THE DEATH MARCH
Our life was but a battle and a march
And like the wind’s blast, never-resting, homeless
We stormed across the war-convulsed heath.
– Friedrich Von Schiller
The dust that enveloped the road was being stirred up by the wheels of trucks and big guns on their way to the front. American and Filipino soldiers emerged through the pall of smoke and dust in endless lines and groups of suffering humanity.
Many suffered from dysentery, and in answering nature’s call, ran to the side of the road. Guards kicked at them and pounded them with rifle butts and ordered them back in line. Human forms writhed in the hot dust of the road, and the further we trod, hungry and disillusioned, the number of dead increased proportionally. We stumbled over bodies, the dying and the dead. They lay on both sides of the road and soon became commonplace to us.
I was in a state of shock and not able to pay much attention to what went on around me. It’s amazing how our minds are able to adjust to shock. I do, however, remember some things quite vividly, like the incident where a squat Japanese guard with a fixed bayonet saw a soldier at the side of the road with his pants down. The guard grinned and then ran his bayonet into the poor man’s behind. Maybe I remember the incident so well because I can’t ever forget the grin on the guard’s face.
The second day we marched into the night. We had no food nor water, and none was offered, but we were thankful of the chance to lie down and rest.
A few days after I joined ranks in the march, we came to a halt in a village that had been demolished by bombs. Some Filipinos were still living there, and when the guards weren’t watching they passed some food to us. Their kindness touched me. I took the chance and approached an older man and asked if he would keep my diary and return it to me after the war. It was a risk but I had little choice. I was certain sooner or later the guards would find it on me and I would be executed on the spot. The old man looked around and nodded that he would do as I asked. I hastily jotted down my name and address and handed it to him. No one saw the transaction. As we prepared to move on I saw him standing in the crowd and wanted to wave to him but dared not. He could have been shot for abetting a prisoner.
The days dragged into weeks. The air was foul with the odor of death. At night we fell asleep where we dropped, and in the mornings we were awakened by outbursts of yelling and screeching. The Japanese guards charged in among us, kicking us to our feet. They then herded us back to the road and started us marching. Walking was torture. Now and again we passed the huddled forms of men who had collapsed from fatigue or had been bayoneted.
Our thirst had become almost unbearable by now. Sometimes one of us was permitted to collect canteens from our comrades and fill them at a stagnant carabao wallows. We held our noses and we drank whatever water we could get.
Prisoners continued to drop, and guards continued their brutal display. There was little we could do for the fallen, except encourage them on. We had learned soon enough that efforts to assist them served only to hasten their deaths and perhaps our own as well. All we could do was encourage them with words. “Don’t give up; we’re almost there,” became our bywords.
The days dragged by, and many prisoners reached the end of their endurance. They went down not singly but by twos and threes. I shall never forget their groans as they tried desperately to get up again, and always with a beaming Japanese guard standing over them with a fixed bayonet. Those who lay lifeless where they had fallen were the only ones free of sinister Japanese brutality.
Bodies were left where they lay, and the stench grew worse and worse with each mile. Occasionally we heard thumping shots from the rifles of guards bringing up the rear, and each shot meant another straggler was dead.