Editor's Note: April 2013 marked the 71st anniversary of the Bataan Death March. It ranks among the most significant atrocities in the recorded history of armed conflict and has become a widely memorialized event. Craig Faulkner, whom many readers will know as the host of JPR’s American Rhythm — The Gourmet Oldies Show, has agreed to share the story of his father’s journey of survival and renewal — from the Bataan Death March and the Hell Ships, through fear and hatred, to forgiveness and the dawn of illumined spiritual understanding.
There are increasingly few alive today who remember those times — the dark hours, the fateful decisions, the heartbreak, and the terrible events associated with America’s entry into and involvement in World War Two. My father, George C. Faulkner, Jr., was one of the men of that “Greatest Generation” who freely chose to lay his life on the line for what he believed was right and had to be done — fight to preserve, protect and defend the United States of America.
Dad was not a simpleton or an uneducated man — someone beaten down by the Great Depression, lacking opportunity or promise, and uninformed or naïve enough to imagine that by signing up with Uncle Sam he would be guaranteeing himself a bed and a blanket, three-squares-a-day, and taking a break from a humdrum, unproductive life while, best of all if he was lucky, going on paid holiday in an exotic overseas locale. As the dark clouds of war gathered around America in the fall of 1940 — and quite cognizant of what was going on in the greater world — Dad withdrew from law school, gave away his prized collection of Benny Goodman records, and enlisted in Army Air Corps flight training. It was a decision which would profoundly impact the course of his life.
Commissioned the following spring and assigned to pilot a B17, he shipped out to the Philippines and was stationed at Clark Field near Manila when the Pacific war started in December of 1941. The invading Japanese overwhelmed the ill-prepared and poorly equipped American and Philippino forces on Luzon and gradually forced them down the Bataan Peninsula. After enduring four months of rampant tropical disease, malnutrition, and vicious jungle warfare — and in spite of General Douglas MacArthur’s repeated admonition to fight to the death — General Edward King issued the surrender order, and on April 9, 1942, 78,000 American and Philippino soldiers became war prisoners of the Imperial Japanese Army. My father was one of those men.
It was the largest surrender of American military forces since the Revolutionary War. In its immediate aftermath came the now infamous and legendary Bataan Death March. My father was at the tail end of it, witnessing and enduring the worst of the worst. Nine days of forced march through triple-digit tropical heat with almost no food and very little water took a terrible toll. The bodies of those who had gone before, but could go no further, littered the road. Many had been beheaded or disemboweled, their putrid, rotting bodies swarmed over by blue blow-flies and crawling with maggots. The accompanying cruelty and atrocities committed by the Japanese on both their military captives and the Philippino civilians living along the route of the march were unimaginably horrible. For those, like my father, who were able to survive the Bataan Death March, it turned out to be only the opening refrain of a sojourn in hell.
The ensuing three-and-a-half year ordeal as a Japanese prisoner of war broke bodies and spirits. Those who did not die in captivity would often wonder why they hadn’t, sometimes even having wished they could. It really was that bad. The nightmare and depravity of the POW camps O’Donnel, Dapecol, and Cabanatuan, the litany of horrors my father managed to survive, along with his medical history — altogether it read like a torturers check-list and witches-brew for certain death. Throughout his imprisonment he subsisted on a meager and sometimes near-starvation diet while enduring regular severe beatings, random and systematic torture, and slave-labor at the hands of the Japanese. He finally gave up and stopped counting his attacks of cerebral malaria at one hundred. These were interspersed with both dry and wet beri beri which rendered him temporarily paralyzed, physically deformed, and in extreme physical pain. Among the other known diseases which afflicted him were dengue fever, scurvy, pellagra, and nephritis, along with intermittent and regular dysentery and several bouts with pneumonia. As he put it, he had just about every disease known to humanity, and probably a few not yet even recognized.
Late in the war, as American armed forces advanced and gained the upper hand, the prisoners held by the Japanese throughout the Western Pacific Rim who remained alive became an enormous burden to the retreating Japanese. Those who were not summarily executed were transferred by boat back to Japan on what came to be known as Hell Ships. These were usually commercial passenger and cargo liners, and their below-deck holds were crammed full with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of starving and diseased POW’s. They endured unimaginable horrors on these ships. Given little food or water, they lived, often for weeks on end, in their own filth. The temperature fluctuations were extreme. My father estimated the afternoon temperature in the hold of the Oryoku Maru at 140 degrees. Many simply collapsed and died. Other men went insane from the heat and lack of water. Some resorted to vampirism to quench their thirst. The ships were unmarked Japanese commercial transports and fair game for American naval aviators who attacked, disabled and sank many of these ships — unaware that they were also wounding and slaughtering hundreds of their fellow countrymen and comrades. The aftereffects of these attacks resulted in below-deck conditions more horrible than words can describe. Dad survived two such attacks on two different Hell Ships, suffering shrapnel wounds each time. His body remained full of minute metallic fragments which continued to fester out for many years after the war ended. When the Oryoku Maru was hit and disabled by the American Navy in Subic Bay, my father swam back and forth to the shoreline several times, about a quarter mile away, pulling men to land who were unable to swim.
