A mother’s prayer

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 23, 2002

Selmian recalls Bataan Death March

By Dale James / Selma Times _ Journal

Editor’s Note: Each month the members of American Legion Post No. 20 honor a different Dallas County veteran of World War II for service to his country. This month the members of Post No. 20 honor William B. Thomas.

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William Thomas has told the story before.

He even went so far as to speak to a few small civic groups shortly after he first came back from serving in World War II, because word had gotten around and they asked him to tell it and he was reluctant to refuse them.

Mostly, though, he has been content to let the memories of 60 years ago lie dormant.

“I never have been one to go over and over a thing,” he explains. “When I’m done with something, I usually forget it. Or at least I try to.”

He tries to forget, for example, that as a prisoner of war for three years he went from nearly 200 pounds down to 90. He tries to forget the prolonged agony and slow death of those who did not survive.

And he tries to forget that a man can be so hungry for so long that not even the soul-numbing task of stripping the clothes from the bodies of his dead comrades is enough to dislodge the constant thoughts of food.

Thomas’ reluctance to seek the spotlight is the primary reason why even today many of those who know him are unaware that he is a survivor of the infamous Bataan Death March.

When Bataan fell to the Japanese in April 1942, more than 10,000 American troops were forced to march 100 miles in seven days, without food and with almost no water in the tropical heat. Those who fell behind were summarily shot or beaten to death. Malaria and dysentery were rampant.

Nearly one out of 10 did not survive the march.

It is not untypical of his self-effacing manner that Thomas counts himself among “the lucky ones” of that horrendous ordeal.

“I was in the 803rd Engineer Aviation Battalion,” he recalls. “The 803rd was probably in as good of shape as anybody, except for the lack of food. We’d all been on half-rations for months before the march even started, so we were already weak.

“But a lot of the people on that march came out of offices and mess halls and supply areas. They’re the ones who really suffered. And, too, we were toward the front of the line. Many of the worst atrocities took place toward the end of the line.”

It was not until they reached the hastily improvised prisoner of war camp at Camp O’Donnell that the Americans began to get some inkling of the magnitude of the toll exacted by the march. Even after reaching the camp the death toll continued to mount, sometimes by as much as 50 men a day.

“One of my details was to pull the clothes off the dead ones and dump the bodies in mass graves,” Thomas says. “We’d like to have done it right and given them a proper burial, but the strength just wasn’t there.

“It was just something that had to be done. You got used to it pretty quick, because you’d been through so much other stuff. You did it and forgot it. Mostly, I thought about food all the time, because we were so hungry. So did everybody else.”

In addition to very little food, there was no medicine and the camps were extremely unsanitary. At one point, weak from lack of food and suffering from fever, Thomas found himself unable to continue on the work detail to which he had been assigned.

“There was a Japanese communications officer who had befriended me,” he says. “I told him, ‘I’m just going to stay here, I’m too weak to go on.’ He told me, ‘No! No! No!’ He said they were shooting those who couldn’t keep up. Finally, my fever broke and I was able to rejoin the others.

“Sure enough, we got ready to leave, we heard all these shots. Those were the ones who wouldn’t – or couldn’t – go on. That Japanese officer saved my life. There were good Japanese, just like there were awful ones.”

Conditions were only slightly more tolerable when the prisoners were finally transferred to Japan. Medicine continued to be non-existent. The only food was a watery bowl of rice once a day. Disease continued to take its toll among the prisoners.

“The military at the camp were just as mean as they could be,” Thomas allows. “But the people who lived close to the camps were workers, just poor people really, and you could tell it hurt them to see them do us like they did.

“My mother prayed for me the whole time I was a prisoner. I didn’t know it at the time, but she did. Now, I’m sure that’s what brought me through all that. What else could it be?”

Thomas carries two distinct memories from the days when the camp was finally liberated in 1945.

The first is of how sick every prisoner became the first night after U.S. planes air-dropped food supplies in advance of approaching Allied troops. “We weren’t used to that rich food,” Thomas chuckles, “and we all ate way too much that first day.”

The second is of the row upon row of Allied warships that lined the harbor as the prisoners left to be transported back to the Philippines and from there back to the United States.

“The ships formed a little alleyway and we sailed right down between them,” he recalls. “Looking at all those ships on both sides of us, I couldn’t believe it. I stayed up the whole night, just watching the lights and crying.”

The members of American Legion Post No. 20 held a dinner earlier this month in honor of Thomas and awarded him a small certificate in appreciation for service to his country.

Thomas attended the dinner with his daughter, Ann Posey Thomas. His wife, Ora Posey, died some years back.

As he presented the certificate, Second Vice Commander James G. Smith reflected on one of the most remarkable aspects of Thomas’ story when he said, “In the end, Bill was the victor, the Japanese didn’t break his spirit nor did they harden his heart with hate. Everyone could gain some insight into humility from conversing with this remarkable man.

“I am so glad God allowed me the opportunity to get to know this kind, gentle man. And, I’m sure God has something stored up for you, sir, other than a bowl of rice.”

As his aging fellow veterans rose to honor William Thomas with a standing ovation, it was clearly evident that his were not the only eyes to grow moist.