There are some people you meet and intuitively suspect their life touching yours has made an impact you will never forget. Who’s to say that getting to know someone posthumously doesn’t also carry that same quality of enrichment and sense of connection? Though she never met him in person, she spoke of him as though he was a long-term family member or dear friend. It was almost as though she knew his story like the back of her hand. The book chronicling his experience, military history, incredible sense of faith and resiliency resonated and intersected with all she held dear.
I was privileged yesterday to hear Liza Struck, Col USAF (retired) speak at the monument dedication honoring Cpl John Allen McCarty on Armed Forces Day. American Legion Post #352 in Blanco hosted the dedication. Liza was poised. She was articulate. She expressed a genuine sense of gratitude for John’s military service and for the privilege of getting to know John through “CABANATUAN Japanese Death Camp” the book that chronicles his experiences in World War II.
John McCarty fought on the Bataan Peninsula and was taken prisoner of war when it fell April 9, 1942. He survived the Death March and captivity in Camp O’Donnell and Cabanatuan.
Four months prior to the U.S. surrender of the Bataan Peninsula, American and Filipino troops were isolated and deprived of supplies. They were completely surrounded by the Japanese and cut off from that which was needed to sustain life. At one point John McCarty and another soldier became separated from their unit. Where do you even think to look to restore the connection? There was no means of communication. Yet miraculously, the two fought their way back and eventually reconnected to their unit.
Liza said of herself: “This is an incredible personal thing for me as well because my grandfather fought alongside the armed forces of the United States in the Far East”. He, too, was another marcher in the Bataan Death March.
After the April 9, 1942, U.S. surrender of the Bataan Peninsula on the main Philippine island of Luzon to the Japanese during World War II (1939-45), the approximately 75,000 Filipino and American troops on Bataan were forced to make an arduous 65-mile march to prison camps.
There are no words to accurately describe the atrocities or level of inhumanity the prisoners experienced and witnessed along the way. It really defies comprehension. The label “death march” provides an inkling of the outcome without a graphic description of the disregard for human life. Many of those who began the journey did not survive. Many fell out because they didn’t have the strength. They were injured, ill, malnourished, without food and water, without medical supplies, without shoes and simply too weak to go forward.
By the time the parade of soldiers marched the 65-miles to Camp O’Donnell, the number of those remaining had fallen from 75,000 to approximately 60,000.
During the four-month time frame prior to John arriving at Camp O’Donnell, he had gone from being a 175 lbs to about 130 lbs. Daily he witnessed unspeakable atrocities against friends, colleagues, and people he didn’t know all left on the side of the road.
Arriving at Camp O’Donnell, John was so ill that they put him in a ward. It was a hospital only in name because this hospital was for people who were not expected to survive. It was not a setting where they dispensed either medication or food because those assigned to the ward where John was directed were thought to be a lost cause. They wanted to save medications and food for folks who had a better chance for survival; people who they thought could be better to fight another day.
The sleeping arrangements were on the floor or under the floor. How do you describe efforts related to trying to keep cool? After living in these conditions, talking with many of the men, praying with them and becoming familiar with the day-by-day routine, John noticed that on a daily basis he would see bodies. In the morning they would tag the toes of the men who did not survive the evening and they would take them out to be buried.
In chronicling his story, John shared the experience of being awakened out of his sleep because his toe had been tagged. He was being drug out to be buried. Can you imagine the surprise of the medic when John asked:“ What are you doing? Don’t take me out there. It is a one ticket to the bone yard”. John was pretty passionate as he said: “Next time, how about you waking me up and asking me if I am dead? I’ll tell you”. Liza highlighted the fact that even in the midst of all he had been though, John never forfeited the ability to keep his sense of humor.
Liza said of John: “That is one of the things about the story of his life that was amazing. In the worst of conditions John was able to keep his sense of humor. He was a source of strength to those around him”.
Following that experience, it became a daily ritual with the doctors. During the mornings when they were making their rounds, they’d wake John up and ask, “Are you dead yet?” John would reply, “Not quite yet.” The doctor would then respond: “Okay I will talk to you tomorrow” and then he’d move on.
At some point in the process, John decided he had the will to live. The medics recognized that too. They tried to give him a little food even though they weren’t supposed to dispense food. It was not their standard practice. Eventually, John decided, “I’m not going to stay here any longer.” To the amazement of his friends, he crawled outside. Obviously he was a sight for sore eyes because many thought he was dead. They thought he had not made it through the march because someone thought they saw him fall out beside the road.
Liza shared that: “Slowly and surely, John started to gain some weight. At that point he was down to about 75 lbs. As the spring turned to summer, John heard rumors that a new prison camp was opening up. In order to get out of the ‘death camp’, the prisoner had to be able to walk the 8 hours march to get to the train station. John was determined that he was getting out of the death camp”.
On 6 June 1942, the American prisoners at Camp O’Donnell were evacuated in small groups to another camp at Cabanatuan, approximately 8 kilometers west of the town by the same name. Only a few small medical and civilian units were left at Camp O’Donnell. [plus many men too sick to move].
John was determined to walk out on his own and he did. He credited God with giving him the physical strength to persevere. Unfortunately, the “grass isn’t always greener” on the other side of the fence. Cabanatuan was even more brutal that Camp O’Donnell. By the time John got there he was pretty weak. So once again, they put him in a ward designated for those thought destined not to survive. There was the St. Peter’s Ward for those at death’s door and there was Zero Ward for those whose next step would be the graveyard.
Having been moved to Zero Ward, John decided once again that this is not how his life was going to end. He had a dream that General McArthur was going to come back. And of course, when he shared that dream with others, they laughed at him. When John came to the realization that folks on the right of him and folks on the left of him were dying, he decided to exit. He crawled out once again.
Liza said: “According to John, people thought he was crazy and he would joke about it. Yet everywhere he went other prisoners were drawn to him. They would share what they could of their food and medicine so he could regain his strength. By the time he left Zero Ward, the Japanese assigned him to work in the kitchen. He didn’t have the strength to work in the field. Subsequently, John slowly regained his strength. He slowly regained some of his weight and he was optimistic that things were going to work out. His faith saw him through.”
By the time in 1945 when the 6th Ranger Battalion came to liberate John’s camp only 500 people were left. Following his return to the U.S., John opted not to talk about his experience, but he did chronicle his memories and they found their way into “Cabanatuan Japanese Death Camp”.
The large monument dedicated in John’s honor shares his story:
JOHN ALLEN McCARTY
WORLD WAR II
APR 23 1915 JUNE 15 2003
S BATAAN DEATH MARCH]
U CAMP O’DONNELL P.O.W. CAMP
R CABANATUAN – SECRET JAPANESE
V DEATH CAMP
I THIRTY THREE MOS. IN CAPTIVITY
V RESCUED BY ARMY RANGERS JAN. 30, 1945
0 BRONZE STAR MEDAL
R A MEMBER OF THE GREATEST GENERATION
All My Best!