The third Hell Ship Dad was on finally made it to Japan. For three months after this he was forced into long hours of daily slave labor in a Fukuoka coal mine where he again came down with pneumonia. Unable to work, he was then sent to the Hoten POW camp in Mukden, Manchuria in the spring of 1945 where his poor physical condition went from bad to worse. A starvation diet — a cup of watery vegetable soup and a spoon of rice per day, if he was lucky — coupled with a particularly bad case of dysentery landed him back, yet again, in the ‘zero ward.’ This was where the men were put who were thought to have zero chance of survival. Ordinarily a sturdy and athletic 175 pounds, just prior to his liberation at the Hoten camp in August of 1945, his weight had fallen to 68 pounds. Death kept reaching out for him, but once again he somehow evaded its grasp…barely.
Arriving home in America, he was placed in Letterman Army Hospital in the Presidio in San Francisco. The attending doctors found it nearly impossible to believe that a man could have survived such an ordeal. They gathered in the corner of his room, shook their heads, and mumbled to one another about miracles.
I was born in 1948, three years after my father’s liberation in Mukden. Among my childhood memories is learning early-on that my father had spent almost all of WW2 in Japanese prison camps. This was initially imparted to me in hushed asides from my mother, with Dad occasionally adding a brusque comment and then cutting off the discussion. Most notably, I was made aware that he had survived something called the Bataan Death March and another equally horrible thing called the Hell Ships. No details were provided and my mother instructed me never to speak of it. I almost always obeyed the order. I also remember her telling me that my father’s suffering had been extreme, causing a number of lingering health problems and because of this, “your father may not live a very long life.”
Knowing all these things weighed heavily on my young mind. The thought that my father might die sometime soon was a terrible burden. A dark sadness lurked in our family midst and whenever the subject of Dad’s war imprisonment happened to come up and I dared to ask him a question, “you don’t want to know!” or some other terse, growling remark would be followed by the matter being quickly swept under the rug. It became the proverbial ‘elephant in the room’ — the single most significant and ennobling fact about my father’s life. It was occasionally alluded to in passing, but beyond that Dad’s war imprisonment remained a taboo subject.
In reaching my youth, circumstances kindled a renewed desire to know the particulars of what happened to my father in the war. Dad vouchsafed very little so, without a word to my parents, I went to the library and found, Give Us This Day — The True Story of the Bataan Death March by Sidney Stewart. Reading it was an awakening and a shock. Unbeknownst to me at that time, it so happened that Sid and Dad had been friends, were in most of the same POW camps, and their experiences were very similar.
Although the ghastly particulars, some of them anyway, were now out in the open, Dad remained largely reticent. “I don’t want to talk about it,” followed by a hard drag on the ever-present Lucky Strike and a generous pull on whatever adult beverage might be at hand — some version of this constituted the ongoing default response to my occasional queries about the war. It was a huge issue. It was the issue. What happened to him in the war hung in the air around him, churning like some inchoate, daemonic storm-cloud. In many important respects it defined who my father was…and he would not let me see who he was.
But, ever so slowly, there were exceptions — instances here and there during the subsequent years, usually when he was drunk, when Dad would tell me things about those terrible events in his life. My recollections of what he vouchsafed on those occasions were later corroborated and embellished by his unpublished writings which were entrusted to me following his death in 1988. Additionally, the published accounts which I’ve since read that were written by his friends and compatriots who also survived the ordeal have provided a reasonably clear picture of what he endured.
That my father was able to survive, in itself seems a near miracle. He himself stated this on a number of occasions. That part of the tale is horrific. In writing Guts and Grace I left a lot out and dialed back the rough language and gruesome details, but there is enough of it in there for the reader to be able to envision what it was like, even if only vaguely, and perhaps also imagine something of the lingering physical and psychological trauma which, in my father’s case, was protracted and intense.
Although Dad healed physically to some degree, he never fully regained anywhere near the vitality and athleticism he had reportedly enjoyed before the war. Through my childhood and youth I watched him have to give up touch football, baseball, then tennis, and eventually even golf. His body had been badly damaged and could not keep up with his will to participate and excel. It turned out, however, that the psychological trauma was the deeper wound and much slower to heal.
