West Virginia gathering recalls suffering of Bataan Death March
WELLSBURG, W.Va. — Joseph Vater Jr. held the memory of his father a little closer Saturday, marching in his place to commemorate what's known as the Bataan Death March.
“I feel the necessity to keep his story alive because he's not around to do it anymore,” said Vater, 69, of the North Shore. “I've gone to events where I would have been with my father, and it tends to deepen the sense of loss.”
Vater's father, Joseph Vater Sr., died in December at 97. A McKees Rocks native, Vater Sr. was among the few remaining veterans from an often-overlooked part of World War II history.
About 80 people from as far away as Lake George, N.Y., gathered in Wellsburg, about 45 miles southwest of Pittsburgh, to remember those who made it home — and those who didn't. The event, which included a military encampment and war memorabilia, was organized by the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor Museum housed in the Brooke County Public Library.
When World War II broke out in December 1941, American and Filipino troops held back the Japanese offensive until April 9, 1942, when more than 75,000 American and Filipino soldiers surrendered to Japanese forces.
Thousands of troops died as they were forced to trek 65 miles through the Philippine jungle. Those who survived spent 40 months as prisoners of war.
Vater Sr. was not among the soldiers in the Death March, though he was captured and held in a prison camp for 3½ years.
“It was all chaos,” Vater Sr. told the Rutgers University Oral History Archives in 2007.
Vater Sr. helped found the museum with fellow veterans Abie Abraham of Connoquenessing Township, Butler County, and Wellsburg resident Eddie Jackfert, who first approached the Brooke County library director in 2002 about hosting a display dedicated to the Philippines conflict during World War II.
What began as a small shelf of memorabilia has grown into a wing in the library, with Japanese samurai swords, military weapons and uniforms, photographs and documents.
This was the fourth year the museum commemorated the Death March with a solemn half-mile walk through town. It is one way in which the museum can raise awareness about a little-known chapter of the war, curator Jim Brockman said.
“This is not a segment of history that is well-talked about,” said Brockman, a Vietnam veteran and Navy fighter pilot.
Abraham's widow, Christine Abraham, said she participated in the commemoration to honor her husband's memory.
He died three years ago at 98, a few weeks shy of the 70th anniversary of the event that nearly took his life. A champion boxer before the war, Abraham's physical fitness likely helped him survive, his wife said.
In the decades since his return, he wrote two books, visited schools and gave public talks about his experience as a survivor of the Death March.
He hoped to deepen the public's understanding of the conflict in the Philippines, feeling that textbooks and historians overemphasize the war in Europe, Christine Abraham said.
“It needs to be remembered so that people know about it,” she said.
Vater Jr. has been walking in the march for three years, this year for the first time without his father. He said he didn't know the extent of his father's service until the 1980s.
“For the longest time, my brother, sister and I really were not told much about his experiences,” said Vater, a lawyer with Meyer, Unkovic & Scott of Pittsburgh.
As the years pass and veterans die, museums like the one at the library become more and more important, Vater said.
“One of the purposes is to really, to the extent we can, establish programs to teach people about what happened,” he said.