Honoring the Bataan: One man's fight to survive

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Chase A. Cannon
  • 49th Wing Public Affairs
For 25 years the state of New Mexico and its citizens have been honoring the memory of those who suffered the hardships of the Bataan Death March by conducting a memorial march at White Sands Missile Range every year.

The memorial march serves as a remembrance of the surrender made on April 9, 1942, after the three-month Battle of Bataan, when thousands of American and Filipino soldiers were surrendered to Japanese forces. American prisoners included members of the Army, Army Air Corps, Navy and Marines.

"This is definitely an event that I wanted to check off of my bucket list before I left this area," said Airman 1st Class Lucas Montoya, 49th Aerospace Medical Squadron. "I am excited that I get to honor the members lost from the terrible tragedy that brought us here today."

The prisoners of war were marched for days through the blazing heat of the Philippine jungles, with thousands dying on their way to face the oppression of a prisoner of war camp. Many were then wounded or killed when an unmarked enemy ship transporting prisoners of war to Japan had been sunk by U.S. air and naval forces.

These trials were shared by American and Filipino troops alike, and as a show of appreciation for the sacrifices made by the United States, the Ambassador of the Philippines, Jose Cuisia, sent a letter to Maj. Gen. Gwen Bingham, U.S. Army Commanding General of White Sands Missile Range.

"During the march we pay tribute to these unsung heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country," said Cuisia. "The Philippines would not be enjoying the democracy it has today if it were not for those who fought in its battlefields. Amongst the most poignant events that transpired during World War II, was the fall of Bataan."

Cuisia is not the only person that showed appreciation for the sacrifices made by those who suffered after the surrender of Bataan, as over 2,600 participants showed up to make either a 14.2-mile or 26.2-mile trek through New Mexico desert with a deep gratitude for those who fought until they could fight no more.

"For a long time Bataan was non-existent, people didn't know," said Debra Grunwald, daughter of retired Chief Master Sgt. Harold Bergbower, one of the last remaining survivors of the Bataan Death March. "This is truly one of the most patriotic events we have been a part of, and I am glad that the state of New Mexico and the members of White Sands have worked so hard to build this into what it is today."

Bergbower is one of 13 Bataan survivors still living, and has shared his story with anyone willing to listen.

With eyes full of nostalgia Bergbower recalls the adversities he overcame during his three years as a prisoner of war. "The Japanese prison camps were the most horrible things to ever happen on this earth I think, your life could have been taken at any moment for no reason."

Bergbower joined the Army Air Corps in 1939, and was deployed Dec. 8, 1941. That day would start a chain of events leading to an amazing story of survival by a young American Service member.

"That day I was on my motorcycle and was struck by bomb shrapnel, it ruined my bike and injured me in the process," said Bergbower. "They took me to a hospital at Fort Stotsenburg (Pampanga, Philippines) where I was pronounced dead. When I had come to, I realized I was in a morgue where I had to put my shoes on and walk back to my squadron."

By the time Bergbower had made it back to his squadron, a letter had been sent to the war department notifying them of his death. "My folks got a telegram saying I had died Dec. 8, 1941."

Word never made it back home that Bergbower actually survived the blast and had been taken prisoner by Japan during the surrender of Bataan.

"My dad had heard over the radio that I was still alive in Japan," said Bergbower. "The Japanese published to the Americans a list of prisoners they had that were alive, and my name was one of them. The war department said it must have been some mistake because they confirmed that I was killed Dec. 8, 1941."

It would still be some time until Bergbower's family knew he was alive.

"They thought I was dead until I sent them a telegram after the war, that went through the Marconi Telegraph Service and was delivered from there to my mom's house by regular mail," Bergbower said. "My mother was home alone at the time, when she saw the letter that said Marconi she didn't think anything of it at first, but finally opened it. When she finally read it she went into shock, and when my dad called home and no one answered he called my neighbor to go check on her, where they found her in shock at the table holding my telegram."

From Dec. 8, 1941, to September 1945 Bergbower's status was listed as killed in action.

Before being captured, Bergbower had accompanied three missions defending Philippine territory. He separated from his squadron to retrieve his belongings before rejoining them in Mindanao. The driver he rode in with never came to take him back to his squadron. After waiting for a way back, a Filipino Calvary happened through and warned him that he should join them because Japanese troops were closing in.

"I went with three Filipino scouts on an outrigger to join back up with my outfit on Mindanao," said Bergbower. "I was with them for about 30 days or so, and was on patrol when I ran into a Japanese unit where we ended up in a skirmish. Finally a Japanese officer said that I had surrendered and I told him, 'No, I haven't surrendered.' That's when he said my squadron did, but I didn't know."

Bergbower actually was not in the death march, but was captured and transported to the Japanese prisoner of war camp as a prisoner from the Battle of Bataan.

Bergbower suffered through many unspeakable cruelties during his time as a prisoner of war. "There are no words that can describe in the English language what we went through at that place," he said with a pained look.

Before he would be released in 1945, Bergbower fought for survival every day for three years. At one point he weighed no more than 78 pounds and crawled his way out of a room called the "zero ward" back to his squadron, where he was taken care of by his fellow prisoners of war until he was well enough to continue on by himself.

"The day I made it out of the Japanese prison camp was the best day of my life," said Bergbower. "I came back to the states just smiling every day and I wasn't going to let anything keep me from what I wanted to do."

Bergbower was taken back to San Francisco after his liberation for an interesting first night back on American soil.

"There were some people who made it back before me, and instead of going to the hospital, they just got off the boat and went home," said Bergbower. "The day before we landed, they took our clothes and gave us these old gray pajamas, so that we would go to the hospital. But first me and a couple of other guys wanted to see San Francisco."

Determined to see the city, Bergbower and his fellow service members went on with nothing except for their gray pajamas.

"A cab driver had come up and asked us what we were doing," said Bergbower. "We told him we wanted to see San Francisco but we didn't have any money. He said, 'well, you get in my cab and I will show you the city.' He stopped at some place and went in and talked to the people, then the maƮtre d' came out and invited us in. Well they were having a formal party, the ladies were all in evening dresses and the men in tuxedos. Then here we were in these old gray pajamas."

Bergbower's first evening back in the United States was one he said he will never forget, "I went from working in rice paddies to dancing with beautiful ladies and having a ball."

Bergbower continued to serve in the military until 1969, when he retired as a Chief Master Sergeant in the Air Force. He has seen many things in his lifetime, from a world war to the transition of America's first Air Force. In many ways, this man is a part of American History that will never be forgotten as long as the Bataan Memorial Death March continues.

"May we all vow to never forget the brave men and women who have paid the ultimate sacrifice to protect us and their families. We want each of our survivors and their families to know that we are here to honor you all as our heroes," said Bingham.