Before there was unconditional victory over Imperial Japan in World War II, there were some ignominious defeats. One of the worst took place on the Philippine island of Luzon where 25,000 U.S. soldiers supported and trained 100,000 Philippine troops.
On Dec. 8, 1941 — the day after Pearl Harbor — the Japanese struck first by air. After a ferocious bombing, they landed forces on the northern coast of Luzon and below Manila. Unable to stop their march, the allied troops were ordered to move south to the Bataan Peninsula and nearby islands, including Corregidor. The Japanese soon set up a blockade, preventing outside reinforcements and provisions.
Our forces continued to battle heroically, but they were outnumbered and riven by rising casualties, disease and hunger. Following four months of intense fighting, Gen. Edward King Jr. surrendered on April 9. The Japanese ordered the surviving troops, 64,000 Filipino and 12,000 American, to make the 66-mile march to prison camps in the north. My uncle was among them.
Private Elias G. Batavick enlisted in August 1940 at the age of 25. One of seven children, he was born in Philadelphia to an immigrant family and soon learned to cope with the rough and tumble life on the streets. Eli (Eel-e'), as he was called, got into his share of trouble, and my grandmother called him the "black sheep." Once he thought he'd help the family by stealing vegetables from a pushcart, but she made him take them back. He left high school after only a year, rode boxcars and would disappear for weeks on end. He enlisted in Texas and after basic training, was assigned to the Coast Artillery Corps, charged with the defense of Manila and Subic Bay.
During the long walk north for Eli and his compatriots, the heat was relentless and they were given little-to-no food or water. If one stumbled, he risked being beaten, bayoneted, beheaded or shot. An estimated 10,000 men — 1,000 American and 9,000 Filipino — perished along the way in what became known as the Bataan Death March.
Eli's destination was Camp 11, a warehouse behind the Manilla Customs House. He and the others performed slave labor as stevedores on the docks. Crews worked around the clock. They lived in squalid quarters, poorly lit and ventilated, and their toilets were filthy. Any cooking was done in unsanitary conditions, and meals consisted of meager portions of often-spoiled rice and any insects or rodents the prisoners could catch. If you read the book "Unbroken" or saw the recent movie, you know the barbaric treatment prisoners received from Japanese guards. They provided no medical assistance, and injuries and disease were rampant.
In July 1944, all survivors were loaded on board the Nissyo Maru and sent on a harrowing 21-day voyage to Japan where they would continue their slave labor. Eli was assigned to the Nagoya Camp where 65 other American POWs were held. It was mercifully liberated in 1945, and by war's end, Eli had spent three years and seven months as a POW. According to military records, this was "one of the longest durations of captivity recorded." Of the 1,816 men in his unit at the start of the war, only 987 survived.
Eli's family had learned of his capture through the Red Cross in May 1942. My grandfather bought a prosciutto ham and hung it in the basement, promising that it wouldn't be eaten until Eli walked in the door. They heard nothing about his survival until October 1945. When he finally opened that door, he weighed 100 pounds and was almost unrecognizable.
Eli found employment, married, raised two fine sons, and lived with bouts of malaria and memories that I never recall him discussing. For the rest of his life, he refused to eat rice or buy any product made in Japan — no easy task in the 1960s and 70s.
Eli died at age 67 of cancer. At his funeral, a fellow POW approached me and said, "Your uncle saved my life." When I asked how so, he told me that he was dying of malnutrition because he couldn't stomach eating bugs any longer. Eli used his street skills to break into the camp kitchen. He stole cans of tomatoes and then force-fed them to this man until he regained strength.
On this day, I proudly salute all of our veterans, especially the endurance and uncommon valor of my uncle, Private Elias G. Batavick.
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Frank Batavick writes from Westminster. His column appears Fridays. Email him at email@example.com.