The Past Never Dies: Hundreds Gather to Remember Bataan Death March

The Forest Park Review is Now Partnering with The Village Free Press

By Michael Romain

SUNDAY, MAYWOOD — Second Lieutenant Jacques Vaughan Merrifield was born on March 26, 1918 in Amboy, Illinois, but raised at 1113 South Fifth Avenue in Maywood. His family and friends called him Jack, or PK, because he was the “preacher’s kid” son of the Rev. Roy and Mrs. Jeanette Merrifield.

He graduated Proviso East High School in 1938, the year the Yankees swept the Cubs in the World Series. After high school, Merrifield enrolled at the University of Chicago, where he studied while working as a paint mixer at a paint and varnish manufacturer.

In 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Selective Training and Service Act, establishing the first peacetime draft in America’s history. That same year, prompted by Roosevelt’s draft, Merrifield joined the “weekend warriors” of the 33rd Tank Company B of the Illinois National Guard.

The Company was based in Maywood at the Armory at Madison Street and Greenwood Avenue, about five blocks away from where Edwin Walker IV, Vice President of the Maywood Bataan Day Organization and the afternoon’s Master of Ceremonies, speaks to an audience of a few hundred seated under a white tent at the corner of 5th Avenue and Oak Street.

Maywood Bataan Day 2013 II
Edwin Walker IV speaking at Maywood Bataan Day 2013 (Maywood Bataan Day Organization).

“We’re sitting here on sacred ground to remember […],” Walker says. He speaks at a podium placed in the shadow of the Way Back Inn, a halfway home for recovering addicts. The house, built in 1858, is the oldest in town.

There isn’t a body or soul in the crowd that hasn’t felt war; only some here have felt it much more deeply than others. Among those gathered were veterans cast in various high dramas, tragedies that, considered together, span generations—from World War II to Korea to Vietnam to both Gulf Wars to Afghanistan and Iraq. Walker, 81, tough but jovial, is a former Marine Corps Officer and Anglican Priest whose life experience traverses much of that spectrum of tragedies.

On June 27, 1950, after President Truman ordered U.S. sea and air military assistance to the South Koreans in their struggle to defend against the North Korean invasion, Walker flew in as an Infantry Advisor with the 1st Korean Marine Division.

In 1962, after President Kennedy’s administration discovered that the Soviets had placed nuclear missiles on the island of Cuba, Walker, on just 24 hours notice, discovered himself en route to Guantanamo Bay. Five years later, Walker was in Vietnam serving in the 1st Force Reconnaissance Company as a commanding officer during the bloody Tet Offensive in Vietnam.

Now, fifty years later, informed by his first-hand witness to that perilous past, he speaks of a perilous future. With the U.S. still mired in Iraq and Afghanistan, the country’s attention has swarmed to the possibility of a third military confrontation—this time in Syria.

“Today, we live in a time of great peril,” Walker said, before mentioning a litany of hot-button domestic issues encapsulated in phrases such as “class warfare,” “political correctness” and “attacks on our constitutional government.”

Then, as now, fear and uncertainty contoured the national mood. The country faced threats both from abroad and at home. Then, as now, there was talk of dictators infringing on freedom. Then, as now, martial terms such as “warfare” and “attack” were woven seamlessly into casual civilian conversations. Then, as now, boys went off to be men.

Not long after he had reenlisted in the National Guard, First Sergeant Roger James Heilig, along with the rest of Maywood’s Company B, was called up to the army. After Roosevelt instituted the draft, Company B merged with National Guard companies from Wisconsin, Ohio and Kentucky to form what would become known as the 192nd Tank Battalion.

Heilig was born to Oscar A. and Viola Heilig on March 8, 1921 in Oak Park, but he lived at 2116 S. 16th Avenue in Maywood. He was also a member of Proviso East’s Class of 1938. During high school, he joined the National Guard at only sixteen years old. When he graduated high school, Heilig found work at the Jefferson Electric Company as a shipping clerk.

Jack Merrifield and Roger Heilig both trained at Fort Knox, Kentucky before arriving in the Philippines just two weeks before Pearl Harbor was attacked.

2nd Lt. Jacques Vaughn Merrifield
2nd Lt. Jacques Vaughn Merrifield (Proviso East Bataan Day Commemorative Research Project).
1st Sgt. Roger James Heilig
1st Sgt. Roger James Heilig (Proviso East Bataan Day Commemorative Research Project).

The Great Lakes Navy Ceremonial Band is setup and seated just west of the tent. Color guards from American Legion Posts all over the area, from Arlington Heights to Westchester, encircle the gathering sentry-like. Uniformed teenagers from the Proviso East Naval Junior ROTC pass out programs to late-arriving guests.

Not long after Walker’s opening comments and the Naval Band’s playing of both the Philippine and American national anthems, Bishop Reginald Saffo, pastor of United Faith Missionary Baptist Church in Maywood and himself a Vietnam veteran who served in the Air Force, walks to podium to pray. Saffo was stationed at Clark Air Base in the Philippines for two years.

“We’re here to commemorate ‘Kenosis’,” Saffo says, with preacherly intonation. Kenosis is Greek for emptiness. Saffo notes that the ultimate sacrifice a human can give is of oneself, before rephrasing the most famous line from President Kennedy’s inaugural address to illustrate the idea of self-emptying in the much less sublime context of everyday life. “Ask not what your community can do for you; ask what you can do for your community.” 89 young men from Maywood were deployed to the Philippines. Half wouldn’t make it back.

Leon Conner, 95, knows about kenosis in war. He served in World War II and lost a son to Vietnam. He also knows about kenosis in peacetime. Another son, the late Ralph Conner, served a term as Mayor of Maywood. Edwin Walker IV calls Conner “a great Maywood patriot,” before decorating him with an award. “Veterans of the Great War are leaving us at a rate of 1,000 a day,” Walker says.

