March left permanent mark on WWII veterans
Sunday, May 26, 2002
By Milan Simonich, Post-Gazette Staff Writer
Reprinted with permission from www.post-gazette.com
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Unlike much of America, John Emerick has never needed
Memorial Day to remember those who died in war. He saw
U.S. and Filipino soldiers bayoneted for trying to sneak
a drink of water. He heard the final screams of fellow
servicemen who were shot because they could not march
fast enough to suit their Japanese captors. Emerick cannot
forget these casualties of war, no matter how hard he
He is one of the last thousand or so survivors of the
Bataan Death March, which happened 60 years ago, during
the early stages of World War II. After coming home, he
spent years wondering why he had lived when so many alongside
him had died.
"I should never have made 24 and I've made it to
84," said Emerick, a silver-haired man who lives
quietly with his wife, Theresa, in Finleyville.
The Death March, one of the cruelest chapters in American
history, may not mean much to schoolchildren or holiday
weekend picnickers, but it has defined each day of Emerick's
postwar life. He hates to talk about Bataan, yet he does
because he worries that the ordeal is forgotten except
by those who lived through it.
Bataan is a torrid peninsula west of Manila in the Philippines.
American forces dug in there against the advancing Japanese
after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor.
Emerick, who had enlisted in the Army Air Corps and was
picked to be a pilot, instead found himself converted
to an infantryman. He was among 12,000 American and 63,000
Filipino soldiers given the job of stopping the Japanese.
Their assignment proved impossible, as they had little
food, water or ammunition.
With a massacre looming, the U.S. commander surrendered
his forces at Bataan Peninsula on April 9, 1942.
Emerick would never forget his own capture. The Japanese
soldier who disarmed him wore a shiny class ring from
the University of Oregon. "He spoke better English
than I did," Emerick said.
After the defeat came the death march.
The prisoners, lacking food and water, were forced to
walk about 65 miles to a Japanese compound.
Precise records of the death toll do not exist. By most
accounts, about 70,000 soldiers began the march. An estimated
7,000 to 10,000 died along the way from various causes
-- dysentery, beatings, heat stroke and executions for
any disobedience.Emerick said some men, desperate for
a drink of water, broke ranks when they spotted artesian
wells that loomed like oases. Many were shot dead, others
beheaded or buried alive in graves they had been forced
Those who survived were turned into slave laborers in
prison camps scattered from Manchuria to Japan. Emerick
served a total of 42 months in six camps, where nearly
half the prisoners died from abuse or malnutrition.
Emerick's band of POWs became miners whose only compensation
was a bowl of rice three times a day, provided that each
loaded four cars of copper before lunch and another four
The days and nights blurred together. Nothing changed
except the levels of torment.
In this hellhole, Emerick said, he kept up his spirits
by plotting with his two best friends how they might annoy
the Japanese guards without making them murderous. His
pals, Andy Miller of Albuquerque, N.M., and Dominic Pellegrino
of Springfield, Mass., also survived the prison camp.
Looking back, he does not know how they made it.
Emerick stood 6 feet 3 inches tall and weighed 98 pounds
when he was liberated Sept. 12, 1945. His normal weight
was 175 pounds.
Regular meals soon put the pounds back on, but he could
not recapture everything he lost.
He married Theresa two months after his release, but,
by his own account, he was a bad husband. He drank to
excess most days, tempering himself only when he reported
for his new stateside job with the U.S. Bureau of Mines.
"I don't know how my wife or my mother put up with
me," he says now.
Alcohol did not ease his pain or the nightmares. He quit
drinking more than 50 years ago, but he did not feel healed.
Emerick was not alone.
Over the years, three of his acquaintances who survived
Bataan and its aftermath committed suicide. All of them
seemingly were successful men with families.
In 1975, 30 years after the Bataan survivors were liberated,
came a breakthrough. It was the end of the Vietnam era,
and many returning soldiers were being diagnosed with
post-traumatic stress disorder.
Emerick had it, as did countless other veterans of earlier
He and three other Pittsburgh-area men who had survived
Japanese prison camps -- Joseph Vater, Kenneth Curley
and Harry Menozzi -- turned into political activists.
They agitated for and got a pilot program in Pittsburgh
to improve medical treatment of former prisoners of war.
The Department of Veterans Affairs followed up with specific
programs nationally to help treat all 60,000 surviving
Even now that he understands his ailment, Emerick still
has difficult days.
"You think with time it would go away, but it's a
permanent fixture," he said of the night tremors.
On Memorial Day weekend, the old chant of the Bataan forces
rumbles through his brain. He recites it for generations
who otherwise cannot imagine what happened in the Philippines:
"We're the Battling Bastards of Bataan,
No mama, no papa, no Uncle Sam,
No aunts, no uncles, no cousins, no nieces,
No pills, no planes, no artillery pieces,
And nobody gives a damn!"
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