Robert Vogler Jr., Bataan Death March survivor who made peace with the Japanese, dies at 97
By JOHN WILKENS | The San Diego Union-Tribune (Tribune News Service) | Published: June 8, 2018
Robert Vogler Jr. liked to eat. Nobody blamed him.
Mr. Vogler had survived the Bataan Death March, one of World War II’s signature horrors, and spent more than three years in Japanese prison camps. When the war ended in 1945 and he was freed, his weight had dropped from 210 pounds to 80.
So he was hungry. And not just for food.
Mr. Vogler, who died June 1 at age 97 at his home in Rancho Bernardo, Calif. was also hungry for peace. He had nightmares about his war experiences, and while he never wanted to forget what happened, he hoped to learn how to forgive.
He and his wife invited a Japanese girl into their home for several weeks as a foreign-exchange student. He tracked down a Japanese prison guard he credited with saving his life, and eventually traveled to Japan to visit the man’s family. He returned to the lead mine where he’d been forced to work during the war.
“I feel a lot better now,” he told the Union-Tribune in June 1997, shortly after returning from Japan. “I think I left a little of the garbage back there.”
His family noticed a change. “I used to tease him,” said his wife, Berni. “I told him: ‘Your stone heart has been softened.’”
Mr. Vogler was born May 1, 1921, in Seattle. His father, Robert Sr., worked for the electric company, and his mother, Faith, was a homemaker. At age 19, he enlisted in what was known as the Army Air Corps (later the Air Force) and was sent to the Philippines, where he worked on airplanes as an instrument specialist.
After Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, they invaded the Philippines. Allied forces — about 10,000 Americans and 60,000 Filipinos — retreated to the Bataan Peninsula and fought for more than three months before they ran out of food and ammunition and were ordered by their commander to surrender.
The captives were forced to march in 100-degree heat for about a week with almost no water or food. Those who stopped walking or complained were stabbed with bayonets, shot or beheaded. By the time the march ended some 70 miles later at a prison camp, thousands had died.
Mr. Vogler was then packed with other prisoners into the hold of a “hell ship” and sent to Manchuria, where they were put to work in a Mitsubishi factory making parts for the Japanese war machine. Covertly, he and the others built defects into the parts.
When the Japanese figured out the sabotage, they scattered the captives to other camps. Mr. Vogler wound up at a lead mine near Kamioka, a mountain village. There, he befriended a guard, Masao Okada, who would occasionally slip him extra food and cigarettes and intervene to shorten beatings.
After the war, Mr. Vogler stayed in the Air Force as a supply sergeant and served at bases in the United States and abroad for 20 years. He then moved to San Diego and worked at General Dynamics for about 15 years.
In retirement, he enjoyed tinkering with anything electrical, gardening, square-dancing, reading Westerns — and eating. “He’d been nearly starved to death so he made up for it,” said Julie Sutton, his stepdaughter.
At night, in bed, just before he turned off the lights, he would often ask his wife, “What are we having for dinner tomorrow?”
Through letters, Mr. Vogler stayed in touch with Okada. A couple of times he tried to go visit him in Japan, but found it too hard emotionally. By the time he was finally ready, the guard had died.
He went anyway, with his wife, in May 1997. They met government officials and visited a school, where Mr. Vogler read a short speech he had prepared:
“I come to Kamioka a free man — as one who came to remember that other man who showed me that humanity can still exist despite opposing sides and different cultures. He recognized that I, too, was an individual of worth and not some faceless vile creature. He treated me with a degree of respect that I have never forgotten.”
The Voglers traveled to Okada’s home and met his widow and three sons. Mr. Vogler was given a gift: One of the late guard’s kimonos. He put it on, went over to a shrine set up near the living room, and bowed.
“That was a moment,” he told the Union-Tribune later. “I let them know that when I am gone, the robe will return to the family.”
His wife said she will keep that promise.
Among his other survivors are two stepchildren, Kyle Andrews (Pam) of Englewood, Fla., and Julie Sutton (Jim) of Lakeside; seven grandchildren; and 14 great-grandchildren.
Services are scheduled for June 20 at 11 a.m. at Miramar National Cemetery.
©2018 The San Diego Union-Tribune
Visit The San Diego Union-Tribune at www.sandiegouniontribune.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.