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
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
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
“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
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,
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
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.