Sometimes at night, memories of the years he spent in Japanese prison camps leap like flames into his dreams, igniting them into nightmares. It doesn't matter that almost half a century has gone by since Louis Sachwald was a prisoner of war during World War II -- the past still burns like an underground fire in his mind.
Sometimes in his waking hours, mixed in with the daily routine of his life, he will see something that acts on his memory like a match set to gasoline.
It happened last month, says Mr. Sachwald, when he turned on the television and saw the American airmen paraded before the cameras by their Iraqi captors. The sight saddened him. But it was the sound of their voices that hurtled him back into the past, leaping across the chasm of 50 years as though it didn't exist.
"I sat here in my living room and cried," says Mr. Sachwald, his own voice edged with sorrow as well as anger. "I listened to them and I recognized that voice they all talk in. That monotone with no life, no emotion. I know that voice. The Japanese did that to our officers."
He pauses. The blue eyes darken; his shoulders begin to shake. Tears threaten, but he manages to fight them back. What Louis Sachwald cannot fight back, however, are the memories. Memory is his enemy now, a bitter antagonist to be fought off by an old soldier still seeking peace.
Then, very slowly, and with who knows what memories flashing through his head, the man who survived the slave labor camps, the enforced marches and the "hell" ships for almost 42 months, thinks of the American airmen again and says: "God knows what the Iraqis did to them. But I can guess."
Apocalypse Then. Bataan Peninsula, the Philippine Islands. Christmas Day 1941:
"This was the plan: Pearl Harbor was in shambles. Hong Kong had surrendered. Wake Island had surrendered. Guam was already captured. The American troops left in Manila were told to retreat to Bataan. And we were told to hold Bataan at all costs . . .
"The Japanese landed an 80-ship convoy of their best troops. And then they landed a second batch of battle-seasoned troops. We were outnumbered, 11-1. Our equipment was outdated, we had no aircraft left . . ."
It's etched in Louis Sachwald's memory; the instructions he received from his officers almost 50 years ago. He was 23 years old, a schoolteacher from Lancaster, Pa., who had graduated from Millersville State Teachers College and enlisted in the Army before the war began.
"There was a draft and I thought I would serve my year and get out. Go back to school. Maybe study law," he says now, sitting in the cozy comfort of his Pikesville home.
Instead, the young soldier found himself caught up in a desperate struggle to hold a place called Bataan for as long as possible. And for almost 100 days, they held.
Somehow this small army of American and Filipino forces managed to beat back Japanese attacks on Bataan and Corregidor. Historians called the prolonged defense of Bataan a pivotal battle, one that may have altered the course of the war.
Lou Sachwald, the man who was there, doesn't have to read the history books. He remembers:
"By the end, we had no food, we were suffering from pellagra and beriberi, we had almost no ammunition, we were using obsolete weapons. We were dug in. Waiting for help. They were supposed to get us men. They were supposed to get us equipment. What we didn't know was that the equipment we were waiting for didn't exist. It was all destroyed."
There is a silence as old memories stir. A late afternoon sun slants through the window into the living room, its walls lined with family photos and mementos. His life, by all accounts, has been successful. Happily married for 43 years, he is the father of two children, now adults. Professionally, he can look back with satisfaction on a long career in Baltimore as an umbrella manufacturing executive. And, when Mr. Sachwald is not on the subject of his war experiences, he is funny, outgoing, hardy.
The fragility appears along with the wartime memories. And right now Mr. Sachwald is not here in this sunny living room; he's back at Bataan, remembering his instructions:
"We had been told we had to hold the Japanese -- that we were all that was left to stop them from making a victorious march right into Australia," Mr. Sachwald says slowly, breathing each word out with a heavy sigh. "And . . . we . . . held."
JTC The last three words are sobbed out. His wife, Zola, leans forward from her place on the sofa and comforts him: "It's all
right, Lou," she says softly. "It's OK."
Bataan fell on April 9, 1942, followed by the fall of Corregidor and several small island outposts. For Mr. Sachwald, it was the end of the war and the beginning of hell.
The Japanese immediately put their prisoners to work repairing the bombed docks. "We worked day and night with no stopping, no food, no water," Mr. Sachwald recalls. "Then we had a march -- the favorite Japanese way of handling prisoners. We were torn up, bloody, filthy, starved, and they marched us into the main park in the area and brought the Filipinos around to see what their allies looked like. What these no-good Americans looked like.
