- Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, commander of the O'Donnell Prisoner of War Camp in the Philippine Islands
Those who look back on the Pacific Theater of World War II from the privileged position of historical observers find it hard to imagine the terror, degradation and inhumane treatment of prisoners of war by renegade units of Imperial Japan's armed forces. Torture, beheadings, bayoneting, shooting and starvation were common atrocities.
But Antioch resident Vincent Silva, who survived the Bataan Death March, imagines it all too well.
Approximately one in 25 American prisoners of war died in European Theater captivity. In the Pacific Theater, that number is one in three - one in two in Silva's outfit, the 515th Coast Artillery, Anti-aircraft, which helped defend the Philippines from Japanese air attack.
Silva grew up in New Mexico, where his father worked in the coal mines and owned a small business that made wine and medicine from grapes imported from California. When he turned 18, Silva went to work in the mines with his father, and after a few months bought bought a 1934 V-8 Ford.
On Thanksgiving Day in 1937, Silva saw his future wife, Rose Mares, in a nearby town. "She was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen," Silva said. "I immediately knew that she was the girl I was going to marry."
Silva and Rose were married on Thanksgiving Day, 1939, and their first child, Linda, was born Oct. 7, 1940. Rose soon persuaded Vincent to leave the mines, and he entered the world of politics - but lost his job when an election ushered in the opposite party.
Out of work and against Rose's wishes, Vincent enlisted in the New Mexico National Guard. After six months of intensive anti-aircraft training at Fort Bliss with the 200th Coast Artillery (AA), Silva was transferred to Fort Mason in San Francisco and then to the Philippines.
Before leaving Texas, Rose kissed Vincent goodbye and gave him her rosary. Neither could have imagined the hardships that lay before them.
Gen. Douglas McArthur, his staff and many of the commanders stationed in the Philippines were evacuated to Australia, leaving the defense of the islands to troops under Maj. Gen. Edward P. King and Gen. Jonathan Wainwright. Japanese battle plans called for the swift capture of the Philippines and following that, the conquest of Australia. Due to the heroic resistance mounted by Philippine and U.S. forces, Japanese landings on the continent of Australia never occurred.
Japanese forces finally overwhelmed the valiant efforts of island defenders. On April 10, 1942, King surrendered 70,000 American and Philippine troops at Bataan to Gen. Masahuru Homma. Wainwright would continue the defense of Corregidor until he was forced to surrender on May 6, 1942 after running out of ammunition and food.
By that time, Silva and his fellow prisoners had already endured the Bataan Death March. At 89 years of age, Silva's memory of the Death March is still vivid.
"After our capture we were all searched, and those with Japanese money or tokens were beheaded, stabbed with bayonets or shot to death," Silva recalled.
He was allowed to keep the rosary given to him by his wife, and began the Death March in a group of several hundred men.
"We walked until dark and then we were packed into a barbed wire enclosure with no sanitary facilities and no room to move," said Silva. "The next day began in the stench and filth of that enclosure. We were all hungry, thirsty and many were sick. Any arguing or pushing in line would get a beating. Those who couldn't go on died where they fell, were shot by guards or stabbed with bayonets and left to die."
Silva marked his 24th birthday during the third day of the march and was thankful to still be alive.
While the Bataan Death March covered only 70 miles, the lack of clean water and food combined with the intense heat and humidity led to the death of some 5,000 men along the way.
"The guards lined us up in columns at daylight, then had us stand at attention until the sun was high above. Then they started us off double-time and, when the column got stretched out, they brought us back together and had us stand in the hot sun again. This was our routine during most of the Death March. When sick and exhausted men fell out of line, no one was allowed to help. Their bodies lay dead along the road, flattened by Japanese trucks."
As bad as the Death March was, Silva and the other march survivors would be subjected to even worse conditions when they arrived at Camp McDonnell. With very little food and no medical supplies, men continued to die by the hundreds. Silva buried two of his cousins and one cousin of his wife, Rose, while at Camp McDonnell.
After the loss of 2,000 American soldiers, the remaining troops were ordered to break camp and move to Camp Cabanatuan. During the train trip to their new camp, the men were packed so tightly into boxcars that those who died remained standing because they had no place to fall.
Silva credits a relative with saving his life while at Cabanatuan. His cousin, Valentin Shipley, a medical corpsman with a supply of quinine, treated him for beriberi and malaria.
After being selected for a maintenance work detail of 150 men at Clark Field, Silva was loaded on the Noto Maru, a ship destined for Japan. On the way to the pier, Silva's group passed Philippine citizens lined up on the street. They threw rice balls and coconut candy to the Americans, holding up their fingers in a "V" for victory sign. Had they been seen by Japanese guards, they might have been beaten or killed.
"I have great respect for the Filipino people and what they endured during the occupation by the Japanese," Silva said.
