BY ROBERT KNIGHT
ROCKLAND COUNTY TIMES
One of the nation’s major memorials marking the 75th anniversary of the infamous 1942 Bataan Death March-one of the darkest hours of World War II-will be held here in Rockland County Saturday at a ceremony in Orangetown.
The event, which is free and open to the public, is the brainchild of New City resident Jerome Kleiman. Last fall, when reviewing aspects of his hobby, the history of World War II, Kleiman said the event, commemorated by the naming of Bataan Road in Blauvelt, was not given enough recognition in the United States.
Not so in Bataan, or in neighboring Corregidor, the Philippines and other island nations, he said, where the death march is an integral part of their national history, similar to the Battle of Bunker Hill in America. Kleiman has spent the past five months doing nothing but working full-time on Saturday’s75th anniversary celebration.
One of the featured performers will be noted Latin soul singer Joe Bataan, who was actually named after the victims and survivors of the horrific death march 75 years ago.
Brave but severely outnumbered Filipino soldiers were desperately trying to save their island nations from the invading Japanese army in the winter and spring of 1941-42. Even aided by American troops led by General “I Shall return” MacArthur, The American’s suffered an incredible blow from Japan’s sudden and unexpected attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, which soon became the official start of World War II.
Cut off from escape, the Americans and Filipinos had precious little ammunition, food or water, shelter, clothing or anything else. Their only hope was to try to avoid and evade the Japanese, living n swamps to keep as far away from them as possible and hoping to avoid detection at all costs.
After a couple of months of playing a losing battle of hide and seek with the Japanese, the remaining 75,000 American troops and their Filipino supporters finally had no choice but to surrender to their captors to avoid certain mass slaughter, which is how the Japanese traditionally disposed of their captives.
“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 notes in describing the atrocity at the time.
During the three month prolonged battle that eventually led to the surrender, Kleiman said 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.
“In what has become known as the infamous Bataan Death March,” Kleiman said. “At least 600 American and 5,000 Filipino captives, but likely many more, died of their wounds, illness, thirst and starvation. Many more were simply slaughtered by their guards – bayoneted, decapitated, shot, beaten to death and even buried alive.”
After the death march some US troops were kept in horrendous conditions in various 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 mostly 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 thousand of the original 75,000 American troops remained alive, and were eventually brought back home.
Unfortunately, Kleiman says, Bataan Road in Orangeburg appears to be one of only two streets in all of the thousands of acres of the former Camp Shanks site still carrying its original military name, and few today even recall how, when or why it achieved its unique distinction 75 years ago. (The other is E. 704th Street, off Western Highway near the Palisades Parkway).
Kleiman estimates there are only a handful of soldiers still alive today who participated in the battles of the Philippines, and they would be at least 95 or older. Part of his mission this spring has been to try and locate as many of that handful of living veterans as possible, and invite them and their families to attend Saturday’s ceremony.
Kleiman has also been contacting every military and veterans organization he can find in Rockland and surrounding counties and the entire New York Metropolitan region, inviting them to participate. He has also been seeking high school, college, fraternal and other marching bands as well as Scouts, fire and police departments, ambulance corps and any and every group of any kind that would like to participate.
Special guests of honor will be members of Rockland County’s large Filipino community, which is estimated to number about 5,600. Kleiman says he can’t find any record of their having been thanked for assisting the Americans so strongly during the war, and suffering so heavily for it.
Program Starts at 1 p.m.
Saturday’s ceremony will start at 1 p.m. with a commemorative ceremony at the Return Home Park at Camp Shanks, located at the intersection of Western Highway and Bataan Road in Orangeburg. The park separates Tappan Zee High School from Dominican College across the street.
A half-mile symbolic “march” will be held to the other end of Bataan Road, where wreathes will be laid, ceremonies held and speeches given. Several musical renditions will also be given there by Rockland violinist and conductor Ed Simons, the Voice of Friendship Singers and Joe Bataan, who will give a solo rendition of the Lord’s Prayer and lead in singing the National Anthem.
The ceremonies will concluded with the unveiling of a new two-sided historical marker at Return Home Park, dedicated and maintained by the Pearl River Post of the Sons of the American Legion, Post 329. Post members also maintain the park itself.
A two-hour symposium on the history and significance of Bataan and the death march will be held from 3-5 p.m. in Lawrence Hall of Dominican College, located nearby and open to all.
Another event in the United States that sought to recognize the grueling death march was held at White Sands National Park in New Mexico. In March a record 7,200 patriotic souls trudged along the difficult conditions of the White Sands for the 28th consecutive year. The annual march is held in recognition of the souls who suffered in 1942.