By Helen Peralta
As a World War II prisoner of war, Agapito E. Silva said death often marched beside him while battling in the Phillippines. Having learned the art of survival is what allows him to vividly recount memories of a war that continues to haunt him.
"I never gave up hope," recalled 83-year-old Silva of San Marcel, N.M. "Guys that gave up hope never made it."
As the summer of 1941 began to wane, then-22-year-old Silva was forced to leave his family's side to join the 200th Coast Artillery Regiment en route to the Phillipines. Washington officials called Gen. Douglas MacArthur back to active duty because it was widely known that few knew as much as he about the Philippines. The young New Mexico native departed for his overseas trip in August of 1941 from Fort Bliss, Texas, arriving in the Philippines in September of 1941.
Even before Pearl Harbor, the Japanese were on the offensive and needed a powerful base. They looked to the Philippines because it was already established with military support. The Japanese had hoped to parlay occupation of the Philippines to take Australia. A mere three hours after the Pearl Harbor air raids, the Japanese struck Clark Field and Manila and a naval base at Cavite, wiping out most of the American troops' supplies in the Philippines and destroying half their fleet of aircraft.
On the ground, Silva and the anti-aircraft troops were left with little to use for fighting back.
"I think we had 75-millimeter guns, 3-inch guns," Silva recalled. "[The Americans] shot several fighters that were strafing us in Clark Field. Our units shot two over there in Bataan.'
But Silva says their guns were seldom effective against the enemy planes, unless they were flying low enough. Most of the time, the planes were out of range and rendered their weapons useless.
"We had to just do with what we had," said Silva, citing the rusted 1903-era Springfield rifles, 3-inch in diameter anti-aircraft guns, and 37-mm guns as part of the limited selection of anti-aircraft artillery the soldiers were forced to use in combat.
The constant Japanese bombardment coupled with inadequate military conditions took a toll on GIs fighting on the Bataan Peninsula.
"What really hurt us was the Japanese using tanks against us ... We saw no tanks," Silva said. "There were about 70,000 of us against 300,000 Japanese. What are you going to do?"
To make matters worse, food was in short supply.
"Prior to us surrendering, we were on one-third rations. … They had nothing to feed us," said Silva, adding that they resorted to hunting down monkeys and iguanas and eating the horses and mules brought into Bataan.
Combat in the Philippine jungles and a lack of proper medications also made soldiers vulnerable to illness. "Every one of us had malaria, dengue fever, all kinds of fever that are in the tropics," he said. Other maladies such as diarrhea, dysentery and beriberi also were pervasive.
"The mosquitoes were rampant and we had no quinine," he said, referring to the easily dissolvable crystalline alkaloid used to treat malaria.
The most intense Japanese fighting came in the fourth month of combat on Bataan. After a devastating five-hour raid by the Japanese, more than three-fourths of the American troops, along with the allied Filipino counterparts, were forced to surrender under orders of Brig. Gen. Edward P. King.
Fearing a Japanese takeover after the fall of Bataan on April 9, Silva and several American soldiers fled to the island of Corregidor, where they were still actively fighting.
The trek to Corregidor was sometimes frustrated further by Filipino informants.
"The Japanese would give them 25 pesos for an American being turned in. So, it was kind of dangerous to go out there," said Silva, referring to their destination in the Bataan jungle, or anywhere else in the Philippines.
In the meantime, the Japanese continued shelling and bombing on nearby Cavite and were closing in on Corregidor. Silva would once again experience a brush with death.
"The first mortar they fired hit right behind, across from where I was at. All the other guys got shrapnel in their faces ... I was sitting ... and the shrapnel went low and I got a piece of shrapnel in the back of my thigh."
Shards of shrapnel remain embedded in his thigh to this day.
A month after the fierce fighting in Corregidor, Silva found his country surrendering once again: Corregidor to the Japanese on May 6, 1942. Now Silva's life was in the hands of the Japanese.
Hopes for a march to freedom had diminished. The Japanese took their prisoners of war to Bilibid prisoner-of-war camp and then to Camp Cabanatuan before shipping them to Omuta, Japan. With another 500 men, Silva boarded cattle boats and what the POWs called "Hellships," unmarked Japanese freighters used to transport American POWs. Silva says because they were unmarked, the Hellships were often mistakenly targeted by American fighters; however, his was never attacked.
Silva would spend 3 1/2 years in the Japanese POW camps before the war ended in September of 1945. He and more than 1,900 American POWs were forced to work in coal mine camps encircled by electrical fences.
The POWs faced constant danger laboring in the coal mines. It was so unbearable, Silva says, that many of the men would resort to self-inflicted injuries, such as breaking their arms and legs, to avoid working 10- to 12-hour days. Although Silva never resorted to such measures, he was not immune to injury. In correspondence subsequent to being interviewed, he wrote of being injured while working in a coal mine when the ceiling caved in, causing him to sustain four broken ribs, a fractured pelvis and a crushed vertebrae in the lower back. These injuries came after having twice been wounded in battle, once each in Bataan and Corregidor.
The unbearable conditions came to a merciful end in August of 1945, when Americans dropped a pair of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, thereby ending the war.
Silva, who earned the rank of Corporal, was discharged in December of 1945; he earned many decorations, including a Distinguished Unit Badge.
He married Socorro Vigil in 1946, and the couple raised their seven children -- Frederick, Michael, Patricia, Agapito Jr., Mauricio, Jerome and Erlinda -- in Silva's home state of New Mexico.
Silva considers himself fortunate to be alive.
"I had about three or four close calls with death," he said. "I was lucky, I guess."
Mr. Silva was interviewed in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on November 30, 2001, by Brian Lucero.