Seventy-five years ago, on September 2, 1945, General Douglas MacArthur, on the deck of the battleship USS Missouri accepted the formal surrender of Japan, ending six years of war. It is estimated that some 60 million people, soldiers, sailors, civilians, rich, poor, old, young lost their lives during World War II. A week later, Leonard L. Robinson awoke on a train from Niigata to Yokohama, Japan. As the sun rose, the group of POWs saw “the unbelievable destruction of Tokyo. Almost every building was destroyed with only a few solitary walls standing.” The train continued to Yokohama where he saw the first U.S. soldiers since his surrender on Bataan three and a half years prior.
After Leonard was drafted, he was stationed to Clark Airfield in the Philippines. One month later, news spread that the Japanese attacked the U.S. Navy in Pearl Harbor. It was December 7, 1941 – “a date which will live in infamy.” Late that morning, Japanese land-based bombers and navy fighters swept across the Philippines and decimated the American B-17 bombers and P-40 fighters neatly parked on Clark Field. Leonard, assigned to an anti-aircraft gun, was powerless to challenge them as the ammunition, manufactured during WWI, largely failed to ignite. Later that day, an estimated 70,000 well-trained, highly disciplined and supplied Japanese soldiers landed in Lingayen Gulf north of Manila and began their inexorable march toward the American Army. The next day, President Roosevelt declared that a state of war existed between the Empire of Japan and the United States. Shortly thereafter, Adolf Hitler declared war against the United States. The world had descended into yet another brutal and all-encompassing war.
The American and Filipino soldiers fought a valiant rear-guard action, but they barely slowed the Japanese. The Japanese enjoyed complete air superiority and seemed to slow their advance only to sleep and eat. In the alternating panic and plain old disorganization, the American forces found themselves bottled up on the peninsula of Bataan with little food, fresh water, medicine or ammunition. The standing orders were to fight to the death, but by now, the men weakened by disease, lack of food and with little hope, the order rang hollow.
The morning of April 9, 1942, broke clear and pleasantly cool for the tropics. Word passed that General King unconditionally surrendered all U.S. forces. When the Japanese materialized out of the jungle, rifles at the ready, Leonard and his fellow soldiers wondered what was in store. More than one survivor later said that if they could have seen the future, they would have fought to the last round and used that last bullet on themselves. With the point of their bayonets, the Japanese started the men on the first steps of what would come to be known as the Bataan Death March.
Much has been written about the Bataan Death March. The prisoners were given no food or water for six days. Those who fell out of ranks, tried to help a comrade or drink from a mud puddle were severely beaten, bayoneted or shot. 4,000 U.S. soldiers perished on the journey.
In 1943, Leonard and many other American prisoners were loaded into what became known as “hell ships” to be transported to Japan as slave laborers. The story of the hell ships is one of men being forced into the steel hold of an old steamer, deprived of sanitation, provided only a starvation diet with the “loss of any remaining human dignity or decency.” On some of the hell ships, prisoners were allowed out of the hold for a short stretch on the deck. The conditions were so horrendous that some men chose jump off the ship to their certain death in the vast ocean rather than return to the hold. So the Japanese just pulled up the ladders and left the men in the hold until they arrived at their destination.
Once in Japan, Leonard was moved to the harbor city of Niigata, Japan, where he found himself assigned to a 50-man team loading and unloading ships. The POWs were expected to unload 15 tons of freight per man per day. Of the nearly 70,000 men that surrendered in Bataan, one in three died in captivity.
For many, the ordeal of the Bataan Death March and the brutality of their subsequent slavery justifiably changed their lives. But Leonard was different. After returning home, Leonard finished college, took a job as an engineer, raised a beautiful family and later earned a doctorate of theology. He dedicated his retirement years as a pastor in North Casper, helping veterans, rodeo cowboys, the sick and people down on their luck. Leonard participated in a study conducted by the University of Maryland with a small group of other veterans who, despite their horrendous experiences during the war, show no signs of what is now known to be post-traumatic stress syndrome. The conclusion was that Leonard and a small group of survivors had three common characteristics: they all had faith in God, they talked about what happened to them and they did not carry a grudge.
Editor’s note: Speaker Steve Harshman drafted the bill to name I-25 Center Street Bridge over the North Plate River in Casper after Robinson. Organized by the Friends of the Wyoming Veterans Museum, the bridge was dedicated Sept. 15 in Robinson’s honor as the Dr. Leonard L. Robinson Memorial Bridge. Joe MacGuire, a member of The Friends of the Wyoming Veterans Museum Board of Directors, said it was a great time for attendees to come together, enjoy a meal, fellowship and recognize a great citizen of central Wyoming. “In typical Casper fashion, people just started calling to find out what they could do,” MacGuire said, including the Clarion Hotel with parking; NCHS Mustang Battalion, the colors; Hannah Steensland, National Anthem; SFC Shane Vincent to present a wreath from Nate’s; and Governor Mark Gordon, Kim Walker, Pepsi, Indian Ice and DK Hauling. Special thanks to David Calar and NOV Tuboscope for the food. A special note of thanks to another local hero, the late Stan Lowe, one of the driving forces behind the Wyoming State Veterans Museum and the Wyoming State Veterans Cemetery.
Catch the latest in Opinion
Get opinion pieces, letters and editorials sent directly to your inbox weekly!