Sixty years ago, April 9, 1942, the surrender of Bataan occurred. And, the now infamous 55 mile Death March began.
On Jan. 30, 1945, what was left of the American prisoners from Bataan and Corregidor, interred at Cabanatuan Prison Camp, on the island of Luzon, 60 miles from Manila, became free men again. And a new, elite, fighting force for this nation was born — the U.S. Army Rangers.
Two men who share that history live within 20 minutes of each other in Northern Virginia. One a West Point graduate, career Army officer, and a surviving "Ghost Soldier." The other, a member of that elite group of liberators, who, after World War II, returned to civilian life and has owned an operated an upholstery store on Route 1 since 1966.
Colonel Melvin H. Rosen, U.S. Army Retired, was not in Camp Cabanatuan that morning when Ranger Private First Class Vernon Abbott, and 120 other Rangers and their Filipino guerrilla comrades, burst through the front gates and rescued 513 American emaciated and emasculated prisoners. Rosen had landed in Japan the day before to continue his forced slave labor.
Rosen had been moved numerous time by the Japanese on three of their so-called "Hell Ships" to various locations in the Pacific to perform hard labor. His freedom did not occur until Sept. 10, 1945, nearly a month after the Japanese stopped fighting and eight days after their formal surrender in Tokyo Bay.
Why the delay? Because Rosen and others had been pressed into slave labor in Korea, then a Japanese territory. "We were liberated by the U.S.Army's Seventh Division at Inchon. Nobody knew we were there. Who would have thought Korea?" the 80-year-old Rosen stated as he sat in his Falls Church home on Arnold Lane.
A native of Gloucester, MA, Rosen enter the Army at 18 when he became a cadet at West Point Military Academy. He graduated in the Class of 1940. "We were allowed to pick our branch at that time, so I chose the Field Artillery and asked to be stationed at Fort Stotsenberg in the Philippines," Rosen explained.
"I figured we were going to be at war with Japan and, therefore, they must have the most and best of everything in the Philippines. How wrong I was," he stated.
"As soon we arrived, in January 1941, there was a fly over. I looked up and saw they were flying World War I planes. That's when I knew we had made a big mistake," Rosen remembered.
"We were fighting in World War I uniforms and using M 1903 rifles. The one I had a West Point was more up to date. We did get some M 1's shortly before the war."
"The Japanese hit us on December 8 right after Pearl Harbor. It was actually the same day because we were on the other side of the international date line. We went into the Bataan Peninsula as a defense strategy," he explained.
JAPANESE IMPERIAL HEADQUARTERS had allotted 50 days to conquer the Philippines. After that they intended to attack Australia and New Zealand. Then on to the Hawaiian Islands. They knew they would have very little resistance in Australia and New Zealand because there were little or no defenses," Rosen said.
"What they didn't count on was our tenacity. We held out for 150 days, until we ran out of everything including manpower. We fought with no hope of replacements. We had little or no water, hardly any food, no medicine or medical supplies, and finally no ammunition.
"When they broke through our lines they laid down an ultimatum to either surrender or they would slaughter everyone. That was when the surrender was negotiated, at 0600 hours on April 9. But we had no idea what was in store for us," Rosen recalled with the anguish still in his eyes.
"Our fight had given the United States what they needed most — time. We had completely disrupted the Japanese time schedule to accomplish their victory in the Pacific. But we couldn't have done it without the Filipino Scouts. They were some of the finest, best trained, most courageous, troops the U.S. Army ever had. And they were U.S. Army," Rosen insisted.
That's when Rosen was personally introduced to General Sherman's assessment that war is hell. "We assembled into groups of a thousand and marched out for Capas. There were 10,000 American and 50,000 Filipinos," he said.
"If somebody faltered because they were sick or needed water they were immediately bayoneted or beheaded. Even civilian Filipinos along the way who tried to give us water were beheaded by the Japanese," Rosen related. "One American who hesitated to relieve himself was bayoneted. Then the Japanese soldier used his foot on the American to free the bayonet because it had stuck in his victim's rib cage."
