Death March Survivor Recalls POW Camp Life
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sep. 16, 2004 The Pentagon's POW/MIA Recognition Day ceremony Sept. 14 brought back memories of a horrid, week-long march in a scorching malaria-infected jungle, and being starved, kicked and beaten for World War II Bataan Death March survivor Dr. Alex Kelly, 87.
Dr. Alex Kelly, left, a former World War II POW and survivor
of the 1942 Bataan Death March in the Philippines, poses with Joint Chiefs
Chairman Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, and Kelly's friend, World War II Army
Air Corps veteran Harold Koffsky, 90, after the Pentagon's National POW/MIA
Recognition Day ceremony Sept. 14. Photo by Rudi Williams
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
"I'm personally pleased that there's this kind of interest in POWs and MIAs so they have these ceremonies each year," said Kelly, who spent more than three and a half years as a prisoner in Japanese prison camps in the Philippines and Japan. He relayed his experiences in the camps in an American Forces Press Service interview after the ceremony.
Kelly said he was a POW from April 1942, when the Philippines surrendered to Japanese forces, until the end of the war in the Pacific on Sept. 2, 1945. A first lieutenant at the time, he was captured while serving as the battalion surgeon for the 57th Infantry Regiment "Philippine Scouts."
The scouts were native Filipinos attached to the U.S. Army's Philippine Department prior to and during World War II. They were mostly enlisted troops under the command of American officers. However, a handful of Filipinos received commissions from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.
More than 70,000 Filipinos and Americans surrendered to Japanese forces. It was the largest American army in history to surrender.
The Japanese led their captured prisoners on a forced march out of Bataan.
The trek through the Philippines jungles was labeled a death march because so many people died on the march, Kelly noted. "The Japanese marched us from Bataan to the prison camps further north in Luzon, which was about 60 miles for me and much longer for some people," he said.
"Many, many people died along the way. I saw dead people in the ditches along the road all along the way," Kelly continued. Conditions were terrible -- no food, no water, no transportation, hot summer sun -- just a terrible situation."
Kelly said he doesn't know how many pounds he lost during the march, quipping, "I was a skinny guy when we started."
He said his years as a POW were long and full of anxiety, uncertainty and loneliness. "I never had any contact with my family or friends in this country," he noted. "I had malaria a number of times, but otherwise my health remained fairly good.
"It just seemed like a never-ending, dull, boring, miserable existence," he said.
During the march, Kelly said, he only ate a total of one to one and a half cups of rice. He said he received water during the march, but not everyone did.
"The first several months in the prison camp all there was was rice, but more of it," he noted. "We got a canteen cup full of rice every day and some green leafy vegetables, mainly sweet potato leaves. They boiled those into a soup, but they didn't give us any of the sweet potatoes.
At the first prison camp Kelly spent time in, Camp O'Donnell, the Japanese gave the men one cow for roughly 1,000 men every two or three weeks. "I would get a teaspoonful of meat and a bowl of soup, which the meat had been boiled in," he said.
The Japanese transferred the Army doctor to a POW camp in Japan in March 1943. "At that time, there were extra medical personnel in the Philippines, so they sent a detail of 50 doctors and a couple hundred medical corpsmen to Japan," Kelly explained. "When we got to Japan, we were scattered out into various prison camps to treat the POWs."
He said memories of that horrid, haunting experience are long gone. "I don't think about it very much anymore," said Kelly, who earned his Army Reserve commission in the medical corps after graduating from the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta in 1938 and was called to active duty in 1941.
He said his Bataan experience caused him to make "tremendous changes in my life, but I can't say that it scarred me."
Though he hasn't been heavily involved with POW/MIA issues, Kelly said he decided to attend the Pentagon ceremony to see what it was like. "I wanted to see if I wanted to become more involved with POW/MIA activities some time in the future," said Kelly, who got out of the Army about a year after returning home. "It was a moving ceremony for me."