Ten Americans made a daring escape from the Japanese and shocked the home front with the first detailed account of the Bataan Death March.
One day in early May 1943, ten American servicemen emerged from the jungle on the northern coast of Mindanao, a wild and remote island in the southern Philippines. They had quite a story to tell. A month earlier they had engineered an escape from a Japanese prison camp in the southern part of the island, eluded an intense manhunt, then trekked 125 miles through Mindanao’s hazardous, unexplored interior to reach Americans who were working with Filipino guerrillas in the north. All the men were weak and exhausted. Only two had shoes. A tale of such bravery and daring promised to cheer an America hungry for victories in World War II. But the men—eight officers and two enlisted men from all three branches of the military—also brought troubling news. Each had surrendered a year earlier and all spoke of their captors’ brutality. They had been part of the force of nearly 90,000 U.S. and Filipino soldiers taken captive after two big defeats—four of the men on a peninsula of Luzon called Bataan, the others on tiny Corregidor Island in Manila Bay.
After Bataan’s surrender, the Japanese marched these troops— many wounded or sick and weak from disease—more than 60 miles in deadly tropical heat, giving them little food or water. Some stragglers were shot; others were beaten, bayoneted, or beheaded.
There had been whispers in Washington and among America’s military leadership about mistreatment of U.S. prisoners on Bataan and in Japanese prison camps, but the stories from these men were the first to document widespread atrocities. A stunned General Douglas MacArthur, who met with several of the men to hear their ordeal firsthand, promised retribution. The military and White House at first muzzled the escapees, but when their story finally got out in early 1944, Americans rose up in outrage. REVENGE! THE NATION DEMANDS IT, exclaimed one newspaper headline.
Sales of war bonds soared. For most of the war, the country had been focused on Germany and the European theater. Now, with the testimony of these 10 men featured in newspapers across the nation, America got a good look inside the mind of its enemy in the Pacific.
Jack Hawkins was a 26-year-old lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps when he staggered out of the Philippine jungle that day in May. Now 94, he’s the last of the 10 escapees still alive. If you are lucky enough to hear him tell the tale in his mellifluous Texas drawl—he initially refused requests to be interviewed, citing his advanced age—you will note a striking phrase he uses to describe what he lived through all those years ago: “It was a great adventure.”
Born in 1916 to a prominent family in the town of Roxton, about 100 miles northeast of Dallas, Hawkins was named for his great-uncle, who snuck behind Union lines as a 15-year-old scout in the Louisiana Cavalry. Though he enrolled at the Naval Academy, a battleship cruise during his first year as a midshipman soured him on life at sea. Instead, he became a U.S. Marine.
Following his Annapolis graduation in 1939 and officer training school, Hawkins landed in Shanghai, a first lieutenant in the 4th Marine Regiment. There he grew close to Mike Dobervich, a classmate from basic school. The two made a curious pair. The slender, blond Hawkins was deliberative, a Southerner who would mosey his way to a point when talking. Dobervich, also a first lieutenant, grew up in Minnesota, the son of Serbian immigrants, and earned the nickname “Eager Beaver” for his excitability. A former Golden Gloves boxer, he was dark haired, short, and stocky, with a face marked by his time in the ring. During their 17 months in China, the two became like brothers, enjoying the carefree lifestyle of the Paris of the East.
By December 1941 Hawkins and Dobervich were stationed in the Philippines, quartered in a cottage at Olongapo Naval Base on Luzon and bracing for a war they knew was coming. Within weeks of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese landed invasion forces on the island and pushed toward the capital city of Manila. General MacArthur, commander of U.S. forces in the Far East, ordered a withdrawal to the Bataan Peninsula to await reinforcements. Dobervich was sent to Bataan to serve with Marines guarding U.S. Army headquarters. Hawkins traveled with his battalion across a short strait to Corregidor, which guarded the mouth of the bay. With about 50 men under his command, he was charged with defending a rocky beach on the island’s eastern coast.
The men on the peninsula—the “battling bastards of Bataan,” as they came to be known—held out for months even as rations and supplies dwindled. MacArthur departed from the Philippines under orders from President Franklin Roosevelt on March 12; almost a month later, on April 9, some 9,700 Americans and 66,300 Filipinos surrendered on the Bataan Peninsula.
