July 5, 2012 - James Bollich, World War II veteran and Bataan Death March survivor, stands in his home next to a framed American flag that his grandson, an Airman, had flown over a U.S. military installation in his honor. Bollich spent three and a half years a prisoner of war in Manchuria from 1942 until the end of WWII. U.S. Air Force photo by Kate Blais
LAFAYETTE, La. (7/5/2012 - AFNS) -- Fewer and fewer Americans today
can recall where they were when they heard the news that Pearl
Harbor, Hawaii, had been attacked by the Japanese on Dec. 7, 1941.
As the number of first-hand accounts from World War II continues to
decrease and new conflicts of the current era arise, earlier
struggles begin to fade away, making it ever more important to
preserve our nation's living history.
At his home in
Lafayette, La., in the midst of countless books and homemade art,
one WWII veteran and former prisoner of war shares his experience of
the war, one that is slightly different than most.
of his peers, James Bollich, barely out of his teenage years, joined
the U.S. military in the midst of another world conflict brewing
"It was about the time Germany occupied Paris,
everybody at school was talking about the Army, and nobody was
really studying like they should've been," recalled Bollich. "That's
when I decided that before long we would be in the war and just like
a young kid, I wanted
to be part of it and I wanted the air corps."
Against his mother's wishes, Bollich joined the U.S. Army
Air Corps on Aug. 23, 1940, in Bossier City, La., at what
was then Barksdale Field, and was assigned to the 16th Bomb
Squadron, 27th Bomb Group.
Bollich spent time at a
base in Savannah, Ga., and then reported to technical school
in Dallas, where he studied airplane mechanics and took part
in maneuvers and exercises at an air field in Lake Charles,
La., all before heading overseas.
"As soon as the
maneuvers ended we were shipped overseas," he said. "We left
San Francisco November 1 and arrived in the Philippines on
November 20, and 18 days later we were already at war with
Four months later, 20-year-old Corporal
Bollich would become a prisoner of war.
got back to Bollich and his outfit that the Japanese had
made a major landing about 35 miles from where they were,
they were instructed to quickly pack-up and told that they
would be evacuated, by boat, from Manila to the Bataan
Peninsula across Manila Bay.
Thousands of American
and Filipino troops now occupied the Bataan Peninsula,
leaving the U.S. Army responsible for feeding everyone. In
the meantime the Japanese controlled the surrounding seas
and skies, making it difficult for American support to
resupply these men.
"We were running out of food,"
Bollich said frankly. "That's when we tried to get extra
food by going up into the mountains. People ate monkeys,
snakes, lizards, just about anything that they could find."
When most food sources were exhausted, including
mules, "essentially what we were living on was a slice of
bread made out of rice flour, covered with gravy made out of
water and rice flour. We were essentially starving to death
and weren't in any shape to fight and the Japanese easily
broke through our front lines," he said.
front lines did eventually break, they were ordered to
retreat to the tip of the Bataan Peninsula, where they
eventually surrendered to the Japanese.
"We were told
to destroy all of our arms and ammunition. Finally here came
the [Japanese]. They lined us up, counted us and started us
out on what is now known as the [Bataan] Death March."
For the next five and a half days, thousands of American
and Filipino troops walked day and night enduring exhaustion
and physical pain.
"We had no idea what was ahead,"
said Bollich. "I'll never forget our old first sergeant,
when the surrender came he said, 'we survived the war, the
Japanese are going to take us and put us in a prison camp.
We'll get fed, have water and rest and just sit and wait out
the war.' That guy was dead within three weeks after we were
captured. It didn't turn out that way at all."
Bollich recalled marching out of the peninsula with Japanese
guards on either side of the line of prisoners.
"They took our wallets, anybody who had a ring they took
those, took our dog tags. Then they began to beat us. They
beat us with rifle butts, sabers, clubs, anything they could
get their hands on. That went on all day long. They wouldn't
let anybody have a drink of water or let us rest and they
didn't feed us.
