Alexander Harold Mathews
Pawnee Nation President, 1993-1995
H Battery, 515th Coast Artillery
State Commander, New Mexico Chapter
American Ex-POWs, 2001-2002

 

“Courage is a quality God has seen fit to dispense with utmost care. The men of Bataan and Corregidor were his chosen favorites.”

 

— Maj. Gen. Edward P. King, Jr.
Commanding General, Bataan

Bataan Remembered

Death March survivor knew he would return home to Oklahoma

 

APR. 4, 2000 — Alexander H. Mathews surely must be among God’s favorites. The 80-year-old Cache man not only was able to endure the Bataan Death March after the fall of the Philippines to Japan in World War II; he was able to survive four years of near starvation and slave labor. He saw men beaten or bayoneted simply for being too exhausted, sick or thirsty to carry on. He was forced to help bury fellow Americans in mass graves. In barren work camps or aboard Japanese “hell ships,” he witnessed as some of the tortured slowly lost their minds.

But the full-blood Pawnee Indian survived the long nightmare, no doubt in part because of the strength he had built as a boy growing up during the Depression in Oklahoma. He said he also held on to the conviction that despite what happened in the early days of the war, America would defeat Japan. And, he said, he had an unshakable faith that “the Lord had plans” that would take him beyond the misery and death of the Philippines and back home where he belonged.

Mathews and other Bataan Death March survivors are to be honored Sunday during a recognition ceremony in Santa Fe, N.M., organized by the Bataan Corregidor Memorial Foundation. At that time, Mathews is to be presented a Prisoner-of-War Medal, a World War II Victory Medal and several other awards he earned but never received after World War II.

BCMFofNM, Inc. Note: The Bataan Memorial Ceremony in Santa Fe is organized by the New Mexico National Guard. The extra-ordinary efforts to recognize and award medals earned in defense of Bataan and Corregidor to Mr. Mathews and two other veterans on 9 April 2000 were in large part due to the efforts of MSgt. Jeronimo ‘Rick’ Padilla, [then] curator of the Bataan Memorial Military Museum and Library in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Mathews was born and reared on the windswept prairie south of the tiny town of Pawnee at a time when many in Oklahoma-boys included-were able to survive only by laboring hard for $1 a day or maybe less. In an Indian school he learned to read and write, and also how to endure tough discipline.

“That experience was quite valuable in the sense that at that time Indian school was very military oriented,” Mathews said Monday in an interview at his home.

He graduated from Glencoe High School in 1938 and attended the Haskell Institute in Kansas for two years before being offered a job with the Bureau of Indian Affairs in New Mexico. But it wasn’t long after his arrival there that he was drafted for service in the Army. He was 22.

Mathews was assigned to an antiaircraft artillery outfit, Battery H of the 200th Coastal Artillery. After training at Fort Bliss, Texas, he was shipped out to Clark Air Base and then, in December 1941, onto the Bataan Peninsula, across a wide bay from Manila, in the Philippines. The job of the coastal artillery, he said, was to shoot down Japanese aircraft flying over en route to bomb the fortified island of Corregidor.

Many of the men there were from New Mexico. That’s why an Eternal Flame Memorial and the Bataan Memorial Military Museum are in Santa Fe.

“For the state of New Mexico, this was their sons that went in,” Mathews said.

In early 1942, the war wasn’t going well for the United States, and the men assigned to the Philippines were more or less cut off from reinforcements and supplies of food and medicine. To make matters worse, their anti-aircraft guns didn’t have the range to hit Japanese aircraft, so enemy pilots flew overhead to carry out bomb missions nearly unscathed. Mathews said his gun crew got credit for knocking down one dive bomber and no more.

“We knew we were in the war and we were there,” he said. “We didn’t discuss any imminent battle. We just knew we would be up against the wall.”

Eventually, the ill-equipped, under-supplied men were overrun. O n April 9, 1942, they received orders from their own officers to lay down their arms. Mathews said he and other soldiers broke open the breech blocks and destroyed the firing pins of their guns to make them unusable to the enemy.

Then they waited. It wasn’t long before Japanese infantrymen arrived and the Americans were herded together for a forced march of 70-140 miles to the first of many prison camps that would be their homes over the next four years. The men, many already sick with malaria, dysentery or other diseases, and all already hungry because of their lack of rations, were shown little mercy. Some who lagged were clubbed or bayoneted or even shot.

