Residents, visitors walk to remember Death March

WELLSBURG – Area residents and visitors of various ages participated in a walk along Wellsburg’s Yankee Trail and city streets Tuesday to remember the many Americans who died or suffered atrocities as participants in the Bataan Death March during World War II.

Leaders of the Brooke County Public Library and its Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor Museum organized the event to promote awareness of the march, in which about 70,000 American and Filippino troops were forced to walk 65 miles through subtropical heat, without food or water.

After fighting for three months against Japanese invaders of the Philippine Islands, many were suffering already from fatigue, malaria or dysentery and succumbed to illness or exhaustion.

“They didn’t have any help. They were isolated. It was a very bad time,” said Bill Burruss of Richmond, a member of the 59th Coast Artillery Echo Battery, a re-enactment group that brought two World War II-era Army jeeps and an encampment to the library for the occasion.

Some were shot, stabbed with bayonets and beheaded with swords along the march.

Those who survived were transported to prisoner of war camps where they were forced to work for the Japanese war effort.

An estimated 600 to 650 Americans and 5,000 to 10,000 Filippinos died, said Jane Kraina, the museum’s coordinator.

It’s the second year the library and museum have held the walk. This year it drew many visitors from Pennsylvania, including the Marine Corps League Detachment 726, a group of retired Marines in the Pittsburgh area who perform military honors at several funerals each week.

Before forming a color guard to lead the walk, members visited the museum within the library.

“This is great,” said Bob Daley, the group’s commandant, as he surveyed the display created by Ed Jackfert, a local veteran who served in the Philippines; and his wife, Henrietta.

“My brother was killed in Bataan as part of a work detail and I have a feeling for this,” he added.

The display traces the experiences of the death march participants, from their capture, transport aboard crowded trains and “Hell ships” unknowingly targeted by fellow Allied forces and captivity in work camps, usually in support of the Japanese war effort.

Mary McCourts Blaine of Harrisburg, Pa. said her father, John, was among the POWs and once told her he felt fortunate to be involved in smelting copper because at least it kept him warm. He also recalled seeing a friend die while working on a ship for the Japanese, she said.

McCourts was among many who carried pictures of death march participants, an addition to this year’s walk aimed at making the event more personal.

Photos of death march survivor Abie Abraham, a Butler, Pa. man who was recruited to help locate the remains of fallen American troops in the Philippines following the war, were displayed Francis Dennison of Wellsburg and Abraham’s widow, Christine.

A strong supporter and frequent visitor to the museum, Abraham died last year, and Brooke County’s first Bataan Death March Walk was held in his honor.

Joe Vader of McKees Rocks, Pa., another strong supporter of the museum, also was on hand for this year’s event. Vader encouraged many other veterans and their families to donate items for the museum as editor of the Quan, the newsletter of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor, a nationwide group of veterans who served on the two Philippine islands.

He also donated the German box camera he acquired following his release from a POW camp and the photos he took of Japan before returning to the U.S.

Vader said of the walk, “I think it’s great to give thanks to the men who lost their lives there.”

He said he and other survivors “were lucky. We have a lot to be thankful for.”