Bataan Death March

Americans and Filipinos join hands and hearts in memory of those who served -- and the many who died -- at Bataan and Corregidor in World War II.

August 15, 1997


JIM TUNSTALL of The Tampa tribune

KISSIMMEE -- The woman in the statue offers water to two soldiers. She and one of the men are Filipino. The other is American.

Their bronze faces tell two stories, hers of compassion and theirs of pain.

They are real -- no longer living, maybe, but forever a reminder of courage.

Some say the woman was shot moments later by Japanese soldiers. The men might have survived, but many of their comrades didn't.

The three are a tribute to the victims of the infamous Bataan Death March and the Japanese occupation of the Philippines during World War II.

They are for the generations that never knew or might forget.

But some don't need a memorial to know or remember.

Pedro Gonzales was 7 when Japan invaded his native country. He and his father saw the bombers drop payloads on Clark Field. He remembers, more than anything, the superior and often abusive attitude of the conquering army.

"During the occupation, we were forced to go to school and learn to speak Japanese, which I never did," says Gonzales, now a surgeon who served with the U.S. Army in Vietnam as well as Operation Desert Storm.

"We also had to sing national songs to the emperior," he recalls. "Every street had a Japanese sentry on the corner. If you didn't bow, they would slap you."

Tampa's John Aldrich, 78, has a different memory.

He survived the death march in April 1942 -- in his case, five days of hell followed by 42 months in a Japanese prisoner-or-war camp.

By war's end, his weight had dropped from 140 pounds to 89.

During the march, "the Japanese killed the Filipinos who threw food to us, but the worst part was no water," says Aldrich, a U.S.Army veteran attached at the time to the Army Air Corps.

"We passed rice fields with artesian wells. The Japs would say, "There's water,' and the first three or four guys who ran for it were shot," he says: "It didn't take long to learn not to be fast."

American and Filipino prisoners were marched in groups, 76,000 of them. As many as one-third perished under the Japanese abuse.

"Anyone who fell out, they would bayonet or shoot and throw them into the ditch along the road," says Aldrich, who has served 17 years as secretary of the Florida chapter of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor, a survivors group.

The fifth day, they fed us two rice balls the size of golf balls and five onions the size of cocktail onions," he says. "Then they sent us to camps, where we were their slaves."

Brooksville's Frank Bigelow turns 76 today, on V-J Day.

"It was the day they set us loose," says Bigelow, a past national commander of the survivors group. "I'll never forget that birthday."

Nor will he forget 3 1/2 years as a prisoner of war.

He was in the U.S. Navy and escaped the march, but "it was very tough in the camps," he remembers. "I had malaria, dysentery and jaundice at the same time. They took me to the death ward, but I said, "Bigelow, you're too young to die.'"

It didn't take much to provoke his captors.

"I found a piece of soap," he says. "I hadn't had a bath in six months, so I took it. They were watching me. They called me a thief and beat me. They broke my nose for finding a little chip of soap."

The islands fell to the Japanese April 9, 1942. The length and duration of the death march varied, depending on capture points.

In Sam Moody's case, it was 10 days across roughly 65 miles without food or water fit to drink.

Yet the trip to, and enslavement in prison camps was the worst part for Moody, now 77, an Altamonte Springs resident and founder of the survivors' group. More than 1,500 captives were crammed into the hold of a freighter for the trip.

"We were like maggots crawling all over each other," the Army Air Corps veteran recalls. "When a man died, they'd pass his body over their heads and into the China Sea. In one prison camp, we lost 3,000 men in 30 months."

The drive for a monument began in 1984.

When federal officials cited a lack of money in turning down the request, members of Kissimmee's Filipino community and city leaders decided to take matters into their own hands.

The city donated space in a park on Lake Tohopekaliga at the corner of Monument Avenue and Lakeshore Boulevard. Residents began fundraising efforts, which today are led by Gonzalez. So far, $150,000 has been donated.

Gonzales hopes there will be enough money for a museum one day.

"We have people willing to donate memorabilia if we have a place," he says.

The existing monument -- the statue, a granite base, a perimeter wall and lighting -- have come together since 1994. The memorial is called "A Tribute To Courage," and a bronze prayer book in front of it has this inscription:

"Honor those who died that you might stand here free this day.

"... a soldier of Bataan."

Gonzales says it was donated by a veteran who wants to remain anonymous.

"We praise the Filipino community for what they're doing," says Aldrich.

"It's a moving experience," adds Bigelow, "something all of us guys will never forget. Did you see the expressions on the statue's faces? It's utter despair."

For more information, call the Bataan-Corregidor Memorial Foundation at 407-846-6131 or -0341, or write to 461 West Oak St., Suite D, Kissimmee, FL 34741.






