August 28, 2009
About the Video: Copyright © 2009
By Charles D. Brunt
Journal Staff Writer
Four New Mexico veterans who survived the Bataan Death March and imprisonment at the infamous Camp O’Donnell POW camp say the caption on a historic photograph of prisoners carrying bodies of men who purportedly died during the Death March is inaccurate.
The photo, distributed worldwide by The Associated Press for decades, is actually a shot of prisoners carrying the bodies of comrades who died at Camp O’Donnell to a mass grave days or weeks after the Death March ended, the men say.
“I debated long and hard about getting involved in this,” said John Love of Albuquerque, an 88-year-old Death March survivor who says he wants the historical record corrected before he passes on. “But history needs to be accurate.”
Love and another local survivor, Pete A. Gonzalez, said their Japanese captors would not allow prisoners to carry the dead or those who could no longer walk.
“If they couldn’t walk, they’d bayonet you or shoot you and dump you by the side of the road,” said Gonzalez, who served with the Army Air Corps’ 19th Bomb Group at Clark Field.
“They wouldn’t stand for anything that slowed up the march,” Love said, including prisoners who tried to leave the dirt road to scoop up a handful of dirty water from nearby rice paddies or artesian wells.
The Associated Press is considering revising the caption.
“First of all, we greatly appreciate the veterans’ concern,” said Jack Stokes, manager of media relations for the AP.
“The Associated Press’ archives clearly show that the photo caption is based on war-era information reviewed by the U.S. military at that time,” Stokes said in a statement Thursday.
“The AP’s caption echoes the veterans’ recollection that the location shown in the photo is Camp O’Donnell, the internment camp located at the end of the Bataan Death March.
“We will look further into the matter,” Stokes said.
The caption from the AP reads in part: “Nearing the end of the Bataan Death March, a thinning line of American and Filipino prisoners of war carry casualties in improvised stretchers as they approach Camp O’Donnell, a new Japanese POW camp, in April 1942 during World War II.”
Love has seen the photo in newspaper articles, books, magazines and even on fliers for veterans events. Only one book, “Ghost Soldiers” by Hampton Sides, got the caption correct, Love said, by identifying it as a burial detail at Camp O’Donnell, the prison at end of the 65-mile Death March that claimed an estimated 10,000 lives.
In 1942, Japanese captors marched about 78,000 prisoners of war — 12,000 Americans and 66,000 Filipinos — for six days on the Bataan Peninsula on the Philippine island of Luzon to a prisoner-of-war camp known as Camp O’Donnell. Many were denied food, water or medical care, and some were stabbed or bayoneted along the route.
Among the American defenders of Bataan were some 1,800 soldiers from New Mexico, many with the New Mexico National Guard’s 200th and 515th Coast Artillery Regiments. More than 800 of those captured Guardsmen didn’t live to see the war end, according to the Bataan Corregidor Memorial Foundation of New Mexico.
Along with Love, three other Death March survivors from Albuquerque — Thomas W. Barka, 89; Evangelisto R. “Evans” Garcia, 96; and Gonzalez, 88 — all agree that the photo caption is wrong.
“It wasn’t the Death March,” said Barka, who served with Battery F of the New Mexico National Guard’s 200th Coast Artillery Regiment. “They’re carrying the dead to the burial ground. They used to march right alongside our camp.”
Barka said he’s not sure whether the photo shows Americans carrying their dead from Camp O’Donnell, or Filipinos carrying their dead from a prison camp across the road.
Regardless, he said, the photo is not of the Death March.
Garcia, whom the Japanese put on the burial detail for about a month, agrees the photo had to be taken after the Death March ended at Camp O’Donnell.
“But that photograph, that’s a burial detail,” Garcia said.
“I decided after about a month of that that if I didn’t get off that detail, I would be one of those guys, so I volunteered for another detail,” he said.
Gonzalez said he remembers seeing Japanese photographers all along the Death March route.
“The Japs used to ride in trucks and cars up and down the Death March, and periodically they’d stop and take pictures,” Gonzalez said. “I must have seen three or four do that.”
Gonzalez said another historic AP photo, showing a ragtag collection of American prisoners leaving Miravales, contains an image of him.
“A guy named Vince Taylor who was a prisoner of war — he was an attorney in Texas after the war — he sent me that photo and I recognized myself. I recognized the hat I’m wearing. I was 20 years old there.”
Gonzalez also said the dark trousers he’s wearing in the photo were ones he absconded with as he was making his way to an airfield near Miravales where the Japanese were rounding up American and Filipino captives.
“I don’t know how far along we were when that photo was taken, but I would say it was maybe a day” since leaving the airfield at Miravales, he said. “Along the side of the road there aren’t any bodies, so I’d say it was pretty early in the march,” Gonzalez said.
Love knows more about the burial details than he cares to, having carried what he estimates to have been 1,500 fallen comrades to their graves.
“I was one of the first 300 or 400 off the march to enter Camp O’Donnell, and they (prisoners) began dying that same day,” he said. “And the dying got ahead of us.”
As the bodies stacked up, the Japanese assigned those who were well enough to walk to work on burial details — either digging the mass graves or transporting the dead.
“This went on early morning until late evening,” for two months, Love said.
The haphazard graveyard was in an old rice paddy about 1,000 feet north of Camp O’Donnell, he said.
To those imprisoned at Camp O’Donnell, he said, the photo itself disproves the caption.
“See these rags around their mouths?” Love said, pointing to the photo. “Those were to keep the blowflies from getting into our mouths and spreading dysentery. Many (prisoners) died from open wounds, which were infested with blowflies. I can’t begin to describe the thousands of swarms of blowflies on the bodies.”
Prisoners photographed on the Death March, Love noted, are not wearing masks, nor are they carrying bodies.
He’s not surprised the photos eventually surfaced, he said.
“When we would come out of the camp (carrying bodies to the graveyard) there were Japanese photographers all along the route, taking our pictures,” he said.
Though it’s been 67 years since the photos were taken, Love, Gonzalez, Garcia and Barka say it’s important that details of the infamous Death March be etched in history — but accurately.
“I think we owe that to our buddies,” Love said.
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