Jim STILL Can’t Forget Bataan!
(Half a Century After The Death March)
Reprinted with permission from “Farmland News,” April 7, 1992. Written by Del Gasche.
[Photo of Jim. Caption: When he looks at photographs of the Bataan Death March, Jim can’t keep the memories of the nightmare that began 50 years ago from coming back.]
“Christmas Day of 1943 was the first day I remember without an American dying in our camp: Jim Huff of Napoleon says softly as he looks through a volume of the Pictorial History of the Second World War.
He shakes his head slowly, smiles and repeats the words.
“Christmas Day. 1943. That was a long time ago.”
April 9th will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the fall of Bataan and the beginning of the infamous Bataan Death March.
Jim was there.
He lived through it.
They Closed The Gates
He was born in 1920 on farm near Piedmont in eastern Ohio.
“We milked about 30 Jersey cows by hand,” he says.
“I went to a two-room school. The first four grades were in one room and the four higher grades were in the other.”
He graduated from the eighth grade in 1934.
The following year, the Muskingum Watershed Conservency District built a dam. They closed the gates on Christmas Day of 1935, flooding most of the Huff farm.
“Of Dad’s 177 acres, only 17 remained above water,” Jim says.
“We moved our cows and our family onto 90 acres in the Johnstown area… in Licking County, northeast of Columbus… just before Christmas.
“Mom and Dad hated losing the farm. But it didn’t bother us kids so much.
“I was 15 and I had two older brothers, an older sister and a younger sister.”
Jim graduated from Johnstown High School in 1938, stayed on the farm for a year and, in September of ’39, enlisted in the Army Air Corps.
“Two friends and I enlisted with the idea of attending the cadet flying school in Texas,” he says.
“But there were no openings at the time. And then the Army changed Its qualifications for cadet training and started requiring two years of college.
“The Air Corps offered us a chance to get out because of the change, but I decided to stay in. And I ended up at Chanute Field in Illinois.”
After six months of ground maintenance school, Jim was assigned to the 20th Pursuit Squadron at Hamilton Field in California. The 20th consisted of P-40 Warhawk airplanes.
In October of 1940, the squadron was transferred to Nickles Field in the Philippines, about five miles from Manila.
“I was a long way from the dairy farm,” Jim says. “But it was good duty.
“We usually worked from 7 a.m. until 1 and then knocked off for the afternoon, when it was just too hot to work.”
In June of 1941, the squadron was transferred to Clark Field.
“We knew about the war in Europe, of course,” Jim says.
“But we never thought there was going to be a war with Japan.
“We didn’t think the Japs had any military equipment that amounted to anything.”
A Beautiful Blue Fire
At Clark Field, breakfast was being served one December morning when the news started coming in about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
“There were two pursuit squadrons on the ground,” Jim says.
“The other squadron took off and flew from 8 until 10 without encountering anything.
“Then our squadron took off and flew from 10 until noon.
“Our planes were back on the ground, fueled up and ready to go and we were in the mess hall eating lunch when they hit us.
“Since we were across the International Date Line, it was actually noon on December 8th when they came in, although it was still December 7th at Pearl Harbor.
“We saw them coming. But we thought they were ours at first.
“Man, what a beautiful flight! we thought, never dreaming they weren’t our planes up there.
“Then we saw the red ball insignia!”
The Japanese attack destroyed 18 bombers, 56 fighters and 25 other planes at Clark Field. “We had 32 planes in our squadron… 25 P-40s, a couple of B-10 twin engine bombers and a couple of light observation planes,” Jim says. “I was a staff sergeant with a crew that ranged from seven to nine men and we always took care of the same three P-40s.
“The planes in our squadron were on the ground and all but four were destroyed.
“We had them parked right in a row and they made a beautiful blue fire.”
Out of the 200 men in the squadron, four enlisted men and five pilots were lost in that first strike.
“We learned real quick that foxholes were great inventions,” Jim says with the hint of a smile.
Luzon is the main island of the Philippine group. Manila Bay, a great natural harbor, lies in the southwestern part, opening into the South China Sea.
The Bataan Peninsula borders the western edge of the bay, with the island fortress of Corregidor, just to the south, controlling the entrance.
The city of Manila sits across the bay, due east of the Bataan Peninsula.