The Noto Maru was called a "hell ship." Silva and over 1,100 men were packed like sardines in the ship's hold on Aug. 13, 1944. The daily meal consisted of one rice ball and a half-cup of water. After a stop in Formosa, the ship landed in Moji, Japan on Sept. 6, 1944. Despite the crowded and unsanitary conditions, only four men were lost during the trip to Japan.
At Moji, conditions began to improve. Silva and the others were stripped and issued clean Japanese uniforms, the first clean clothes the men had seen since their capture 2½ years earlier. They were also given a halfway decent meal and ordered to board a train destined for the northern town of Nomachi.
At several stops along the way, large numbers of men were removed and dispatched to various factories and military installations. At Nomachi, Silva was introduced to Japanese bathing, the act of wetting down, lathering up and rinsing off before entering a large, heated community pool.
"Sitting in the hot water before going to bed was very relaxing," he said.
After being given a tour of the Nomachi prison camp by the guards, Silva's group was addressed by the camp commander, a Japanese officer who had lost an arm fighting in China. He told the men that stories of atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers on
Bataan were "Lies, lies, lies! The Japanese soldier is honorable."
He went on to say that the prisoners would be treated well as long as they didn't try to escape. The next day would see the men loaded onto a ferry and transported to the town of Takaoka, where they shoveled coal into the furnaces of a manganese foundry 12 hours a day for the remainder of the war.
During the last few months before the war's end, the prison guards became irritable as Allied successes pushed Japanese armed forces back toward their homeland. "Many of us were beaten for little or no reason," Silva said.
The Japanese plan for defense of their country included sending all prisoners, women
and children to inland locations where they would be executed, said Silva. All able-bodied men were ordered to defend the homeland and Emperor Hirohito to the last man.
"The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by atomic bombs prevented Japan's Imperial armed forces from executing this plan, saving the Japanese population, the prisoners and countless lives of Allied fighting men," said Silva.
The Japanese surrendered on Aug. 9, 1945. On the morning of Aug. 15, the Japanese guards at camp Nomachi stacked their rifles and left. The one-armed camp commander sadly announced, "Sanso awari, shigato nai": "The war is ended; there will be no more work."
"We were laughing and crying at the same time," said Silva. "I don't think there was one of us who didn't believe we would win the war. Our only question was: Would we live long enough to see the end?"
A Red Cross representative came to the camp a few days later and the Navy started dropping food and medical supplies to the starved prisoners. They also dropped toothbrushes, magazines, razors, shaving cream - all of the amenities the men had been deprived of during their long years of captivity.
The camp commander was ordered to provide a train that would take the men to Tokyo, where Allied ships were harbored. After two days of travel, the train entered what was left of Tokyo.
"The once grand buildings were gone," said Silva. "In their place I saw nothing but wasteland … miles and miles of blackened ruin. The people I saw walking on what was left of the streets of Tokyo had the appearance of lost souls … walking with no place to go."
The U.S. Navy greeted the men at Tokyo Bay. They went aboard a hospital ship, each man saluting the flag with tears in his eyes. They were deloused, given clean American uniforms and all they could eat. Silva weighed just 90 pounds when he left captivity, but in 45 days the Navy fattened him up. He weighed 165 pounds by the time he met his loved ones in San Francisco.
In the meantime, on the way home, the hospital ship docked in Manila and Silva was free to travel the islands with his comrades. They visited the camps and internment areas where they had been held prisoner, recalling the horrors of captivity.
The hospital Ship USS Mercy sailed into San Francisco Bay on Oct. 26, 1945, and Silva returned home with great pride, knowing he had fought for his country, endured the worst the enemy had to offer and shared survival with half of the 1,800 men who originally made up his anti-aircraft regiment.
Silva returned to his daughter Linda and to Rose, who lived in Concord while working as a welder in the shipyards of Point Richmond. After he was discharged from the Army on April 4, 1946, he worked for a time in an oil refinery but left to take a job in the construction industry, where he would make his career.
But memories of the atrocities he suffered came back to haunt him at night. He became involved with the American Ex-Prisoners of War organization, and the camaraderie with others who had similar experiences helped alleviate the nightmares. "We listened to each other, we sympathized and we understood," Silva said.
On Thanksgiving Day in 2005, the Silvas celebrated 66 years of marriage. They have five children, seven grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. Rose was diagnosed with cancer early in this decade, and the Silvas moved to an apartment in Antioch's Quail Lodge retirement home, where Vincent lives today.
Rose passed away on Dec. 3, 2005. "I'm grateful for all the years and the large loving family that Rose and I had together," he said.
He has been declared legally blind, but is in reasonably good health for a man of 89 years who went through what he suffered during the war. His mind is still sharp and he is looking forward to celebrating his 90th birthday next April.
- Penny Silva-Cannon contributed large segments of this article and is writing a book about her father.