March back to the Hamptons
Under a blazing hot sun, thousands of prisoners of war, slowly walk with little hope to survive excruciating conditions, starvation and seemingly endless miles, all to an uncertain destination and destiny. The weather is so humid it hurts to breathe let alone move. Normally, a person would need near constant water, but both food and water is scarce at best. Cigarettes and rice bowls are nearly the only sustenance during this diabolical march and the hope for liberation if not death is the only thoughts on their minds. This is the Tragedy of Bataan.
It began on April 9th, 1942 when nearly 140,000 American and Filipino soldiers surrendered to the Japanese Imperial Army after the invasion of the Philippines. The surrender was unprecedented in the history of the United States military. Prior to that dark day, the Allied forces on the island were already suffering from starvation and disease. But they had fought on valiantly. However, after witnessing their entire ammunition reserves get blown up in the mountains, they had no choice but to give up their fight in hopes of surviving.
The soldiers were made to walk to the Bataan Peninsula where they were rounded up and forced to march a grueling 65 miles from Mariveles to San Fernando. Men were divided into groups and walked for about five days. The tropical weather reached near 120 degrees with humidity. Walking in such scorching heat with no water for so far was a feat hard to imagine possible until they did it. The route to San Fernando was a long continuous stretch of a dusty road. The walking of the men threw the dust up into the air and made it impossible to focus ahead. Before reaching their destination, those who showed signs of weakness were bayonetted and left behind for dead. Trucks ran over the bodies that collapsed along the way, crushing them forever into the dirt. Their brothers could only look up and ahead as they walked over them and will themselves to soldier on; to try and survive.
When the remaining soldiers reached their destination, they endured yet another horror. Similar to what the Nazis did, they were transported by rail to War Camp O’Donnell where they were cramped into suffocating steel boxcars. At the camp, no food or water was available for a full three days. Even then, only a handful of rice a day was available, and shelter at the camp was scarce. The jungle hospitals ran short of medicine and the handicap and wounded were often left untreated. This was the beginning of a 3-½ year Japanese occupation.
One of the prisoners was William Rogers Birks, a first class seaman determined to go on despite the agony of daily existence. Perhaps his courage came from the many generations before him that fought for freedom and survival reaching as far back to 1640, when the Rogers family reached Southampton, NY. It was as if this battle was already imprinted in his blood. This was not a battle of men and guns but one of a man and his mind and the sheer will to survive.
News of his captivity reached his mother Isabel Rogers, but she had faith in her son due to their longtime family fighting traditions. In a local newspaper interview she said “I know he’s got plenty of guts, I feel certain that if there is any possible way for him to escape and come home, he will do it. He comes of a fighting bunch.” The Rogers family members had fought for this country in every way possible since the revolution.
His experiences of survival were in part a stroke of luck. In the days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, a piece of shrapnel cut his leg while stationed on the USS Peary in Manila Bay. He was transported to a hospital in Manila where he felt a sense of disappointment not being able to continue along with his brothers. As he recovered on his bed by the window, he watched his ship sail away to Darwin, Australia. He would later learn that the ship was attacked and sunk with few survivors. He recovered and joined the army only to end up one of the 75,000 captured in Manila in 1942. But the end of the war was nowhere near, and he was forced to march to and survive in the prison camp.
The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, resulted in the Japanese finally surrendering and a grueling 3 ½ years in the Japanese prison camp came to an end. William was at first quarantined but later sent back to his native New York where he was rehabilitated at the Saint Albans Naval Hospital in Queens. It was during his recovery that something wonderful would happen; he would meet his future wife, Miss Margaret McCarthy. She was an administrative assistant at the hospital, and they fast fell in love. Within a year of meeting, they married on June 15th, 1946.
Together they moved back to Westhampton Beach, where his family has lived since the early days of the settlement of Long Island. His mother Isabel left him a piece of land granted by King George III to the Rogers family as a wedding gift. Together they built a home and started a family, continuing the legacy of the Rogers. They had two children, William and Patricia.
Life at the homestead was the American dream for him. He could not imagine how lucky he was to be alive and to enjoy the simple pleasures of life. His love for the water always remained, and he often brought his family to Rogers Beach to appreciate just how lucky they were. To be back on familiar soil gave him a sense of belonging and a feeling of a fresh beginning knowing that his lineage would continue. Life continued peacefully for him at home until the age of 60 when he passed away from lung cancer in 1981. Ten years later I was born, and now I’m here telling this story.
The Tragedy of Bataan was the largest military surrender in American History, one that is often overlooked, deserving more recognition from our fellow Americans today. It was one of the worst military defeats our country has ever known yet these brave citizens carried on despite some of the most horrific conditions in wartime history and returned home. Today, let us remember the heroism of these soldiers and obtain a better appreciation of the greatest generation.