Whenever weak prisoners collapsed from exhaustion, Japanese soldiers pierced them in the side or slashed at their arms with bayonets to spur them on.
BY JUANI HOPWOOD
Ralph Rodriguez welcomed me to his kitchen table. He was seated in a chair with a red blanket embroidered with “FREEDOM IS NOT FREE.”
His Old Town-area house, festooned with party decorations in honor of his ninety-eighth birthday, is home to respectful caretakers and countless certificates of grateful recognition. Perhaps this is why not a day goes by that he doesn’t recall his harrowing experiences in World War II.
He feels supremely lucky. Not heroic, he emphasizes, but lucky.
Young Ralph Rodriguez, a lumber inspector barely out of high school, enlisted in the Army in 1941. Along with roughly 300 New Mexico troops, he boarded a ship in San Francisco to join American forces fighting in the Pacific in early 1942. Only about 20 returned.
After an interminable journey for the seasick desert boy, upon his unit’s arrival in the Philippines, Filipino soldiers supplemented his regiment. After what became known as the Battle of Bataan, Japanese troops captured all survivors on the Island of Corregidor and forced them on a brutal, grueling journey north on foot that would later be called the Bataan Death March.
Rodriguez was part of a medical detachment of about 25 with cursory medical training. Only about 15 medics survived combat to join the march and were separated from other prisoners due to their special skill set.
Many of his fellow POWs were New Mexican National Guard members even younger than Rodriguez. He remembers how sickly they were, “not even strong enough to take aspirin or some other common pill.” Because their captors barely had any supplies, Rodriguez improvised treatments.
When fevers ran dangerously high, he administered fast-acting quinine to keep ill soldiers on their feet. Whenever weak prisoners collapsed from exhaustion, Japanese soldiers pierced them in the side or slashed at their arms with bayonets to spur them on. “At the beginning, this was difficult to see,” Rodriguez said. In spite of the horror, he learned how to rapidly stanch bleeding and bandage wounds.
Even 73 years later, vivid memories of those lacerations still distress Rodriguez, as if he were reliving the full shock and agony of each stabbing he witnessed along the march. After squeezing my hand during a long pause, he continued: “The Japanese would spare no amount of injury inflicted on the soldiers.”
Because prisoners were too feeble to rebel, only two captors accounted for each group of about a hundred. For the guards, it was easier to slaughter the fallen rather than risk their possible recovery and escape. “It was more like murder than anything else,” Rodriguez said in a shaky murmur.
When I asked how he survived, he was genuinely taken aback, as if it hadn’t occurred to him before. He responded that he just kept busy taking care of others, making sure they endured. As for what lessons he had taken home with him, after a reflective silence, he answered: “You have no idea how far you can go and keep surviving.”
Despite the horrors of that march and his subsequent imprisonment, Rodriguez is not a vengeful man. He tries to “forget as much as possible. You can’t live in anger for so long. They were just doing what they were told, I guess. It is foolish to live a life of revenge, to make up what’s already done. My upbringing and my family got me through it.”
During a moment of reflection between questions, Rodriguez and I both looked up from the table to see his daughter and caretakers listening from the doorway. Framed by colorful streamers and balloons, they beamed at him through their tears.
Juani Hopwood is an editorial intern at ABQ Free Press. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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