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FIRST-PERSON: ‘The Greater Power had His hand on me’

BOLIVAR, Mo. (BP)–Still without any food or water, we were bunched in groups of about 200 and started north. Thus began the infamous Bataan Death March. This period of time and exact recollections are hazy to me because of my fever [from malaria].

I do know that we were marching four abreast and guards were watching our every movement with threats. Seeing friends hit and shouted at, I made an effort to not be on the outside and hence not easy to hit or strike. As the day slowly progressed, the sun rose in the sky and beat down on us unmercifully. Rest stops came rarely, but when they did, we were not permitted to go to the shade of the trees along the road. We were always in the sun, and many of us did not have hat or cap. But I did have hair on my head at that age.

Sometime, probably close to noon, a truck came by and we received a small rice ball. And the distribution of these brought out the worst in hungry men — scrambling and fighting to get more than their share. Probably because of my fever, I waited my turn and took what they offered, but it didn’t taste good. I did eat it and the episode told me what to anticipate on up the road. I was with desperate men fighting for their lives, and friendship meant nothing. I still had water in my canteens, but drinking in front of others that did not have water only made for pleas of desperation and threats if I did not share.

Time dragged on and (Capt. Hubert) Shurtz helped me greatly in keeping my place in line. By late afternoon, I was just about past going. I cannot remember exactly how it happened, but about ten of us were put on a Japanese truck that came by while we were struggling up quite a hill. Again, the Greater Power had His hand on me and we were rushed away ahead of the column. After being on the truck just a very short time, I was too weak to hold on the side, and since the truck was going very slowly, I jumped off, got across the ditch, and completely passed out.

Neither friend nor foe touched me until dawn the next day when I was kicked in the head by a Japanese soldier shining his flashlight on his bayonet. Sometime during that night, my fever had broken and I got up and felt like walking. I’m sure the soldier and his bayonet had something to do with my response. But again, this soldier showed compassion and even offered a large, unopened can of sauerkraut, but he did insist that I hit the road. When I think now of the way fallen men were shot or bayoneted for getting off the road, I know the Greater Power had his hand on me and that is why I often say that I am living on borrowed time.
Excerpted from “Survivor,” a personal memoir of John Playter. Used by permission. (BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at www.bpnews.net. Photo title: SOLDIER.

    About the Author

  • John Playter