"At San Fernando they loaded us into box cars so tight that some died but could not fall over. When we unloaded at Capas we where marched the last six miles to Camp O'Donnell. It had been built by us and the Filipinos for a temporary Army Division of about 10,000. They put 55,000 of us in there," Rosen recalled.
"I was at O'Donnell for less than two months. But, in that time we buried 1,500 American and 26,000 Filipinos. They had one area the called the Zero Ward. It was named for the probability of you coming out alive if you went in. I was one of the very few lucky ones who did come out," he said.
IN JUNE 1942, the Americans were sent to Cabanatuan. "We were lined up and told to count off in Japanese. You learned to do that real fast because, otherwise, you could get a bayonet through the throat," he said. "I ended up in a group they put on a ship and sent to the penal colony of Davao on Mindinow."
That was how Rosen began his odyssey of degradation from one detention site to another on six different Japanese ships, three of which were designated their "Hell" ships. More than 800 prisoners were crammed into the 30 by 50 feet holds with no sanitary facilities and little food or water.
Over the course of time Rosen suffered wounds to his one ankle and side that eventually turned gangrene. But he survived without any loss of faculties and went on to spend a total of 34 and one half years on active duty, finally retiring in 1970.
After his recovery in a Boston hospital, he met and married his wife Olive, a professional acrobatic dancer and now professional photographer who teaches at the Smithsonian. "I was working at the Latin Quarter in Boston when we met," she confided. "I also preformed at the Flamingo in Las Vegas two months before Bugsy Segal was gunned down."
The Rosens have two children. A son in Woodland, CA, who is also a professional nature and woodland photographer, and a daughter, Barbara, who lives in Alexandria. "I went back to school when our son was a junior in high school to get a degree in commercial photography. I didn't want to just sit home after they were grown," Olive stated.
IN JUNE OF 1940, while Rosen was graduating from West Point and volunteering for his assignment in the Philippines, where he hoped for "the most and best of everything," another American, Vernon Abbott, from High Point, NC, had just turned 17 and enlisted in the Army. He was also destined for that same Pacific island cluster and Camp Cabanatuan.
Although he did not know it as a young enlistee in basic training at Fort Bragg, NC, his destiny was tied to that of the Ghost Soldiers of Bataan and Corregidor, men and places he didn't even know existed. He and his Filipino companions were also destined to fulfill the Japanese Field Code issued by Japanese War Leader Hedeki Tojo in January, 1941, 11 months prior to Pearl Harbor.
In denouncing the act of becoming a prisoner of war, Tojo had issued the following edict: "Have regard for your family. Rather than live and bear the shame of imprisonment by the enemy, the soldier must die and avoid leaving a dishonorable name." That same rationale carried over to how they viewed their captives.
That lead to the fanatical tenacity of the Japanese in the Pacific Theater as compared to the Italians and Germans in the European Theater. In the latter there were four captured for every one killed on the battlefield while in the former the ratio was 120 deaths for every one captured.
After basic training, Abbott ended up in Colorado Springs as part of a unit supposedly assigned to replace one that was shipping out. But as it turned out, his unit was shipped out with them.
"They sent us on to Australia with the 98th Field Artillery. We were supposed to train mules to transport heavy equipment in mountainous terrain," Abbott explained.
"But when we arrived, the Australians wouldn't let us unload the mules because of suspected hoof and mouth disease. They gave us horses instead. But they couldn't navigate the terrain as well," he said. Abbott and others had been recruited for this because they were experienced mule skinners.
From Australia, Abbott ended up in New Guinea with the 63rd Quartermaster. That's when the Army decided they needed something equivalent to the British Commandos.
THE MILITARY CALLED upon Lieutenant Colonel Henry Mucci, the Commanding Officer of the 6th Ranger Battalion, a new unit of elite infantry that had very little combat experience. But Mucci had personally commanded the Ranger training in the jungles of New Guinea for the past year.