"And then I think it was around the
middle of the second day that people began to collapse. We
hadn't had water in a day and a half and in the tropics it's
almost beyond what you can take. And of course once anybody
collapsed, the Japanese immediately killed them, it looked
like they were really trying to kill us all."
arrival at the first prison camp, Camp O'Donnell, a former
Philippine Army training camp, Bollich said the soldiers
were met by the general who had called for their surrender.
General King spoke in front of the crowd, assuring his men
that he would take full responsibility for the surrender and
for his troops not to feel bad.
"Then the Japanese
commander got up and laid down the rules of the camp," said
Bollich. "He said that if any were broken, the person would
be shot, which are words we expected to hear. But he was
speaking through an interpreter and the interpreter said
that you have come here to die. At first I didn't believe it
and that he'd misquoted the Japanese commander, but it
didn't take us long to realize that he was telling the
Bollich admitted that the exact number of
Americans who died on the march remains unknown, but is
estimated anywhere between 800 to 2,000 troops. However,
Bollich is sure of the death toll of the first 40 days of
being in Camp O'Donnell, because he witnessed it. His best
estimate is approximately another 1,800 Americans in that
time period, averaging about 45 per day.
"All we were
doing was burying the dead," remembered Bollich. "I remember
looking around and deciding that the way people were dying
that within a few weeks we would all be dead. Our food was
nothing but a handful of cooked rice a day. The barracks we
stayed in were made out of bamboo with thatched roofs, no
doors or windows. At night the mosquitos would chew us alive
and during the day time the flies would get all over us. The
big killer was dysentery. They had open latrines that had
flies by the billions, covering our camp. Once you caught
dysentery you were gone."
Bollich recalled that
within the first four weeks of confinement at Camp
O'Donnell, three men escaped to find food and were caught
trying to sneak back into the camp. For breaking the rules,
the men were tortured for days until all the prisoners were
called out to an area in the camp where the three men had
dug their own graves and witnessed each man get executed.
Bollich became one of 2,000 prisoners selected to be
transported to Japan for confinement in another POW camp. He
described the packed ship as having two holds, one in the
front and one in the back, each holding 1,000 men.
"We were only allowed two guys at a time to crawl up the
steel ladder to go top side to use the latrine," he said. "A
lot of the guys had dysentery and within a matter of a few
hours, the place was already like a cesspool."
went on to describe the atmosphere below deck.
night the hold was completely dark. There'd be crying and
screaming and praying. And inevitably in the morning when
the Japanese would open up the hold there'd be one or two
POWs that had died. We'd just hand them up to the Japanese
and the Japanese would just throw them over board."
Conditions below deck got so bad that the ship docked in
Taiwan so that the POWs could be taken off the ship and
"That was about seven months from the
time we had surrendered and we were still in the same
clothes that we surrendered in. That was the first water we
had on our bodies in all that length of time," he said.
After what seemed like many more days at sea, the boat
reached its final destination: Pusan, Korea. Once everyone
was pulled out of the ship, the POWs were put into trucks
and transported to a military camp situated on the shore.
The ones who were in weak physical condition stayed
until they were strong enough to move again.
80 or 90 of us that stayed there [in the military camp]
about 30 or 35 of us survived, the rest died and were taken
out each day and cremated and their ashes were brought back
and given to us," said Bollich.
When the surviving
POWs were strong enough to leave, they boarded trains and
headed off to Mukden, Manchuria, which according to Bollich
was "one of the coldest places in the world and that's where
I stayed until the war ended."
