Bataan Death March survivor recalls 'hell'
Growing up in Utah and Colorado, William Eldridge came to hate bitter cold winters.
In 1940, he walked into an Army recruiting office to enlist and asked the recruiter if he could be assigned to a tropical location.
The recruiter assured him that he would have “real good duty” at a place called the Philippine Islands. Little did Eldridge or the recruiter realize this tropical paradise would turn into hell – and the most horrifying experience of his life.
While visiting one of his daughters, Marvel Sheasley of Manor Township, Eldridge, of Citrus Heights, Calif., recounted surviving the Bataan Death March and spending three years as a Japanese prisoner of war.
Eldridge was born in Vernal, Utah, on May 24, 1922. At 14, he attended the Citizens Military Training Camp at Fort Laramie, Colo., and got a taste of military life, but was too young to enlist in the military.
To help make ends meet, he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps where he spent nearly three years.
At 17, he convinced his mother to sign the necessary papers so that he could enlist in the military.
He looked forward to the trip to his “tropical paradise.”
“I and most of the passengers were sick most of the trip,” he said.
“At sea we were ordered below deck. We would stay below deck for the entire trip,” he said, noting: “The latrines were a real nightmare and to make matters worse people were constantly getting sea sick and throwing up. It took 20 days before we reached our first stop, Honolulu.”
Finally, Eldridge arrived in the Philippines and was taken to regimental quarters, Estado Mayor, Manila. Duty for the next several months was pretty routine and there was always some time to go to Manila and enjoy leisure time. Later, his company was ordered to move to Fort McKinley where they would live in a tent city. Suddenly, they were activated to Nichols Field Air Base for duty as perimeter guards. It was there they were informed that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. The war had begun. Shortly after the attack, Eldridge and his regiment left the Manila area en-route to the Bataan Peninsula. There they learned that most U.S. planes were caught on the ground and destroyed.
As word of the Japanese advance came, Eldridge said he quickly made a transition from machine gunner and truck driver to foxhole digger. Artillery shells were exploding all around and he and his fellow soldiers hid in the freshly dug foxholes and did the only thing there was to do – pray. Eldridge managed to survive days of artillery and small arms fire, and strafing and bombing runs from enemy aircraft.
“During this time,” he said, “we were down to quarter rations and low on ammunition. Almost everyone was suffering from malaria and dysentery. Morale was very low and we were very weak from malnutrition. It was in April, about four months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, that the order came to destroy our weapons and surrender to the Japanese. Another soldier and I decided to run off into the jungle. A mortar round exploded near us and I took a piece of shrapnel in the shin.
“We found a few cans of food and sat down to open a can of peaches. Before we took a bite a burst of machine gun fire went just over our heads. It was then that we saw a tank and about 10 Japanese soldiers heading toward us. We waited to be shot or captured. The soldiers herded us downhill, and had no compunction about moving us along with rifle butts, bayonet jabs and kicks. We were pushed into a field along with several hundred other soldiers.”
Eldridge, along with 78,000 soldiers, including about 12,000 Americans, the rest Philippine and allied military, made the infamous Bataan Death march, about 80 miles of walking a jungle trail in intense heat, again without food or water for five days.
Survivors of the march ended up at a building which was the Japanese headquarters for POW Camp O'Donnel. A small-built Japanese man with thick glasses came out and addressed them in perfect English. He said he was born and raised in Riverside, Calif., and was the camp interpreter. The POWs were required to bow and salute all Japanese soldiers, even privates. Failure to do so would result in punishment. They were told that anyone attempting to escape would be shot, and if caught, would be required to dig their own grave then be decapitated.
“I was in terrible shape physically,” Eldridge said. “I had malaria and severe dysentery. It was so bad I didn't sleep in the barracks but on the ground just underneath. Finally I was sent to what was called “Zero” Ward, a ward filled with men waiting to die. The Zero Ward barracks always had dead bodies around it waiting to be buried.
Eldridge and a number of soldiers were later loaded on trucks and sent to POW Camp Cabanatuan. He said the new camp was larger than O'Donnel, cleaner and better organized. Food was still scarce but there was abundant water not only for drinking but for bathing as well. One day all POWs were issued Red Cross food packages replete with canned meat and fruit, candies and tooth paste and a toothbrush. Eldridge got to brush his teeth for the first time since being taken prisoner.
In July, 1943, Eldridge and a number of fellow soldiers were loaded on trucks and taken to Manila. There they were loaded on an old freighter and placed in the ship's hold. Conditions about the ship were nothing short of appalling and the soldiers nick-named it the Hell Ship. After a grueling and miserable month at sea, they arrived in Japan. They were taken by train to Camp 17, Foukoka and assigned to work in coal mines. The working conditions were primitive and unsafe. Eldridge said they worked under the direction of civilian Japanese coal miners. The only relief from the misery of the mines came at the end of the shift when they were permitted to take a five-minute bath and were then transported to a mess hall for a ration of rice and tea.
He said the mines were infested with rats. They were instructed to not kill the rats as they served as an early warning device for possible methane gas accumulation.
The end of the drudgery of the coal mines was signaled on Aug. 9, 1945.
He saw an American plane fly in the direction of what he later learned was Nagasaki. He saw a large puff of smoke followed by what looked like a mushroom cloud.
He assumed that a number of bombs had hit an ammunition dump.
The prisoners had no idea that Hiroshima was bombed days before.
Two days later Eldridge said the camp was eerily quiet, the Japanese guards were gone. The prisoners raided the food area and found Red Cross parcels that the Japanese had kept for themselves.
A Japanese officer appeared and warned them to not leave the camp because he feared the reaction of the Japanese civilians.
More than a month later Eldridge arrived at Dibble General Hospital in Menlo Park, Calif. and was finally treated for an ongoing infection in the leg first injured by shrapnel in the Philippines.
Although he was later treated at VA Hospitals for his leg and other illnesses, Eldridge said he never received a Purple Heart.
“I did receive two Bronze Stars and other medals,” he said. “But I was told that since there were no witnesses to the leg wound I wasn't eligible.”
Eldridge continued serving in the Army doing recruiter duty in Indiana and Brookville and two tours in Korea from 1950 to 1953 and 1955 to 1958. After visiting his two daughters, Marvel Sheasley of Manor Township and Bernice Rishel of Vandergrift and several grandchildren and great grandchildren, he will head to for Virginia for a May 22 to 26 reunion with fellow Bataan survivors.
“Last year there were only 12 of us,” he said. “I don't know how many will be there this year. That's where I'll celebrate my 91st birthday on May 24. I'll be glad to be there and I'm glad to be alive.”
Tom Mitchell is a correspondent for the Leader Times.