At the beginning of hostilities, General Douglas MacArthur had at his disposal about 125,000 troops to oppose an invasion of Luzon. But only about 25,000 of them were combat-ready United States and Philippine regulars.
The rest were Filipino reservists, poorly trained and ill equipped.
On December 22nd, the Japanese landed about 50;000 regulars in two groups and began a pincer movement designed to take Luzon.
By nightfall, General Wainwright’s North Luzon Force was in full retreat.
Most of the 100,000 Filipino reservists under his command had scrambled to the rear in a disorganized mob and the rest had simply melted back into the civilian population.
The following day, General MacArthur implemented War Plan Orange, which included successive fallbacks by Wainwright’s forces along the Bataan Peninsula.
MacArthur reasoned that he could concentrate his forces on Bataan. And with the formidable array of guns on the four islands in Manila Bay, especially Corregidor, he thought he could deny the Japanese navy access to the bay.
“General Homma may have the bottle, but I have the cork,” he told his staff in Manila.
On December 24th, MacArthur and his family left Manila for Corregidor. Ammunition and fuel supplies in Manila were destroyed.
“On Christmas Eve, the Japs arrived at one end of Clark Field and we left from the other end in trucks retreating south on Bataan,” Jim says. “We had trucks but no food.
“There wasn’t any panic.
“We did what we were told.
“There wasn’t any thought of being captured.” Within 24 hours, Jim’s squadron had reached the end of the peninsula.
Between them and the Japanese, the infantry and armor were fighting a delaying action, falling back from position to position as the situation deteriorated.
On January 6th, General Wainwright’s North Luzon Force and General Parker’s South Luzon Force… about 15,000 United States troops… crossed the Pampanga River onto the Bataan Peninsula and blew the bridges behind them.
The Battle of Bataan had begun.
Besides the U.S. Troops, there were still about 65,000 Filipino troops in varying degrees of combat readiness and tens of thousands of Filipino civilian refugees.
The situation was grim.
There was enough food for about a month. There was practically no medicine.
Fierce fighting raged along the front lines.
And by mid-February, Japanese General Homma’s 14th Army had practically ceased to exist.
He called a halt to the fighting and radioed Tokyo for reinforcements.
A counterattack was suggested by American officers but rejected by MacArthur because the Japanese still controlled the sea and the air.
On February 23rd, President Roosevelt presented his war plan to the world.
He offered no hope for the Philippines and stated that Hitler’s defeat in Europe was taking top priority.
On March 12th, General MacArthur, his family and staff left Corregidor for Austrailia. Wainwright was then in charge of the forces on Luzon.
The men on Bataan were dying of starvation and disease and as casualties of Japanese air raids.
At the beginning of April, the Japanese stepped up the intensity of their air and artillery attacks.
By then, Wainwright was the commander of all the forces in the Philippines and General King was commander of the Luzon forces.
On April 9, 1942, General King unconditionally surrendered his 76,000 man Luzon force.
On Corregidor, Genre! Wainwright held out until May 6th before surrrendering.
The Philippines were in Japanese control and would remain so until the beginning of the Leyte invasion on October 20th, 1944.
The liberation of the Philippines and the eventual surrender of Japan on August 15, 1945 would mean nothing to most of the men who came to be called the Battling Bastards of Bataan.
But it would mean everything to the few, like Staff Sergeant Jim Huff, who managed to survive the infamous Bataan Death March and year of imprisonment.
Prisoner Of War
“On April 9th, we got word to gather a’ Mariveles Field,”Jim says. “We had ammunition but no food or medicine.
“The Japs were strafing, bombing and shelling us every day and we knew things were bad, but we still never thought of surrendering.
“Word of the surrender came to us through our squadron commander, Captain Joseph Moore.”
Then the march from Mariveles at the tip of the Bataan Pensinsula to Camp O’Donnell… 65 miles due north along the eastern edge of the Zambales Mountains… began.
Of the 75,000 prisoners… including about 12,000 Americans… who started the march, approximately 10,000 died along the way.
Of the 65,000 who made it to Camp O’Donnell, another 26,000 would die during their imprisonment.
“They formed us into groups of about 500, four columns wide,” Jim says.
“I was in the next to last group to leave Mariveles. We were all Air Force men. “We marched for about seven days. “We lost people every day.
“There wasn’t any food or water. We ate sugar cane from along the road.