Dobervich, who had been hospitalized with malaria for two weeks in February, was rounded up with the others and ordered to march north. But he was soon pulled out and put behind the wheel of an American supply truck, which the Japanese apparently didn’t know how to operate. With a soldier pointing a bayonet at his neck, he drove a load of sugar as others walked.
Over the next few days, Dobervich witnessed cruel mistreatment of American and Filipino prisoners, most of whom were already weak or sick. The Japanese executed anyone who broke formation or couldn’t keep up and casually butchered others. Men were left where they fell, sometimes to be run over by Japanese vehicles. During breaks, most prisoners were forced to sit in the hot sun. In the evenings they were crowded into holding pens, where the air quickly fouled with the stench of excrement and death. Dobervich, who was allowed to sleep in his truck, looked into an enclosure one morning and found it filled with men who had died during the night.
Starting near the tip of Bataan, the prisoners covered more than 60 miles in about a week. The best estimates suggest that approximately 500 Americans and 2,500 Filipinos died during the “March of Death,” as the Americans called it. After reaching San Fernando, in the center of the island, the prisoners were moved by train to nearby Capas, then marched seven miles to the 617-acre Camp O’Donnell. Fed moldy rice and little else, prisoners became sick with dysentery, diphtheria, elephantiasis, and other ailments. Some 1,500 Americans and 26,000 Filipinos died at O’Donnell over the next six weeks.
Dobervich later told Hawkins that it was “the worst nightmare I ever went through….Bodies were lying around everywhere—in the buildings, under the buildings, and in the latrines. They were bloated and stinking. Sometimes the men who went out on the burying parties would die and have to be buried themselves.”
American troops on Corregidor, meanwhile, were under heavy bombardment from the Japanese. Throughout April, Hawkins and his men—equipped with 30-caliber water-cooled Browning machine guns—dug in for the inevitable assault. But the Japanese instead attacked on the west side of the island, gained a foothold, and forced the hand of the Americans. On May 6, less than a month after Bataan, another 21,000 troops surrendered.
While held as prisoners of war on the smoldering ruins of Corregidor, the Americans and Filipinos were denied basic necessities. Hawkins resorted to drinking dirty water drained from a radiator of a partially destroyed truck. Two weeks after the surrender, the men were transported by ship to Manila, briefly lodged in Bilibid, a 19th-century prison, then moved by train 100 miles north to a complex of three prison camps east of the city of Cabanatuan. Hawkins was taken to Camp One, where Death March survivors were soon relocated. “Many were so thin that the outline of their bones and joints were plainly visible through their yellow, waxen skins,” he wrote in an unpublished 1944 manuscript. “It was the pallor of living death.”
Hawkins searched for Dobervich in the barracks and the camp’s makeshift hospital before concluding that his friend was likely dead. Then Dobervich appeared—wearing a straw sombrero and eating a coconut. He had lost some weight but was in good shape, having been spared the full rigors of the march.
Camp One was little better than O’Donnell. The Japanese refused to provide adequate medical supplies or food and blocked Red Cross shipments. In June and July, nearly 1,300 Americans were buried in mass graves, covered only with a thin layer of dirt. One day, Hawkins dropped to the ground with searing pain in his abdomen, later diagnosed as acute diarrhea. Dobervich nursed him for 10 days, mixing charcoal (the camp doctor’s prescribed remedy) with water and forcing Hawkins to swallow the crunchy paste. He also fed him a dish of soupy rice cooked in his canteen cup over a fire of twigs and sticks. Hawkins suffered, but survived.
Throughout his stay at Camp One, Hawkins tried to maintain the routines of everyday life. He got regular haircuts from a fellow Marine who had smuggled scissors into camp. Sharpening his few razor blades on broken bottles, he figured he could shave once a week for a year. To clean his teeth, he rationed a small piece of Lux soap. He and his hut mates formed a bridge and poker club. Hawkins and Dobervich found another fast friend in Captain Austin C. Shofner, a former University of Tennessee football player and wrestler and an inveterate card player.
Though Hawkins thought about escape from his first moments as a POW, he was weak, and the area surrounding Camp One was said to be filled with malaria-carrying mosquitoes and hostile native people. To further discourage flight, the Japanese divided POWs into groups of 10 that the prisoners called “shooting squads”; if someone escaped, the guards promised, the other nine would be killed.
