WEST JORDAN — Seventy years ago, the Bing Crosby song "White Christmas" meant salvation for a Utah prisoner of war.
It climaxed Eugene Nielsen’s miraculous escape from a brutal prisoner-of-war massacre in the closing months of World War II.
Now Nielsen's daughter, Lorna Murray, is using her father's incredible experience to help high school students define what heroes are made of. The fact that he survived led to the rescue of 500 other prisoners of war.
At the beginning of World War II, Nielsen was young, in the Army and stationed at Corregidor in the Philippines.
In May 1942, Japanese forces closed in, capturing thousands of Americans. Nielsen was taken to a POW camp on Palawan Island in the Philippines and held captive for almost three years.
A Hollywood film called "The Great Raid" opens with a brutal massacre at a POW camp on Palawan Island. American soldiers scramble into air-raid shelters, questioning each other as to what was going on. Nielsen was in one of those bunkers on Dec. 14, 1944.
"Then they started pouring gas into the holes. I couldn't believe they were doing it," he said in a 1994 interview.
"I know a lot of this here is hard to believe. I don't know why so much of it happened to me," he said in 2004.
"It was really the worst day of his life and the worst event that could happen to anyone," said Murray, a teacher at Copper Hills High School.
Murray's class recently watched KSL-TV's two previous stories about her father's astonishing escape.
"They were firing rifles down in the hole, throwing hand grenades; a machine gun every now and then," Nielsen said in 1994. "I realized I had to make a break some way or another."
Somehow, Nielsen climbed out of the bunker, through barbed-wire, and jumped off a 50-foot cliff, catching a tree branch on the way down.
"It was just enough to break my fall. I just rode it down," he said.
Nielsen hid for hours on the beach and heard Japanese guards cheering as they killed, or tortured, American prisoners.
"There were guys up there begging to be shot," he recalled.
When he decided to jump in the ocean and swim, guards fired hundreds of shots at him.
"I got hit in my leg, and a bullet went up into my hip. I got hit right under my arm," Nielsen said. "I was in bad shape. I didn't think I had a chance."
Wounded three times, he just kept swimming. A big fish, he worried it was a shark, circled him for hours.
"I could reach out and touch it sometimes. It was so close," Nielsen said.
He later found out it was a dugong, a sea cow.
Thirteen hours later, he reached another part of Palawan Island. For the first two days of his 12 days of Christmas, Nielsen hid out in a swamp.
"(There were) lots of animals in there — mosquitoes, snakes, crocodiles," he said.
For 10 more days he marched through jungles, hooking up with anti-Japanese guerillas. They traveled through Japanese territory for days, on foot, on a sailboat, on water buffalos.
On Dec. 26, 1944, they walked into a camp where he met two American military advisers. They reported Nielsen's survival by radio, and the voice of Bing Crosby came back over the airwaves.
"He sang the first two lines of 'White Christmas.' I never heard it before," Nielsen said, voice breaking. "I never did forget it."
Nielsen's report of the massacre triggered one of the most daring rescues of World War II. Realizing the Japanese intended to kill all prisoners, Army Rangers mounted "The Great Raid." Sneaking 30 miles behind Japanese lines, they attacked another POW camp, killed the guards and rescued 500 American prisoners.
It might never have happened if Nielsen had just given up and died.
"He survived what a lot of people could not have survived," said Saige Martinez, a student in Murray's class.3 comments on this story
Nielsen's daughter shares her father's story to teach that heroes usually don't look and act like Captain America. They are ordinary people who rise to extraordinary circumstances.
"We have to promise them, and we have to promise ourselves, that we will remember what they gave us," Murray told the students.
The Nielsen family celebrates “Free Day” every Dec. 14, and Nielsen was on the verge of tears every time he heard “White Christmas.”
Nielsen lived 67 years beyond that terrible day in 1944. He died in 2011, at the ripe old age of 95.