Sunday, August 9, 2009


A True Survivor

Tommy Birdsong was a true survivor. Being a prisoner of war, especially on the Pacific islands during World War II, was not like "Hogan’s Heroes" nor the over hyped, over staged, and immensely popular "Survival" shows on television today. It was worse than Andersonville, worse than Elmira, and worse than Alcatraz. Birdsong and thousands of Americans were humiliated, brutalized, and tortured beyond any standard of human decency. Birdsong survived. Most didn’t.

Tommy Birdsong, a native of Gordon, Georgia, was a young golf pro in Jacksonville, Florida. This best years of his life were ahead of him. Birdsong was one of the first men drafted in the National Guard in 1940. After training in Texas, he was sent to San Francisco and thence to the Philippines in July 1941.

Just three days before the invasion at Pearl Harbor, Birdsong and his artillery unit were transferred to Corregidor, an island in the Philippines. The Japanese attacked on December 7th with two hundred thousand men against seventeen thousand Americans and some sixty thousand Philippine soldiers in the Corregidor defense lines. In a television interview on "Dublin Today," Birdsong said, " It always like to say this, they say it was a surprise, but it wasn’t a surprise to us. Because McArthur was the commanding general there at the time. He moved us into the field with live ammunition three days before they bombed us - so they knew about it. We were ready. We thought we were ready, of course."

The Americans were overrun by two thousand Japanese who were in the initial amphibious assault. The invaders also landed in North Luzon, up from Bataan. Japanese fighters attacked Corregidor and the surrounding islands. Birdsong's anti-aircraft battery shot down seventeen planes before it was transferred to Bataan, a more easily defendable peninsula on the flank of Corregidor. Day after day, night after night, the Japanese pounded the American fortifications on Bataan. The well fortified Americans turned back a major attack in February of 1942.

Thirty minutes after noon on April 9, 1942, General Edward King surrendered his American forces on Bataan. Birdsong and thousands of his fellow soldiers were force marched to Bataan in what became known as the Bataan Death March. On the second day, Birdsong and many others "hit the bush" and escaped by swimming back to Corregidor. Birdsong described the events: "We were captured, surrendered. My unit stayed together on the march, the so infamous "Death March." I didn’t know at the time, we had about nine thousand American soldiers and about forty thousand Philippine soldiers. On the second day of the march, we kept my unit together- there were one hundred and fourteen of us in my unit - out of the two hundred or so. We had fought for the last three months. Everybody turned infantry. Civilians, Americans, all came from Manilla to Bataan. They retreated there. It had Marines, sailors, everybody in my platoon, fighting like infantry. It was pretty rough, "The Death March." It guess you have read about it.

On the 2nd day, we hit the bush. We had planned it - passed the word up. We were going to try and escape. We were going through the jungle on a narrow trail. When we all hit the bush, we all made to Mariveles. We were on top of Mariveles Mountain. We made it down to across from Corregidor. They were coming from Corregidor to pick up all they could in boats. Some of them swam across, it was about a mile across there. I fortunately got a boat and made it across. We lost two men in the escape, only two men out of one hundred and fourteen, which was fortunate."

The fighting on Corregidor lasted about a month. The Americans were completely surrounded. The American Navy, still reeling from the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor, was unable to launch a rescue mission. Japanese ships and planes constantly bombarded the well fortified American positions. Then came the invasion. Birdsong recalled, " They just overwhelmed us. There were thousands and thousands of Japanese. We were captured again on Corregidor. We stayed there a month. The night they invaded us on Corregidor - it was surrounded by water and ships. I had a BAR (a Browning Automatic Rifle). It fired it until it froze up. There were many Japanese attacking us. Then we were taken. General Wainwright finally surrendered the Philippine command. I was there when we surrendered. I was about thirty feet away from him when he surrendered to the Japanese. We were rounded up and organized into units of five hundred and were taken to Manilla for the so called "Humiliation March." They had "lost face." It had taken a month to take us on Corregidor. They paraded us in the "Humiliation March." We were sent on up to Cabanatawon. It guess you read about that in the papers - about the infamous Cabanatawon Prison Camp," where hundreds of men were dying of malaria and malnutrition. The prisoner's diet consisted of three things: rice, rice, and more rice."

Japanese soldiers paraded the American prisoners in the streets, kicking anyone who couldn’t or wouldn’t keep up the pace. "They were barbaric. There is no way to describe how they were at that time. This country has never had the full story. There have been books written about it. No one believes it. We called it "humiliation." They lost face because we had held out so long on Corregidor for a whole month. They had the entire army and an air force. We had no air force, of course, no navy, but we were there with our guns. We were pretty well fortified with our big guns. We held out for a month. They lost so much face. They wanted to get even with us," Birdsong said.

Birdsong was kept in Cabanatawon Prison until November of 1942. The Japanese crammed Birdsong and another five hundred or so Americans into ships, if you can call them ships, bound for Japan and Korea. Tommy was sent to Japan. They called them "Hell Ships." Birdsong was put down in the hold of a freighter - nothing to eat, except something every now and then, just to keep them alive. On the way to Japan just off the coast of Taiwan, an American submarine attacked Birdsong’s ship, oblivious to the fact that it was packed with Americans. Americans commanders assumed it was a fleet of Japanese freighters. Three ships were sunk. One of them had Americans in it. Two of them were freighters. "They didn’t sink my ship of course," Birdsong said.

