Calif. survivor of Bataan Death March tells what it was like
By DIANA SHOLLEY | Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, Ontario, Calif. | Published: November 11, 2013
RANCHO CUCAMONGA — Raymond Lujan Vasquez rarely sleeps through the night.
Sights and sounds of the murders, rapes, torture and general barbarism he witnessed during his Army tour in World War II keep the 87-year-old Rancho Cucamonga resident awake and tormented.
Vasquez, 16 at the time, along with more than 75,000 starving, sick and dehydrated prisoners of war, started out on the 65-mile trek to a prison camp in Tarlac Province, Philippines, that would come to be known as the Bataan Death March.
Vasquez and four of his friends had joined the Army less than a year earlier, all forging their parents’ signatures, allowing the youngsters to enlist.
“We didn’t want to stay home,” said Vasquez, who was awarded many medals including three Purple Hearts and the Silver Star. “We went down to the recruiter’s office and told them we wanted to join, but the Army recruiter said, ‘No.’ He told us, ‘You kids go home.’ But we didn’t want to go home. Everybody else had gone to war. We wanted to go to.”
The five friends, a mix of 15 and 16-year-old boys from the Guasti area of Ontario, were accepted into the Army and sent to Fort Riley, Kan., to be trained as calvary horsemen. On March 1, 1942, they graduated as part of the First Calvary, but were transitioned into foot soldiers and boarded a Navy ship headed for the Philippines to join the South Pacific campaign.
“We were sent to Palua to help the 81st Division,” said Vasquez, who still has the two swords given to him upon his calvary graduation. “The 81st was trying to take over an air strip that the Japanese had control over and they needed our help. They had no supplies or combat support.”
Vasquez, who was a private, was wounded during combat in Palau, for which he received his first Purple Heart.
“While on the way to help the 81st a sniper shot me and blew off the tip of my finger,” Vasquez said, holding up the disfigured index finger on his right hand. “The bullet then hit the stock of my rifle and broke it off. It was stopped by my cigarette lighter — I was lucky.”
Vasquez said his finger still hurts.
“It’s always cold,” he said. “I’m always soaking it in hot water to keep it warm.”
About two weeks later, Vasquez was back aboard his ship participating in combat missions in Luzon and Puerto Princesa before making that fateful stop in Bataan.
“We were ready to unload. We had our rifles, but had no ammo,” he said. “The CO said, ‘See that jungle? As soon as you hit land, run for it.’ I asked him, ‘Sir, where’s our ammo?’ and he said to me, ‘We don’t have any for you guys.’ And I said, ‘What are we supposed to do?’ and he said to me, ‘You’ll have to survive, survive any way you can.’ We landed and took off running into the jungle.”
With no food, no ammo and little water, American soldiers hung on as long as they could. When they realized surrender was imminent, many discarded and hid their rifles to keep them from the Japanese.
According to www.army.com, The Battle of Bataan ended on April 9, 1942, when Gen. Edward P. King surrendered to Japanese Gen. Masaharu Homma. The Japanese rounded up the American and Filipino soldiers and gathered them into groups of 100.
The Japanese assigned four guards to each group. They lined the men up four abreast, and they began marching them north. Japanese guards shot or bayoneted any man who fell, attempted to escape or stopped to quench his thirst at a roadside spigot or puddle. The guards chased off, bayoneted or shot any Filipino civilian who tried to give water or bits of food to the passing lines of prisoners.
At various points along the route of the march they singled out prisoners, sometimes in groups, tied them to trees or fences, and shot them to death as examples to the others. The Japanese guards killed between 7,000 and 10,000 men on the death march — they kept no records and no one knows the exact number.
“The Imperial Soldiers were very mean during the war,” said Vasquez, who then became quiet for a few minutes. “It was the first time I’d ever seen a man get his head cut off. The Japanese pulled this guy out into the open, made him kneel down and cut his head right off. His head went one way and his body went the other. I was so scared. I was only 16. From that day on, I referred to that time as my hitch in hell.”
The soldiers marched day and night with very little, if any, food or water.
“If we got food, it was a small bowl of rice, and if that rice was cooked, we were really lucky,” Vasquez said. “Some of us had canteens. The Japanese took them and gave our water to their horses. Some of us would hide our water. If I had gotten caught I would not be here. If you had water and they searched you and found it, God pity you.”
Vasquez remembered several kind Filipino women who gave the passing prisoners water.
“They were raped,” Vasquez said, his voice cracking. “We could hear their screams. ... The atrocities they did to the soldiers and those people were just awful and we couldn’t say anything. We didn’t dare ask for water. You’d get a bayonet in your back. You just had to keep going. No matter what we had to keep going.”
