WWII death march survivor recalls ordeal

Posted 8/11/09

Robinson, 90, is a veteran of the U.S. Army National Guard and a survivor of the Bataan Death March in the Philippines, followed by more than three years as a war prisoner of the Japanese.

Robinson will be on hand at the dedication of the Wyoming …

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WWII death march survivor recalls ordeal


Despite trauma and suffering, Leonard Robinson says he carries no grudgeThe American flag hanging in the window of Leonard Robinson's home in Casper wasn't put there just for looks. It's the symbol of the country Robinson loves deeply, and for which he suffered and nearly gave his life during World War II.

Robinson, 90, is a veteran of the U.S. Army National Guard and a survivor of the Bataan Death March in the Philippines, followed by more than three years as a war prisoner of the Japanese.

Robinson will be on hand at the dedication of the Wyoming World War II Veterans Memorial in Cody on Saturday.

He gave a condensed version of his story during a visit in his home on Saturday — one that leaves the listener with a greater understanding of why Robinson and others who served during World War II have been called “The Greatest Generation.”

Robinson was living in Denver when he was drafted into the New Mexico National Guard just before he turned 22 in 1941. After training in Texas, he was stationed as a machine gunner at the edge of Clark Field, about 60 miles north of Manila, on Sept. 26, 1941.

The Japanese bombed the Philippines on Dec. 8, 1941 — several hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, but across the international dateline. After a valiant fight, the U.S. Army pulled back to the Bataan Peninsula, where soldiers prepared to hold out until relief and supplies arrived.

But they never did. The soldiers' food rations were cut by half, and then to one-fourth, and soldiers, including Robinson, were sent to scout for food.

Still no help came. Robinson was stationed at Cab Caben, on the front lines, at the time. On April 5, 1942, his unit was the first to be captured, and the first that was marched from Bataan in what later would be known as the Bataan Death March.

On April 9, Maj. Gen. Edward P. King Jr. surrendered the troops to the Japanese.

Robinson didn't go into much detail about the march, which began April 13, except to say it was a terrible experience — one many soldiers didn't survive.

“About 1,000 soldiers died in the march,” he said.

The Americans weren't given any water during the days-long march in the tropical heat, and the only way Robinson could get any water came from sucking on moist pieces of sugar cane that Philippinos threw to him.

“They risked their lives to do that,” he added.

Some soldiers attempted to drink from stagnant, mosquito-infested ponds along the way. As punishment, many of them were bayonetted by the Japanese; others who got away with a quick drink became violently ill with dysentery later.

The soldiers were marched to Camp O'Donnell, where they endured abuse and neglect at the hands of the Japanese. About 1,700 soldiers died at Camp O'Donnell, he said.

Robinson said they were told later the Japanese had intended there be no American survivors from the Philippines.

Robinson remained at O'Donnell until being transferred to Camp Cabanatuan on June 1, 1943. There, Robinson, already weak from poor nutrition, was ravaged by disease.

During his time as a prisoner of war, Robinson suffered from a long list of diseases. They included — but were not limited to — diphtheria, malaria, pneumonia, yellow jaundice and dysentery.

His fever rose to 107.5 degrees while he was ill with malaria. When he had diphtheria, he experienced paralysis, was in a coma for 17 days and had a heart attack.

“Out of 150 of us who had diphtheria, five of us walked out,” he said.

Those infectious diseases were complicated by others caused by malnutrition, such as scurvy and beriberi.

“The Japanese fed us just barely enough for us to exist,” he said.

American soldiers were fed cane seed — which Robinson said looked and tasted like red buckshot — and barley.

They also were given soup made from radish tops, seaweed, potato vines or cucumber vines — “some type of green soup,” he said.

Robinson said he stood 6 feet, 2 inches tall and weighed 190 pounds when he went into the army. After his illness, “when I was strong enough, I weighed myself, and I weighed 102 pounds.”

At his worst, he probably weighed between 95 and 96 pounds, he said.

After his illness, Robinson was shipped to Japan, providing slave labor on the ship he knows as Hell Ship Tagamaru.

According to Japanese records, 850 soldiers were put on that ship, and 85 died during the records, he said.

Once in Japan, he was one of 50 men who worked on the docks at Niigati loading pig iron — iron in chunks, ready for making into steel.

“It was a tough job,” he said. “We had to average 15 ton per man per day, and we had to work until that got done.”

On about one day out of five, the men were assigned to load 90-kilo bags — 198 pounds — of soybeans instead of iron.

Robinson said he and the other men in his group, during their second year on the docks, convinced their Japanese guard that if they were allowed to eat some of the soybeans, they could finish their work faster, and his would be done sooner as well.

From that time on, on the days they were loading soybeans, each member of his group was allowed to eat a bowl of soybean soup. That helped Robinson build up to around 120 pounds.

The prisoners didn't know about the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the Americans until sometime later. Shortly after that, Americans started dropping food supplies for the prisoners until they could be liberated.

“I gained 24 pounds in 10 days after they started dropping food,” Robinson said.

They were rescued on Sept. 5, 1945, and flown out of Japan.

During a stop in Okinawa, General Joseph Stilwell addressed the soldiers, who saluted him.

He didn't salute back.

Robinson recalled what Stilwell told them: “Fellas, what you went through — you don't salute nobody. When someone wants you to salute, you tell them General Stilwell ordered you not to salute.”

“I took him up on the offer later, too,” Robinson said.

Six weeks after his rescue, Robinson's weight gain had increased to 47 pounds.

History and hindsight have provided additional perspective for Robinson. He said he believes that the atom bombs dropped on Japan saved 1 million American lives and 10 million Japanese — those who would have died fighting if American soldiers had landed on Japan.

But he's thankful that America only dropped two bombs. The third, he was told, would have been dropped on Niigati.

He also was thankful that the Japanese surrendered on Aug. 15, 1945. That was just two weeks before Aug. 29, which he heard later was the date the Japanese had set to kill all prisoners of war.

Despite his ordeal — one that many did not survive and left others physically and emotionally disabled — Robinson said he has suffered few ill effects since the war, and generally is in good health.

He said a doctor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland studied him and 40 other veterans who, despite going through horrendous experiences and extreme trauma during the war, showed no signs of post-traumatic stress, while so many others did.

The doctor concluded they all had three things in common: They had faith in God, they talked about what happened to them, and they didn't carry a grudge.

Robinson, who later became a pastor, said he survived those trials and ordeals by living by the 23rd Psalm — as he has done ever since.

“I had so many close calls, I just know the Lord is my shepherd,” he said.

World War II Veterans Memorial dedication slated

The public is invited to the dedication and unveiling of the Wyoming World War II Veterans Memorial at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 15, at the Wyoming Veterans Memorial Park in Cody.

The ceremony features remarks by Gov. Dave Freudenthal, Cody Mayor Nancy Tia Brown, Maj. Gen. Ed Wright and Rev. Leonard Robinson — a Bataan Death March survivor and veteran of World War II.

The memorial park is located on the north side of U.S. 14-16-20 east of Cody.

Funding for the memorial came from the Wyoming Legislature, Freudenthal and donations from the public.

Guests are encouraged to bring lawn chairs and should arrive early to view the fly-over of World War II-era airplanes. For more information, call 307-272-0098.