Thursday, November 03, 2022

Correcting history in Congress

Omuta barracks

Last year, your editor was searching for any legislation that mentioned the Bataan Death March. I found the following celebration of the life of Cpl Walter Gann from Mississippi. Although pleased that another POW received recognition, I was soon shocked at how poorly written the insertion was as well as how full of inaccuracies it was. No one also took the time to check the proper titles for his military awards.

As we are on mission to tell the incredible history of the American POWs of Japan, I contact the author, Congressman Trent Kelly's (R-MS) office, and offered to correct it. I offer the two versions that now appear in the Congressional Record for you to better understand the importance of getting the history right. 

Mr. Gann survived being a POW, but suffered severe PTSD and health issues the rest of his life making permanent employment impossible. By the grace of God and a wonderful family he lived a full life dying in 1980 at 58.


Congressional Record Vol. 167, No. 67

(Extensions of Remarks - April 19, 2021)

 HON. TRENT KELLY of mississippi 
 in the house of representatives 
 Monday, April 19, 2021 

 Mr. KELLY of Mississippi. Madam Speaker, I rise today to celebrate the life and service of Corporal Walter Gann, an American hero and an outstanding representation of the state of Mississippi. Walter Gann was born on January 31, 1922 to John and Mary Rogers Gann. 

He spent the first eighteen years of his life in Calhoun City, Mississippi. Only July 3, 1941 he joined the United States Army Air Forces in Jackson, Mississippi and was soon deployed to the Philippines. At eighteen years old Walter faced attack by the Japanese Imperial Army. After several months of battle with minimal food, supplies, and medical care, the American soldiers were forced to surrender; the Bataan Death March began on April 9, 1942. Corporal Gann, enduring shrapnel wounds and malnutrition, marched 65 miles in the blistering heat. 

 It is believed Corporal Gann arrived at Fukuoka POW Camp No. 1 on Kyushu Island where he faced barbaric treatment from Japanese guards. He was eventually transported to Japan; Gann and his fellow soldiers stood shoulder to shoulder on the Japanese hell ship. Men died by the dozens of suffocation, starvation, and dysentery. In Japan, Corporal Gann was a POW for three and a half years. 

 Corporal Gann was released upon American Victory and was immediately treated in a Washington hospital before returning home. His family rejoiced to see him alive and safe. He was called to testify in the war crime trials following WWII but could not attend because he was hospitalized. For the remainder of his life Corporal Gann bore the weight of all he had witnessed. 

 In 1949 Walter moved to Booneville, Mississippi and married Juanita Goddard. Together they raised four children. In August of 1963 his wife passed, and in November of that year his son was killed in a motorcycle accident. In 1970 he moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee until his death on October 14, 1980. He was laid to rest at Crossroads cemetery in Jumpertown, Mississippi with his wife and son. 

 In the course of his life Corporal Gann was awarded the Good Conduct Medal, a Purple Heart, the WWII Victory Medal, an A.P. Theater Medal with 1 Bronze Star, the American Defense Medal with 1 Bronze Star, and the Philippine Liberation Medal with 1 Bronze Star. He also received a letter from President Harry S. Truman thanking him for his service to the United States. 

 I am grateful for the service of Corporal Walter Gann and admire his commitment to faith, family, and country.


Congressional Record Vol. 167, No. 189
(Extensions of Remarks - October 27, 2021)

 HON. TRENT KELLY of mississippi 
 in the house of representatives 
 Wednesday, October 27, 2021 

 Mr. KELLY of Mississippi. Madam Speaker, I rise today to celebrate the life and service of Corporal Walter Gann, an American hero from Mississippi, who defended liberty against impossible odds in the Pacific during World War II. 

 Walter, born in Calhoun City on January 31, 1922, joined the U.S. Army on July 3, 1941. By July 15, he was aboard the USS Coolidge deployed to the Philippines as a member of the Army Signal Corps assigned to 409th Signal Company (Aviation) at Nichols Field outside Manila. The plan was to erect radar towers, but none of the equipment needed arrived on the ship with them. 

 Imperial Japan attacked the Philippines on December 8 and all the critical airfields were destroyed by December 10. Walter's company and the airmen were soon sent on combat duty in the Bataan Peninsula. He was assigned to U.S. Army Forces Far East (USAFFE) headquarters at Little Baguio near the tip of Bataan. 

 The troops on Bataan, running out of ammunition, food, and medicine, with no hope of resupply or reinforcement, were surrendered by their commanding officers on April 9, 1942. Walter was among 86,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war who were forced on what became known as the infamous Bataan Death March, one of World War II's worst war crimes. In the tropical sun, deprived of food, water, and mercy, the men trekked 65 miles up Bataan to a train station. There they were packed standing 100 to a boxcar for the next 24 miles. Men died where they stood. Survivors marched another eight miles to their first POW camp, O'Donnell. 

 Walter, POW No. 203, was shipped to Japan in July 1943 packed in the dark, fetid hold of the hell ship Clyde Maru with 500 other POWs. He was sent to be a slave laborer at Fukuoka No. 17 POW Camp attached to the Mitsui-owned Miike coal mine in southern Japan close to Nagasaki. Starved, beaten, and denied medical care, he was forced to dig coal in a primitive mine until the camp was liberated in September 1945. The coal mine is now a UNESCO Industrial World Heritage site, albeit without mention of the thousands of POWs held there or that the mine had remained reliant on manual labor and not modem machinery. 

Although asked to testify in Japan at the war crime trials held from 1946 to 1948, Mr. Gann could not return because he remained too sick from the various illnesses he suffered from during his three and one- half years as a POW. For the remainder of his life, Walter bore the weight of all the horror and inhumanity he had witnessed. When he was able to work, Walter was a truck driver. 

