No wonder they look so hale and speak so clearly, almost 50 years after their heroism inspired the world: They are survivors in the truest sense of the word.
About 26 veterans of the infamous Bataan Death March - an atrocity committed by Japanese forces in World War II - are holding a reunion in the Doubletree Hotel. It is the first get-together of the 20th Pursuit Squadron since the surrender at Bataan in 1942.The American squadron was stationed at Clark Air Field, the Philippines, when it was attacked on the same day as Pearl Harbor.
With nearly all their planes destroyed, the squadron went to Bataan Peninsula and served as infantry troops, holding out during more than three months of assaults by Japanese troops. The Americans and Filipino troops at Bataan suffered terribly from hunger and lack of medicine and equipment.
Bataan surrendered on April 2, 1942. Four days later, the men were marched toward Camp O'Donnell, a prison camp 60 miles away. On the way, guards tortured many, sometimes refusing to let them drink, although some were treated better.
About 75,000 POWs began the death march, 12,000 of them Americans. When the march ended on April 15, 7,000 to 10,000 prisoners had died. Afterward, 40 percent of the remaining men died in the prison camp.
Among the 207 members of the 20th Pursuit Squadron, 142 - about 70 percent - were killed or died in prison camps, according to statistics collected by the survivors. About 65 returned to the United States, and 38 are still living.
During a press conference Friday, Francis Agnes of Everett, Wash., said a reunion is "excellent therapy for us and for our wives." Some of the wives learn things their husbands hadn't been able to talk about.
Gene Jacobsen of Salt Lake City remembered seeing their squadron commander, Joseph H. Moore, in his plane fighting against the enemy Zero planes during the attack on Clark Field. The attack lasted about 11/2 hours but seemed to last a year, one survivor said.
Because Moore was involved in a food airlift to the Corregidor fortress at the time, he was not present when Bataan fell. "This is the first time most of us have seen him since the fall of Bataan," Jacobsen said.
Moore, who lives in San Antonio, Texas, and retired as a lieutenant general, recalled that the squadron was on combat alert for about two weeks before the attack. The Japanese had a large contingent of warplanes on Formosa and Clark Field was their likely target.
He said a general briefed them before the sneak attack: "Gentlemen, you're not exactly a suicide squadron, but you're - near one." In the subsequent raid, almost all the American planes were destroyed on the ground.
Asked about the death march, Ken Stanford of San Jose, Calif., said, "Food doesn't bother you when you get thirsty - it was the lack of water."
On the march after the surrender, starving, thirsty men often drank muddy slop from roadside ditches; many survivors suffered diseases as a result.
James E. Brown of Ellnora, Ind., remembered he and a companion carried a rusty five-gallon gasoline can, in which they boiled water. Others on the march ribbed them about lugging it around but they never got malaria, he said.
"A group of Jap officers had a couple, three American .45s (pistols) they had captured," he said. They grabbed some of the captured Filipinos walking ahead and threw them into a ditch beside the road.
Brown heard shots and screams of agony, and the Filipinos never came back. "They were just seeing how well they (the pistols) worked," he said of the Japanese officers.
"We were walking down a village street. There was a man and a woman." The Filipino man was carrying a baby.
"This Japanese put the rifle under the baby's chin and pulled the trigger. The baby's head disappeared." After half a century, he can't wipe the terrible memory out of his head.
"Regardless of how much we spoke when we came home, it wasn't believed, the atrocities," Agnes said. He is the national commander of American Ex-Prisoners of War.
Stanford conceded, "I grew a great deal. It was not a total loss. We learned to appreciate things a great deal more than we did before."
Agnes said that for decades afterward, he kept the experiences within himself. "There was guilt and shame," he said. He wondered why he had survived while friends were in graves in the Pacific.
He was moody and withdrawn, until he joined American Ex-Prisoners of War in the 1980s. Finding others who had suffered similar torments helped him to become a complete person, he said.
After all they went through, Brown said, many of the veterans did well in later life. "We are survivors," he said.