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Hamptons Life

Nov 14, 2011 2:23 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Bataan Death March Has Local Ties

Dec 5, 2011 10:05 AM

Not one historian is on camera in writer/producer Jan Thompson’s latest television and radio series on the Bataan Death March, the forcible transfer of more than 75,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war by the Imperial Japanese Army at the outset of World War II.

The experts didn’t have what she was looking for, Ms. Thompson said. She wanted survivors. She wanted their stories. She wanted to turn those memories into a documentary, which she has, and, by a stroke of luck, she got actor and East End part-timer Alec Baldwin to narrate it.

“When I told the men that Alec was a part of this, they couldn’t believe someone of this class of celebrity would care about them,” Ms. Thompson said during a telephone interview last week from her home in Illinois. “This has been the whole thing. They don’t think of themselves as heroes. No one’s really told their story.”

The 30-minute television documentary, “The Tragedy of Bataan,” chronicles the fall of the Philippines and the Bataan Death March in the early months of World War II. It features never-before-seen Japanese propaganda film footage and first-person accounts by more than 20 survivors, including Captain Albert Brown, who was 101 at the time of the interview and died in August at age 105. He had been the oldest survivor of the Bataan Death March.

“The Tragedy of Bataan” debuted two weeks ago on PBS stations across the country, Ms. Thompson said, and will be distributed by PBS Home Video next month.

As soon as the documentary hits stores, Quogue resident Patti Birks plans to show it at local schools, beginning in Westhampton Beach in December. After all, she has a personal connection to the subject matter.

Her father, the late William Rogers Birks, was a prisoner of war in the Bataan Death March. He is featured on the documentary website’s “Wall of Heroes” photo gallery and personal story area.

“Patti inspired me to expand the ‘Wall of Heroes,’” Ms. Thompson said. “And I’m starting to get other stories in. I know my web designer is going to kill me, but they are all of these little stories that are never going to make it into the history books. I think this will help these stories be found. It’s going to go like wildfire.”

Mr. Birks’s story begins on August 21, 1920, when he was born in Newark, New Jersey. He joined the United States Navy when he was 17, lying about his age so he could enlist. At the time, the handsome young man stood 5 feet 7 inches and weighed 140 pounds. He wanted to be a seaman, Ms. Birks recalled last week at the Quogue VFW Post 5350, her father’s post. He loved the water.

Fast forward to December 10, 1941, three days after the Imperial Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Mr. Birks was on the USS Peary stationed in Manila Bay in the Philippines. The Japanese began bombing and Mr. Birks was hit by shrapnel, suffering a leg wound. He was taken off the ship and put in a hospital in Manila.

“The ship was refurbished and sailed away without him on it,” Ms. Birks said. “He watched it go from the window and he was thinking he was a big loser.”

She continued, “Everyone got blown up on that ship in Darwin, Australia, 144 people.”

Manila was declared an open city, Ms. Birks said, meaning that the ruling government abandoned all defense efforts. Mr. Birks and a friend fled the hospital and joined up with U.S. Army troops.

“You did what you had to do in those days,” said 91-year-old Navy veteran Charles Bass, who was listening in on the interview. He was born the same year as Mr. Birks.

American and Filipino troops in the Philippines repelled the Imperial Japanese for several months, then retreated to the Bataan Peninsula to wait for supplies and reinforcements. But the Japanese had cut off all routes to the Philippines, and the troops—weakened by malnourishment, dysentery and malaria—were forced to surrender on April 9, 1942. Mr. Birks was among those who surrendered.

The American and Filipino prisoners were viewed as captives. Approximately 75,000 men, including Mr. Birks, were forced to march 66 miles north to prison camps, which is now referred to as the “Bataan Death March.” It is estimated that more than 650 American soldiers and 10,000 Filipinos died from illness and exhaustion during the march, or were murdered by the Japanese along the way.

By August 6, 1944, Mr. Birks was forced to labor at Kamioka, a prisoner-of-war camp in Nagoya, Japan, his daughter reported. Exactly one year later, he escaped after President Harry Truman dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

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