An effort to honor American POWs leaves far too many behind

Today, on National Prisoner of War/MIA Appreciation Day, we pause to remember the suffering of all American prisoners of war.

The Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor Gold Medal Act (S. 1079), currently pending in Congress, seeks to award Congressional Gold Medals to some of those prisoners of war who fought the Japanese in the first months of World War II. Thank you to Senator Martin Heinrich (DN.M.) for championing the bill and working to honor these men and women whose stories and sacrifices must not be forgotten.

But the law in its current form is insufficient.

As written, it would only honor those who served on Bataan and Corregidor in the Philippines. This leaves out the Americans who also tried hopelessly for resupply and obsolete weapons to prevent Japan’s lightning advance through Southeast Asia from August 8, 1941 to June 10, 1942 – at Midway, Wake Island , Guam, Java, all the Philippine Islands, the Aleutians and at sea.

It was the Americans who, according to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in August 1943, when the outcome of World War II was still uncertain, “will be remembered as long as men continue to respect bravery, devotion and determination “. This is always true.

The Philippines is often at the heart of the most common stories of American POW suffering and survival, in part because it was where so many endured the infamous Bataan Death March. The Americans held there for months in 1942 on the Bataan Peninsula in Luzon and finally on the tiny fortress islands of Manila Bay, the best known being Corregidor, until they could no longer hold off the Japanese in supply. .

But stories of survival and subsequent Japanese brutality are no less notable in other parts of the Philippines or the Pacific theater.

On December 10, 1941, the few hundred Navy and Navy sailors left to defend Guam were overrun by the Japanese within days. Guam was the first American territory to be occupied by the Japanese during the war. The survivors of the battle will suffer almost the entire war as prisoners of the enemy.

On Wake Island, more than 400 Marines, 1,200 unarmed civilians and 45 Chamorro Pan Am airline employees heroically held off a Japanese armada for nearly two unprecedented weeks, from Dec. 8 to Dec. 23, 1941. Airman from the Marine Corps Maj. Henry T. Elrod —a.k.a Hammerin’ Hank – was the first American pilot to sink a warship from a fighter plane. Elrod was killed on the last day of the battle and was the first airman to receive the Medal of Honor in World War II.

Hundreds of miles south of the Indonesian island of Java, on March 1, 1942, the USS EdsallThe captain of the, Lt. Joshua Nix of Memphis, Tennessee, laid down smoke screens and followed a series of evasive maneuvers that so frustrated four Japanese warships that air support had to be called in to sink her . It took two hours of fierce fighting to end the Edsall. A small number of the 187 men on board were rescued. Their decapitated bodies were discovered in a mass grave in Celebes after the war.

Seventy-seven years ago this month, American rescue teams freed American and Allied prisoners of war scattered in the 775 Japanese POW camps across the Pacific. In Japan, one of them was Hirohata Camp 12-B, south of Osaka. Hirohata was home to 300 Americans, an Australian and an Englishman. The men were survivors from Guam, Wake Island, all over the Philippines, USS Yorktown and USS Penguin.

When news reached the camp in late August that the war was over, Marine Gunner Earl B. Ercanbrack herded the Americans into the camp yard, where for the previous two years they had counted in Japanese every morning before to leave for a grueling slave. work in a Nippon Steel factory and on its wharf. Civilian overseers treated them like criminals and subjected them to cruel and capricious mockery and punishment.

According to what Ercanbrack later told his hometown newspaper, The monitor in McAllen, Texas, he ordered camp guards to remove the Japanese flag from the 75-foot flagpole in the yard. It was replaced by a hastily sewn American flag using a white parachute, a red curtain and two blue Japanese shirts.

As the makeshift American flag rose above the camp, someone began to sing “God Bless America.” Others joined in, until 300 American POWs—freed at last—crescendoed in unison with the song’s final line: “God bless America, my home sweet home.”

Think of those 300 men – tortured, starved and condemned to work as slaves for years – coming together proudly to sing “God Bless America”. Now imagine awarding Congressional Gold Medals only to those 300 who served in Bataan and Corregidor.

It would be wise for Congress to follow the Hirohata prisoners’ example of unity and revise the bill to award a Congressional Gold Medal to all Americans who served in those desperate early battles of World War II. in the Pacific.

Ercanbrack, who fought and was captured on Guam and organized the raising of the American flag in Camp Hirohata, would not be eligible for the gold medal currently under consideration. It’s just not good enough.

Patrick Regan and Mindy Kotler Smith are members of the American Defenders of Bataan and the Corregidor Memorial Society and are descendants of men who fought in the Philippines. Regan’s grandfather, US Army Air Corps SSgt Donald Regan, survived the Bataan Death March and Nippon Steel’s Hirohata POW camp in Japan.

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