing slave labor. 

For the rest of the story, read “Manila Bay Sunset: The Long March Into Hell.” Written by Billy Templeton, the 144-page soft-cover book has been called “a  moving story of survival and personal triumph.”
Published in 2006 by River Road Press of Laguna Vista, Texas, “Manila Bay Sunset” is available for $15.95. To purchase a copy, call the author at 816-373-6983 or go to

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