Area men remember deadly march

Lee Roach, 85, was one of 89 men from Curry County forced into the Bataan Death March on April 9, 1942. He said it was a lack of food and water that killed people. (CNJ photo by Eric Kluth)

By Darrell Todd Maurina

On Dec. 8, 1941, the Japanese Air Force followed up its surprise attack on Pearl Harbor with an assault on American air bases in the Philippines. Those bases were almost as undefended as the Pearl Harbor ships.

“They just about wiped us out the first day; they caught everything on the ground,” said Lee Roach, now a Clovis retiree, then a St. Vrain farmer’s son who had just three months earlier finished basic training to join the 200th Coast Artillery at Nickels Field in the Philippines.

Having lost the ability to fight an air war, most of the American forces withdrew with their Philippine allies and a number of civilians to the Bataan Peninsula, a rugged peninsula across Manila Bay from the Philippine capital city of Manila. Still others made it to Corregidor, an even better-defended rocky island in the bay. But without access to the resources of the Pacific Fleet that had been largely destroyed at Pearl Harbor, the American forces could not be resupplied.

On April 9, 1942, with only two days of food left for his troops and facing an imminent Japanese assault, the American general commanding Bataan surrendered. Japanese soldiers began rounding up the Americans and Filipinos in small groups and marched about 100,000 malnourished and diseased men 55 miles to a railroad station.

“I don’t think it was the march that killed all the people, but the lack of food and water,” Roach said. “If you couldn’t keep up, they would just bayonet you right there and leave you to rot in the barrow ditch.”

What came to be known as the Bataan Death March included 89 men from Curry County. Two are still living: Roach and Bellview native Buren D. Johnston. The two were serving in a Clovis unit that had originally been part of the New Mexico National Guard but had been mobilized into federal service to defend the Philippines. Johnston, a sergeant, had been in the National Guard for some time but Roach had been drafted after the unit was federalized.

“I knew a lot of these guys already,” Roach said. “I thought it was pretty nice to be in a unit where I knew people.”

For the next three years, Roach and Johnston worked as forced laborers for the Japanese in the Philippines, and were then loaded onto ships for transport to Japan as forced laborers. Because the Japanese didn’t put internationally recognized signs on the ships to mark them as carrying prisoners of war, many of the ships were bombed by American planes, killing hundreds of American POWs.

Conditions didn’t improve much once they got to Japan.

“They sent us to a graphite factory,” Johnston said. “There was nothing white on you by the end of the day except your eyes, and they gave you no warm water to wash yourselves off with.”

Johnston and Roach said they were required to perform heavy physical labor with minimal food.

“Whatever you got was 90 percent water and 10 percent something else,” Roach said. “At one point we were eating burned, scorched wheat because there was nothing else left.”

Roach and Johnston said that in retirement they now spend some of their time describing their conditions as POWs to young people who sometimes can’t believe how bad things were.

“One little girl asked me if we had water to take a shower in, and I said, ‘We had water that wasn’t fit to take a shower in and we had to drink it,’” Johnston said.

Besides being appreciative of the sacrifice of service members who fought so America would not be conquered in World War II, Roach said his experience as a POW taught him not to waste.

“It just kills me to see how Americans waste food that so many other people in the world would love to eat,” Roach said. “I know what it is to do without food. You get to the point where you have no water, after three or four days you know what thirst is.”

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• Last week marked the 62nd anniversary of the surrender at Bataan, in the Philippines, of United States forces to those of the Empire of Japan.

Officials of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3280 provided a list of 89 men from Curry County who were taken prisoner:

Jessie W. Adkins
Robert L. Aldrich
Jack H. Aldrich 
Thomas E. Atkins
John H. Austin
John F. Beall
Edgar R. Beck
James W. Beck, Jr.
Billie M. Black
James W. Black
Thomas C. Bowman
Minter Box
T.B. Bryant
Marlett E. Byars
Dean R. Chalk
Rochell Cochran
Robert C. Coffey
Howard Compton
John W. Cox, Jr.
Joe B. DeGraftenried
Winnifred O. Dorris
Henry A. Drake
Orville E. Drummond
George B. Duke
Glen A. Dutton
Robert Epperson
Jack G. Erwin
Jack D. Fogerson
Doyle R. Greathouse
Milus L. Hall
James M. Hamilton
Alfred A. Haws
n Claude B. Haws
Walter W. Houston
John B. Hoyl
Olin W. Johnson
Buren D. Johnston
Wilson W. Jones
Morgan T. Jones, Jr.
Fred H. Jordan
Marshall E. Kelly 
Horace V. Kerschner
Bud J. Kiely
Harold A. Knighton
Walter L. Lee
Cleovis M. Lee
Roy Lee
Elbert R. Lindsey
Edwin S. Lockard, Jr.
Harold S. Lowe
John C. Luikart
William E. McLendon
Douglas W. Miller
Glendell L. Monk
Harry F. Morris
Lester A. Morrison
John D. Moss
W. A. Noffsker
Enoch C. Oliver
Samuel A. Prince
George W. Ramey
John E. Reynolds
Prentice G. Riley
Lee C. Roach
Arthur W. Robbins 
Wayne C. Rodgers
n Robert L. Rodgers
Robert R. Roehm
n Harry A. Rogers
Oscar A. Ruckman
Oswald C. Ruckman
Robert H. Rutledge
Joe Schovanec
Virgil E. Sherwood
John S. Shields, Jr.
Burney H. Smith
Clark G. Smith
James M. Smith, Jr.
Robert E. Stephens
Jack E. Turner
Dale W. Walker
Melvin C. Waltmon
Calvin E. Whitley
Christopher A. Wiggins
Harry O. Williams
Jacob N. Willoughby
Gerald A. Wilson
Leonard L. Wolfenbarger