By Ed Clark
Above, E. Lee Rae Clark and the Bataan Death March, which he survived. Photo of Clark courtesy of the Clark Family Archives, and Bataan Death March photo, Public Domain.
Remember Pearl Harbor! What most people don’t remember is December 7, 1941, that day of infamy, was also a day of terror for the Philippines. That same day, the Japanese also bombed Clark Field, Nichols Field, and Manila, setting the stage for an invasion and occupation that lasted throughout World War II. It began a horrific, heroic adventure for E. Lee Rae Clark, my dad, and over 1,500 other members of his U.S. Marine 4th Regiment which had arrived in the Philippines on December 1 from Shanghai, China.
Lee Clark graduated at the top of his class in 1938 from St. Martin’s High School in Lacey, Washington and had enrolled in Washington State College. It turned out he was about fifty dollars short of making tuition, so he had to leave. Jobs were scarce so he joined the Marines and was sent to Shanghai, China in March of 1940.
On December 28th the Fourth Regiment was sent to the island of Corregidor in Manila Bay to install a beach defense. They had been led to believe the island was “bomb proof” because of prevailing winds. But the next morning they were greeted with an estimated 160 tons of bombs in the first three hours. The bombing of the four and a half square mile island continued non-stop every day until May 6, 1942 when the Japanese landed. General Jonathan Wainwright, who was put in charge by a retreating Douglas McArthur, had no choice but to surrender to the overwhelming Japanese army. More than 75,000 US and Philippine forces were taken prisoners of war, including the Marines of the 4th Regiment.
The POW’s were kept on the runways of a PBY aircraft area for two weeks in the blazing sun before being taken to Manila and paraded through the streets to Bilibid Prison. From there they were taken in boxcars to Camp 3, Cabanatuan where they were held until September of 1943. The Japanese then took the prisoners to Japan where they worked as slave laborers for Mitsubishi and other Japanese companies. Lee worked in a copper mine.
The work was arduous, the guards were brutal and the starvation rations were slim; one serving of rice per day. The men considered themselves lucky from time to time when their food was infested with worms or maggots because at least they had protein.
President Harry Truman ordered the atomic bomb to be dropped on Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945 and then on Nagasaki on August 9. Word of the war’s end didn’t reach the POWs until August 27th. They awoke to find the guards gone but remained in the camp for safety reasons. They made a US flag out of a red shirt, blue underwear and white Japanese G-strings and raised it over their camp on August 28, 1945, straining to remember the words to the Star Spangled Banner. Of the 71 officers in his regiment that were captured, two thirds died, with only 24 returning home. A third of the 1,469 enlisted men died in captivity. Lee Clark survived.
The flag-raising marked the end of Lee Clark’s captivity and the beginning of a second chance at life, something he embraced fully. Weighing about 95 pounds, he arrived in Oakland Hospital in early October 1945. After regaining much of his health, he headed for Bremerton to look up the dark haired beauty he had met before the war. Lee and Maryellen were married in February, had two children and four grandchildren. Lee made the most of his second chance at life, enjoying a wonderful family and a remarkable career that included running Spokane’s Medical Service Corporation for over 30 years. He retired at age 62 and moved to Maui.
E. Lee Rae Clark died in February of 1999 at 79. He never considered himself a hero, but he will always be a hero to me.