On October 26—the day after Hawkins’s 26th birthday and about six months after the American surrender—a thousand of the healthiest prisoners at Camp One were marched to Cabanatuan, transported by train to Manila, and packed into a freighter. After 11 days at sea, the ship docked in the port of Davao, on the southern coast of Mindanao, which was dominated by five mountain ranges and an interior described by an American geologist before the war as a “silent, trackless jungle.” The Japanese controlled the island, but they occupied little beyond the larger coastal cities. The rest was the province of indigenous tribes and 25,000 Filipino guerrillas.
The sprawling Davao Penal Colony already held 1,000 Americans and 100 or so Filipino criminals incarcerated before the war. While no model of comfort and tolerance, Davao was a relief after Cabanatuan. Meals included vegetables, fruit, and occasional beef or carabao (water buffalo) meat. Prisoners left the enclosed barracks compound each day to work the land, cultivating bananas, papayas, pineapple, corn, cassava, and other crops.
Feasting on the bounty smuggled back to camp from these workdays, Hawkins, Dobervich, and Shofner slowly gained weight and strength. Before Christmas the three were assigned to a detail of 15 prisoners that tilled the fields with plows drawn by Brahma bulls—a prized job because it offered even better opportunities to snatch food. Only four men tended the bulls on Sundays, often under slack guard supervision, and the relative freedom got the men thinking about escape. The Japanese here didn’t organize shooting squads.
Other prisoners were also thinking about breaking out. Shofner met Major William Edwin “Ed” Dyess, a dashing squadron leader in the Army Air Corps whose flying exploits during the Bataan campaign had earned him fame back home. (According to one newspaper account, Dyess in a single day “blew up one 12,000-ton ship, beached another, and sank two 100-ton launches.”) Dyess was conspiring to escape with Sam Grashio, a member of his squadron, and Leo Boelens, an Army Air Corps engineer.
The three Marines and Dyess’s trio soon joined forces with navy lieutenant commander Melvyn H. McCoy, a math whiz with a pencil moustache. McCoy in turn brought three army men into the plan: Stephen M. Mellnick, a West Point graduate and major from MacArthur’s staff, and two enlisted men, Paul Marshall and Robert Spielman.
McCoy was picked to lead the group; in his late 30s, he was the oldest and most senior officer. Whispering in quiet corners of the barracks or in the shade of isolated buildings, the men hatched a plan to head north from the camp to a guerrilla-held barrio that Filipino prisoners said lay several miles away. Then they would trek 50 miles to the island’s eastern coast, steal a boat, and sail to Allied territory in Australia, more than 1,000 miles away.
Over the coming weeks, the men secured provisions for the journey. With a page ripped from a dictionary as his guide, Boelens, who had a job in the prison machine shop, built a makeshift sextant. Dyess stole Red Cross medical supplies from the hospital, leaving fruit as payment. Beginning in mid-March, they smuggled the contraband—canned corned beef, bolos, socks filled with rice, kitchen matches, first-aid kits with quinine and sulfa drugs, blankets, knapsacks, and the like—into the fields and hid them in a banana grove near a shack in the fields where they plowed on Sundays.
They decided to make a break for it on a Sunday. Shofner would arrange with the Americans who selected the plowing detail to put the three Marines and Grashio on the work crew that day. McCoy, meanwhile, obtained permission from the Japanese to assemble a work party to build a shed in the coffee fields—a ruse to get the other six Americans outside the barracks compound. The job would be done on Sundays, McCoy told the Japanese, so as not to interfere with the normal work schedule.
A few Filipinos in camp supplied vital help. Benigno de la Cruz and Victor Jumarong, convicts held for murder, were recruited to join the escape as guides. Another Filipino, a prisoner who oversaw the farming work of the civilian inmates, drew a map of the surrounding area and sketched two routes to bypass the large swamp that lay between the prison camp and the guerrilla barrio—via either an old logging railroad or a footpath. The group chose to follow the trail since the rail line was well known to the prisoners—it ran through the center of camp—and too obvious an escape route.
