Honoring the Bataan

One man's fight to survive

Story by Airman 1st Class Chase A. Cannon, 49th Wing Public Affairs

Participants in the 25th annual Bataan Memorial Death March prepare to begin their march at White Sands Missile Range, N.M. Over 6,200 participants marched to honor more than 76,000 Prisoners of War and Missing in Action from Bataan and Corregidor during World War II.

Participants in the 25th annual Bataan Memorial Death March prepare to begin their march at White Sands Missile Range, N.M. Over 6,200 participants marched to honor more than 76,000 Prisoners of War and Missing in Action from Bataan and Corregidor during World War II. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Aaron Montoya)

During World War II, after the three-month Battle of Bataan, thousands of American and Filipino soldiers surrendered to Japanese forces on April 9, 1942. What followed next is known as the Bataan Death March, when Japanese soldiers forced the American and Filipino prisoners of war to march 80 miles through the blazing heat of the Philippine jungles with little to eat or drink. Thousands died at the hands of the Japanese or of dehydration on their way to face the oppression of a prisoner of war camp. More than 1,800 Soldiers from New Mexico’s 200th and 515th Coast Artillery were deployed to the Philippines during World War II and only half survived. For 25 years, the state of New Mexico and its citizens have honored the memory of those who suffered the hardships of the Bataan Death March by conducting an annual memorial march at White Sands Missile Range. These trials were shared by American and Filipino troops alike, and as a show of appreciation for the sacrifices made by the United States, the Ambassador of the Philippines, Jose Cuisia, sent a letter to Army Maj. Gen. Gwen Bingham, the U.S. Army commanding general of White Sands Missile Range. “During the march, we pay tribute to these unsung heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country,” said Cuisia. “The Philippines would not be enjoying the democracy it has today if it were not for those who fought in its battlefields. Amongst the most poignant events that transpired during World War II was the fall of Bataan.”

Retired Army Master Sgt. William Eldridge greets guests and answers questions during the opening ceremony of the Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sands Missile Range, N.M.

Retired Army Master Sgt. William Eldridge greets guests and answers questions during the opening ceremony of the Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sands Missile Range, N.M. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Aaron Montoya)

Cuisia is not the only person who showed appreciation for the sacrifices made by those who suffered after the surrender of Bataan. More than 2,600 participants made either a 14.2-mile or 26.2-mile trek through the New Mexico desert to honor those who fought until they could fight no more. “For a long time, Bataan was non-existent – people didn’t know,” said Debra Grunwald, the daughter of retired Chief Master Sgt. Harold Bergbower, one of the last remaining survivors of the Bataan prison camps. “This is truly one of the most patriotic events we have been a part of, and I am glad that the state of New Mexico and the members of White Sands have worked so hard to build this into what it is today.” Bergbower, one of 13 Bataan survivors still living, attended the memorial and shared his story. “The Japanese prison camps were the most horrible things to ever happen on this earth, I think,” Bergbower said. “Your life could have been taken at any moment for no reason.” He joined the Army Air Corps in 1939 and was deployed Dec. 8, 1941. That day would start a chain of events leading to a young American service member’s amazing story of survival. “That day I was on my motorcycle and was struck by bomb shrapnel,” Bergbower said. “It ruined my bike and injured me in the process. They took me to a hospital at Fort Stotsenburg (Pampanga, Philippines) where I was pronounced dead. When I had come to, I realized I was in a morgue, where I had to put my shoes on and walk back to my squadron.”

Participants depart from the start line as the Bataan Memorial Death March begins at White Sands Missile Range, N.M.

Participants depart from the start line as the Bataan Memorial Death March begins at White Sands Missile Range, N.M. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Aaron Montoya)

By the time he made it back to his squadron, a letter had been sent to the war department notifying them of his death. “My folks got a telegram saying I had died,” Bergbower said. Word never made it home that he had actually survived the blast and been taken prisoner by Japan during the surrender of Bataan. “My dad had heard over the radio that I was still alive in Japan,” Bergbower said. “The Japanese published to the Americans a list of prisoners they had that were alive, and my name was one of them. The war department said it must have been some mistake because they confirmed that I was killed Dec. 8, 1941.” It would still be some time before Bergbower’s family knew he was alive. “They thought I was dead until I sent them a telegram after the war that went through the Marconi Telegraph Service, and was delivered from there to my mom’s house by regular mail,” Bergbower said. “My mother was home alone at the time. When she saw the letter that said Marconi, she didn’t think anything of it at first, but finally opened it,” he said. “When she finally read it, she went into shock. When my dad called home and no one answered, he called my neighbor to go check on her – where they found her in shock at the table, holding my telegram.” From Dec. 8, 1941, to September 1945, Bergbower’s status was listed as killed in action.

