Tillman Rutledge was seventeen when he joined the Army in 1941. He’d just had a fight with his girlfriend, the head cheerleader at his high school in Merkel.
“I decided I’d show her. So, the recruiting sergeant at Abilene, Texas said, ‘Join the Army, and see the world.’ Well, he was right. It took me five years and eight months to get back to my family.”
Rutledge was shipped to Manila to join the 31st U.S. Infantry Regiment. Eight months later, Japan invaded the Philippines. Rutledge soon found himself part of a fighting retreat on the Bataan Peninsula. He and his fellow soldiers held out for more than four months. But on April 9, word came down that General Ned King had surrendered the U.S. and Filipino forces.
Rutledge’s unit was sent to Mariveles at the southern tip of Bataan. The Japanese put them on the Old National Road to begin a forced march of 55 miles. The men received no medicine, no food, no water. They marched day and night in broiling heat. Those who slacked their pace or broke ranks were beaten, shot, even run over with tanks.
“They seemed to take great glee in bumping us off. If you fell on that march, and nobody helped you, you were gone.”
Those who made it as far as San Fernando were sardine-packed into boxcars and shipped to Camp O’Donnell, a Philippine Army base the Japanese had turned into a POW camp. Many survived the march only to asphyxiate on the train.
“Twenty-two thousand people disappeared in a matter of nine days.”
There was no relief at O’Donnell either. The Japanese told the men they were not prisoners of war but captives and would receive no mercy. They worked the men to exhaustion. Malnutrition and disease ran rampant.
“They were carrying them out the barracks up to what they called the hospital. Well, men hid under the barracks trying to keep from going. It wasn’t a hospital. It was nothing but a morgue.”
Rutledge survived O’Donnell, as well as a series of other
A photo of Rutledge at the 1998 convention of the American Ex-POW’s Organization in Baton Rouge.
POW camps in both the Philippines and Japan. I asked Rutledge what kept him going. He spoke of Charlie Davis, one of his many friends who didn’t make it.
“Charlie said, ‘I’ve had enough, Tillman. I just can’t do it anymore.’ I slapped him. I cussed him. I did everything I could to make him angry at me, enough to … but it didn’t do any good. And that’s the whole thing. If you ever give up hope, if you ever say, 'Well, it’s no use, we're not going to make it,' you ain’t going to make it.”
Now 88, Rutledge is one of a handful of Bataan survivors left. He’s determined to make sure people know the truth about the march for as long as he remains to tell it.
A full account of Tillman Rutledge’s experiences on the Bataan Death March and as a POW, from his 1946 testimony: http://battlingbastardsbataan.com/till.htm.