Dad was not a racist. That thought virus had not infected his family and neither of my parents evinced that disposition. But when I was young the hatred of the Japanese that I gradually became aware of in my father was intense — like a toxic, seething cauldron that would suddenly erupt, often unexpectedly. I learned to keep my distance, watch my mouth, and tip toe around it. This undercurrent of enmity and fear pervaded the atmosphere in our home in the 1950’s. I have since learned that my experience in this regard was not unique. Many people of my generation well-remember elements in the symptomatology. It may have been the food issues — “Listen, buster, I’ll eat anything that won’t eat me first, so shut up and clean your plate!” or the lingering racial hatred — “…god damn Nip bastard!” or the “…because I said so, damn it!” discipline of a cold, hard, un-communicative and often drunken father. In varying forms and degrees it was a widespread disorder, one common to many families fathered by WW2 veterans and particularly the survivors of Japanese POW camps. I have come to know that there were many men who walked down the same roads, or ones very much like those that my father trod, and they never got past it. They hated anyone and anything Japanese for what their nation and race had done in WW2, and these men coddled and carried this bitterness and hatred with them to the end of their days.
Perhaps you can imagine my shock and near-disbelief when Dad informed me in the fall of 1962 that he would be making a trip to Japan. Understandably, this is something he had previously sworn that he would never do. My parents had divorced a few years previous and at this point I usually only saw my father for a few hours at a time on weekends — along with occasional overnight stays and fishing trips. These fishing expeditions were our principal bonding ritual, and even though we were not particularly close at that time — and my self-absorbed adolescence notwithstanding — I knew enough about his history with the Japanese to recognize that this was a momentous turn of events in my father’s life.
Imagine too my surprise when I went for visits after his return and found him and my stepmother wearing Japanese clothes, occasionally eating Japanese food and using Japanese words when they spoke — and even bowing which was way out of character for my very proud, headstrong father. Along with some new Japanese friends, Dad now also had a pen-pal, a young Japanese girl who had befriended them on a cruise ship on the Inner Island Sea. Though surprising and noteworthy, it turned out that these changes were only the external manifestations of a much deeper metamorphosis.
I sometimes wonder what took me so long to recognize and appreciate the subtler aspects of the character changes which began taking place in my father in the early 1960’s. Although Dad rarely spoke to the matter directly, the outline and bits of evidence were right there in front of me for many years. My own obtuseness and lingering reactivity played a big part, but my father’s innate reticence and inclination to conceal his deepest thoughts and feelings also factored significantly in its long remaining opaque.
The travail and horrors were not the only elements of his war experience that Dad had a difficult time recounting. His reticence was equally applicable to what he referred to as the “miracles” — the numerous instances in which improbable, inexplicable coincidences, inspired and involuntary acts on his part, and what he hesitantly and almost begrudgingly regarded as supernatural interventions enabled him to escape death or save the lives of his buddies. However and along with the horror tales, ever so slowly as the years went by he would vouchsafe some of the stories to me, and I later found reference to a number of them in his private journals and unpublished writings. On those rare occasions when he was willing to speak of these matters, and in response to my queries, he stated that there are things in life which the human mind is not able to understand and that’s just the way it is. In this vein he once quoted Hamlet: “There is more in heaven and earth, dear Horatio, than is ever dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Dad was practical and very down-to-earth — a strong-willed and well-educated modern man who could be warm and cheerful one moment, and then hard and brutally matter-of-fact in the next. His basic character and outlook on life had been case-hardened in an experiential crucible beyond the comprehension of most human beings. Certainly not overtly religious, he was often scathingly critical of the superficial piety and pretentious airs of those he called “professionally religious,” which included the narcissism and credulousness of the many “New Age Pharisee’s” proliferating throughout America. By way of emphasis and contrast, he once told me he had held many dying men in his arms — including former atheists being newly baptized as they drew their final breaths — witnessing the look in their eyes and hearing their confessions and statements of faith as they made the great transition. “That’s real spiritual conversion,” he growled, “and not all this crap I see in church.” When my father spoke thus, I learned to be respectful and keep my mouth shut.
As time passed, the intimidation of childhood and the perplexity of my youth and early adult years gradually grew into an ever greater appreciation for my father. Early on I was incapable of understanding his maverick and curmudgeonly brand of Christian faith, much less the conjoint Buddhist meditation practice which he very quietly began after returning from Japan. Where many would see delusion or heretical apostasy, I slowly came to recognize that my seeming ‘tough-guy-father’ was operating at a level of understanding which transcended such myopic judgments and exoteric distinctions.
When I was a young man I once asked Dad if he had forgiven the Japanese for what they did to him in the war. He smiled gently and briefly gave me that penetrating look of his. “First,” he said, “you have to tell me what forgiveness really is.” I quickly became befuddled and lost in the shallow slough of my own empty words. He continued to gaze at me in silence with a muscular tenderness which made it very clear that he actually did know something of that reality.
Guts and Grace is my father’s story. It stands as a testimony to what is possible in this vale of grievance and tears, and to the courage, stamina and nobility of the human spirit.
To learn more about Faulkner’s book Guts and Grace, now available in print and eBook formats, visit www.gutsandgracebook.com.