Fewer and fewer Americans today can recall where they were when they heard the news that Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, had been attacked by the Japanese on Dec. 7, 1941.
As the number of first-hand accounts from World War II continues to decrease and new conflicts of the current era arise, earlier struggles begin to fade away, making it ever more important to preserve our nation’s living history.
At his home in Lafayette, La., in the midst of countless books and homemade art, one World War II veteran and former prisoner of war shares his experience of the war, one that is slightly different than most.
Like many of his peers, James Bollich, barely out of his teenage years, joined the U.S. military in the midst of another world conflict brewing overseas.
“It was about the time Germany occupied Paris, everybody at school was talking about the Army, and nobody was really studying like they should’ve been,” recalled Bollich. “That’s when I decided that before long we would be in the war and just like a young kid, I wanted to be part of it and I wanted the air corps.”
Against his mother’s wishes, Bollich joined the U.S. Army Air Corps on Aug. 23, 1940, in Bossier City, La., at what was then Barksdale Field, and was assigned to the 16th Bomb Squadron, 27th Bomb Group.
Bollich spent time at a base in Savannah, Ga., and then reported to technical school in Dallas, where he studied airplane mechanics and took part in maneuvers and exercises at an airfield in Lake Charles, La., all before heading overseas.
“As soon as the maneuvers ended we were shipped overseas,” he said. “We left San Francisco Nov. 1 and arrived in the Philippines on Nov. 20, and 18 days later we were already at war with Japan.”
Four months later, 20-year-old Corporal Bollich would become a prisoner of war.
When word got back to Bollich and his outfit that the Japanese had made a major landing about 35 miles from where they were, they were instructed to quickly pack-up and told that they would be evacuated, by boat, from Manila to the Bataan Peninsula across Manila Bay.
Thousands of American and Filipino troops now occupied the Bataan Peninsula, leaving the U.S. Army responsible for feeding everyone. In the meantime the Japanese controlled the surrounding seas and skies, making it difficult for American support to resupply these men.
“We were running out of food,” Bollich said frankly. “That’s when we tried to get extra food by going up into the mountains. People ate monkeys, snakes, lizards, just about anything that they could find.”
When most food sources were exhausted, including mules, “essentially what we were living on was a slice of bread made out of rice flour, covered with gravy made out of water and rice flour. We were essentially starving to death and weren’t in any shape to fight and the Japanese easily broke through our front lines,” he said.
When their front lines did eventually break, they were ordered to retreat to the tip of the Bataan Peninsula, where they eventually surrendered to the Japanese.
“We were told to destroy all of our arms and ammunition. Finally here came the [Japanese]. They lined us up, counted us and started us out on what is now known as the [Bataan] Death March.”
For the next five and a half days, thousands of American and Filipino troops walked day and night enduring exhaustion and physical pain.
“We had no idea what was ahead,” said Bollich. “I’ll never forget our old first sergeant, when the surrender came he said, ‘we survived the war, the Japanese are going to take us and put us in a prison camp. We’ll get fed, have water and rest and just sit and wait out the war.’ That guy was dead within three weeks after we were captured. It didn’t turn out that way at all.”
Bollich recalled marching out of the peninsula with Japanese guards on either side of the line of prisoners.
“They took our wallets, anybody who had a ring they took those, took our dog tags. Then they began to beat us. They beat us with rifle butts, sabers, clubs, anything they could get their hands on. That went on all day long. They wouldn’t let anybody have a drink of water or let us rest and they didn’t feed us.
“And then I think it was around the middle of the second day that people began to collapse. We hadn’t had water in a day and a half and in the tropics it’s almost beyond what you can take. And of course once anybody collapsed, the Japanese immediately killed them, it looked like they were really trying to kill us all.”
Upon arrival at the first prison camp, Camp O’Donnell, a former Philippine Army training camp, Bollich said the soldiers were met by the general who had called for their surrender. General King spoke in front of the crowd, assuring his men that he would take full responsibility for the surrender and for his troops not to feel bad.
“Then the Japanese commander got up and laid down the rules of the camp,” said Bollich. “He said that if any were broken, the person would be shot, which are words we expected to hear. But he was speaking through an interpreter and the interpreter said that you have come here to die. At first I didn’t believe it and that he’d misquoted the Japanese commander, but it didn’t take us long to realize that he was telling the truth.”
Bollich admitted that the exact number of Americans who died on the march remains unknown, but is estimated anywhere between 800 to 2,000 troops. However, Bollich is sure of the death toll of the first 40 days of being in Camp O’Donnell, because he witnessed it. His best estimate is approximately another 1,800 Americans in that time period, averaging about 45 per day.
“All we were doing was burying the dead,” remembered Bollich. “I remember looking around and deciding that the way people were dying that within a few weeks we would all be dead. Our food was nothing but a handful of cooked rice a day. The barracks we stayed in were made out of bamboo with thatched roofs, no doors or windows. At night the mosquitos would chew us alive and during the daytime the flies would get all over us. The big killer was dysentery. They had open latrines that had flies by the billions, covering our camp. Once you caught dysentery you were gone.”
Bollich recalled that within the first four weeks of confinement at Camp O’Donnell, three men escaped to find food and were caught trying to sneak back into the camp. For breaking the rules, the men were tortured for days until all the prisoners were called out to an area in the camp where the three men had dug their own graves and witnessed each man get executed.
Bollich became one of 2,000 prisoners selected to be transported to Japan for confinement in another POW camp. He described the packed ship as having two holds, one in the front and one in the back, each holding 1,000 men.
