Unit: Battery E, 200th Coast Artillery

War fronts: Survivor of the Bataan Death March in the Philippines and prisoner of war for nearly 3 ½ years.

Through all the searches and all the beatings, Leonard L. Robinson held onto two objects during his 3 1/2-year captivity. One was a New Testament carried in his left breast pocket, the front cover almost ripped in half by a piece of shrapnel.

The other was a handwritten list of names.

As men of Battery E 200th Coast Artillery succumbed to starvation, disease or bullets, Robinson crossed them out, recording their dates of death.

For 41 months, Robinson was a prisoner of the Japanese. He survived the Bataan Death March, the subhuman conditions of Camp O'Donnell and the crowded "hell ships" that took him to Japan.

Prisoners had to choose to wake up, to eat and to stay alive. They forced their friends to do the same, insulting those who wanted to die until the would-be quitters became angry enough to keep going.

"It took a determined effort stay alive when everything went wrong," Robinson wrote in his book, "Forgotten Men," about his World War II experience.

"We had to make up our minds that the moldy, soupy, watery, wormy lugao was edible. Probably everyone who made it back to the states had to convince himself to keep eating some time during the three and a half years."

Dec. 8, 1941

In 1940, Robinson was an architectural engineering student at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

That year, with war already raging in Europe and between Japan and China, the United States Congress passed the Selective Training and Service Act. It required men between 21 and 35 to register with local draft boards. The draft began in October and required 12 months of service.

Draftees were selected by lottery, and Robinson's number was one of the first to come up. But enough people enlisted voluntarily that Robinson wasn't called until March 1941.

He was assigned to Battery E 200th Coast Artillery, an anti-aircraft unit, and arrived at Clark Air Base on Luzon Island of the Philippines in September 1941.Their mission was to deliver machine guns and return to America soon after they had trained the Filipino soldiers.

On Dec. 8, Robinson pulled guard duty from 4 to 6 a.m. He let his mind wander, thinking of home and returning to college. He thought he might become a pastor after witnessing real, in-the-field work missionaries were doing in the Philippines. He had just three months left for his year of service. In January, he was scheduled to return to America.

Across the International Date Line, it was Dec. 7.

Half of Robinson's platoon left for early breakfast that morning, leaving Robinson and the rest behind with the equipment. An hour and a half later, they hadn't returned.

Just wait until tomorrow, Robinson and the other men vowed. They'd make those guys wait even longer when it was their turn for early breakfast.

The crew finally showed up. The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, they said. A sneak attack. The entire Pacific fleet might have been destroyed.

Robinson didn't believe it, but the only radio on the base confirmed the news.

A commander ordered Robinson to get some rest before lunch. Robinson fell asleep and missed the truck that was to take him to the mess hall. He chased after it, but the engine drowned out his cries.

In minutes, everyone on the truck would be dead.

Robinson looked up and saw 50 heavy bombers and 70 pursuit planes approaching in two V-shaped formations.

"Here comes the Navy," he thought. He watched their silver bellies turn black and realized it was their bomb doors opening. The truck Robinson chased but did not catch was hit twice and blown into pieces.

Robinson thought of Psalm 23 in the Old Testament, a psalm that would carry him through the war: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters. He restores my soul. He guides me in the paths of righteousness for His name's sake."

Battle for Bataan

The Japanese nearly destroyed Clark Field and the nearby Fort Stotsenburg. Robinson's barracks had taken a direct hit.

Col. XXXX Reardon ordered Robinson and a battery clerk to make a roster of Battery E, in case records were destroyed during the war. He told them to make a note if anybody died. Robinson hand-copied XXXXX names.

He took a hot shower that day, the last he would get for next three years.

The battery moved almost every night as Japanese planes attacked from the air, and ground pushed American forces down the Bataan Peninsula. With no supplies coming in, American food rations were cut to half and then to a fourth, Robinson said. On Christmas Day, 1941, the men hoped for at least a semblance of a feast. Instead they got a spoonful of scrambled eggs, a cup of coffee and two biscuits -- one for lunch and one for supper.

A man asked if there was anything to put on the biscuit.

What do you want? The cook had asked. A jam sandwich?

Well, yeah, the soldier answered.

Break that biscuit apart and jam it together, then.

