Sierra Vista Herald, Beatrice Richardson, Associated Press
BISBEE, Ariz. — It was 1942, a time when then Sgt. Dick Cooksley didn't know if he would celebrate his 22nd birthday.
But Monday the retired Army captain and survivor of the Bataan Death March in the Philippines during World War II celebrated his 91st birthday.
There were many soldiers — American and Filipinos — captured on the Bataan Peninsula who would not live to see other birthdays, as the inhumanity of their Japanese captors took the lives of many, Cooksley said.
The horror began soon after the surrender of nearly 80,000 American and Filipinos on April 3, 1942.
Cooksley, who was initially assigned to the 20th Army Group, was in the first bunch of about 20,000 prisoners-of-war to be forced march, heading to a former Army post, Camp O'Donnell.
"We were on the road for two-and-a -half days and they never fed us or gave us water," he said.
Those who fell out during the march were killed, bayoneted, beheaded or shot, Cooksley said, adding some other unique ways were found to kill unarmed prisoners.
The Japanese, who he called "Japs," using the term of the 1940s, made a game of running down the prisoners with trucks or tanks and particularly horrible was seeing a tank run over a fallen prisoner, crushing the unfortunate man to death, he said.
Death also visited any Filipino, from children to old people, who were caught providing the prisoners food or water, Cooksley added.
"The Filipinos are a great people, it didn't matter to them the risks they were taking, even knowing they could be killed," Cooksley said.
The Japanese guards were judge, jury and executioner and there were no appeals from their sentences, Cooksley said.
He spoke about his time during World War II, which except for four months, was as a POW, and his later service, when he was commissioned after the war and served in the Korean War at a birthday breakfast held at Mornings Cafe in Bisbee.
Proud he just had gotten his driver's license renewed for another five years, he pulled out the document and showed he has no restrictions in driving, not even wearing glasses.
His eyes are clear as cataract surgery done at the Veterans Affairs center in Tucson eliminated the need to wear spectacles while driving, although he does use them when reading.
"I don't take any kind of medicine," Cooksley said, adding "not even aspirin."
Standing at the counter, was Arlene Eastman, the owner of the cafe.
"He's in better physical shape than I am," Eastman said.
Customers constantly came up to Cooksley congratulating him on his ninth decade of life.
Every day the cafe is open Cooksley shows up around 8 a.m. for breakfast, sometimes a bacon omelet and toast other times a bowl of fruit and toast and always with orange juice and coffee.
During breakfast he spoke about more pleasant memories then those dark days as a Japanese POW.
The march from the capture point on the Bataan Peninsula was done in exhausting heat, he said.
The first leg of the march was nearly 60 miles and then the prisoners were put into sweltering box cars for a 10-mile train trip and then had to march another 10 miles to Camp O'Donnell.
Remembering back to radio news about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, Cooksley said he and others thought "It was another damn Orson Welles radio show," much like the "War of the Worlds" which put much of the East Coast of the U.S. into panic in the 1930s with people thinking they were being attacked by Martians.
But soon, officers began to arrive and then the soldiers knew something was happening, he said.
Stationed near Manila, he and others were moved to Southern Luzon, where Japanese invasion forces were expected, and did happen.
"We did fine for a while, then they started landing tanks and we had no artillery to fight them," Cooksley said.
On Christmas Day he had his last good meal, eating it in the Manila's University of Santo Tomas, a place which became a prison camp for civilians.
The next day the American and Filipino soldiers and other military were on the move, first to northern Luzon, the island which contains Manila, only to be force back to a final stand on the Bataan Peninsula.
Food was scarce.
"We ate anything we could get our hands on, including snakes," Cooksley said.
After three months of fighting on the peninsula, Army Maj. Gen. Edward P. King surrendered himself and the America and Filipino forces.
But, still Corregidor Island off the peninsula held out a little longer.
Cooksley and others would be moved around to various places on work details, building roads and bridges for the Japanese where the guards took out their anger on the prisons.
One time he worked in rock quarry "in my bare feet," he said.
Eventually in 1944, he and thousands of other prisoners were taken to Manila and placed on 15 Japanese ships.
It was not a pleasant cruise, because American submarines sank a dozen of the unmarked ships and only three, including his, made it to Hong Kong where the trio of surviving ships was sunk by American Army Air Force bombers.
Eventually the ships were found and the prisoners moved to mainland Japan where Cooksley was placed in a camp which worked a copper mine.
One night, he said, "I got caught sneaking out of the camp."
Most of the guards at the cooper mine camp had been wounded in China and were a little better in their treatment, although they could be harsh, he said.
When the war ended, a message to the prisoners was sent telling them to basically hijack a train and head for Tokyo, and with the tables turned there were no problems from the Japanese.
His pre-war weight of 170 pounds was down to 80.
Eventually returned to the United States and going through the processing, Cooksley said he got some of his back pay — he was owed a total of $4,000 for the nearly four years he wasn't paid.
Buying a uniform he joined others and for five days he was AWOL.
Remaining in the Army, and by then married to his wife Ruth, he eventually went to Fort Riley, Kansas, commissioned and was ordered to the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland for training to become an ordnance officer, staying at the Army post as an instructor.
In June 1950 he was given three days to report to Korea — where another war had broken out and remained in that theater until May 1952.
An assignment followed to Germany where his unit was responsible for ensuring the Fulda Gap was protected from a Soviet armored attack, which never came.
His last assignment was at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, where the commanding general ordered him to go to the Pentagon and obtain $500,000 in order to build a new officers club, which Cooksley accomplished.
On Aug. 31, 1960, he retired and immediately was offered a job by the Boy Scouts of America to build scout camps in California.
Later he was asked to run the Cochise County Boy Scout Council and build a camp in the Chiricahua Mountains.
Cooksley still is active in rifle classes and is a Golden Eagle in the National Rifle Association.
Now he volunteers two day a week at the Bisbee Restoration Museum, working for Ruth, as well as playing poker.
Although he has never been to the annual Bataan Death March at the White Sands Missile Range — although he has run in a couple of mini-events honoring the march on Fort Huachuca —Cooksley said he would like to go to White Sands to watch the event.
"I'll do it soon, I still got time," he said.
Information from: Sierra Vista Herald, http://www.svherald.com
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