World War II veterans recall their experiences

December 08, 2004|ANN R. HARNEY

This is the second of a two-part series on survivors from the Harrodsburg National Guard unit who were captured in the Philippines in World War II.

HARRODSBURG - Six of the original 66 men of the Harrodsburg National Guard unit are still alive.

During World War II, the Harrodsburg unit was taken into the regular Army to Fort Knox where the men were trained and placed in the 192nd Tank Battalion. A few days after landing on the Philippines in November 1941, their lives all changed for the worse.

Their experiences after their capture by the Japanese are almost as varied as there are survivors. To begin with, it should be noted that Bataan Death March and Corregidor are not interchangeable, and Morgan French and Arnold Lawson try to make that point. They were not two of the thousands forced to march some 60 miles in appalling conditions that came to be called the Bataan Death March.


Here are the stories of five of the six living survivors:

No food

Morgan French, 85, was the only one who returned home and made the armed forces a career; he served 25 years and then was an instructor at Fort Knox. He grew up on a farm near Shakertown and lives in Radcliff near Fort Knox.

When Bataan surrendered, French lived to fight another day along with 60 or so men who crossed from Bataan to Corregidor in a yacht they found on the beach at Bataan. While he was in better physical shape than Bataan veterans, French said there was no food supplied by the Army.

"We ate rice, monkeys, birds, bugs, leaves and something that looked like an alligator," French said.

When Gen. Douglas MacArthur was ordered to leave the Philippines by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the command of Corregidor fell to Gen. Jonathan Wainwright.

It was Wainwright who surrendered Corregidor to the Japanese. None of the men interviewed for this story hold MacArthur in high regard, and French says he may have started the term "Dugout Doug." As for Wainwright, "He had no choice at all (to surrender.) We had no food, no ammunition and no gasoline. He did the right thing."

French, like many of the men, was taken to Japan to work. He and others doing stevedore work helped keep themselves alive by stealing anything they could from the ships they were unloading. French said he saw the mushroom cloud from the atomic bomb the Americans dropped on Hiroshima. He was working about 10 miles from there, fortunately upwind of the city, and although the troops did not know it at the time, that cloud meant a speedy end to the war with Japan.

French suffers permanent hearing loss in one ear, caused by being hit in the head with a rifle butt.

Didn't have a unit

Arnold Lawson, who lives in Florida, was with French when they escaped the battle on Bataan, and the two men stayed together almost to the end. Just 15 when he joined the Guard, Lawson is now 81. "We had orders to surrender, but we didn't," he said. That would not be the only time he refused to follow orders.

Lawson and French recall seeing all of the American planes parked at Clark Field on the Philippines destroyed by Japanese bombs. At first, they thought it was the U.S. Navy flying overhead until the bombs started falling.

Held prisoner, Lawson said he was in various prison camps both on the Philippines and in Japan. "The Americans bombed me out of about three prison camps," he said. "They worked us all the time.

"They put us where they knew the Americans were going to bomb."

When the work stopped, the POWs guessed the war was over. In the camp housing Lawson and French, U.S. planes dropped barrels of food and the Army told the camp POWs to stay put until they could be liberated.

"We liberated ourselves," Lawson said. "We were told we could be court martialed."

They made their way to Tokyo and then to Yokahoma, where they asked to be fed at one of the Army mess halls. "They told us to go eat with our own unit. We told them we didn't have a unit; we had been prisoners of war for 3 1/2 years."

They got food and more.

French wasn't in the group with Lawson. "He left me there, and I chewed him out about it later," he laughed.

Lawson suffers permanent sight loss. He said it was caused by malnutrition, and two other men went blind briefly but recovered their sight once they got to eat.

Beaten by captors

William Clinton Alford, 83, of Trumansburg, N.Y., who grew up in Burgin, was forced into the Bataan Death March. He suffered from scurvy, beriberi, cerebral malaria and dysentery. He said dysentery stayed with him until 1947 after he got back home.

He also suffered temporary blindness and on the Death March it could have been fatal. The Japanese killed men they found to be too weak or unable to take care of themselves. Before their surrender to the Japanese, Alford said they were cut to one-sixth of daily rations. "That's the reason we lost so many on the Death March."

He, too, was beaten many times by his captors.

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