On April 9, 1942, during World War II, 12,000 U.S. and 66,000 Filipino soldiers surrendered to the Japanese and were forced to march 65 miles to a prisoners-of-war camp up the peninsula of Bataan, the Philippines. Thousands of stragglers were executed or starved along the way during the Bataan Death March.
Yet some survived, only to face years as POWs. One of the survivors is John Mims of Aberdeen, N.C. He was the guest speaker Monday at the Friendly City Civitan Club’s annual luncheon honoring war veterans. Mims fought in the Philippines with 31st Infantry Regiment of the 1st Battalion. “Even though a lot of my buddies didn’t come back, we fought almost like guys in the Alamo, if you get my meaning. We ran out of food and ammunition,” Mims told a roomful of Durham veterans, most of whom served in World War II.
“The Bataan Death March was the most terrible thing we ever heard of in our life,” Mims said. “They were killing our people so fast we couldn’t even keep up with what was going on.” When they started to march, he said, they were told to march four abreast so if something happened to one, the other three would know about it. There was no food or water. Those who stopped were killed. A Japanese officer dropped a bottle of Coca-cola, and when Mims picked it up and handed it to him, he didn’t bow.
“He busted my teeth out – every one of them,” Mims said.
Mims learned to speak Japanese, something that would later save his life and the lives of many others. In August 1945 while still in a POW camp, Mims heard a guard say that the war ended with unconditioned surrender. The Japanese had planned to blow the POWs up in a mine and make it look like an accident, he said. Instead, the Americans took the camp over. They found out later that Japanese didn’t give them food because they didn’t have any. When U.S. troops took over the town, they found just women and children.
“We’d been out in the village trying to find food to share with the women and children so they wouldn’t suffer so much,” he said. The first food they received was sugar and cream, which was too rich for the POWs, he said. Mims looked out over the room of elderly WWII veterans Monday and said, “I want to tell all of you in here: We love you and you can’t do nothing about it.”
Mims, who is Native American, grew up in Georgia and Florida. He travels with his wife, Nena, speaking often about his experiences during the war. He wears a jacket that tells people to ask him about the Bataan Death March. A magnet on the side of his car says “Remember World War II.” In two weeks, he’ll go to Japan at the Japanese government’s expense and see one of the places he was a POW.
Mims credits God with his survival.
“A lot of times they tried to beat me to death and asked why I survived. I said God loved me,” Mims said.