The escape was set for Sunday, March 28, but things didn’t go as planned. After Hawkins and Dobervich got into a dispute with other Americans over an onion-planting scheme, they were pulled from the plowing detail and had to plead to get back on. Then, the day before the escape, a Japanese officer found Shofner and others in the plowing shack with pilfered fruit. As punishment, the whole camp was ordered to work in the rice fields the following day. The escape was put off for a week— seven days when the Americans got nervous every time a Japanese guard glanced in their direction.
On the morning of Sunday, April 4, Hawkins put on a khaki shirt, trousers, and a battered sun helmet he had bought for a pack of cigarettes at Cabanatuan. But he said, “I felt as conspicuous as if I were dressed in prison stripes.” Following breakfast at the mess hall, he and the three others on the plowing detail—Shofner, Dobervich, and Grashio—arrived at the compound gate. McCoy’s sixman work crew showed up about the same time, and the guard permitted them to pass first. Then Shofner ordered his men to fall in, his voice shaking slightly. The guard counted each man—ichi, ni, san, shi—recorded the number on a board, and let them go. Hawkins had the sensation of walking on clouds.
When they neared the plowing shack, the men plunged into the jungle and waited for the two Filipinos at the selected rendezvous. The civilian inmates had more freedom outside the barracks compound and should have had no trouble getting away. But an hour passed, and a heavy rain began to fall. Finally, the two showed up, and the dozen men set out on the footpath. The trail was muddy, and the two Filipinos leading the way had to use machetes to clear it of thorny vines. Hawkins’s hands and arms were soon raw and bleeding, and his ankles were covered in leeches.
At some point, the escapees discovered their own tracks and realized to their horror that they had been going in circles. The trail had been lost. They decided to search for the railway line and follow it to the guerrilla barrio. Not long after, the ground grew softer and the thicket more dense. They crossed several streams and realized they had reached the edge of the swamp. They had again lost their way. Before nightfall the men ate dinner—half a can of corned beef each—and used poles and rattan to build sleeping platforms above the water. “About 7 p.m. we heard the drums of the wild people—very far away,” Shofner wrote in his diary. The men slept little that rainy night.
After a breakfast of another half can of corned beef, the group waded into the swamp, with Hawkins now charting their course. They moved only a few yards at a time. De la Cruz and Jumarong would cut a path; Hawkins followed behind them, checking the compass and directing the next steps. The water topped their ankles, then their knees, and finally reached their waists. Mosquitoes and other insects feasted on them. By midafternoon, exhausted, they reached a huge fallen log and made camp. They feared for their lives, “horrified at the thought of perishing in this God-forsaken stinking swamp,” Hawkins wrote later in his memoir.
That night, they heard Japanese mortar and machine-gun fire in the distance. They guessed that this might be a skirmish involving the guerrillas they were trying to reach. Hawkins took a compass bearing on a red glow that filled the sky, and the next morning they set off toward the fighting. Grashio recited aloud the Memorare prayer, which he had learned from the nuns at grade school. It begins: “Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thine intercession was left unaided.” To a man, Hawkins remembers, the escapees felt a sense of calm as he spoke those words.
The route grew easier that day. By afternoon they reached dry ground and the railway line. After sleeping on the edge of the swamp—their third night on the run—the men followed the tracks and found the guerrilla barrio. Its friendly leader told them that the Japanese had indeed been hunting for them on the railroad line. The guerrillas, he boasted, had beaten back the search party—the firefight that they had heard two nights earlier.
The Americans were delivered to Captain Claro Laureta, who directed guerrilla operations in the region. Laureta said he could procure a boat to take them to U.S.-controlled Australia, but suggested instead that the prisoners travel through the island’s interior to the north coast, where Americans were working with guerrillas. The men agreed. Before setting out, however, they enjoyed a raucous fiesta. The Filipino people, who loathed the Japanese occupiers, saw the Americans as defenders and potential liberators. The ex-POWs drank tuba, a homebrewed wine, and danced to American standards played by a five-piece band. Near the end of the evening, Hawkins and Dyess, who was also a Texan, took the stage to sing a duet of The Eyes of Texas.
