Bataan POW tells his story
William Eldridge, a retired U.S. Army master sergeant, poses for a photo at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., March 24. Eldridge was taken prisoner by Japanese soldiers for three and a half years, and endured many hardships, including the Bataan Death March. After he was freed, Eldridge went on to serve 18 more years in the Army, and to this date, is the last surviving member of his unit, Company M, 31st Regiment. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Siuta B. Ika/Released)
by Airman 1st Class Siuta B. Ika
49th Wing Public Affairs
4/2/2012 - HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. -- For William Eldridge, a retired U.S. Army master sergeant, enlisting in the Army back in 1941 has brought him experiences he never could have dreamed of, he said while reflecting on his past during the 23rd Annual Bataan Memorial Death March.
"I was 17 when I got in," Eldridge said. "I enlisted during the Depression because my parents weren't getting by too well. There wasn't much work around, so I decided to enlist. I had to get my mother's signature, and she said if she had known where I was going, she would have never signed it."
That's because Eldridge was headed to the Philippines, he said.
"When I saw the recruiter, I asked him for tropical duty, and he said that was the only thing available," Eldridge said. "He told me that he had just got back from there and that it was a paradise, so I said, 'sign me up.' I arrived in the Philippines that same year, and at that time, we processed with no training and didn't do anything until we got with our company."
Upon his arrival, it seemed the recruiter was correct, Eldridge said.
"We were in an old horse stable that was converted into a barracks that was very comfortable; it was like a paradise," he said. "We had 'bunk boys' which we paid a couple pesos a month to clean our equipment, make our beds, and shine our brass and shoes. We had Wednesday afternoon, Friday afternoon, Saturday and Sunday off each week. Except for going on maneuvers there wasn't much to do."
That all changed Dec. 8, 1941.
"The Japanese bombed us the same day Hawaii got bombed, although the date is one day ahead because of the International Date Line," Eldridge said. "We were moved to the perimeter of Clark Air Force Base to defend it. We had only been there for a couple hours when the Japanese came over and wiped out the Air Force. After that, we were in convoy to Bataan, and we traveled day and night to get there."
Once arriving at Bataan, Eldridge's company set up a security perimeter across the peninsula.
"We bombed the bridge from San Fernando so the Japanese had to rebuild the bridge to get across to us," Eldridge said. "We were under a 12-hour artillery barrage where they shelled our whole position. So we would have to fight and retreat to a new position and keep fighting and retreating. When it came close to the end, we had practically wiped out the one Japanese unit that was supposed to take care of us. We were on short rations and were running out of ammunition, but we never gave in."
The brave defenders of Bataan fought until ordered by Maj. Gen. Edward King, commanding general of the Philippine-American forces on the Bataan Peninsula, to destroy their weapons and proceed to Mariveles, which was at the end of the peninsula, to surrender to the Japanese.
"So we headed for Mariveles, and one night, we were up in the mountains and we saw Corregidor," Eldridge said. "We saw this ship sitting in the bay down there, and we figured we would go down the next morning and see if we could get on it. But the next morning, we saw the ship down there burning, and all of a sudden, a machine gun bullet went flying over our heads. We looked across the clearing and it was the Japanese, who came and took us as prisoners."
From there, Eldridge's company was taken to Mariveles, where they were put into an encampment with thousands of other men.
"Over a period of two to three days, they would take a group of two to three hundred men to start marching," Eldridge said. "I didn't get started marching until about the third day. As we were marching, we didn't get any food or water. And every once in a while, at the edge of the road, would be a body."
Anybody who broke ranks or staggered outside of the line was shot or bayoneted. One of the main reasons soldiers broke ranks and were executed by the Japanese, was to get water, Eldridge said.
"There was a stream that was running, a pretty good stream, and there were bodies all around the stream and on the roadway," he said. "These were people that went to get water from the stream and they were killed right there. The bodies that were lying on the ground and the cement were swelled up from the sun and the grease that was rendered from the body was all over the ground. In some cases, the bodies were run over by trucks or tanks and squashed so bad you couldn't tell what they were."
After a full day of marching, Eldridge was led to a field to rest for the night.
"We couldn't see where we were going, but when we got in there we tried to clear an area to lay down; but we couldn't because the ground was covered in feces and bodies," Eldridge said. "The next night, we were in a large tin storage shed and there was one tap of water there. Some people were fortunate enough to get water, but we couldn't all get it. They forced some of us into a barn, and there was barely enough room so some people were standing through the night."
The next morning, when Eldridge rejoined the march, he saw many had died during the night.
"I saw a lot of bodies on the ground that never got up," Eldridge said. "When we moved out, there was a group of Japanese soldiers in the middle of the road that had a five-gallon drum full of rice balls about the size of a baseball. Each person got a rice ball, which was the first food I had eaten in about three or four days."
After five or six more days of marching, Eldridge had reached San Fernando.
"They had trains and what they called a '40 and 8 box car' which was supposed to hold 40 men or eight horses," Eldridge said. "They crowded us in there more than 100 hundred at a time. They kept us in there and it was boiling hot, because it was in the middle of summer. When we got to where we were going and they unloaded us, a lot of people had died in the box car."
Before coming through the gates of Camp O'Donnell, all of the prisoners were briefed by the camp's commanding officer. After the briefing, the prisoners were put into a barracks area with their own companies, Eldridge said.
Disease was rampant in the area, so prisoners' survival rate was low.
"I heard one of our corporals was in a building next to us, so the next day I went over to visit him and he was all puffed up and his eyes were closed," Eldridge said. "He died the next day. I, too, had malaria and dysentery, so I had a space in a hut on a platform, about three feet high, that I slept in."
Prisoners at Camp O'Donnell received a little rice once and no water each day.
"There was one water tap for the entire camp, and there were thousands in the camp," Eldridge said. "At the kitchen, I couldn't get any water because the lines were always really long. I got weak from dysentery and started sleeping under the barracks. I don't know who it was to this day, but somebody used to drag me out and feed me."
After about a week, Eldridge was moved to 'zero ward,' where prisoners who were figured to be too sick to live went.
"When I woke up there, they cleaned me up a little bit and I could see bodies stacked up beside the building," Eldridge said. "Somehow I got the strength to get out of the zero ward and back over to the other side."
Once he was back to working, Eldridge said camp conditions worsened.
"The latrine was close by, and I would go there and it looked like water was boiling, because it was just filled with thousands of maggots," he said. "They were crawling on the ground and in the hole we had to do our duty in. It was slippery, and sometimes people would fall in, which was a real mess because there was no water to clean up with."
Eldridge, who dealt with these conditions for three and a half years, still vividly remembers the day he left the camp as a free man.
"After the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, the Japanese cleared the camp and we were on our own from there on out," Eldridge said. "I prayed that day would come, and I didn't ever think too much about giving up."
Eldridge, who was a private first class when he was taken as a prisoner, went on to serve 18 more years in the Army, and honorably retired as a master sergeant.
To this date, Eldridge, who now lives in California, is the last surviving member of his unit, Company M, 31st Regiment.