War is not romantic. It is bleeding and dying and holding a lifeless comrade in your arms. It is storming a beach through a hail of bullets. It is fighter planes spiraling from the sky and Americans being taken captive. In Scars of War, author Marilyn Swinson tells true and often horrifying stories of war.
Based on one-on-one interviews with more than forty veterans, all members of the Combat Airmen/Joshua's Troops of Mayodan, North Carolina, Swinson brings the narratives to life as the soldiers relay a variety of war experiences: a soldier aboard a ship moored at Pearl Harbor on that fateful December morning when Japanese bombs rained fire from the sky, and a seventeen-year-old young man forced to endure the horrors of the Bataan Death March, only to face three and a half years of torture and deprivation in Japanese concentration camps. A pilot lives to fly again after his plane hits the ground traveling three hundred miles per hour, igniting sixteen thousand pounds of jet fuel. A battle-weary Marine finally sees Old Glory raised on Iwo Jima.
Scars of War provides a firsthand account of the pathos and pageantry of war from those who survived.
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Scars of War
By Marilyn Swinson
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Marilyn Swinson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDamon Conrad Alberty
You had to build a shelf around yourself where nothing could penetrate.
The year was 1942. Japanese soldiers clearing out gun pits came upon seventeen-year-old Conrad Alberty—tattered, barefoot, sick, starving. They shoved a bayonet into the teenager's face and directed him to the main road, where a burgeoning assemblage of ragtag prisoners awaited. They were taken to Mariveles, on the southern tip of Bataan, and divided into columns of one hundred. Japanese Lieutenant General Masaharu Homma, charged with delivering the prisoners to Camp O'Donnell in the Philippine province of Pampanga, discovered that there were far more captives than he had anticipated, too many to transport by truck. The only way to get them to the camp was to make them walk the ninety miles. Thus began the infamous Bataan Death March—a forced transfer of seventy-five thousand fatigued, malnourished American and Filipino prisoners of war, the brutality of which resulted in the death of more than ten thousand men. The trek—estimated by Japanese high command to take only a couple of days—lasted ten instead.
Almost sixty years later, Alberty sits across the table from me in the kitchen of his Mayodan home. His posture is arrow-straight, his eyes focused and penetrating. His voice tolls clear and strong as he recites, matter-of-factly, accounts of unimaginable brutality perpetuated on one group of human beings by another.
Alberty grew up in nearby Greensboro, in the home of an older sister. He remembers passing happy summers camping and fishing on Buffalo Lake with friends. The sixteen-year-old had watched the buildup to war with interest and decided that he needed to enlist. He told an Army recruiter he was eighteen, and because proof of age was not required, he was accepted. After undergoing basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia, he requested duty in the South Pacific, thinking he would be safer there than in Germany. "A lie will get you nowhere," he cautions, "and you can see where this one got me."
Alberty, attached to the Fifty-Seventh Infantry Scouts, was sent to the Bataan Peninsula, part of the Central Luzon region of the Philippines. There he was caught up in the Battle of Bataan, one of the last stands of American and Filipino soldiers before Japanese forces overwhelmed them. General Douglas MacArthur's orders had been to "hold until reinforcements arrive." The Battling Bastards of Bataan fought valiantly for four months. They were running out of ammunition, medicine, clothing, shelter, and vehicles. Forced to eat dog meat, monkeys, lizards, iguanas, and cavalry horses to survive, the weakened men grew increasingly ill, many dying from malnutrition, beriberi, malaria, or yellow fever, as well as from enemy fire. Finally, on April 9, 1942, in desperation, Major General Edward King Jr., commanding general of Philippine-American forces on Bataan, surrendered his remaining troops to the Japanese Imperial Army. This was the largest military defeat in American and Filipino military history.
One of Alberty's most poignant memories of the ill-fated journey was of seeing his sergeant lose control and strike a Japanese officer. "He was wrestled to the side of the road, bent over, and decapitated right there." Beheadings, slit throats, and random shootings were the norm, as were bayonet stabbings, disembowelments, rifle-butt attacks, and denial of food and water to crazed men, forced to march hours in tropical heat. Prisoners existed on a handful of dry rice and a half-cup of water per day. "We were so thirsty," recalls my host, "that some drank from caribou wallows—puddles of water where caribou roll to drive away flies and mosquitoes." The contaminated water provoked epidemics of dysentery and other illnesses.
The trail became littered with dead bodies and ailing men begging not to be left behind. Alberty continues, "If one prisoner attempted to help another, both were beaten or killed. Convoys of Japanese trucks sometimes ran over marchers who fell, and Japanese soldiers in jeeps routinely struck stragglers in their backs and heads with bamboo poles as they drove past. If Japanese officers became displeased with their own men, they killed them also, adding to the carnage."
At night, exhausted hostages collapsed by the side of the road. "You might get an hour's sleep, and then it was up and go again. I don't ever remember sleeping," marvels Alberty, who at that point was down to eighty-seven pounds. "You could smell the camp about ten miles before you got there." The air reeked of dead bodies, urine, and stench from two maggot-riddled straddle trenches—the only toilet facilities available for thousands of men, most suffering from diarrhea.
