Defenders of the Philippines

picture of captivity and picture of release from captivity

Frank Rossi Picture

Frank Rossi

Frank Rossi Recalls

I was born in a small coal mining town in Pennsylvania called Pittson. On March 21, 1941 at the age of twenty-one I was drafted in the United States Army. I skipped around the United States a lot during the next six months. After boot camp in Fort Dix, New Jersey. I went to Fort Belvair, Virginia, West Field, Massachusetts and finally to Angel Island in California. On November 4, 1941 we departed for the Philippine Islands from San Francisco.

I soon learned that I would be living on the island of Luzon and my assignment would be to build an air strip which I did with many other people. I was a foreman in construction and I had twenty-four army personnel and two hundred Filipino civilians under me. At that time we helped build an air strip that was to be called Clark Field.

I remember being very happy at this point in my life; I was young, healthy and full of hope for the future. The ominous war clouds of Europe were very far away and I was doing constructive creative work on an exotic Pacific island. Smoking a cigarette after evening mess and feeling the balmy breezes, we would talk wistfully about home while the tropical moon smiled down on us. We had no inkling that the winds of war were already gathering nearby.

On December 8, 1941 Japanese bombers flew over Clark Field and laid it to waste along with every plane on the strip. It was an attack without warning and it was a total re-run of Pearl Harbor the previous day. Finally, the planes stopped coming and we slowly started moving south and for the next four months we fought with the Japanese every day on the tiny peninsula called Bataan. By March the Japanese were everywhere breaking through our lines and defenses; we started weakening because of disease, malnutrition and lack of ammo. By April monkey meat, when we could get it, was our main source of food.

On April 9, .1942 after four months of fierce fighting we were surrounded and overtaken by the Japanese in Mariveles. I ran desperately into the South China Sea and was ordered to halt by a Japanese soldier. I obeyed and as I came out of the water he knocked me out with the butt of his rifle. For a week I was kept prisoner in a small detention area and then suddenly we were ordered to march.

We did not know where we were going or why we were being moved but soon we became fixed on one idea to stay alive. The infamous Bataan death march was brutal because many of us were mere skeletons of our former selves. We were physically and mentally weak from four months of constant fighting and many of us were quite ill with malaria and dysentery. So we marched in the hot, dry burning sun of the Philippines with very little relief and at times no food, water or medicines. If a man would fall out of line he was bayonetted and if you tried to help him you also were killed. We soon realized that if you faltered you were dead and we kept saying to ourselves and to each other don't fall don't fall or you're dead don't fall.

Upon arriving at Camp O'Donnell we were ordered to dig a mass grave. During that first week we buried sixty to ninety men a day in that pit. I will never forget how that camp quickly became a cemetery. I only stayed in O'Donnell a month. The stench of death was in this camp and all of us who were chosen to leave were very glad.

In two weeks a transport ship took us to a P.O.W. camp in Mukden, Manchuria that also held British, Australian and Javanese prisoners. Some escapes were tried but they proved fruitless. The men were brought back and shot in front of us. Some of the Japanese guards were very kind and others extremely cruel; it depended on the individual. When American victories were reported some would line us up and knock us down unconscious. Others would give us medicines, extra food and teach us Japanese. I remained in this camp until the end of the war. I remember well the day Japan surrendered. B'29's came over and dropped food to us and for the first time in almost four years we felt good with great hope for the future. Our daily fearful existence was happily over.

The memory of the march and Manchuria has not dimmed from my mind. It was a terrifying experience that I was fortunate to survive. I can truly say I hope it never happens again. I wish for peace in our time.

* * *

Frank Rossi is a retired United Auto Worker now living in Cliffside Park, New Jersey with his lovely wife Madeline. Frank worked at the N.Y. P.D.C. from June 1968 until May 1982. Today there are approximately 1200 survivors of the Bataan death march. They proudly belong to a veterans organization called the Quan. Their insignia is a sea lion with a saber.