Participants in the Bataan Memorial Death March salute the flag as the White Sands Missile Range honor guard posts the colors during the opening ceremony at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., Over 6,200 participants came to honor more than 76,000 Prisoners of War and Missing in Action from Bataan and Corregidor during World War II.

Participants in the Bataan Memorial Death March salute the flag as the White Sands Missile Range honor guard posts the colors during the opening ceremony at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., Over 6,200 participants came to honor more than 76,000 Prisoners of War and Missing in Action from Bataan and Corregidor during World War II. The 26.2-mile course starts on WSMR, enters hilly terrain and finishes through sandy desert trails. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Aaron Montoya)

Before being captured, he had accompanied three missions defending Philippine territory. He separated from his squadron to retrieve his belongings before rejoining them in Mindanao. The driver he rode with never came to take him back to his squadron. After waiting for a way back, a Filipino Calvary happened through and warned him that he should join them because Japanese troops were closing in. “I went with three Filipino scouts on an outrigger to join back up with my outfit on Mindanao,” Bergbower said. “I was with them for about 30 days or so and was on patrol when I ran into a Japanese unit where we ended up in a skirmish. Finally, a Japanese officer said that I had surrendered and I told him, ‘No, I haven’t surrendered.’ That’s when he said my squadron did, but I didn’t know.” Bergbower actually was not in the death march but was captured and transported to the Japanese prisoner of war camp as a prisoner from the Battle of Bataan. While at the camp as a prisoner of war, he suffered unspeakable cruelties. “There are no words that can describe in the English language what we went through at that place,” he said. Before he was released in 1945, Bergbower said he fought for survival every day for three years. At one point, he weighed about 78 pounds and crawled out of a room called the “zero ward” back to his squadron, where he was taken care of by his fellow prisoners of war until he was well enough to continue on by himself. “The day I made it out of the Japanese prison camp was the best day of my life,” he said. “I came back to the States just smiling every day, and I wasn’t going to let anything keep me from what I wanted to do.” After his liberation, Bergbower was taken to San Francisco for an interesting first night back on American soil.

Retired Chief Master Sgt. Harold Bergbower greets guests and answers questions during the opening ceremony of the Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sands Missile Range, N.M. More than 6,200 participants marched to honor the 76,000 prisoners of war and missing in action from Bataan and Corregidor during World War II.

Retired Chief Master Sgt. Harold Bergbower greets guests and answers questions during the opening ceremony of the Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sands Missile Range, N.M. More than 6,200 participants marched to honor the 76,000 prisoners of war and missing in action from Bataan and Corregidor during World War II. The 26.2-mile course starts on WSMR, enters hilly terrain and finishes through sandy desert trails. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Aaron Montoya)

“There were some people who made it back before me, and instead of going to the hospital, they just got off the boat and went home,” said Bergbower. “The day before we landed, they took our clothes and gave us these old gray pajamas, so that we would go to the hospital. But first, me and a couple of other guys wanted to see San Francisco.” Determined to see the city, Bergbower and his fellow service members went on with nothing except for their gray pajamas. “A cab driver had come up and asked us what we were doing,” he said. “We told him we wanted to see San Francisco, but we didn’t have any money. He said, ‘Well, you get in my cab, and I will show you the city.’ “He stopped at some place and went in and talked to the people, then the maître d’ came out and invited us in,” Bergbower continued. “They were having a formal party — the ladies were all in evening dresses and the men in tuxedos. Then, here we were in these old gray pajamas.” Bergbower’s first evening back in the United States was one he said he will never forget. “I went from working in rice paddies to dancing with beautiful ladies and having a ball,” he said. Bergbower continued to serve in the military until 1969, when he retired as a chief master sergeant in the Air Force. He has seen many things in his lifetime, from a world war to the transition of America’s Air Force. In many ways, this man is a part of American history that will never be forgotten as long as the Bataan Memorial Death March continues. “May we all vow to never forget the brave men and women who have paid the ultimate sacrifice to protect us and their families,” Bingham said. “We want each of our survivors and their families to know that we are here to honor you all as our heroes.”

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