Just shy of 50 years ago, I was evermore a yearling sports writer and Bear Bryant at Alabama was among the first to help me appear a whole lot better than I was. When I would visit Tuscaloosa, Coach Bryant would let me hang around and it wasn’t long before I befriended Bert Bank. Bert, who came home after World War II and got his law degree at the university, was a longtime state legislator but what you need to know he was the genius who originated the Alabama Football Network.
Aw, he did a whole lot more … once he hired a black disc jockey for one of his radio stations in the early ‘60s, a gaggle of white advertisers showed up and threatened to pull their advertising. Bert promptly told them that if they did, he would publish each of their names in the Tuscaloosa News. Further, they would never be allowed on the Crimson Tide network again. Well, that took care of that, but Bert Bank was bigger than the state of Texas and we got to be marvelous friends in a hurry. How do you think Alabama became the first state in the Union to make burning a flag a felony?!
One night everybody stayed up a little late and it slipped that Bert had survived the Bataan Death March, easily one of the biggest atrocities in the history of mankind. This past weekend almost 8,000 patriots gathered in Las Cruces, New Mexico to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the 60-to-70-mile march where an estimated 650 American soldiers and 18,000 Filipino allies were viciously beaten, bayonetted and shot to death during the four-day march.
This weekend’s tribute to the survivors was the biggest ever. Over 25,000 pounds of food was donated to the state’s homeless as “entry fee” to run or walk the 8.2 mile “march.” It is held in New Mexico because 829 of the state’s “sons” either died in the Death March, or the prisoner of war camps during the next 33 months. The memorial is held at the White Sands Missile Range and is huge, now lasting three days.
This biggest roar every year comes when legendary Clemson professor emeritus Ben Skardon appears and once again he made the entire march, this four months shy of his 100th birthday. He made it “the whole way” back in 1942 but his two best friends from Clemson died in the Philippines. Dr. Skardon has “marched” in the last 10 New Mexico events and is always the last to cross the starting line and the last to cross the finish line, where at least 5,000 wait until he arrives and the cannons bellow.
Colonel Skardon walked seven miles on his own this year but thanked an Army medic and an ROTC cadet for their “gentle assist” in the last mile. An English professor at Clemson for years, he said he felt like “a wet wash rag with all the water at one end.”
And, yes, he plans to return to Las Cruces next year “to remember the real heroes.” He says, “This is now my pilgrimage … Coming here is like going to Mecca; it’s a shrine. I learned how easy it is to die when you lose the will to live.”
The enormity of the Bataan Death March defies belief. Imagine 80,000 POWs being marched in insufferable heat (100+) and lethal humidity. If one quit walking, fell, or dared drink muddy water along the way, death-by-bayonet was instant. The prisoners were constantly clubbed, tortured, and fed no more than a handful or two of rice in the horrific ordeal.
Once they got to the POW camp, 60,000 were placed in a POW camp where hundreds died every day. Hunger, malnutrition, malaria and Beri-Beri and those “with crushed spirit” were the biggest killers and, if a POW tried to escape, the entire work detail was shot. Blatant murder was committed by the Japanese every day.
Most Bataan survivors refused to ever talk about the savagery. The march started before the America-Filipino troops surrendered and, by early April, 1942, it included a train ride at the end where men were literally sardined into ancient box cars – over 100 in each -- and hundreds suffocated on the barbaric train. During the march, some U.S. troops did escape but it wasn’t until January of 1944 that the United States released news of the gruesome monstrosity to the American public.
General George Marshall included this in his formal announcement. “These brutal reprisals upon helpless victims evidence the shallow advance from savagery which the Japanese people have made. [...] We serve notice upon the Japanese military and political leaders as well as the Japanese people that the future of the Japanese race itself, depends entirely and irrevocably upon their capacity to progress beyond their aboriginal barbaric instincts.”
It is still widely believed the “aboriginal barbaric instincts” were among the primary deciding factors behind the bombing of Hiroshima. Everybody talks about Pearl Harbor as the focal point but the rage and fury the Bataan Death March caused among our military leaders was unprecedented during the war.
By Christmas of 1944, Bert was hanging on by a thread with 512 other prisoners at the Cabanatuan Prisoner of War Camp. Already 2,656 Americans had died when a daring raid was being plotted by a legendary Tennessean that marvelously recounted the book and the movie, “Ghost Soldiers.”
Also, called “The Great Raid,” there is a thrilling side story. Shelbyville native Austin Shofner, who played football and wrested at Tennessee, went into the Marines shortly after he graduated from UT in 1937. “Shifty,” as he was called from his days in Neyland Stadium, was a captain at Corregidor when his unit was captured. Almost immediately, he and nine other GIs made the only successful escape from a Japanese prison camp during the entire war.
It gets better. Shofner and the others joined up with some Filipino guerrillas and soon ‘Shifty’ headed all guerrilla activities for General Douglas MacArthur. Only later would he make a second daring escape on a submarine and, when he got to Australia, his recognizance and his heroics were so notable General MacArthur presented him with the Distinguished Service Cross. He later was awarded the Legion of Merit after Okinawa but – get this – it was ‘Shifty’ who actually drew the plans for “The Great Raid” from memory that freed the POWs and Bert Bank.
The brilliant Shofner commanded the 6th Marines and retired as a Brigadier General in 1959. Undoubtedly one of the greatest heroes in Tennessee’s lore, his sons and grandsons have attended McCallie School. The general, heralded by the Tennessee legislature, died in 1999 at age 83 and is buried in Shelbyville.
The Raid was a stunning success. When an Army Ranger lifted Bert Bank, he said he would never be able to describe such emotion but what came from his mouth he will never forget. “Three words … Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!” It was from that camp that he and 512 other prisoners were liberated by the 6th Rangers on January 30, 1945.
Bert Banks was totally blind when he was rescued – this due to 33 months of disease and all other horrors. He weighed 90 pounds and spent the next two years in an Army Hospital in Pennsylvania. His sight miraculously returned yet his spirit never wavered. “Let’s get this straight,” he once told noted sports guru Paul Feinbaum in an Alabama press box. “I’m no hero. Not at all. Those men are still in the Philippines.”
For the remainder of his life, Bert was a tireless advocate for veterans. And how do you think Alabama became the first state in the Union to make burning a flag a felony?! When Bank died on June 23, 2002 at age 94, his obituary included, “I bear no bitterness or rancor. It was a different time and the world has changed. I hope there will come a day when all the people in the world will live in peace and happiness."
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Just so you will know, the Japanese formally surrendered to the United States on Sept. 2, 1945, and during the very same month Japanese General Masaharu Homma was arrested. The POW commandant was indicted for war crimes committed during the Bataan Death March and the trial didn’t last long. On February 26, 1946, he was sentenced to death by firing squad. He was executed on April 3, 1946, outside Manila.
Other Japanese Generals Hideki Tojo (later Prime Minister), Kenji Doihara, Seishiro Itagaki, Heitaro Kimura, Iwane Matsui, and Akira Muto, along with Baron Koki Hirota, were found also guilty and were each hanged by their necks until dead at Sugamo Prison in Ikebukuro, Japan, on December 23, 1948.
The Bataan Death March must never be forgotten nor the many heroes therein.