“I think (the Japanese) intent was for as many of us to die along the way as possible so that they wouldn’t have to take care of us,” Mathews said.

Of course the Americans had no weapons, and the Japanese took anything else of value that they might have had, including watches and wedding rings.

Mathews fell in with Juan Ramirez of San Antonio, and eventually with Phil Coon, a young man he had known at the Haskell Institute who had been drafted as an infantryman. Ramirez eventually died. Coon lives near Sapulpa. Mathews said he’s one of the few people he can talk to about the experience who can even begin to understand the horrors of World War II in the Philippines.

“We stuck together all the way through, even on work details,” he said.

At their first stop, at Camp O’Donnell, the men were moved into haphazard shelters made of bamboo. Some were organized into details to bury the dead. Mathews said he remembers the skin pulling away from a decaying corpse as he tried to move it to a shallow grave. The stench of the camp was almost unbearable.

A man’s rank didn’t matter, he said. Officers suffered the same as enlisted men. Americans suffered just as much as Filipinos who also were taken prisoner. Female nurses and chaplains suffered the same as the rest.

Records show that 33 Army and 4 Navy chaplains were among those who surrendered to the Japanese. When the POWs were released, only 13 were listed as survivors.

“Everybody was reduced to the same level,” Mathews said. “Everything was in just sort of turmoil.”

After the experience of Camp O’Donnell, the prisoners in Mathews’ group were moved to a railhead and herded onto boxcars that were pulled to Cabanatuan, a larger camp. Mathews said the Japanese crammed the railcars full with sick and starving prisoners.

“That was the first inkling I had of how the mind can deteriorate,” he said, as men already suffering were pushed to the brink of insanity.

At Cabanatuan, Mathews and others were ordered to clear jungle so Japanese soldiers could see the camp better from guard towers. Later; he and hundreds of others were moved to other camps to help level out ground to be used by the Japanese as airstrips. Hard labor lasted from sunup to sunset, he said.

From the time of their capture, the prisoners got little more to eat than small rations of rice cooked by the Japanese over open fires in vats of boiling water. The Red Cross sent some care packages with food, coffee and cigarettes, but it wasn’t enough to check the starvation. Records show that in the camps, people trapped and ate frogs, guinea pigs and even rats to survive. Mathews has pictures of men who started the war as healthy six-footers, weighing 175 or maybe 190 pounds. By the time they were released, they were just skin and bones, weighing 100 pounds or less.

If one man tried to escape, he said, 10 would be shot. As the tide of the war slowly turned in favor the United States, the Japanese became more and more brutal. Beatings were common. Mathews remembers being whacked in the back of the head by a Japanese soldier wielding a sword.

Around August 1944, he said, he saw a U.S. bomber fly by. That lifted his spirits. But the Japanese, perhaps knowing the United States was moving closer to victory, soon started moving the prisoners aboard ships to take them to places they thought would be more secure.

If the railroad boxcars had been bad, Mathews said, the “hell ships” were even worse. Up to 1,800 men at a time might be packed with mounds of coal into the cargo hold of a single ship, unable to move, locked in darkness on the rolling sea. The ships weren’t marked to show that they were carrying American prisoners, and some were set upon by American sub-marines. At least two were sunk.

Mathews said he was severely burned when his captors tried to lower a vat of rice into the hold of his ship and it spilled the boiling of mess over him. He was given morphine for the pain. Otherwise he might have died.

The ship landed on Formosa in January 1945, but he soon was removed to Nagoya, Japan. He was there when the United States dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to force the Japanese to surrender.

It has been estimated that 650 Americans and thousands of Filipinos died on the march into captivity from Bataan. Several thousand more died at Camp O’Donnell, Cabanatuan and other POW camps. More than one-third of those taken prisoner, in fact, eventually succumbed to exhaustion, disease, starvation or Japanese atrocity. Of 1,800 in Mathews’ regiment, only 900 survived.

After the war, Mathews went back to school and started a 33 year career with the BIA. He worked for several Indian tribes including the Pawnees, Apaches, Wichitas and Comanches. He served as president of the Pawnee Nation from 1993-95. He has four children and now lives in Cache with his wife, Joyce.

Despite his experiences during World War II, Mathews said he has felt blessed in his life by good health, strong relationships with family and friends and by God’s plan in his life.

 

Steve Metzer for the Lawton Constitution