Once at the POW camp
in Mukden when he became physically well enough to work,
Bollich was sent to a factory originally set-up to
manufacture automobile parts. In the midst of dozens of
unopened crates containing American machines, the POWs were
instructed to cement the factory floor, make sturdy
foundations for the machines, set them up and start
In his book, "Bataan Death March: A
Soldier's Story," Bollich mentioned that although he and his
fellow POWs were ordered to correctly perform certain tasks
in the factory, they took the opportunity to be discreetly
insubordinate. For example, he wrote that the men discovered
smaller but important machine parts, such as handles, knobs,
dials and screws, in empty crates. Once the small but
necessary items were discovered, the POWs defiantly disposed
of them in the holes they had dug, quickly filling them in
with concrete and making it impossible for the machines to
His life continued with little food and
walking what he estimated as five miles either way to and
from the factory day after day until the day the air raid
sirens rang. Off in the distance, Bollich recalls seeing
miles of contrails and big black planes flying toward the
When Japanese fighters took off to defend
their positions, in his book Bollich describes the scene:
"From the ground it looked like a swarm of mosquitoes going
after a flock of geese and the comparison is good, because
that is about how effective the Japanese fighters were."
"They were B-29s," he continued. "[At the time] we
didn't know what B-29s were, but we were happy to see them.
After all that time, finally it looked like the war was
maybe coming to an end. Those B-29s, I've never seen
anything like it, it just looked like the sky was black with
The B-29 bombs fell in December 1944, and
eight months later Mukden POW camp was liberated. After
three and a half years of confinement, Bollich was free and
heading home. He and the remaining POWs were taken to a
nearby railroad station and transported to Port Arthur,
China, where they boarded a ship for their journey back to
They finally docked in San Francisco, the
same port Bollich left nearly four years earlier.
Bollich rested in a hospital for five to six weeks before
returning home to Louisiana. He described his return home as
less than the jovial occasion he had dreamed about, as he
learned that two of his brothers had been killed in the war,
and his mother was devastated.
Today, Bollich is part
of a group that gets smaller as time passes.
as World War II, all my friends are gone. In my outfit I
only know of one other guy who's still alive," he said.
When asked how he managed to survive the Bataan Death
March and then life in a prison camp, he has a very clear
answer, "I couldn't imagine people going to my mother and
saying that [I'd] died. I think that's what kept most young
people alive, the fact that they had families to go to."
Had he decided to give up, he's sure he could have found
a quick end to the misery.
"Everybody prayed, and
apparently it didn't work for everybody. But maybe it did. I
think things got so bad that a lot of guys prayed to die and
if you wanted to give up you could die in a hurry. There
were two or three times in my confinement that if I had
decided to die I could of died within a couple of days,"
After Bollich returned home, he
decided to remain in the reserves for three years, taking
the time to decide if after his experience as a POW he could
still stay in the military. He ultimately decided to pursue
higher education, a choice he said helped him deal with the
dreams of confinement that ensued upon his return to the
"The thing about it," he said, "in prison
camp, when you went to bed at night you'd dream about being
free and then you woke up and you were still in that POW
camp. When you got back home, at night when I'd go to bed,
I'd dream I was back in POW camp, so I didn't want to sleep.
And that really helped my studies, because instead of just
staying up and doing nothing, I studied. So going to school
helped a lot."
After his experience as a POW and
survivor of the death march, when asked what advice he'd
give to young servicemembers facing challenges in their
personal and professional lives, he suggests considering
what veterans went through.
"Talk to some of the old
soldiers," he said. "Some of those Marines who fought in the
Pacific and the soldiers who fought in Europe, look at what
they went through."
Bollich reflects on the decision
to drop the atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which
effectively led to Japan's surrender in WWII, and wonders
what would have happened had U.S. forces conducted a land
invasion of the country instead.
He said toward the
end of the war, the Japanese higher command put out a
directive to all of the POW camps saying the minute it was
learned the Americans had landed on Japanese soil, the
commander was to kill all of the POWs under their control.
Bollich continued, "There was no doubt in my mind that
had we not dropped the atomic bomb and we invaded Japan, not
a single POW would have gotten home."
honest about what may have been his fate, Bollich
understands that, "of course, that includes me."
Bollich has authored 11 books, including "Bataan Death
March: A Soldier's Story," about his time as a POW.
By Kate Blais
Air Force Global Strike Command Public Affairs
Air Force News Service
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