Many men arrived at Camp O'Donnell so ill they never recovered. There was no medicine to treat the rampant malaria, and dysentery was practically universal. Prisoners who survived the Death March were promptly stripped of all belongings: blankets, writing materials, knives, surgical equipment, and cigarettes—leaving only canteens and mess kits. If Japanese items were found in the possession of a prisoner, that man was executed immediately, the belief being that those things had been stolen from the body of a Japanese soldier. Alberty recalls, "Heads of slain prisoners were mounted on bamboo poles and placed where work crews had to pass them going to and from their assigned jobs."
The captives were housed by groups of fifty in bamboo shacks with dirt floors. Each prisoner was part of a ten-man team; if one tried to escape, the other nine were also killed. They slept in cubbyholes directly on the bamboo, their heads on pillows stuffed with rice husks. Personal belongings, such as mess kits, were kept inside their pillows. Every hour, a Japanese soldier, armed with rifle, bayonet, and flashlight, came by to make sure all were present.
"Around eleven o'clock each morning, we were given our only meal of the day—a half-cup of rice and fish soup," explains the former POW, who learned to soak rusty nails in water and ingest the liquid to get needed iron into his system. Water was in short supply—one spigot for twenty-five thousand men. "We would have to stand in line hours to get a half-cup of water; my mouth was always parched."
From Camp O'Donnell, Alberty was sent to nearby Cabanatuan Prison Camp and assigned to burial detail. Estimating he buried over twenty-eight thousand bodies, he remembers thinking, "This can't be happening." But it was. The remains were stacked on top of each other in mass graves, a cross-shaped marker indicating the number of corpses in the grave—usually one hundred. There were no ceremonies, and names of the victims were not preserved. "People are still trying to find out what happened to their loved ones," he concedes. "We took their clothes off; they didn't need them anymore. Everything had to be steamed in barrels to kill lice and remove contagion from body ulcers and disease before it could be reused. We nailed shoe tops to two-by-fours to create workable footwear."
When not on burial detail, Alberty worked in a vegetable garden outside camp. He was also part of a two-man detail assigned to flatten a hill to allow for construction on an auxiliary airstrip for Nichols Field. The work was excruciating and the hours long. The men, lethargic and weary, went about their work in a daze. "You had to build a shelf around yourself where nothing could penetrate," says Alberty. He adds with conviction, "We knew someday we would be free; we just didn't know when. We knew that the nation we represented would someday be powerful enough to take the Philippines back."
Eventually, Alberty, along with six hundred other prisoners, was crammed into the hold of an old coal carrier bound for Japan. For twenty-eight days, he sat in a puddle of coal dust, unable to move about, inhaling the foul air—rife with human waste and random filth—and subsisting on minimal amounts of food and water.
He wound up in a prison camp 118 miles north of Hiroshima, where he was forced to unload war materials for the enemy. On August 7, 1945—one day after the first atomic bomb fell—the Japanese camp commander, who had been educated at the University of California, Los Angeles, ordered all prisoners to line up before him: "Yesterday, an American plane, a B-29, dropped a cheese-eye, buckle-shaped bomb, and a city disappeared," he barked. "I should kill everyone of you sons-of-bitches!"
No one knew what to expect, but by the next morning, the Japanese had vanished, the prisoners free to go and come as they chose. Some grabbed rifles and began shooting everything in sight. "I didn't do that," insists Alberty. "I had seen enough killing." Dutch troops liberated the emaciated men on September 4, 1945. Alberty had been a prisoner for three years and six months. "The atomic bomb saved us!" he declares emphatically. "Word had already gone out that if America invaded Japan from Okinawa, every prisoner of war would be executed. Graves were being dug out back."
The emancipated North Carolinian was in the hospital for six months for recuperation and treatment. After that, he was given the option of full retirement with pay or duty anywhere in the world. He chose Rome, Italy, where he served with the military police. He retired in 1953, after earning the following awards and decorations: Infantry Combat Badge, Presidential Citation with Two Oak Leaf Clusters, Philippine Citation with One Oak Leaf Cluster, Bronze Star Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster, Purple Heart Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster, Good Conduct Medal, American Defense with Foreign Service Clasp, Pacific Asiatic Medal with Two Battle Stars, Philippine Defense Medal with Two Battle Stars, Philippine Resistance Medal, Philippine Wounded Soldiers Medal, United Nations Medal, Occupation Medal–Japan, Occupation Medal–Italy, Victory Medal, Philippine Liberation Medal, and Prisoner of War Medal.
Alberty settled in Mayodan to be near his sister, who had relocated there. He married the former Ethel Mooney, now deceased. He has one daughter and two grandsons. For twenty years, he operated a storefront ministry sponsored by the Moravian Church. During his tenure, food, clothing, and medicine were supplied to more than ninety thousand disadvantaged individuals. He also served seventeen years on the town council. He is often called upon to share his story. "I do so with the hope that others, especially young people, will understand and appreciate the sacrifices that have been made to ensure their freedoms," he tells me.
