Former POWs recount ordeal

Eighty-nine-year-old Erwin Johnson remembers the 65 miles he marched.

Eighty-nine-year-old Erwin Johnson remembers the 65 miles he marched.

The year was 1942, and Johnson was a young member of the Army Air Corps stationed in the Philippines during World War II. The Japanese troops broke through the Bataan Peninsula. American and Filipino troops were running out of food and supplies, and finally, on April 9, their general surrendered to the Japanese.

Johnson said the men were afraid the Japanese would push the American and Filipino troops into the Manila Bay. Instead, the Japanese herded the men and starting marching them in groups of 100 to the Mukden prison camp in Manchuria.

That trek became known as the Bataan Death March because of the heavy casualties, about 5,200 Americans. A total of 76,000 prisoners marched, 12,000 Americans and the rest Filipinos.

Johnson marched for four days. The prisoners of war were fed only a little bowl of rice daily, and some got to drink water from a spigot along the way, according to Johnson.

“As we were marching along, if anybody just got too tired, they just fell out and couldn’t walk anymore. The Japanese would either use a bayonet or shoot them,” Johnson told the young men at LaSalle Institute on Thursday.

Johnson recalled the Filipino civilians watching as the prisoners marched past them. “Sometimes, they would try to take some rice and roll it up in banana leaves and throw it to us. If they were ever caught, they were shot,” he said. “One Filipino woman was holding a little baby and she threw some rice to one of the guys and the guard saw her do this. He bent over and grabbed her. He threw the baby on the ground. He shot the woman and bayoneted the baby.

“You couldn’t believe that people would be that cruel to do something like that to them,” he added.

Also speaking to the students were Ralph Griffiths and Randall Edwards, who were not on the march but were also held prisoners of war by the Japanese.

Navy veteran Edwards, 93, of Lakeland, Fla., said he did not want to dwell on how bad it was in the camps but said he missed his freedom most of all.

“When you are at the complete mercy of your captors, you have no freedom to do anything. You cannot go to the toilet without permission. You eat what they give you to eat,” he said.

The Japanese also enjoying striking Americans until their noses and eyes bled, according to Edwards.

“There’s a man right behind you with a bayonet, hoping you would fight back. If you did, you die,” he said.

Griffiths, 87, said he signed up for the Army when he was 17. He received his basic training in the Philippines. Soon, he found himself in the middle of the battle, shooting anti-aircraft weapons.

“The first time we shot those guns were at Japanese airplanes. We never shot them before then,” he said.

After a brief pause to collect himself, Griffiths continued with the story. “You can imagine an 18-year-old kid fighting a war — never been out of Missouri in his life,” he said.

Griffiths, who still lives in Missouri, remembered being hosed down with fire hoses and being left naked on a dock waiting for clothes.

At the camp in Manchuria, Griffiths said, the prisoners were fed cabbage soup during the winter and rice and soybeans the rest of the months. The protein from the soybeans helped save them.

Still, he dropped 30 pounds, only weighing about 98 pounds when he was liberated.

The men stayed at the prison camp until Aug. 17, 1945, when they were freed by the Russians.

A covert CIA operation sent agents parachuting into the camp to alert the Japanese that the war was over and prevent them from killing all of their prisoners, Edwards said.

“I regained my freedom. It’s a good feeling,” Johnson said.

The visit of the three men came about through the efforts of Ann Lamkins, of Wynantskill, whose grandson graduated from LaSalle. Her brother died at Mukden.

The survivors from the camp gather on a yearly basis to reminisce. This year, they were supposed to meet in Cape Cod, but that event was canceled. Lamkins learned about their stories in a military magazine and wanted them to come to the Capital Region.

Tenth-grade student Jediah Noakes 14, of Troy, said he enjoyed the opportunity to hear the men speak: “I think it’s a very pivotal moment in our American history. It was amazing that they survived, and they’re here to tell us about it.”

Brother Carl Malacalza, LaSalle’s principal, said the school was honored to host the three heroes.

“We always see the glory of war. We don’t realize all the hardship and pain and sacrifice they go through,” he said.

Categories: Schenectady County

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