Robinson became a scout, looking for Japanese snipers and any extra food he could find. A banana plantation owner taught Robinson which plants were edible, including mangoes, bread fruit and papaya. Banana plant blossoms were used in salads; bread fruit seeds were boiled, reminding the men of white potatoes.

The men ate horses and mules from the Philippine Cavalry; a general sacrificed his pet horse, Robinson wrote in his book. Men hunted wild boar, wild chicken, monkeys, iguana and other small animals.

When Gen. Douglas MacArthur left for Australia on March 12, vowing "I shall return," he took the Americans' hopes for supplies or replacements with him. There would be "no Uncle Sam, not even an aunt or any cousins, and no one gives a hoot," Robinson wrote.

"We figured we would hold out as long as possible and then prepare for a final fight on the tip of Bataan. Slowly, it entered our minds that Bataan would probably become another Alamo."

On April 8, after four months of fighting, the Americans endured nine dive-bomb attacks. Robinson jumped for his foxhole and felt a concussion. The skin over his heart felt hot. He reached into his breast pocket and pulled out the New Testament, nearly ripped in half. He found a piece of shrapnel resting against his rib cage.

The Bible, he figures, saved his life.

The next morning, they could see the Japanese campfires as they prepared breakfast. The Americans had run out of food and nearly out of ammunition. They figured they would be killed when the battle began at daylight.

Maj. Gen. Edward P. King Jr., commander of the Philippine-American forces on the peninsula, disobeyed MacArthur's orders and surrendered on April 9, 1942.

Robinson remembers the morning clearly: "A dozen Japanese tanks came then, and we became POWs."

The Death March

Robinson's march began at Cabcaben Field. He left with the clothes on his body, a steel helmet, his New Testament, his billfold, a field bag and a pair of new shoes that were already hurting his feet.

The road was hilly and full of curves, cutting through the dense jungle. They men marched through the night, allowed a two-hour rest from 4 to 6 a.m. That's when they got their first drink of water. As they passed Japanese forces travelling the opposite direction, preparing for a coming assault against American forces at Corregidor, they were hit with rifle butts. Some were simply run over by tanks.

Robinson was forced to push Japanese field artillery weapons to the tops of hills, then retrace his steps to do it again.

Prisoners were searched at the whims of their captors. The Japanese took anything of value but were never interested in Robinson's old, battered billfold. Had they looked, they may have found the secret compartment with the Battery E roster.

During one search, a Japanese man reached into Robinson's breast pocket, pulling out the New Testament and throwing it to the ground.

"I reached down, picked up the New Testament, dusted it off and looked him straight in the eyes," Robinson wrote. The captor looked to see who had witnessed the rebuke, but he and Robinson were alone on that short curve in the road. He turned and continued toward Corrigedor while Robinson began to tremble.

Whenever they could, Filipino civilians risked their lives by throwing food and sugar cane to the marching prisoners. Robinson, Capt. Reardon and two friends, Bill Moore and Cecil Uzzel, shared anything they caught. The men sucked drops of moisture from the sugar cane and passed it on. A Navajo friend taught Robinson to keep his saliva flowing by placing a gumball-sized rock in his mouth.

The prisoners faced "sun treatments," kneeling upright in the sun, with no hat or helmet, for more than an hour. Those who slumped were hit with clubs across the heads.

Once, the captors lined Robinson and 11 other men along a bluff. Twelve Japanese riflemen, one for each prisoner, loaded their rifles and raised them to their shoulders. Robinson decided he would jump off the bluff as soon as he heard a shot and hope for the best.

With the shooters' fingers on the triggers, a Japanese officer stepped out of a building and shouted. The riflemen lowered their guns and walked away.

Robinson couldn't understand what the officer said, "but we didn't wait around for a second opinion," he said.

Of the 75,000 American and Filipino soldiers forced to march, between 5,000 and 10,000 Filipinos and 600 to 650 Americans died. They marched for four or more days, through deep dust, with no food and maybe a cup of water per day. Soldiers caught helping those too weak to continue were shot, bayonetted or beaten.

Camp O'Donnell would be worse.

In the camps

Robinson was among the first to arrive at Camp O'Donnell on April 13, 1942. The prisoners were searched again and anyone with a Japanese coin or other item was taken over a hill and shot, Robinson said. Those items must have been taken from a dead Japanese soldier, the captors reasoned, because a Japanese soldier would never trade with a POW.

Robinson became prisoner No. 331.

