Joe Lajzer is far into a long life and his memory isn’t what it was, but folks who know him might think he’d never forget the Bataan Death March or life as a POW.
There are gaps in his recollections and long pauses as Lajzer ponders his past, but old visions come back to mind with some gentle nudging. “Dad, did you have any pets in the prison camp?” his daughter, Katie Mason, asked while talking of the march that began 70 years ago today. “I had a pet at the prison camp,” he replied, thinking of a puppy that slept next to his head, “but they ate him.”
At 93, Lajzer speaks softly and isn’t easy to understand, but his story is still being told. Mason, 62, of Canyon Lake and others in his clan continue to share his tale. A small cadre of Americans determined to preserve the history of troops who survived the death march and brutal Japanese POW camps is doing the same thing. They’re telling the stories because most of America’s World War II veterans are dead. The VA projects that 1.5 million veterans out of 16.1 million who served will be alive in September.
Caroline Burkhart, vice president of the Descendants Group of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor, said 200 or so survivors of those battles might be alive. “Most of them spent 3½ years in Japanese POW camps under the worst conditions,” said Burkhart, 64, of Baltimore, Md. They were starved and brutalized after Bataan fell, and an estimated 75,000 or more American and Filipino troops marched 55 miles. It was a savage journey, with thousands dying or fleeing into the jungle. Lajzer lagged after hearing that weak troops would ride in a truck, but ran for his life as a soldier charged him with a bayonet.
“If a Filipino or somebody tried to slip some water to one of the POWs, the Japanese would either bayonet them or just with their swords cut off their heads, behead them, or shoot them,” said Joe Alexander, a San Antonio native who lied about his age to join the Army. He was a POW at 15.
Abel Ortega was a private at the time of his capture. He died two days after his 90th birthday in August 2009, but he never forgot the sting of defeat and the horrors that shadowed captivity. His son heard the stories as a child but only later realized their importance.
“You just kind of took that for granted, that you knew in your mind your dad was a war hero, he was a POW, he was on the Bataan Death March,” said Abel Ortega Jr., a San Antonio insurance claims adjuster. “But it probably didn’t sink in until, I guess, I was in my early 20s and I was reading a book by another POW,” he continued. “It hit me at that point and I couldn’t wait to get home that afternoon and run in and give Dad a hug and a kiss, and then tell him how much I loved him and respected him, and how much he was my hero.”
The Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor was started by the survivors, but their 2009 convention in San Antonio was the last the POWs put on. Since then, the descendants group has taken over that task and also educates students. The story, however, isn’t known to everyone. A ninth-grader in Idaho wrote Lajzer, “I’d never heard of it before. It’s tragic that we, as people, would allow that to be forgotten so quickly.”
“I have no problem telling people about the Bataan Death March and I am really shocked at how many people do not know what I’m talking about,” Mason said after sharing the letter…