Albion man endured torture, hunger to survive Bataan Death March
Bill Larimer would later serve community as town justice
By Ginny Kropf
Those of you who know me, know I am passionate about warbirds and the heroes of World War II. I have met several of those heroes and have had the pleasure of riding in several historic airplanes of that era.
One of the most heroic men I ever met was the late William Larimer of Albion. I had actually learned of three men who were on that horrific death march – Larimer, a Medina man by the name of Grabowski and the other a man from Batavia whose name I think was Harry Boyd. Each had a very different perspective on the march.
Larimer was matter-of-fact about it. It was horrible, but he survived it and chose to focus on that. I never met the Grabowski from Medina, but I’m told he refused to talk about it until the day he died. Boyd was consumed by it. It ate at him and terrified his nights. He attended the VA in Buffalo for counseling on a regular basis during his entire life.
It is Larimer’s story I am going to tell. I was introduced to Larimer by former Albion Mayor Donna Rodden, who was a personal friend of his.
As a little background, Gen. Douglas MacArthur was commander of the Filipino-American forces on the Philippines when the Japanese attacked the island just a day after bombing Pearl Harbor. Most of the American Air Force on Bataan was destroyed. (This information was given to me by Boyd when I interviewed him 20 or more years ago.)
The Filipino-American defense of Bataan was hampered by many factors – a shortage of ammunition, food and medicine, as well as tanks, trucks and gasoline to fuel them. Filipino troops were poorly trained, most had never fired a weapon. American forces included non-combatant outfits and civilians. Yet the defenders of Bataan continued to hold their ground, without reinforcements and being re-supplied. As a result, disease, malnutrition, fatigue and a lack of basic supplies took their toll.
On March 11, 1942, MacArthur was ordered to Australia. General Wainwright took over on Corregidor as commander of the Philippine forces, while General King became commander of the Fil-American forces.
Around the later part of March, General King and his staff assessed the fighting capabilities of his forces and determined they could only fight at 30 percent of their efficiency. On April 3, 1942, the Japanese launched their all-out final offensive to take Bataan.
On April 9, General King surrendered his forces, after the Japanese had broken through the Fil-American’s last main line of resistance. What followed was one of the most horrific atrocities in history.
Even though trucks were available, the Japanese chose to force the prisoners, numbered between 60,000 and 80,000, to walk a reported 60 to 69 miles in temperatures exceeding 100 degrees.
During the march, prisoners were given little food or water and many died, from sun exposure, sickness and severe physical abuse.
Larimer told of an 18-year-old young man who was ill and was being held up on the arms of two of his fellow soldiers. When he stumbled and fell, a Japanese soldier bayoneted him and threw his body into the street. The prisoners were forced to stop and watch as a tank drove back and forth over his body until there was nothing left in the cobblestones but the shreds of his uniform.
On the entire march, Larimer said the men existed on a single ball of rice daily the size of their fist.
When they arrived at the end of their march, they were crowded into hot, metal box cars for a day-long ride to their prison camp. Prisoners were packed in so tight, they couldn’t sit down. If one died, and many did on the ride, they couldn’t fall down. There were no toilets and when one had to go to the bathroom or was sick from dysentery it ran down his legs and onto the other men.
At their prison camp, the prisoners were forced to work in Japanese factories, walking miles there and back every day. Larimer said they had been taught to keep their eyes open for anything, like medicine, which might be used to help their fellow soldiers, so when he spotted several bottles one day, he stuffed them in his pockets. It turns out it was saltpeter and nothing which would have benefited the prisoners. As punishment, Larimer was taken into the courtyard in freezing cold and forced to sit naked in a tub of water.
He said the Japanese guards took every opportunity to torture the prisoners. One guard in particular was extremely cruel to the men, and was responsible for the death of many. The prisoners were kept in a barracks, where a hole was cut in the floor for their bathroom needs. The men then slept above their human waste.
The day the word came that the Japanese had surrendered, Larimer said a group of prisoners grabbed the cruel guard and threw him down the hole, drowning him in their human waste.
Larimer returned home, a shell of his former self. I seem to recall he weighed about 80 pounds. But he recovered, married and lived a full life, serving many years as a justice of the peace in Albion.
He wasn’t bitter about his experiences. He simply said, “I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”