During his remarks, Connor mentions a visit he once made to Gettysburg. He tells of sensing Lincoln’s spirit. He, like Saffo, also paraphrases a former president. It was Lincoln who once famously said, “The world will little note or long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” It is Conner who says, “We will never forget what they did 71 years ago […] at Bataan.”

First Sergeant Heilig and Second Lieutenant Merrifield were captured after American and Philippine forces, fighting side-by-side, surrendered the island to the Japanese in 1942. The Bataan Death March as we know it was something different to Jack. During the massive POW transfer, he knew it as dysentery, beatings, gangrene, near-starvation and neck-aggravating labor. One day, while chopping firewood in a camp kitchen, he nearly severed his big toe with an ax. To keep from starving, he and his fellow POW would scrounge the earth for seeds to rig a vegetable garden.

When the mothers of these young POW heard about the conditions of their sons, they marshaled the resolve to do something about it. Viola Heilig, Roger’s mother, would help found the American Bataan Clan (ABC), a group of anguished soldiers’ mothers who organized food drives and gathered clothes and other necessary items to send to their boys who were stuck in an island in the Pacific.

ABC would eventually play a critical role in establishing the Maywood Bataan Day Organization (MBDO) and in September 1942, it would help sponsor the first Bataan Day parade—the seed of the ceremony happening today.

Maywood Bataan Day 1942
Image of Maywood Bataan Day 1942 (Maywood Bataan Day Organization).

“Our young men fought valiantly,” Mayor Edwenna Perkins is saying, “even as they were overwhelmed by a brutal sneak attack by the Japanese […] Thanks to the testimony of those who made it back, we are painfully aware of the horrendous ‘Death March’ and the many atrocities that took place in the Japanese prisoner of war camps.”

The surviving soldiers weren’t the only ones to have recorded their experiences. Philippine natives such as Leticia Jimenez also bore witness. Jimenez is introduced by the Honorable Leo M. Herrera-Lim, the Philippine Consul General in Chicago. “There are more than 80,000 Philippinos in Chicago […] If you think there’s no Philippinos in your town, you should visit a hospital or a church,” he says, before noting that the sacrifices made on the island were essential to the overall war effort.

Jimenez was five when war visited her. It came suddenly. “Our family had horrendous experiences during that time, like mass death,” she says. “My father was tortured through no fault of his own. Babies were thrown in the air and bayoneted by the invaders and more. Our whole province was burned to the ground. When the war was over, we were homeless.”

Jimenez says that the experience left her embittered and full of hatred toward the invading Japanese. It gave her post-traumatic stress disorder. But it also forced her to make a decision to forgive. “I realized I couldn’t live in the past,” she says. “I asked my Creator to shower me with forgiveness. I channeled my hatred toward good use, like working for the Veterans Hospital for many years.”

Like Jimenez, Manong Jaime Pesongco, a batallion patrol leader during the time of the invasion, experienced the terror of war. “I have a scar in my head as permanent remembrance,” says his son, whose been chosen to read in his father’s stead.

Pesongco is hunched in a wheelchair. He’s stricken with a complication of illnesses, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and has been in-and-out of the hospital. Aging is a war unto itself. But he’s on the stage still. Listening to his son speaks his words.

Pesongco witnessed a litany of atrocities against his own people. Two female relatives of his were raped and hacked to death. He, too, saw infants bayoneted; their parents hacked to death. He was instrumental in ambushing a squad of Japanese soldiers struggling to cross a swollen river on a makeshift raft. By killing a high-level Japanese officer, the enemy’s resolve to attack was lessened, but their actions are still stuck in Pesongco’s head.

Illinois National Guard Captain Lionel Gonzalez serves in the same battalion as Heilig and Merrifield. And like them, he also witnessed war—in Afghanistan. “If you ask any of those men how they made it home, they’d say, ‘Because of the men to their left and their right,” Gonzalez says. Pesoncgo would likely agree.

Maywood Bataan Day 1963
Images of Maywood Bataan Day 1963 (Maywood Bataan Day Organization).

But the bond that ensures some soldiers’ survival in the heat of war also ensures that they’ll be haunted by the knowledge that some of their brothers were left behind. As with Jimenez, letting others know what happened and to whom and why may constitute a cathartic reverse march—a march back to life.

In an August 20, 1945, journal entry, Jack Merrifield wrote: “Allied planes over camp about 12:30 P. 5:35 P.B.-24 came over camp at retreat & dropped pamphlets. 7:35 P. Russian Commander arrived and declared us free men. 8:00 P. Nips disarmed and marched before Americans.”

As he wrote this, First Sergeant Roger Heilig’s body was missing. A year earlier in 1944, the ship transporting Heilig and 1,800 other POW was torpedoed in the South China Sea. Only nine of the 1,800 survived.

When Merrifield returned home, he eventually became Aide-de-camp for the 192nd Tank Battalion. During his tenure, he would author the official military report on the “weekend soldiers” of the 192nd Tank Battalion. The report would form the foundation of the Proviso East High School Bataan Commemorative Research Project, the source from which Jack’s and Roger’s stories were obtained for this article.

The past may be history, but it’s never dead. VFP

To read more stories of Maywood soldiers who were involved in the Bataan Death March, click here.

FIGHT TO KEEP MAYWOOD INFORMED

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3 thoughts on “The Past Never Dies: Hundreds Gather to Remember Bataan Death March”

  1. Roger Heilig is my Great Uncle and his sister still lives in Iowa. Nice to know that these brave men are still remembered today.

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