NORTH TEXAS (CBS 11 NEWS) – Between 60- and 80,000 Filipino and American soldiers surrendered to Japanese troops in the Philippines in 1942.
They began a forced, 65-mile march that would become one of the most infamous atrocities of the war — the Bataan Death March. Charles Dragich was there, but survived.
“It was unimaginable what happened,” said Dragich, who was in the U.S. Air Force at the time. “We marched until about seven or eight at night. And then in the morning at about eight or nine we’d take off again. It took me eight days to get to my prison camp.”
Eight days of endless suffering and death. Men fell to exhaustion and thirst and Japanese bayonets and bullets.
“When you fell out you were dead, because they had four guys with bayonets,” Dragich said. “The second or third day I sort of fell out with another guy. The guy next to me got stabbed. [He was] a young guy about 18 years old — they killed him. I was next. So, I got up and dashed into the crowd again.”
Dragich recalled there was little food and water. “They would come by with a truck with rice balls in it if you could catch them. They would throw them at you — but no water. Guys would push dead guys aside to drink water.”
The goal of the tormentors seemed clear. “They wanted to kill us really. That was one way to get rid of us. And the side of the road was full of dead. It was sad to see my buddies laying there,” Dragich said somberly.
No matter the suffering or horrors the marching did not stop. “Lots of time a guy would die right in front of us and we’d step on him,” Dragich said. “You just kept going.”
The suffering continued in POW camps for the remainder of the war. Dragich would wear the same, hot weather uniform he surrendered in despite being transferred to a cold Manchurian POW camp.
“I had a baseball hat, a shirt, a pair of pants and shoes,” Dragich said. “That’s all I had to wear for the next two years, two and a half years. And I didn’t get a bath for 14 months. Water was very, very precious to us.”
Dragich survived malaria, forced labor and even allied bombings of his camp.
And yet, after the war, Dragich re-enlisted and served for another 13 years. He finally retired as a Chief Master Sergeant in the USAF.
“I would do my share,” Dragich said firmly. “You’re talking to a guy who really, really loved his country and is patriotic. I’d do anything for this beautiful country!”
Dragich is 97 years old. He was finally honored with a Bronze Star and Purple Heart in 2008.
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