The prisoners had very little possessions, sometimes only the clothes on their back, which eventually were worn into shreds and threads. Many only had their hope and their faith. " I wanted to live. It’s hard to kill a man when he doesn’t want to die. If a man has hope, he can live. Fortunately during the second year I was in there, I got a job in the kitchen cooking rice. I had that job nearly a year. I normally weighed about one hundred seventy five to one hundred and eighty pounds. I was a tall man. When I got of prison camp, I weighed ninety pounds - that’s how much I had to eat," Birdsong remembered.

Birdsong and his group, or what was left of them, arrived in Osaka, Japan. The temperature was below freezing, 23 degrees - weather not exactly fit for frayed khaki short sleeve shirts on the shoeless Americans. Two Hundred and twenty five of the five hundred men died in the first year. Those who were able, were forced to dig coal in deep mines. Birdsong was down to ninety pounds having lost half of his body weight. By 1945, only a single dozen of the original 500 men were left.

The survivors kept praying, hoping for their freedom, before they died of malnutrition. The bombing raids until July, 1945 rained havoc all around their position, but never struck their compound. Birdsong's best friend was killed by a guard. Birdsong remembered, " We were eventually sent to Nagasaki - that’s where they dropped the atomic bomb. I was down in the coal mine. I watched out the windows just before they dropped the atomic bomb. You’ve heard of the sky being black with airplanes, well, there were airplanes everywhere. They dropped bombs all around the prison camp. I mean they tore up the place. But not one bomb fell in our camp or in our compound. That’s how accurate they were. They knew where we were. We were working down in the mine. I was down in the coal mine when they dropped the bomb. I was right outside of Nagasaki. We thought it was an earthquake, because rocks and everything else fell. We came out the next morning. They brought us out. We had to wear our masks and everything over our faces. You can still see where my hands are burned. That’s from the radiation. You’ve read about the atomic bomb and what it did. It’s hard to describe it. The whole big city - it was just wiped out - nothing standing. I was a few miles outside of Nagasaki when the dropped the bomb. Our camp was in Nagasaki, so we were sent through the streets. Everything was just leveled. Fortunately, right after that, they surrendered. They kept us in the camp. We didn’t have to go back to the coal mines. That was the second atomic bomb they dropped. Hiroshima was the first. This was the second."

"There was no way to describe the relief we felt. At first, we couldn’t believe it. We thought that they would fight until the last man, because they did that in Japan. They told us this. We saw evidence of this in the Philippines. They attacked us there and they kept coming toward us until the last man in the platoon. We mowed them down. They were yelling "Banzai!" and such as that. They were religious fanatics. They thought that if they died in battle that they would immediately go to heaven. We thought that we never expected to get out. It didn’t think I would, unless there was some sort of armistice or some sort of negotiations. That was the only thing to hope for. We never thought the Japanese would surrender. Of course they did, and I came back."

It took another week after the second atomic bomb was dropped for American B-29 bomber pilots to begin flights to drop food to the prisoners into the camps. Birdsong and the other lucky ones were caught in a strange place with no idea of how there were get home. American bombers tore up Nagasaki and most of the rest of Japan in eight months of bombing missions. Decades after the war, Birdsong met McGrath Keen, Sr. in Dublin. The two men related their experiences during the final days of the war. After a few minutes, Birdsong and Keen concluded that Keen, flying the "Lucky Lady," was one of the pilots who dropped boxes of food and clothing to into Birdsong’s camp. A few days later, the paratroopers jumped into the camp areas. They secured the area, commandeered a train and took Birdsong and the rest of the men in Nagasaki before boarding on an aircraft carrier.

Tommy cried. He was crippled at the time. A Japanese guard hit him in the back of the neck with the butt of his rifle and broke his neck. There was no doctor available. An old army corpsman fashioned a brace by wrapping a rope around Tommy’s neck Tommy spine healed, but it grew back crooked. He was beginning to get partially paralyzed on the right side. After the liberation, Tommy stayed. McArthur took the survivors back to the Philippines.

Birdsong’s family received a notice that he was missing in action. Everyone thought he was dead, except his mother. "She never gave up. Without my faith I could not have made it through. We had church and prayer meetings - not like our churches, but we would get together and pray. That helped me a lot. Oh Lord, that helped me through, " Birdsong tearfully remembered.
Tommy Birdsong won the Bronze Star for heroism. In fact, his entire unit won the Bronze Star, the fourth highest award that you can get in service. The unit award came from the gallantry in the fighting in the Philippines by a special Congressional citation.. Tommy was wounded twice and received the Purple Heart with an oak leaf cluster. Congressman J. Roy Rowland, Jr. of Dublin helped Birdsong get a Prisoner of War Medal. Tommy Birdsong downplayed his hero status, " The heroes are left back there. The heroes are back on Bataan and on Corregidor. The ones who came back were fortunate and with the help of the good Lord, that’s the only reason they did."

Birdsong survived, but barely. He was severely beaten about his neck with a rifle. Three of his vertebra were shattered and permanently fused together. From that day on, he couldn't hold his head up straight. But he did hold his head high the day he came out of the depths of Hell and every other day after that. He was returning to the freedom which so many millions of young men and women had fought so valiantly to defend. Tommy Birdsong came to Dublin in the 1960s as the golf pro at the Dublin Country Club. The Birdsongs moved back to Dublin in the 1980s. Birdsong passed away a couple of years ago.

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