For the trip north, Laureta provided the Americans with more than 30 porters and armed guards. They traveled by dugout canoes at first, then by foot over mountain ranges that at times punched through clouds. In early May, about a month after their escape, they reached the coast and found American forces in the town of Medina. McCoy and Mellnick traveled another 100 miles to a bigger American outpost, hoping to secure transportation to Australia for all 10 men. Dyess soon followed, and the three were picked up by a U.S. mini-submarine.
While waiting for their own transport, the remaining men joined the fight for Filipino freedom, doing intelligence and other work. Leo Boelens was the only one of the 10 who did not make it off Mindanao. He was killed during a Japanese attack on an airstrip he was helping build.
Hawkins and his two Marine comrades, Dobervich and Shofner, were spirited off the island by mini-sub on November 15 and taken to Australia, where General MacArthur awarded them Distinguished Service Crosses. “He said to me, ‘Men like you will take me back to the Philippines,’” Hawkins recalls. (Grashio was also taken off the island by mini-sub. Spielman and Marshall remained with the guerrillas until the end of the war.)
Returning to the United States, Hawkins in early December married his longtime sweetheart, Rhea Ritter, in the Naval Academy chapel. He had carried her picture throughout his ordeal.
Later that month, Dyess was killed in a flight accident in southern California. But not long after his return to the States, he had described the Death March in horrifying detail to the Pentagon and to a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, Charles Leavelle. McCoy and Mellnick, meanwhile, were talking about Corregidor and the prison camp to Welbourn Kelley, a novelist serving in the Naval Reserves.
The military and the Roosevelt White House balked at releasing the explosive material and even used wartime censorship powers to block publication of Dyess’s story in the Tribune. They didn’t want to shock the American public and worried that the Japanese might respond with even more cruelty against POWs.
But after months of pressure, the government relented; at midnight on January 27, 1944, it distributed a long summary of the atrocities to the media. The next day, the Tribune and 100 affiliated newspapers ran the first of what would be 24 installments of Dyess’s story.
His account of the Death March, the first published, included grotesque scenes of carnage: “The bowels had been wrenched loose and were hanging like great grayish purple ropes along the strands of wire that supported the mutilated body,” he wrote of a dead man on the march.
Life magazine ran the story written by McCoy and Mellnick with Welbourn Kelley under the headline DEATH WAS PART OF OUR LIFE. It extended for 15 pages and included graphic descriptions of three Americans tortured after they attempted to escape from Cabanatuan.
The public responded with a wave of revulsion and anger. “We’ll hold the rats, from the emperor down, responsible for a million years, if necessary,” said Congressman Sol Bloom of New York, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The testimony of Dyess, McCoy, and Mellnick— published within months in book form as The Dyess Story and Ten Escape from Tojo—“was certain to have an effect upon the collective mind of America and of the world, and hence upon the Pacific War,” wrote Hanson W. Baldwin, the venerable military-affairs editor in the New York Times. Baldwin believed the stories would pave the way for a war without quarter, inviting the “use of certain methods of warfare that we have hitherto refrained from using.”
Hawkins was showered with attention. At a lunch with Harry Truman, he sat in a place of honor to the right of the vice president. He received hundreds of letters and phone calls from relatives of missing servicemen and went on a speaking tour sponsored by the navy. Ordered to Hollywood to help director Frank Capra make a propaganda film, Know Your Enemy: Japan, he met producer Darryl Zanuck, who asked him to write a manuscript about his experiences as the basis of a film. Though the motion picture was never made, he published a shortened version as a book in 1961 under the title Never Say Die.
In November 1944, less than a year after his return home, Hawkins was sent back to the Pacific to take part in the invasion of Okinawa. Now a 28-year-old lieutenant colonel, he prepared the daily attack order for the 1st Marine Division and was awarded a Bronze Star for devising the battle plan to seize Shuri Castle, the center of the Japanese defense.
After his POW experience, Hawkins saw this tour of duty as a chance to get revenge for the horrors that Americans suffered at the hands of the Japanese. While precise figures will never be known, author E. Bartlett Kerr calculates in Surrender and Survival that of the 25,600 Americans taken prisoner by the Japanese during World War II, more than 10,000 died in captivity.
Hawkins says he fought for these men at Okinawa. When he talks about the battle there, his language is blunt and unadorned. More than 100,000 Japanese were killed at Okinawa, he says. “And I did my part in making it happen.”
Originally published in the Spring 2011 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.