Saturday, December 13, 2008

Be Grateful that You are Not on Fire

It’s a standard practice in self-help groups to suggest that, when life feels hard, the best thing you can do is make a gratitude list. In some groups, where the ethic is more tough love than tender nurture, that suggestion goes like this: “You need to make a list of things you are grateful for and start it with, “I am not on fire”.

I always thought that was a particularly harsh way of saying that your problems aren’t so bad, but that was only until I met Glenn McDole and Frenchy Dupont. I met the two former Marines while I was writing a book about China Marines –those who served in China before World War II. For these two men, and the families of their colleagues, today is an important day.

On December 14, 1944, 150 American Marines and sailors were killed on the Island of Palawan in the Philippines. In the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St Louis, Missouri a mass grave contains the remains of those men. The grave marker reads:

These U.S. prisoners of war of the Japanese were on the Island of Palawan, P.I. as slave laborers building an airfield for the Japanese military. Believing that an invasion by the U. S forces was imminent, the prisoners were forced into three tunnel shelters, thus following orders from the Japanese High Command to dispose of prisoners by any means available. Buckets of gasoline were thrown inside the shelters followed by flaming torches. Those not instantly killed by the explosions ran burning from the tunnels and were machine gunned and bayoneted to death.

Glenn and Frenchy were two of five men who escaped. Their story has been documented for military history, but their experience is also one of the most outstanding examples of human resilience.

The American prisoners on Palawan were part of a battalion that had surrendered to the Japanese at Corregidor. Arriving weak and injured they were stripped, starved and beaten. For almost three years on Palawan they received no medical attention and were forced to dig—by hand—an airstrip in the Philippine jungle. Naked and barefoot they worked for 14 hours each day. The men were allowed, at most, two meals per week from the garbage of the Japanese kitchens. Disease and starvation killed many, and most, like Frenchy, lost their sight as a result of beriberi and pellagra.

On December 14, as Americans planes approached, the prisoners experienced the immolation described on the grave marker. Glenn and Frenchy remembered the smell of roasting flesh mixed with gasoline and human excrement. But because they were at the end of the trench near an embankment seven men pushed out of the flaming tunnel, jumped over the cliff’s edge and rolled down a jagged rock slope. The Japanese shot at them as they fell. The men ran along the beach, bullets piercing their legs and backs, and then dove, bloody, into the sea and began to swim. Ten hours later, the exhausted, starved, blind, burned and shark bitten men crawled to shore on another island where they were rescued by Philippine guerillas.

Five years ago I stood in the National Cemetery in St Louis while Frenchy and Glenn told their story. I could not stop shaking my head. How did they survive? And, how did they live normal lives after surviving?

But they did. After returning to the states these men completed their military commitment and went on to have active civilian lives, careers and families.

Okay. What do you do with a story like that? On any given day my life is not perfect. I can easily grumble about the weather or writing or work. But today, on December 14, I can’t. On this day I remember the men who died on Palawan --and those few who survived. Tonight, at the top of my gratitude list I will happily write, “I am not on fire”.

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