“The thirst was terrible. We passed wells along the road. Sometimes guys went for water and were shot and bayoneted.
“Since most of the prisoners had gone before us, the road was lined with dead bodies.
“At night, we sat in open fields, all huddled together.
“There weren’t many guards, but there were enough.
“I was tough. But I was 20 years old and I always believed I’d make it through, right from the beginning.
“We were in terrible shape when we surrendered, nothing but skin and bones. “The first real food we got was one bowl of rice four days after the surrender.”
Once they arrived at Camp O’Donnell, the prisoners who could stand were sent out on work details.
“We picked up ammunition and buried bodies,” Jim says. “Lots of bodies.
“And since we were so weak, it took five or six guys to do the work of one.
“We were losing about 60 Americans and about 1,000 Filipinos each day. Everybody wanted to get out of O’Donnell. We thought anyplace else had to be better.”
Jim spent four months there before being moved to a camp at Cabanatuan, where treatment improved but was still pretty bad. “Christmas Day, 1943 was our first day without an American death in camp,” he says. “I remember that distinctly.
“There were probably 6,000 prisoners there in the beginning.
“We got slapped a lot. We got hit with rifle butts a lot.
“We had to bow to the Japanese.
“It was just pure humiliation all the time. We were slaves.”
Inside the camp at Cabanatuan, a Marine Lt. Colonel named Beecher was the ranking officer, he was put in charge of the prisoners. “He probably saved all our lives,” Jim says. “He brought discipline to the camp and made us act like soldiers again.
“The discipline helped us physically and psychologically. We felt like we were part of the United States military again.”
Jim was 21 years old… a little younger than the average POW, who was probably about 24.
“Being young helped,” he says. “Not many gus 30 and older made it.”
Into The Hold
In January of 1944, Jim was moved from Cabanatuan to Clark Field to help dig revetments… shelters for Japanese planes.
“It was all pick and shovel work,” he says. “We were digging into the sides of the mountains.
“We lived in the same buildings I’d lived in before the surrender, only we didn’t have any water or electricity.”
Early in September, the Japanese moved all the prisoners… about two to three hundred men… from Clark Field into a prison in Manila.
“During the third week of September, the Americans struck Manila from the air with a raid that lasted about three days,” Jim says.
“Those were the first Americans we’d seen since we’d surrendered.
“We had no idea what had happened in the war, either in Europe or the Pacific.
“We hadn’t had any news for 2-1/2 years.”
But for Jim, the worst was yet to come!
“The Japanese began loading us onto boats to take us to Japan,” he says.
“I was loaded into one that had been hauling horses on deck and coal in the hold.
“It wasn’t very big and they sent 20 of us down into the hold to level off the coal.
“After that they filled it with prisoners. We stood on that coal, shoulder to shoulder, packed as tightly as we could be packed.
“We got a bowl of rice every day and a canteen of water every other day.
“There were no toilet facilities.
“Every day, somebody died. And eventually that gave us enough room so we could sit down. “A lot of guys went insane.
“We knew it was only a couple of days by boat to Japan, so we expected to get off every day. But It went on for 38 days!
“We were constantly being picked up on radar by American submarines and we were afraid we’d be sunk, the way many larger ships carrying prisoners were.
“We probably escaped because we were so small and had such a shallow draft.
“We looked like skeletons. I started the war weighing 160 pounds and ended it weighing 90.
“I really can’t remember a lot of the specifics of the boat trip. The body and mind can take only so much and then time just passes without being remembered. I guess I was in a stupor most of the time.”
The ship finally unloaded its cargo of prisoners in Formosa during the first week of November.
“It wasn’t a bad camp, but the guards were brutal,” Jim says.
“We were beaten badly several times a day. “We were loading freight cars with stone using coolie baskets.”
Although friends had tried to stay together at the beginning of their captivity, it eventually got to the point where Jim barely knew the people in his immediate vicinity.
“Every day went by in a haze,” he says.
“In January of 1945, we were moved to Japan and kept in a big warehouse…Camp Number 10-A… about halfway between Tokyo and Yokohama.
There were about 60 Americans and 40 Englishmen.
“We were taken in work details to a steel plant where we shoveled coal.
“We began to understand how the war was going by then. There were B-29 bombers overhead most of the time. There were firestorms all around us. And in March, our camp burned.”
Jim was then moved to Niigata in the northwestern section of Honshu, where he again shoveled coal in a steel plant.