“We were only allowed two guys at a time to crawl up the steel ladder to go top side to use the latrine,” he said. “A lot of the guys had dysentery and within a matter of a few hours, the place was already like a cesspool.”
He went on to describe the atmosphere below deck.
“At night the hold was completely dark. There’d be crying and screaming and praying. And inevitably in the morning when the Japanese would open up the hold there’d be one or two POWs that had died. We’d just hand them up to the Japanese and the Japanese would just throw them over board.”
Conditions below deck got so bad that the ship docked in Taiwan so that the POWs could be taken off the ship and hosed down.
“That was about seven months from the time we had surrendered and we were still in the same clothes that we surrendered in. That was the first water we had on our bodies in all that length of time,” he said.
After what seemed like many more days at sea, the boat reached its final destination: Pusan, Korea. Once everyone was pulled out of the ship, the POWs were put into trucks and transported to a military camp situated on the shore.
The ones who were in weak physical condition stayed until they were strong enough to move again.
“Of the 80 or 90 of us that stayed there [in the military camp] about 30 or 35 of us survived, the rest died and were taken out each day and cremated and their ashes were brought back and given to us,” said Bollich.
When the surviving POWs were strong enough to leave, they boarded trains and headed off to Mukden, Manchuria, which according to Bollich was “one of the coldest places in the world and that’s where I stayed until the war ended.”
Once at the POW camp in Mukden when he became physically well enough to work, Bollich was sent to a factory originally set-up to manufacture automobile parts. In the midst of dozens of unopened crates containing American machines, the POWs were instructed to cement the factory floor, make sturdy foundations for the machines, set them up and start production.
In his book, “Bataan Death March: A Soldier’s Story,” Bollich mentioned that although he and his fellow POWs were ordered to correctly perform certain tasks in the factory, they took the opportunity to be discreetly insubordinate. For example, he wrote that the men discovered smaller but important machine parts, such as handles, knobs, dials and screws, in empty crates. Once the small but necessary items were discovered, the POWs defiantly disposed of them in the holes they had dug, quickly filling them in with concrete and making it impossible for the machines to function.
His life continued with little food and walking what he estimated as five miles either way to and from the factory day after day until the day the air raid sirens rang. Off in the distance, Bollich recalls seeing miles of contrails and big black planes flying toward the factory.
When Japanese fighters took off to defend their positions, in his book Bollich describes the scene: “From the ground it looked like a swarm of mosquitoes going after a flock of geese and the comparison is good, because that is about how effective the Japanese fighters were.”
“They were B-29s,” he continued. “[At the time] we didn’t know what B-29s were, but we were happy to see them. After all that time, finally it looked like the war was maybe coming to an end. Those B-29s, I’ve never seen anything like it, it just looked like the sky was black with bombs.”
The B-29 bombs fell in December 1944, and eight months later Mukden POW camp was liberated. After three and a half years of confinement, Bollich was free and heading home. He and the remaining POWs were taken to a nearby railroad station and transported to Port Arthur, China, where they boarded a ship for their journey back to the United States.
They finally docked in San Francisco, the same port Bollich left nearly four years earlier.
Bollich rested in a hospital for five to six weeks before returning home to Louisiana. He described his return home as less than the jovial occasion he had dreamed about, as he learned that two of his brothers had been killed in the war, and his mother was devastated.
Today, Bollich is part of a group that gets smaller as time passes.
“As far as World War II, all my friends are gone. In my outfit I only know of one other guy who’s still alive,” he said.
When asked how he managed to survive the Bataan Death March and then life in a prison camp, he has a very clear answer, “I couldn’t imagine people going to my mother and saying that [I'd] died. I think that’s what kept most young people alive, the fact that they had families to go to.”
Had he decided to give up, he’s sure he could have found a quick end to the misery.
“Everybody prayed, and apparently it didn’t work for everybody. But maybe it did. I think things got so bad that a lot of guys prayed to die and if you wanted to give up you could die in a hurry. There were two or three times in my confinement that if I had decided to die I could of died within a couple of days,” admitted Bollich.
After Bollich returned home, he decided to remain in the reserves for three years, taking the time to decide if after his experience as a POW he could still stay in the military. He ultimately decided to pursue higher education, a choice he said helped him deal with the dreams of confinement that ensued upon his return to the states.
“The thing about it,” he said, “in prison camp, when you went to bed at night you’d dream about being free and then you woke up and you were still in that POW camp. When you got back home, at night when I’d go to bed, I’d dream I was back in POW camp, so I didn’t want to sleep. And that really helped my studies, because instead of just staying up and doing nothing, I studied. So going to school helped a lot.”
After his experience as a POW and survivor of the death march, when asked what advice he’d give to young service members facing challenges in their personal and professional lives, he suggests considering what veterans went through.
“Talk to some of the old soldiers,” he said. “Some of those Marines who fought in the Pacific and the soldiers who fought in Europe, look at what they went through.”
Bollich reflects on the decision to drop the atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which effectively led to Japan’s surrender in World War II, and wonders what would have happened had U.S. forces conducted a land invasion of the country instead.
He said toward the end of the war, the Japanese higher command put out a directive to all of the POW camps saying the minute it was learned the Americans had landed on Japanese soil, the commander was to kill all of the POWs under their control.
Bollich continued, “There was no doubt in my mind that had we not dropped the atomic bomb and we invaded Japan, not a single POW would have gotten home.”
And being honest about what may have been his fate, Bollich understands that, “of course, that includes me.”
Bollich has authored 11 books, including “Bataan Death March: A Soldier’s Story,” about his time as a POW.