'Keep going': Texas veteran, 99, marks 75th anniversary of Bataan Death March

Trinidad Martinez of San Antonio is one of the last living survivors of the Bataan Death March during WWII.

“You have to keep going.”

Those words echoed in Trinidad Martinez's mind as he recounted his experience in the Bataan Death March 75 years ago.

Prisoners of war were forced to march 65 miles through the Philippine jungle in 1942.

“That was a long time ago," he said.

Martinez turned 99 on Christmas Eve 2016. While some of the memory has faded, his family said he’ll never forget the march.

He currently lives in San Antonio with his daughter and grandchildren.

“I was just doing my job," he said.

Martinez was born in Mercedes, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley in 1917. He enlisted in the Army on April 8, 1941, almost exactly a year before the Bataan Death March began.

App users, view Martinez's story on YouTube.

Learn more about the history of the Bataan Death March in our interactive timeline.

Events leading up to the march started after the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941.

University of Texas at San Antonio history professor Robert Browning described the conditions that left thousands dying of thirst, starvation and sickness.

“Roughly 90 percent of the participants either died during the march or have died since," Browning said.

“It turned out that [General Douglas] McArthur’s Philippine army was entirely unready. The troops were not trained. They didn’t have weapons. They collapsed in something of a panic. So on April 9, the commander of forces on Bataan, General Edward King, surrendered.”

The Japanese had no respect for surrender.

THE SURRENDER

“These were soldiers no longer. They had surrendered. They were beneath contempt. They had [up to] 80,000 of these people, mostly Filipinos, who were beneath contempt. They had to do something. They started marching them north to eventually putting them on trains and taking them to a place called Camp O’Donnell. The march, including the train route, is what’s called the 'death march,'" Browning said.

The march began April 9, 1942.

Martinez's daughter, Rosie  Dorado, said he always told family that he came upon captured Filipino and American troops after he had been stranded in the Philippine jungle.

She said he and a couple of other American soldiers had been searching for water after running out of supplies.

They happened to encounter a group that had already been captured by the Japanese after they had started walking along a river route.

The prisoners gave them some of the little food and water they had to survive.

ON THE MARCH

It's not clear exactly how many people endured the march. However, estimates are as high as 70,000-80,000.

It's also not clear exactly how many people were killed along the way. It is estimated around 3,000-10,000 troops were killed, based on personnel records for American and Filipino soldiers that were recovered after the war. However, some of the earlier death toll estimates reached as high as around 17,000.

App users, view a map of the Bataan Death March route on YouTube.

Prisoners were executed if they could not continue marching.

“They treated all the people [badly.] Why, I’ll never know. They never touched me," he said.

Martinez recalled that the Japanese soldiers never struck him along the march. He said he was accidentally hit once, but he believes it was because a Japanese soldier was trying to strike another prisoner nearby.

He said he survived because he never faltered.

“I had my own two containers of water, and I just kept putting them to my mouth. If people tried to go and get water, they were [shot.] I made it all the way. I did everything I’m supposed to do," Martinez said.

He said that, before reaching the prison camp, many thought he had died because his heart rate was so weak. However, he said something caused him to wake up.

Had he not stirred, Browning said it is very likely he would have been grouped with the other bodies.

"When they got them off the train, the dying and the dead were pulled off to one side and the rest of them would be marched to the camp. If he was unconscious and looked dead, he would have been just tossed into the pile," Browning said.

PRISONER OF WAR

Dorado said her father worked making weapons and machinery as a Japanese prisoner, including at Camp O'Donnell.

He reportedly came down with malaria, as many of the troops did, but did not suffer a more serious illness. Remarkably, he also maintains that he was never seriously injured.

While Dorado said her father no longer recalls these memories, she said he told his family in the past that soldiers would be forced to work "burial detail." They would be forced to carry and dig graves for the bodies of troops who had passed away.

Martinez used to have nightmares about the march and prison camp, including being afraid of the Japanese soldiers, but Dorado said this has not happened in several years.

COMING HOME

Martinez was awarded more than a dozen medals during his time in the military. He enlisted as a Private First Class and held the rank of Corporal when he was honorably discharged in Nov. 1945.

Before returning to Washington, D.C. after his time in the march and prison camp, Dorado said Martinez was able to recover some photos and records from the Philippines that their family keeps to this day.

He was awarded 15 medals during his time in the Army, including the World War II Victory Medal, Prisoner of War Medal and Bronze Star Medal.

“This was a real and very important chapter in American history and world history. For us to forget it is a mistake," Browning said.

There may not be much time to hear the stories of survivors.

Only 987 survivors came home to the United States after the liberation in 1945, according to Sen. Tom Udall's office (D-New Mexico).

Udall is behind legislation aimed to award the Congressional Gold Medal to Bataan Death March survivors, and he expects to re-introduce it in honor of the survivors and the 75th anniversary.

REMEMBERING BATAAN

For the first time, Martinez and his family attended the commemoration of the Bataan Death March in New Mexico on April 8-9.

A representative from the Bataan-Corregidor Memorial Foundation of New Mexico said, amazingly, eight of the 12 living survivors attended the commemoration in 2017.

An annual ceremony was held at the Bataan Memorial Building, along with a reception at the New Mexico National Guard Bataan Memorial Military Museum. A dinner was also held in the veterans' honor.

They're hopeful his story won't be forgotten.

JOIN THE CONVERSATION

To find out more about Facebook commenting please read the
Conversation Guidelines and FAQs

Leave a Comment