A story of survival
Man shares brother's story of suffering as a POW in World War II
Lester Hart holds the 24-page memoir written by his brother, Harold Hart, who survived the infamous Bataan Death March and other acts of brutality as a prisoner of the Japanese during World War II. (By Yvette May, Staff Photographer)
The Americans retreated, "hungry, exhausted and humiliated," and waited to be captured. On April 9, Japanese tanks rolled up to the American encampment. The prisoners were ordered to throw their weapons in a pile. Some American soldiers and their Philippine allies cried along the side of the road.
The captives — 65,000 Filipino servicemen, 25,000 civilians and 12,000 Americans — were ordered into groups of 100.
"This would be our marching order for the next seven or eight days," he wrote. "(Japanese) soldiers were to march along with us as guards. Thus began the infamous 'Death March' out of Bataan into death for many of us and prison camps for the rest."
Hart wrote that the prisoners were searched before the march began. They were ordered to surrender their belongings and strip their uniforms of insignias to look as little like armed forces as possible.
"As we marched, many prisoners fell out of line exhausted or to get a drink," Hart wrote. "Some were bayoneted on the spot. Others were beaten with gun butts or clubs. Surprisingly, some of the guards were 'human' and gave out food, cigarettes, and allowed us to have a drink from the artesian wells along the way."
Hart wrote that the march claimed 70 to 80 Americans per day. Men who were too sick to eat traded their rice for cigarettes and quickly grew weak.
They finally arrived at Camp O'Donnell, which previously was used to quarter the Philippine army when it trained. The shacks were bamboo with thatched roofs. No sanitary facilities were available, so the prisoners were made to dig ditches to use as toilets.
Food was scarce and many men died of malaria because there wasn't an adequate supply of medicine. It was at Camp O'Donnell that Hart and his high school classmate, Ralph Tagg, volunteered for work details in an effort to get more food.
"My friend Tagg experienced another attack of cerebral malaria," Hart wrote. "He would go out of his head for days during such an attack."
Because the Japanese separated the sick from other prisoners, Hart wrote that he faked a fever so he and Tagg could stay together.
Death of a friend
"If I could fake a fever, I could return with Ralph, who needed me very much," Hart wrote. "When the (Japanese) guard felt my head, he responded by knocking me back with his gun butt, which knocked out some teeth."
A sympathetic guard stepped in and allowed the men to accompany each other to a hospital. Hart wrote that he rejoined some other friends after leaving Tagg at the hospital to receive treatment. Later that night, Tagg strayed from the hospital.
"For one evening after dark, Ralph, my friend, came to me in all that sea of humanity," Hart wrote. "He was extremely sick with malaria and out of his head. How he found me is a miracle in my mind at least. Seeing his condition, I asked three of my friends to help me take Ralph back to the hospital. When we did arrive at the hospital, I (sensing his death) removed his graduation ring and took his testament. Later they were taken by (Japanese) guards.
"I later learned of his death about June 3, 1942. A couple of days before this, I was taken to Cabanatuan prison camp. Just to leave O'Donnell was a relief. Thus started another phase of my POW experience."
Music and medicine
Hart wrote that life was a little better at Cabanatuan. Kitchens were set up, and the Americans prisoners received more food and medicine. Some of the prisoners were given instruments and played music in the evenings.
The Japanese guards forced the Americans to dig irrigation ditches to grow vegetables.
"We raised beautiful vegetables for the Japanese," Hart wrote. "There were traces of these vegetables in our soup, but mostly flavor. The (Japanese) took most of the solids. Regardless, I survived. Many of our prisoners died though (from malaria, dysentery and other diseases)."