"And they marched us constantly in circles around the park for the Filipinos to see us. And when the fellows fell out, they wouldn't let us pick them up. They wouldn't let us help each other . . ." His voice trails off. "They marched us from there to other places where we were . . . exhibited . . . like . . . animals. I'll never forgive them."
It was this memory, he says, that went through his mind when he saw the captured American airmen on television.
For the next 18 months, the young soldier was moved around to prison camps and labor camps in the Philippines, ending up at Bilibid prison in Manila. "Each time we were loaded into box cars, then paraded through towns, paraded before the Filipinos . . . By the time I got to Bilibid the only clothing I owned was a G-string, a hat and a pair of wooden shoes that a buddy made for me. I'd never have made it during that period without those shoes."
Even with the shoes, he almost didn't make it. "At Bilibid I got terrible malaria. Cerebral malaria. And they thought I was going to die. So the Japanese . . ." He breaks down, cannot continue for a few moments. Zola comforts him.
Then, in a voice that seems to come from some distant place, he says, "The Japanese made me dig my own grave and they put me in it. Those of us they thought were going to die had to dig our own graves and sleep in them. They'd come around in the morning for a count off and you called your number back to them. If you didn't call your number back, they buried you. And if you got well, you crawled out of your grave and went back to
your barracks." Pause. "And I made it out."
He says he survived the malaria because of some quinine smuggled into the camp by his buddies. But he survived the entire experience, he says, because of an emotion that acted as a medicine of a different sort: "It was hate that kept me alive," he says now. "Hate didn't enter into it at the very beginning. But I learned to hate the Japanese in the camps. They taught me how to do that."
Late in 1943, Mr. Sachwald was moved from the Philippines to Japan to work in a labor camp. American prisoners were transported to Japan in what came to be called the "Hell" ships and Mr. Sachwald will not -- no, cannot -- talk about that. "I have written it out and it's in the V.A. archives with a note that no one is ever to read it. Not even my family."
But others who were transported on the "Hell" ships have written about the experience:
"The prisoners were packed into the hold so tightly there was no room to stand," writes Joseph Alexander in a newsletter by an organization of Bataan and Corregidor veterans. "They were denied the use of toilet facilities. . . . They were three months at sea and twice torpedoed by American submarines. . . . The only food was hardtack. In desperation to slake their consuming hunger and thirst, they drank their own urine and ate their own excrement."
In Japan, Lou Sachwald worked in the copper mines. He worked barefoot; all the small bones in both feet eventually were broken, but he walked on them anyway. "If you stopped, you died," he says. They ate locusts to stay alive.
He spent almost two years as a prisoner in Japan. Then one day -- Mr. Sachwald has no idea what day -- the prison commander made an announcement that stunned his captives. The war was over.
The next day American planes flew over the camp, dropping bundles of clothes, food, medicine. Two weeks later the Americans arrived to liberate the camp.
Mr. Sachwald, who received a Bronze Star, weighed less than 90 pounds when he returned to a U.S. hospital. In addition to malnutrition, he suffered from an assortment of tropical diseases and ailments. Doctors were able to heal the physical wounds, he says, but not the emotional ones.
He says that back in those days the military didn't know how to help returning POWs make the transition to civilian life. After two months in hospitals in the Philippines and the United States, Mr. Sachwald was sent home to resume a "normal" life. There was no attempt to deal with the psychological scars.
"I don't think they knew how to do that then. And I think they sent me back to my family too fast," says Mr. Sachwald, who married two years after the war ended. "I was a stranger to my own family, to my own country. I didn't know anything. I needed to be reintroduced to American life."
And he needed to confront the trauma and hate that burned inside him. "Unless you've been in a shooting war, you cannot know the trauma it brings. You take a nice, young boy off the street and all of a sudden he's got to be able to kill somebody."
A look of fatigue settles into every corner of the old warrior's face. The afternoon light is failing; Mrs. Sachwald rises to turn on a lamp. The light bathes the room in a rosy glow. But Lou Sachwald is somewhere else; back in those dark memories.
And now with the threat of a ground war looming in the Persian Gulf, he anguishes over what will happen to American troops. "A lot of people won't come home and the ones who do are going to be changed mentally."
He pauses; tears well up. "And I can say this to their families: Don't expect to get back the same nice young boy you sent there. He's going to be different. But for God's sake, love him. And be patient with him."