 In 1949, Walter moved to Booneville, Mississippi, and married Juanita Goddard. Together they raised four children. In 1963, he lost both his wife and his stepson. In his later years, he lived in Chattanooga, Tennessee, until he passed away on October 14, 1980. 

 During his lifetime, Walter was awarded the Good Conduct Medal, the Purple Heart, the World War II Victory Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with one bronze campaign star, the American Defense Service Medal with one bronze campaign star, and the Philippine Defense Medal. He also received a letter from President Harry S. Truman thanking him for his service. Posthumously, he received the Bronze Star Medal for meritorious achievement, the Prisoner of War Medal, and the Presidential Unit Citation with two Bronze Oak Leaf Clusters. 

I am grateful for Corporal Walter Gann's commitment to faith, family, and democracy. I am humbled by his sacrifices for our country.

Left behind by Congress, again

Hirohata POW Camp Sept 2, 1945

An effort to honor America’s POWs leaves far too many behind

By Patrick Regan And Mindy Kotler Smith, Opinion Contributors

The Hill, 9/16/22

Today, on National POW/MIA Recognition Day, we pause to remember the suffering of all American prisoners of war.

The Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor Gold Medal Act (S. 1079), now pending in Congress, seeks to award Congressional Gold Medals to some of those POWs who fought the Japanese in the early months of World War II. Credit to Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) for championing the bill and working to honor these men and women whose stories and sacrifices must not be forgotten.

But the act in its current form is insufficient.

As written, it would honor only those who served on Bataan and Corregidor in the Philippines. It leaves out Americans who also tried with no hope of resupply and antiquated weapons to stave off Japan’s lightning advance through Southeast Asia from Aug. 8, 1941, to June 10, 1942 — in Midway, Wake Island, Guam, Java, all of the Philippine Islands, the Aleutians and at sea.

These are the Americans who President Franklin D. Roosevelt said in August 1943, when the outcome of WWII was still uncertain, “will be remembered so long as men continue to respect bravery, devotion, and determination.” This still holds true.

The Philippines is often central to the most-common stories of American POW suffering and survival, in part because that is where so many endured the infamous Bataan Death March. The Americans there held out for months in 1942 on the Bataan peninsula of Luzon and finally at the tiny fortress islands in Manila Bay, the best known being Corregidor, until they could no longer hold off the resupplied Japanese.

But the stories of survival and subsequent Japanese brutality are no less remarkable in other parts of the Philippines or the Pacific theater.

The few hundred Marines and Navy sailors left to defend Guam were overrun by the Japanese in a matter of days by Dec. 10, 1941. Guam was the first American territory to be occupied by the Japanese during the war. The battle’s survivors would endure nearly the entire war as prisoners of the enemy.

At Wake Island, more than 400 Marines, 1,200 unarmed civilians and 45 Chamorro Pan Am airline employees heroically held off a Japanese armada for an unheard of nearly two weeks from Dec. 8-Dec 23, 1941. Marine Corps aviator Maj. Henry T. Elrod —aka Hammerin’ Hank — was the first U.S. pilot to sink a warship from a fighter plane. Elrod was killed on the last day of the battle and was the first aviator to receive the Medal of Honor in World War II.

Hundreds of miles south of the Indonesian island Java, on March 1, 1942, the USS Edsalls skipper, Lt. Joshua Nix of Memphis, Tenn., laid down smokescreens and followed a series of evasive maneuvers that so frustrated four Japanese warships that air support had to be called to sink her. It took two ferocious hours of combat to end the Edsall. A small number of the 187 men on board were rescued. Their beheaded bodies were discovered in a mass grave in Celebes after the war.

Seventy-seven years ago this month, American rescue teams liberated American and Allied POWs scattered throughout Japan’s 775 POW camps across the Pacific. In Japan, one of those was Hirohata Camp 12-B, south of Osaka. Hirohata housed 300 Americans, one Australian and one Englishman. The men were survivors from Guam, Wake Island, all over the Philippines, USS Yorktown and USS Penguin.

When word came to camp in late August that the war was over, Marine gunner Earl B. Ercanbrack gathered the Americans in the courtyard of the camp, where for the previous two years they had counted off in Japanese every morning before going off to backbreaking slave labor in a Nippon Steel mill and on its dock. The civilian overseers treated them as criminals and subjected them to ridicule and cruel, capricious punishments.

According to what Ercanbrack later told his hometown newspaper, The Monitor in McAllen, Texas, he ordered the camp’s guards to remove the Japanese flag from the 75-foot pole in the courtyard. It was replaced by an American flag hastily sewn together using a white parachute, red curtain and two blue Japanese shirts.

As the makeshift American flag rose over the camp, someone started singing “God Bless America.” Others joined in, until 300 American POWs — finally free — crescendoed in unison with the song’s final line: “God bless America, my home sweet home.”

Think about those 300 men — tortured, starved and ordered to work as slave labor for years — proudly uniting to sing “God Bless America.” Now imagine awarding Congressional Gold Medals to only those in that 300 who had served in Bataan and Corregidor.

It would be wise for Congress to follow the Hirohata prisoners’ example of unity and revise the bill to award a Congressional Gold Medal to all Americans who participated in those first desperate battles of WWII in the Pacific.

Ercanbrack, who fought and was captured at Guam and organized the U.S. flag raising in the Hirohata camp, would not be eligible for the Gold Medal now under consideration. That’s just not good enough.

Patrick Regan and Mindy Kotler Smith are members of the American Defenders of Bataan and the Corregidor Memorial Society and are descendants of men who fought in The Philippines. Regan’s grandfather, U.S. Army Air Corps SSgt Donald Regan, survived the Bataan Death March and Nippon Steel’s Hirohata POW camp in Japan.