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Bataan march haunts survivor

By BOB CAYLOR of The News-Sentinel

Fifty years ago this month, John Crago entered a terror that was to become one of this century's most enduring images of human brutality.

To Crago, 71, of Huntington, the Bataan Death March and years of captivity that followed aren't mere images. They're memories that return to him in nightmares even now.

On the same day Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor, another contingent began pummeling U.S. and Filipino troops in the Philippines. That attack wiped out the airplanes based at what later would be known as Clark Air Force Base. But Crago and thousands of other troops defending the islands held out much longer. Despite daily bombardments, the trapped soliders resisted and planned a retreat.

On Christmas Day 1941, American and Filipino forces consolidated on the Bataan peninsula, a tiny corner of Luzon Island about 20 miles wide and 30 miles long. That speck of jungle-covered island would become the second-to- last stand for Americans in the Philippines.

Crago was an Army mechanic then. Less than a year earlier, he'd taken a job in the Army because it was the only one he could find at the tail end of the Depression.

After the troops withdrew to Bataan, the deprivation began. Supplies ran short under the constant Japanese bombardment. The soldiers subsisted on rations of 1,000 calories a day.

"That's not much for a fighting man," he remembered. "Pretty soon men were eating anything they could get. They killed their horses and mules and water buffalo. We were even shooting monkeys and eating them."

In the last weeks before surrender, iguanas became prized delicacies. Each lizard's long, heavy tail carried as much meat as a small chicken, he said. The Japanese advanced slowly, but the defenders couldn't stop them. The end came April 9, 1942.

That day, Crago had just returned to a base camp when it was captured by Japanese troops. They counted off men in groups of 100 and sent them marching toward a rail depot for the trip to Camp O'Donnell, about 70 miles north. Crago was among the first 100 men.

The Japanese captured 75,000 soldiers at Bataan, including about 12,000 Americans.

The only route north to the railroad was along a narrow jungle trail. Japanese used the same trail to send men and supplies south to the tip of the peninsula.

As the men marched, their captors were strict: No food. No water. Any man who lost control in the tropical heat and lunged at one of the artesian wells along the trail was shot. And no stopping, day or night, except for 15 or 20 minutes every few hours when Japanese guards changed shifts.

"They never left no stragglers," Crago said. "If you stopped and said, 'I can't go anymore,' you was either shot or bayoneted, right on the spot." Deprived of water, Crago soon lost his senses.

"I was in a daze," he recalls. "I remember very little of the march itself."

When guards themselves weren't killing or threatening prisoners on the march, Japanese soldiers driving south past the men taunted them. Or worse.

Some of the soldiers made a sport of beating or stabbing prisoners as they whizzed past them. Crago remembers a moment as he shuffled along the trail when he looked up just in time to duck out of the path of an ax swung by a passing Japanese soldier. He's convinced now the soldier wanted to see whether he could lop off a prisoner's head on the fly.

About 1,000 of the 10,000 Americans died on the infamous Death March. Three things helped Crago survive.

First, he was able to swipe some stalks of sugar cane from a field during one changing of the guards.

"I stuck those in my shirt, and when they wasn't watching, I'd chew on one a little bit. It helped. It gave me a little food, a little water," he said.

Second, he's a small man. He stands about 5 feet 8 inches tall, and, before the invasion, he weighed 140 pounds. Rations of 1,000 calories a day went further in his body than in a bigger man's. Although his later captivity would drive his weight down to 95 pounds, he hadn't lost as much weight early on as bigger men.

Third, and most important, he started marching early, when the path was relatively clear. He spent three days and three nights en route to the train. Farther back among the legions of prisoners, congestion along the trail slowed the march.

"Some men spent seven, nine, 10 days on the march," he said.

Still more men died on the rail trip toward Camp O'Donnell, when they were packed shoulder to shoulder inside boxcars.

"I was right next to the door, and I could squeeze my nose up against a crack and get some air," he said.

The prisoners stood so packed inside the blistering heat of the railcar that those who died couldn't even drop to the floor, he said.

The next month, another 12,000 Americans surrendered after the last stand at Corregidor, a tiny, fortified island off the Bataan peninsula.

Crago spent just a short time at Camp O'Donnell before he volunteered for work details outside the camp that got him better rations and helped him rebuild his strength.

Later, he spent parts of the next two years at Cabanatuan, another prison camp in the Philippines. His frequent work details at other locations spared him from seeing the harsh punishments and abuse dished out at the prison camp. The men could be beaten or even killed with impunity by any Japanese, from private on up. Or, worse yet, they could be caught after trying to escape. Crago said the standard punishment for those who tried to escape was excruciating and certain. They'd be tied standing to a stake and denied food or water. Typically, a man baked and shriveled beneath three days' sun before he died.

Cabanatuan was filthy, and its sights and smells drive the nightmares Crago still experiences.

"I wake up thinking I'm back in all that filth and flies," he said. Men who could control their bodily functions emptied their bowels and bladders into an open trench at the camp. If a man vomited, or if he had dysentery and couldn't make it to the trench, no one cleaned the mess.

In July 1944, Crago and hundreds of other prisoners were sent to Japan to work in a coal mine. Rations there - 2,000 calories a day - kept them relatively well fed until Americans liberated the camp in September 1945.

Perhaps the only good experience in his 40 months of captivity came during his days in the Omine Machi coal mine. His work crew labored under a supremely humane foreman, a Japanese civilian who showed him that not all Japanese brutalized Americans for sport.

"He was an older man, and he didn't want the war any more than we did," Crago recalled.

The foreman usually divided his own lunch among the handful of prisoners beneath him, and he brought in salt and small peppers the men used to liven up their rice rations. Sometimes he would stand guard while the men took naps.

After the war ended, he said, the newly flush U.S. soldiers repaid their foreman by bringing him an oxcart full of food and clothing.

"I've learned to forgive them," he said. "I can't forget them, but I don't dwell on it. Some men did, and they tried to drink the bars dry."

Crago worked for 30 years after he returned, but nerve damage he suffered during the war forced him to retire from Dana Corp. in Marion at age 56. His time in prison camps helped him look at something such as losing a job as just a small bump in the road.

"You're thankful every day," he said. "You wake up and think, 'Boy, it's another beautiful day.' "