Bataan Death March survivor

15 Sep 2000 | LCpl. Allan J. Grdovich

Imagine for a moment simple things that make life easy. Taking a morning shower, changing into clean clothes, and of course eating a good meal. Now imagine not having these things. Add to that being beaten, suffering humiliation and having friends die beside you.

It may sound like something out of a movie. However, for one U.S. Marine, this scenario was everyday reality as a prisoner of war during World War II.

A young man from Sulpher Springs, Ark., named Thomas A. Craigg, Jr. enlisted in the Marine Corps Sept. 17, 1940, at the age of 22 after working with the Civilian Conservation Corps for five years.

"After enlisting and being sent to boot camp in San Diego, I volunteered for what was then called Asiatic duty. Today it is called Pacific duty. During this time while I was in the Pacific with 4th Marine Regiment (they were also known as 'China Marines,') the war had not broken out for another eight months," said Craigg.

During Asiatic duty Marines were in charge of guarding American interests in China as well as the vicinity of Guam, Wake and Midway islands.

"At the time when the war broke out I was on the Philippine island of Luzon and Marines who were under Army command were distributed along the Bataan Peninsula," recalled Craigg.

The war in the Pacific officially broke out Dec. 7, 1941. Soon after, things began getting bad on Bataan when the Japanese laid a successful offensive on the island. Marines were soon ordered to go to Corregidor, which is a small island off the Bataan coast, said Craigg.

"Things were getting worse. We were surviving on one meal ration a day beginning the end of January. The front lines on Bataan fell April 9, 1942. Corregidor held out for a few more days until May 6. After the surrender, the Japanese rounded the prisoners from Battan and Corregidor, and everyone who was the rank of colonel, or above was separated from the rest of us," said Craigg who was a private first class at the time. "About 70,000, sick, starved, worn out, battle fatigued American and Filipino troops then began the march some barefooted, to the POW camp, which was about 80 to 100 miles away," recalled Craigg.

It took about a week for the prisoners to march to the camp. During the tumultuous trek that took place on the main road leading through the peninsula, Japanese soldiers deprived the prisoners of water and food.

"If you stepped out of formation or fell out you were killed. Local Filipinos would try to give the prisoners marching through food or water, they were killed also for showing sympathy," said Craigg.

If someone fell, that person paid the ultimate price usually by being stuck with a bayonet or decapitation. A person had to stay on his feet. Another common practice was beatings of the biggest Americans usually by the smallest Japanese soldier, said Craigg.

"There was no doubt in anyone's mind they wanted us dead. It was a free for all for the Japanese," gasped Craigg.

After the march the already tired, hungry, wounded and thirsty prisoners who survived the march, wound up at Camp O'Donnell where the drinking facility for the tens of thousands of prisoners was one spigotĀ  of running water.

"At Camp O'Donnell, there were about 150 to 200 deaths a day. There were people with dysentery, malaria, beriberi. There were no food or medical supplies, no clean clothes; it was terrible," said Craigg.

The misery endured for three and a half years, and during this time prisoners were moved periodically from camp to camp performing slave labor. Approximately 20,000 prisoners died at the hands of Japanese soldiers before they were rescued.

"After the two atom bombs were dropped, the Japanese surrendered. We found out through leaflets that were dropped by air, along with food and medical supplies," recalled Craigg.

Soon after, American forces came to rescue the prisoners who endured being captive for almost the entire war. For the first time since being captured, the former POWs were provided showers, medical care, doughnuts, coffee and clean clothes, Craigg said.

"We almost didn't know how to handle freedom again. When I was released I weighed 116 pounds. When I enlisted, I weighed 175. Sometimes I still have problems with my legs because of malnutrition during the time I was prisoner," recalled the six-foot-tall Craigg. "The only way we survived was by praying to God. We had to pray in secret or we would be beaten. Without God we would have all lost hope and I believe he is the only reason we survived," he said.

Craigg went on to serve Corps and country for 22 years and retired in 1963. He currently lives in Swansboro, N.C. and enjoys working on wood sculpting on his spare time.

"The best things in life are things you can't buy, like family. You only realize that when you think you may never see the people you love again," said Craigg.