“We worked for civilians there, with hardly any military personnel around,” he says.
We walked about three miles from the camp to the plant and worked eight-hour shifts. They were making drive shafts for PT boats.
“One day, they called us out and said there wouldn’t be any work that day. We stood in line with Japanese civilians to get our food rations.
“The next day, the same thing happened.
“The third day, they told us the war was over.
“When we heard the news, the prisoner next to me dropped dead of a heart attack. He’d made it through all that and then keeled over dead.”
After that, the prisoners were free to come and go. But a Japanese guard always accompanied them if they went outside the camp.
“The Japs painted POW in big letters on the roof of the camp building and then B-29s started dropping food,” Jim says.
“I gained 23 pounds in 21 days. You could hear tin cans being opened all night long. There was case after case of pea soup. It must have been a good year for it.
“We had more food than we could eat. The civilians wouldn’t take anything directly from us, but we’d set the stuff outside the camp at night and in the morning it would be gone.
“I never felt any animosity toward the civilians. “By the end of the war, they were in pretty bad shape.”
About a week after the war ended, an Army captain and two other men arrived at the camp.
“They called us together and told us how the war had gone and that arrangements were being made to transport us out of there,” Jim says.
“In about three weeks, we were taken to Yokohama by train and then flown to Okinawa, where we had our first mail call since early in 1942.
“We also had a steak dinner with ail the trimmings.”
From there, Jim was flown to the Philipines for two weeks.
“The first thing they did was line us up and give us four shots,” he says with a laugh.
“Two shots in one arm, one shot in the other, and a shot of whiskey in the mouth.”
Jim was sick for three days following the shots.
Then he was loaded onto an Army transport ship and sent home across the Pacific.
“We had about 400 ex-POWs on the ship, including 40 or 50 British,” he says.
“We stopped at Vancouver, British Columbia, and unloaded them before coming on down the coast to Seattle.
“It was late in September when I arrived at Fort Lewis, Washington, and I was back home on the farm near Johnstown just before Thanksgiving.”
Jim and his parents went to Florida for a two week vacation, compliments of the USAF.
And then, after 3-1/2 years as a POW, he started his life again.
“I just buried the fact in my mind that I’d been a prisoner,” he says.
“I didn’t talk to anyone about it for 20 years. His brother suggested he go to college on the GI Bill and he started at Ohio University in June of 1946.
He later transferred to Ohio State, where he majored in agronomy, and graduated in ’51.
He went to work for the soil conservation service, came to northwestern Ohio in 1955 and retired 20 years later.
The 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor and all the accompanying publicity triggered many of his long-burled memories.
“December the 8th kind of got to me,” he says.
“And I’ve had some dreams lately about my experience.
“Maybe there’ll be more as we reach the 50th anniversary of the Bataan surrender and the march.
“I wake up sweating some nights. But I’ve never had much of a problem with it… not like some other guys.
“I had a close family and a good Christian upbringing and I think that helped me avoid a lot of psychological problems afterward.
“I’ve never felt anything against the civilian population of Japan. They never bothered us while we were prisoners. They mostly just ignored us.
“Some of the treatment from the military was brutal. One time, they lined us up across from each other and told us to start hitting each other.
“I refused to hit the guy across from me and they almost killed me.
A Jap guard knocked out some teeth on both sides of my mouth. I had blood coming out of my mouth, nose, ears, and eyes.
“You learned to overcome things like that.
‘The boat ride was the worst part of all. Those 38 days and nights all ran together in a blur. “When they unloaded us in Formosa they had to haul us up and out with ropes. Only a few guys could climb the ladder from the hold to the deck.
“There was a river close by and they gave us some soap. We spent two days cleaning each other up in that river.
“I don’t know how anyone lived through those boat trips. Mostly everyone just suffered and kept quiet.”
Jim is the secretary of his squadron’s veteran’s group. And last October, they held a reunion in Salt Lake City.
“There are 41 of us left,” he says. ‘That’s not bad considering what we went through.
“I’ve had, a good life since then.
“I loved being involved in agriculture and I still drive around and look at the farms.
“My wife Alta and I enjoy a lot of things. “In the summer, I play a little golf.
“I’m active in the Methodist Church and some civic groups.
“It was a long time ago and I’ve been blessed with a lot of good days since then.”