CP English

I always wondered, what happens to those people who you never meet in life? They don't really exist to you. What if one of those people whom you will never get the privilege to know is the one person who will change you forever? How many people who pass us on the street are diamonds in the rough whom we ignore?

He was just an old man who lived across the street from my grandma for my whole life, just a guy with a cute, chubby bulldog named Rocky whom he walked everyday. So, this summer when Mom and Dad asked me if I'd like to go with them and my brother to visit him, I reluctantly agreed.

"I would much rather stay here and watch this movie about Justin Timberlake," I thought to myself. I overheard my parents discussing with my grandma the man's interview with Stone Phillips on Dateline. It was about his courage to sue the largest Japanese mining company for slave labor. Thinking it was sort of neat to meet someone who'd been on television, I decided to tag along with half-sincere interest and a fake smile.

We walked into his house, shook hands, and were invited to make ourselves at home.

"Very polite. Wonderful smile," I remember thinking to myself as I tried my best to return an equally firm and friendly handshake. After finding a comfortable sitting arrange- ment, we lingered our way through routine, generic small talk for a couple minutes.

"How've you been?"

"I haven't seen you in years! You look great."

Completely changing the tone in his voice and glaze over his eyes, he talked about his love for dancing. He described his most beautiful and favorite dance partner, his wife, Miriam, whom he took care of when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease from which she later died.

"Still bring her flowers every Sunday of my life and tell her I'm doing fine."

My parents were curious to hear more about the Dateline interview and his war plight. He focused on the American flag and his devotion to it. He held back tears when telling us about the Japanese troops who ripped and urinated on the flag right in front of the war-torn American captives.

He turned to me. His wise eyes burned into mine.

"That flag is the best thing that could ever happen to you." A deep breath. "You won't know it until it's taken away from you. It is freedom," he said almost whispering. "You are young and beautiful. You cannot take this for granted."

He told me with such importance. All he said is that we have a great country, but coming from this man, it was so much more than that. He gave me an inspiration, an obligation, saying that now, after fighting his battles, it was my turn. He paused, staring at me. The silence sang loudly and the seriousness of the moment overwhelmed me. Something in my center rose as if to praise him, and it was released in quiet, powerful tears. He smiled, calming my fear of his greatness.

After three short hours, we got up to leave; this time we hugged. This time I tried to express my gratitude with a firm hug. He invited John and I to attend church with him in the morning. Jumping at the chance to have any more minutes with this man, I found myself in a church of no more than thirty of the nicest people I ever met in life. One lady revealed to me, "His life should've been a book."

"A Tom Clancy novel," I thought to myself, smiled, and admired him, "to keep on my coffee table."

He was all smiles. Simple conversation quickly became intriguing story telling. My family and I listened intently to him talk about his life.

As if he's returned to his childhood, he excitedly told us about his fishing adventures and the man who'd been his fishing buddy for as long as he could remember.

"Nicest guy you ever met in your life," he said with a fishing mug in hand. He talked about growing up in a small town in North Dakota. He was a pool shark for a short time winning extra money with his skill and wit from regulars at a local bar.

"Nicest guys you ever met in your life." He said that about every person he talked about, and I thought to myself that he must be a fun loving, optimist type of guy.

My eyes wandered, my interest grew, and I wanted to soak in everything I could about this man. I noticed a Norman Rockwell painting on the wall behind me. It was a Navy man getting the name of his thirteenth girlfriend tattooed on his arm with the first twelve crossed out. I chuckled under my breath and glanced to see a Baywatch calendar hanging in the kitchen! I laughed aloud this time, and he went on about his war experiences. He was hit by two trains, lived through the Bataan Death March, endured the torture of slave labor, was hopeful during serious starvation, fought his way through an amputation with a kitchen knife, struggled through a threatening case of gangrene, and today he is as happy as can be. I remember feeling like a cartoon as my eyes popped out of my head in disbelief and amazement in his long list. To me, he was born a survivor, almost as if death itself was inferior to his passion to live. The detail and reality of his stories expressed glory, sadness, and depth that I couldn't imagine, but that I experienced and felt through him -- his intensity, his pride, his grievance, his pain.

On the cluttered, unorganized coffee table was a pile of Tom Clancy novels, the Bible, and the Koran. Respect for him was building fast inside me.

A man who lives across the street from my grandma, Frank Biggalo, has a fat dog named Rocky, a heart full of memories, a love for God, life, and country. He is an All-American boy, an ordinary hero. Frank, his personality, and his trials are teaching me to live my life to its utmost potential and to love every minute of it. He makes me want to be a better person. The respect I gained that one night is branded in me forever. Now, I will always give our flag more than just a passing glance. I'll always pause to watch that sweet old man in the wheelchair or that woman who needs my help to get up the church steps every week. And I'll wonder ...

Page 1 INDEX