Going to the library used to be a restful outing.
I loved meandering through the shelves, surrounded by the smell of books. Familiar titles called out like old friends, while the unfamiliar ones promised new stories and adventures.
After having kids, going to the library is a bit different.
They love stories too, and browsing the children’s section with them is great fun. But if I want to find something to read, well, let’s just say I’ve learned to move fast.
Last week I dared the history aisle with them. I knew I had about five minutes before someone got restless and wandered off, started fighting with a sibling, or started idly pulling books off the shelf.
Luckily, Lt. Gene Boyt’s slender volume Bataan: A Survivor’s Story caught my eye at once. I had been reading and writing about the WW2 tragedies of Bataan, and I’ve written before about how I love survivor stories. I grabbed it and ran, and I’m so glad that I did.
Boyt learned early how to do without. He was born on March 29, 1917 in Houston, Missouri. His father, whose unpredictable work had just kept them financially afloat, abandoned the family when Gene was in high school. Gene’s mother scraped by with the help of friends, but the Great Depression left them wondering how they’d manage.
Gene found the answer in the Civilian Conservation Corps, a part of FDR’s “New Deal.” He worked building roads, and was able to save up enough for college. He earned his mechanical engineering degree at the Missouri School of Mines.
Since Mines was a federal land-grant college, Boyt was required to take basic ROTC. He enjoyed it, decided to take advanced courses, and ended up a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army.
In July of 1941, he received his first assignment. He was headed to the Philippines.
Boyt’s accounts make his early days in the Philippines sound idyllic. He met kind people, lived in comfortable surroundings, and he was given charge of engineering projects on Clark Field.
The Philippines is on the other side of the International Date Line from Hawaii, so Boyt heard about the attacks on Pearl Harbor on December 8th.
While he was shaken by the news of the attack, the threat seemed far away. He and his housemates sat down to lunch as usual, laughing as a radio broadcaster announced that Clark Field, right outside, was under attack by the Japanese.
Just to be sure, his friend looked out the back door, scanning the sky. They asked him if he saw any Japanese planes.
“No.” He laughed, as if the idea seemed ridiculous.
We were behaving nonchalantly with no sense of the severity of the situation. The adjutant lieutenant returned to the table, and dessert, a tasty pie, was served. I took two bites of my piece before the house blew up.” (Boyt 56)
So begins Boyt’s account of the failed defense of the Philippines. He takes his readers on the retreat down the Bataan Peninsula, through his eventual surrender, and then back up the peninsula as a member of the Bataan Death March.
Boyt’s survival story could be pretty bleak reading, but his tale, though dark, has moments of light.
He writes of their captors forcing men to march without food or drink, then making them stand by sources of clean water without being allowed any. He also tells of the one Japanese soldier, who as he was relieved of guard duty murmured, in perfect English, “I’m sorry.”
He writes of comrades succumbing to cruelty in the darkness of their captivity, but also of Filipino people who risked their lives to leave sugarcane and water along the road to help the troops survive.
He writes of the horrors and deprivations of the five (yes five) prison camps he was interned in during the war, but also of he people who helped him survive it.
“I want to make one thing clear about my wartime service. I am not a hero. I saw real heroes in action, however – men such as Tom Griffin, who saved my life during the Death March; Dr. Van Peenen, the physician who did so much with so little at Zentsuji; and Major Orr, who risked his life in support of prisoners’ rights in Japan. These fine men, and countless others like them, deserve our adoration for their bravery and self-sacrifice.” (Boyt 219)
I’m thankful for writers like Boyt, who preserve memories of the courage and sacrifice and suffering of those who’ve come before us. If a copy of Bataan: A Survivor’s Story crosses your path, it’s well worth reading, and taking the time to remember them.
Many thanks for visiting!