Orangeburg event scheduled for April 8
BY ROBERT KNIGHT
ROCKLAND COUNTY TIMES
The largest U.S. commemoration of the infamous Bataan Death March of World War II is scheduled for April 8 in Orangeburg, and is expected to draw thousands of visitors to the Orangetown hamlet for military memorial services.
An ad-hoc committee headed by New City resident Jerome Kleiman is hard at work planning the event, which hopes to draw a handful of remaining survivors of the atrocity, men and woman now in their 90s. The date is just one day before the anniversary of the infamous death march, which historians say began on April 9, 1942.
Bataan Road in Orangeburg is one of the few streets in America known to carry that name, Kleiman said, and was so designated by the U.S. Army when it constructed Camp Shanks on thousands of acres of mostly vacant farm land in what is now Blauvelt, Orangeburg and Tappan. Camp Shanks was constructed to serve as the New York Port of embarkation for all US troops headed to the war then raging in Europe, immediately following the devastating Japanese attack four months earlier on Pearl Harbor in the Philippines. Most of the Army streets were bulldozed away by the developers, but two remain to this day with their original names: Bataan Road and 704th Street, both in Orangeburg.
With little in the way of commemoration planned for the anniversary of the Bataan Death March, Kleiman said he was drawn to hold such a ceremony right there, in the middle of the former World War II Army camp on the very street that has carried the Bataan name for the past 75 years. “Following the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 American spirit was high but its preparedness for war was low,” he recalls. “For decades after World War I the US had maintained a policy of isolationism. In 1939, at the start of World War II in Europe, the United States Army was, in fact, smaller than that of Portugal.”
“When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, we were not yet capable of effectively fighting enemy forces in either the European or Pacific theaters of war, let alone both simultaneously,” Kleiman told the Orangetown Town Board Tuesday evening, in a presentation seeking town assistance in mounting the planned celebration. “However, the relatively small and under-supplied force of American military in the Philippines, which was cut off from escape, found itself in the maelstrom of the Pacific war.”
They had lost most of their airplanes after the initial Japanese attacks on American Air Corp bases, and had only a paucity of weapons and ammunition, many of which were relics from the previous world war. “Their foodstuffs and medical supplies were limited and there was no way for them to be resupplied or reinforced. In other words, they were a cut-off militarily and had nowhere to run. In comparison, the Japanese had modern weaponry, including the most advanced artillery pieces and fighter planes of the time.”
Japan controlled the sea and air over the South Pacific, Kleiman noted, including the Philippines, enabling them to supply all the troops, ammunition, food and supplies that were needed for an extended siege of the sprawling and defenseless island nation.
Severely outnumbered and out-supplied, and with no hope of rescue or assistance, the American force of about 75,000 troops nevertheless refused to surrender. Aided by Philippine supporters, they battled against the swarming Japanese invaders for four months, waiting for help from home that never arrived.
Finally, on April 8, with no hope and facing only slaughter, the Americans and Filipinos took their only possible option to avoid annihilation and surrendered to the superior Japanese forces. “The 75,000 soldiers, sailors, Marines and Army Air Corps men constituted the largest cohort to ever surrender to an enemy in American history,” Kleiman sadly notes. During that four-month battle American and Filipino troops suffered roughly 30,000 casualties, of which a third were fatalities.
“As soon as the troops surrendered, their new captors, the Japanese, forced the survivors who were already suffering from the effects of starvation and disease to walk over 100 kilometers to prison camps, in the heat of one of the hottest summers on record, basically devoid of shade, water, food and medicine,” Kleiman said. “In what has become known as the infamous Bataan Death March, at least 600 American and 5,000 Filipino captives, but likely many more, died of their wounds, illness thirst and starvation, but many were simply slaughtered by their guards – bayoneted, decapitated shot, beaten to death and even buried alive.”
Sensing that ally Australia was next on the Japanese hit lit, American efforts were diverted to protecting that island nation, rather than salvaging what was left of the Philippines. The ploy worked but Japan simply re-diverted its own troops, aiming this time at the 10,000 American troops holed up on the island of Corregidor, in Manila Bay on the other side of the Philippines.
“Close to another month was spent in breaking down this force until they too surrendered,” Kleiman says. “But by that time the Japanese momentum (toward Australia) was stymied,” he adds, and for all intents and purposes they abandoned that effort in favor of wiping out all American forces in the Philippines.
Known as the “Battling Bastards of Bataan,” the Americans fought the Japanese as long as they could before eventually surrendering. On the home front, the American troops were viewed as the latter-day “Defenders of the Alamo,” and became instant heroes.
After the death march, some US troops were kept in horrendous conditions in various camps on the islands, while others were transported back to Japan prison camps, where thousands more died from starvation, disease and beatings.
“Ultimately, over 40 percent of all US troops during the war who surrendered to the Japanese were to die in captivity,” Kleiman notes, “and it is most likely that those who surrendered in Bataan died at even higher rates.”
When the war with Japan finally ended after the dropping of atomic bombs on their two major cities, a total of only a few thousands of the original 75,000 American troops remained alive, and were eventually brought back home.
There are only a handful of soldiers still alive who participated in the battles in the Philippines known to remain alive today, Kleiman says, and it is his hope that each and every one of them can be located, contacted and invited to participate in this one-of-a-kind event. Following Kleiman’s emotional presentation Tuesday, the Town Board gave him unanimous support and pledged the assistance of all town departments of government to help create the event, and make it as spectacular and memorable as possible in honor of the deceased US veterans. Specifically, the board authorized the event committee to be assisted by the police highway and parks departments, along with personnel equipment, snowmobile, traffic control and anything else they might require.
Kleiman said he is currently attempting to invite every veterans organization not only in Rockland County but throughout the New York metropolitan region. Specifically, he said he is seeking high school, college and community bands, marching units, fire departments, federal, state and local military units such as National Guard, US Army, Army Reserve, scouting organizations, police fire and military honor guards, veterans groups such as the American Legion, VFW, Amvets, Vietnam Veterans of America, Korean War Vets, Catholic War Vets, Jewish War Vets, Military Order of the Purple Heart and any others he hasn’t thought of yet.
Special invitees will be elderly veterans from World War II, and especially any who served in the Philippines, who will be special guests of honor. Others include the US Military Academy at West Point, high school and college ROTC groups and regimental associations of military retirees.
Philippine-American organizations from throughout the tri-state area are also being invited to participate, and Kleiman says he is hopeful of getting either the Philippine ambassador to the United Sates, or the UN, as well as local county, state and national representatives.
There are various WWII-oriented museums and displays in the area for guests to visit while in town he noted, such as the Camp Shanks Museum and the Camp Shanks Memorial Park in Orangeburg, the Orangetown Museum, also in Orangeburg, Camp Shanks memorabilia in the lobby of the Town Hall, as well as the Revolutionary War-era DeWint House Museum in Tappan and other museums in Piermont, Nyack and New City.
The event itself will center around a short march up Bataan Road, with ceremonies hopefully taking place at the Tappan Zee High School at the upper end of the road. Planning for the march is now in full swing, Kleiman told the board. He said he can be reached at 845-641-4217 for information about the event or to register to participate. He is also seeking assistance from veterans groups and anyone else interested in bringing the dream to fruition in three short months.