April 21, 2004

Former Nevada POW recalls Bataan Death March

By Don Cox
Reno Gazette-Journal

RENO, Nev. — When 96-year-old George Small stood to lead the Pledge of Allegiance in Reno’s ceremony honoring former prisoners of war earlier this month, he wasn’t wearing his wedding ring.
Small has never put it on. His wife, Hadassa, who died in 1999, never complained. All those years, she understood.

Small hasn’t worn a ring of any kind since April 9, 1942. That day, as a captive of the Japanese army in the early days of World War II, he started the Bataan Death March after the fall of the Philippine Islands.

“A Japanese soldier pulled a ring off my finger,” said Small, who was a 34-year-old second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Corps when he joined 70,000 American and Filipino prisoners on the Bataan Peninsula. “It was a gift from my parents. It was shaped like a four-leaf clover, gold with a diamond in it.”

Small is one of 142,233 American POWs held captive in seven wars, from World War I through the war in Iraq.

For Small, rings bring back painful memories of one of the worst episodes in U.S. military history: a forced march of more than 50 miles up the peninsula. Along the way, almost 10,000 prisoners died. They were kicked and beaten. Many were stabbed with bayonets.

“That’s something I blanked out,” Small said of the ordeal. “I don’t remember much. I might have been a little out of my mind. I don’t know.”

But Small, a Reno resident since 1989, is sure of this:

“I just remember putting one foot forward in front of the other,” he said. “I remember the sweat coming down. I remember the helmet on my head getting heavier and heavier.”

No matter what, Small didn’t stop.

“You knew you had to keep going,” he said. “I didn’t think of consequences. You just had to keep up with the other men.”

One of them was Ralph Levenberg, 83, of Reno. Levenberg, who was a 21-year-old sergeant in the Army Air Corps on Bataan, introduced Small at the POW Recognition Day breakfast at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center on April 9 just as he does every year. And every year Levenberg, a volunteer POW consultant at the medical center, remembers, too.

“What we did experience is very hard for anyone who has not experienced it to understand,” said Levenberg, who, like Small, spent more than three years in Japanese POW camps. “It was a horrific experience.”

After the war, the commander of Japanese forces in the Philippines, Lt. Gen. Homma Masaharu, was charged with responsibility for the death march, tried by a U.S. military commission, convicted and executed.

Levenberg and Small didn’t know each other on Bataan, or at Camp O’Donnell, where survivors of the march arrived a week after starting the journey through the Philippine jungle.

But they shared the experience.

“The guards made us take off anything we were wearing on our heads,” said Levenberg, who retired from the Air Force as a major in 1961. “In that hot sun, that took its toll. We didn’t have any food or water. Every eight or 10 miles there were these beautiful springs with water.”

Levenberg kept walking.

“That was a quick way to get shot,” he said. “Fall out of ranks to get water.”

Levenberg, Small and the rest of the prisoners walked 55 miles from Mariveles at the south end of the peninsula north to San Fernando, where they were transferred to freight cars and taken to the town of Capas. From there, they walked the last eight miles to Camp O’Donnell.

On the way from Capas to the camp, something unexpected happened to Small. He got a lift.

“A pickup truck came by with some Japanese soldiers in it,” said Small, who went to work as a chemical engineer in Southern California after the war. “They motioned for about six of us to get in. They had some room.”

It was one of the few human acts Small experienced until he, like Levenberg, was freed when the war ended.

Small reached Camp O’Donnell but couldn’t go on.

“I started for the barracks,” he said. “I was too weak to make it. I saw a wooden pallet they used to move freight. I fell down on it. I laid there for two days.”

But he got up.

Small’s daughter, Gail, closed her eyes and shook her head as her father recounted the ordeal. He’d told her most of the story but not about the pallet.

For the rest of the war, Small and Levenberg were confined in a series of camps, first in the Philippines and later in Japan.

Camp O’Donnell, according to Small, was the worst.

“Men started dying right away,” Small said. “They just laid down in fields and died.”

Levenberg help bury the dead.

“Before you knew it, malaria was rampant,” he said. “People were dying, 30 to 50 a day. We were burying them in an open pit.”

But Small and Levenberg survived.

“I was a prisoner for 1,244 days,” said Levenberg, who spent eight months in a hospital after his release. “When you say it, it sounds real quick. It sounds like it went by real fast, but it didn’t.”