A West Point graduate and second generation Italian American from Bridgeport, Conn., Mucci had been the Provost Marshall in Honolulu on Dec. 7, 1941. He was affectionately called "Little MacArthur" by his men because of his pipe smoking and flare for the theatrics of war.
"He was the best officer I ever served under. I'd have done anything for him. He was one of us. He stayed with the enlisted men even when he could have been with the officers," Abbott related.
"Our first assignment was to secure three islands in the Leyte harbor ahead of the main invasion," Abbott remembered. But, when they landed most of the Japanese had evacuated and they were left without a real fight, frustrating Mucci and his Rangers.
But Army Intelligence had become aware of a plan by the Japanese to kill all prisoners of war when an invasion of the Philippines by the American forces became imminent. It dealt with what the Japanese termed the "final disposition of prisoners."
That was when it was decided that a rescue team would be sent ahead of the main forces to rescue the remaining prisoners at Cabanatuan. That decision was made on January 26. They estimated they had no more than five days to save the prisoners before they were slaughtered.
Abbott, his fellow Rangers, and their Filipino co-warriors, coursed 50 miles in 24 hours. They traveled light with only two pistols each, a knife, no helmets, one canteen, and two days streamlined rations. But the rations were for the prisoners. They lived off the land and friendly natives they encountered.
"We crawled through miles of rice paddies and just kept moving," Abbott said. "A Black Widow fighter plane kept buzzing the Japanese to divert their attention as we moved forward."
BUT WHEN THEY GOT to Camp Cabanatuan and were laying by the side of the road, ready to attack, the Japanese moved a full Division past them. That delayed the raid for 24 hours, he noted.
According to reports, instructions to Captain Robert Prince, Ranger Assault Commander, were "Get inside and do a knifing job. We want no American in that camp killed." Abbott recalled, "When the bullets started flying around, the prisoners wouldn't come out because they thought the Japanese were going to kill them.
"When the prisoners realized who they were, they couldn't believe their eyes. I couldn't believe mine when I saw them. They way they were treated by the Japanese, I couldn't believe human being could treat other human beings like that," Abbott said. "It still brings tears in my eyes when I talk about it."
During the raid the Rangers and Filipinos suffered 17 dead and three wounded. But, they killed 500 Japanese and took out 12 enemy tanks.
As the Rangers personally carried out many of the gaunt, dazed prisoners they stepped over the Japanese who had fulfilled Tojo's directive. Abbott himself was pictured in military photographs at the time carrying T/Sgt. Charles Mortimer, a Cabanatuan survivor, to an awaiting ambulance.
Abbott saw additional action as a Ranger in various parts of the Pacific Theater after that raid. "The American forces were moving so fast they were leaving a lot of Japanese behind. We were sent in to get them, one way or the other," Abbott said.
"But, it wasn't long after the rescue mission that I got shipped home," Abbott related. "Just as my troop ship was passing under the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco Bay it was announced that the war had ended."
AFTER RELEASE FROM the service, Abbott returned to North Carolina and went to work in the furniture industry. "I moved to this area in 1966 to do upholstery work on cars. But soon after I started business I realized people around here didn't take care of their cars like we did back home," he confided.
"So, I decided to go into the furniture upholstery business instead. I started on Route 1 where the old Thieves Market was then to where the multiplex theater is now," he explained.
Abbott's Upholstery moved to its present location, 8727 D, Coopers Road, three years ago. He lives on Memorial Street with his 17-year-old daughter, by his second marriage, who attends Bryan High School.
At the conclusion of the final chapter of his book, "Ghost Soldiers," author Hampton Sides quotes from an unsigned diary recovered from the Cabanatuan Camp: "We are all ghosts now but once we were men."
Both Rosen and Abbott can rest assured they are neither ghost nor mere men. They are living, breathing, American heros.