There were also no bathroom breaks.
“If we had to go to the restroom we had to go in our pants,” he said. “It was humiliating. By the time we got to the camp my pants were rotten.”
Vasquez saw soldiers try to run, knowing escape was impossible.
“They would get a bayonet in the back. They just thought that death was better then the hell we were living,” he said. “Death was everywhere. People were dying every day, men women and children.”
The march ended at Camp O’Donnell, a former Philippine Army camp, with accommodations for 10,000. According to www.army.com, the Japanese crammed 60,000 survivors of the death march into the camp. There was little running water, sparse food, no medical care, and only slit trenches along the sides of the camp for sanitation.
The heat was intolerable. Flies rose out of the latrines and covered the prisoners’ food, and malaria, dysentery, beriberi and a host of other diseases swept through the men. They began to die at the rate of 400 per day.
The American prisoners were eventually moved to Cabanatuan, another POW camp.
“When we got there some of the men only weighed 50 or 60 pounds, just skin and bones. Many had had diarrhea for three or four weeks,” Vasquez said. “We had to dig our own latrine, which was just an open trench. It was hard to squat down to do your business. I saw one guy fall in, into all that crap, and he was too weak to pull himself out. Then here came all these Japanese and they started filling up the hole. They buried him alive. That’s the kind of stuff I just can’t get out of my mind.”
On Jan. 30, 1945, Army Rangers liberated more than 500 from the POW camp.
“By the time the Rangers got there I was in a daze when they came. I didn’t know whether I was coming or going,” Vasquez said. “Sometimes I still feel that way to this day. I don’t know how I survived.”
No one could blame Vasquez, or anyone who endured such trauma, to end their service, accept an honorable discharge and go home.
But not Vasquez. After several weeks’ recuperation in a field MASH hospital he wanted back in.
He was assigned to the 7th Battalion and sent to Leyte to aid the 24th embroiled in a bitter campaign. It was here Vasquez earned one of the military’s highest honors.
“There was two machine gun sites firing at us and they needed a volunteer to take them out, “ he said. “I was crazy. I volunteered. When the shooting would start, I would move, crawling on my belly through shallow water little by little. When I got close I threw two hand grenades. It got quiet and I threw another, then went to look. All four Japanese were dead.”
Then Vasquez changed direction and headed toward the other machine gun nest.
“I could feel bullets flying over the top of me,” he said. “But I made it to where I needed to be, saw my chance and took it.”
Vasquez took out both nests, killing seven Japan soldiers, and was awarded the Silver Star, which according to usmilitary.about.com is considered the third highest decoration for bravery issued by the U.S. armed forces and given to service personnel who display exceptional valor while engaged in military combat operations against an enemy force.
During combat in Leyte, Vasquez was hit by shrapnel from a grenade in his buttocks, leg, knee and shin, for which he received his second Purple Heart.
After recuperation, Vasquez again asked to return to combat.
His third Purple Heart was earned in Luzon.
“We heard an airplane and someone yelled ‘foxhole’ and I dove for one,” he said. “Then I felt this ‘bam, bam, bam’ on my head. Four shells hit my helmet and pushed the liner down around my head. I still have the four dents in my head. The impact knocked me out completely.”
While recuperating, military officials wanted to send Vasquez stateside.
“They said, ‘You’re going home,’ and I said, ‘No, I’m not.’ I don’t know why, but I wanted to stay,” he said. “The CO said the Air Corps was looking for fliers and asked me if I knew how to fly. I did.”
Vasquez, who had learned to fly small planes at Ontario Airport, was sent to be part of the Air Corps’ umbrella squadron, planes used to distract the enemy so the bombers could accomplish their missions.
He left his military service as a staff sergeant.
“I was sent home on a boat and arrived in San Francisco to a lot of cheering,” he said. “You know, out of the five of us who enlisted together only two of us came home.”
Vasquez married his wife Adella in 1953. The couple have four children, eight grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren.
For more than 60 years, Vasquez stayed quiet, holding the emotional hurt inside while dealing with such wartime pain as buzzing in his head, throbbing in and around his wound sites, night terrors and what today is called post-traumatic stress disorder.
“For many years, I didn’t speak about what happened over there, about the things I saw, about the things I heard,” he said. “They didn’t want us to talk about it — what we did or what we saw.
“They had us sign papers that we wouldn’t, and I didn’t, but those memories and all those people I saw tortured and killed, I’ve never forgotten them. Never.”