He, Moore and Uzzel settled first in one of the barracks. But as more marchers arrived, each wave in poorer health than the last, they moved outside away from the latrines - a single ditch through camp. The smell of disease was too overpowering. Men fought the blow flies for food nobody would eat in the states. Those too weak to wave away the flies simply let them land.

Just once a day, they lined up for a drink of water despite the intense tropical heat. Robinson, Moore and Uzzel shared one tea spoon of water to clean their dishes. They had no blankets, no cots.

Americans died fast, Robinson said, as disease and starvation ravaged the ranks. Robinson weighed 98 pounds at his hungriest and lost his two front teeth in a beating.

"A person could be in the best shape of the group, but if they gave up, the next morning they'd be dead," Robinson said.

It's estimated that some 2,200 Americans and 27,000 Filipinos died at O'Donnell.

Robinson stayed there six weeks. He worked burial detail, digging graves or covering his fellow soldiers.

"The events during the 48 days in O'Donnell are the hardest to write because it was a continuation of the ‘death march,'" he wrote in his book.

"Each day was like the previous one, only with fewer alive to ask, ‘Lord, help me make it through the night.' Death on Batann came to a sick, weakened, exhausted prisoner by the point of a bayonet. Death at O'Donnell was almost a welcome relief to a sick, hungry, diseased man."

Robinson was transported to a camp in Cabanatuan. The Japanese divided prisoners into groups of 10 men. If any of the 10 escaped, the other nine would be executed. If an entire group went missing, nine groups would be executed.

Here, Robinson suffered through diphtheria, malaria and a host of other sicknesses.

In September 1943, Robinson and other prisoners were transported to Japan in "hell ships," 12 men stuffed into a compartment 10 feet long and 10 feet wide. Dozens died on the trip, on his ship alone. He went to serve as acting Chaplain.

On board, a medical corpsman suffered appendicitis. An American doctor was forced to operate on the ship, Robinson said, but the Japanese did give him two cans of ether to keep the man unconscious. The doctor sterilized a razor blade and two donated spoons, used to keep the incision open, with a pot of boiling water that was supposed to be used for the prisoners' soup. The men watched the doctor remove the appendix and sew up his patient.

Robinson thinks it might be one of the greatest operations ever performed.

Robinson and Uzzel both survived the transport. Moore, Robinson later discovered, died when his hell ship sank.

Liberation

Robinson spent nearly two years in Niigata, Japan, working on the docks.

As the Allies advanced, prisoners studied discarded Japanese newspapers, taking them to Navy prisoners who could mark the progress by the shape of the islands on the maps.

By Aug. 16, 1945, the prisoners knew something big had happened. Japanese guards who had never flinched when a single bomber plane flew overhead suddenly watched them intensely -- especially B-29s. Rumors circulated that the war was over.

Robinson had never kept a diary until he got to the Philippines. When the war broke out, he destroyed it. He started another on Aug. 16, 1945: "I am determined to keep an accurate record of our liberation or our closing days, in case we do not survive."

Most of the guards were replaced with new faces, and these guards let the Americans come and go through the camp. Work details ended and the prisoners were given more food. "We had a special dinner tonight, goat stew and applesauce," Robinson noted on Aug. 18. (To a POW, food is always diary worthy.)

By Aug. 25, though the prisoners still had no official word about the progress of the war, American planes were dropping food and other supplies. One pilot dropped his barracks bags with his love letters, to give the prisoners some interesting reading while they waited.

"The planes with the ‘B' dropped three packages. One said that we were lucky because Niigata was next up for the atomic bomb, whatever that means," Robinson wrote.

Finally, on Sept. 4, Robinson was freed. He boarded a train to Tokyo and then flew to Okinawa. Gen. Joseph Stillwell met the plane, but would not return the prisoners' salute.

Men, the general told them. After what you've been through, you salute nobody.

Robinson passed under the Golden Gate Bridge at 4 a.m. on Oct. 3, four years after going overseas. Of the 1,800 men of the 200th Coast Artillery who went to the Philippines with Robinson, about 600 returned.

He had one more order to follow. XXXXXX pulled the Battery E roster out of his billfold and made a copy. He doesn't know how many men were lost after he went to Japan, but it was as accurate as he could make it.

He sent the original to Major Reardon. XXXX of XXXX names had been crossed out.

Contact Features Editor Kristy Gray at 307-266-0586 or kristy.gray@trib.com.

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