Asked how his years in captivity have impacted his approach to life, he leans back in his chair, takes a long breath, and replies, "Well, I can sit down and drink a cup of hot coffee, and that is worth more than a million dollars to me."
I had to fight for an education, fight for a job, and fight for the right to fight for my country.
Life was not always easy for Harvey Alexander, growing up poor and black in the ubiquitous racial bigotry of 1920s America. His father earned $700 a year in the Georgetown, Illinois, coal mines—barely enough to provide his nine children with the necessities. Little Harvey learned early on that realizing his considerable potential was going to be an uphill battle. Born with an exceptional mind, photographic memory, and ample portions of ambition and tenacity, the precocious youth was not content to "stay in his place," or as one white teacher put it, "make someone a nice houseboy."
Alexander, one of only three black students in his integrated elementary school, enjoyed learning; he never missed class. One snowy November day, the fifth-grader walked barefoot to school, not yet having gotten his winter shoes; his father was working his way through the family, purchasing one pair each payday. Since there was no lunchroom in the schoolhouse, at noon Alexander walked home through six inches of snow. When he walked back to school after lunch, his teachers and principal were so impressed they rewarded him with a new pair of shoes and socks.
Alexander recalls, "I know it looked pitiful to see this raggedy boy walking barefoot in the snow. But I want everybody to know that my feet were not cold, and I did not suffer in the least. My feet had become so acclimated to the cold by going all summer and into the winter without shoes that it did not affect me one bit. But of course," he adds, "I was glad to get the shoes."
Other incidents did affect Alexander, however; he remembers being very hurt. Having always led the class academically, no one was surprised when he became valedictorian. But the honor, along with the thousand-dollar scholarship to Illinois College, was taken away from him and given to the next in line, a white girl. Alexander was demoted to salutatorian. Not only that, but when he was inducted into the National Honor Society and presented the Bausch and Lomb award for achieving the highest average in three years of science, it was in a private ceremony in the principal's office. Thirty white students received their awards the next week in a school-wide assembly, surrounded by parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. No mention was made of Alexander's achievements.
Alexander always told his parents, "I'm going to college."
"Okay," they would respond, thinking he would eventually realize the futility of his dream. But when their child's senior year rolled around, and he again said he was going to college, they asked, "Son, how are you going to college?"
Alexander had a plan: he went to work for the National Youth Administration (NYA), earning a quarter an hour. Meanwhile, he applied for a scholarship to Fisk University. They responded that they did not have a program for "working" students and referred him to Tuskegee Institute. But Alexander persisted, and with referrals from two former graduates, he obtained a freshman scholarship.
The eighteen-year-old set out for Nashville, Tennessee, clutching a one-way ticket purchased by his father, sixty-four dollars earned while working with the NYA, and a seventeen-dollar suit given to him for graduation. During breaks from class, he washed walls for money, and in the summer, he traveled to Detroit to work as fry cook on the SS Buffalo—a luxury ship sailing between Detroit and Buffalo. The brightest spot of his time at Fisk was when he met his future wife, Esther Beatty.
Following his sophomore year, Alexander decided to transfer to the University of Illinois School of Commerce, which offered advanced accounting and business courses. "The dean called me to his office so he could tell me in person that he was proud of being able to place all his graduates; he could never place me, and I would be wasting my time and his if I enrolled. He advised me to pursue a degree in agriculture. I told him that I was more familiar with discrimination in the state of Illinois than he was because I had lived it. I said there would be a time when these jobs would be available to Negroes, and if I didn't get the training now, I would not be ready when that time came." Alexander prevailed, becoming the first black student in the School of Commerce, but that was not his last encounter with discrimination.
On the first day of Cost Accounting, the professor paused after calling his name, looked at him, and proclaimed, "Some people need to understand that not everyone can be a cost accountant; someone has to sweep the factory floor."
In Business Letter Writing, his papers were returned marked "F" or "D," although no mistakes were highlighted. When the puzzled student asked what was wrong with his work, he was told, "It's too good; it can't be yours. You must have copied it."
"Give me an assignment," offered Alexander. "I will do it right here in front of you."
Excerpted from Scars of War by Marilyn Swinson Copyright © 2011 by Marilyn Swinson. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Damon Conrad Alberty....................1
William H. "Pansy" Collins....................29
Henry Lee "Pete" Comer....................32
Robert "Bob" Comer....................37
Laura Mae DuFore....................45
Clyde Easter Jr....................48
James Abraham King Jr....................73
Olga "Dusty" Lathrop....................82
James "Radio" Lawson....................92
James "Big Jim" Louden....................96
John Paul McNeil....................132
J. Shelton Scales....................150
Boyd J. Steele....................160
Lee Donald Tuttle....................168
Robert "Bobby" Walker....................172
William E. "Bouse" Williams....................174