“A True Survivor”
For the last fifteen years, millions of persons all over the world have tuned their television sets to watch the popular television show Survivor. The king of reality of shows features everyday people who endure the elements and undergo a variety of contests. Sixty five years ago, William Wallace and thousands of other American soldiers and civilians faced the same challenge. However, this challenge was real. It was constantly brutal, frequently deadly and unfathomably heinous.
William Wallace, son of Lase and Frances Wallace, was born on April 1, 1922 and grew up in Millen, Georgia. After his graduation from High School, William enlisted in the Army Air Corps and began his training at Fort McPherson in Atlanta. Private Wallace was assigned to the 27th Bombardment Group (L)as a tail gunner. The group was assigned to duty in the Philippine Islands in November 1941. Wallace was at his station when the Japanese attacked the island chain on December 7.
The invaders launched a ferocious siege upon the American and Filipino forces, who had little food and an ever dwindling supply of ammunition. After the three months of constant fighting, the American forces surrendered. William was taken prisoner and along with thousands of other prisoners, was forced to endure the infamous “Bataan Death March.” The weakened men were force-marched sixty miles in intense heat. The only drinking water was found in mud puddles along the way. Rest periods were rare. Slow walkers were beaten. Stragglers were bayoneted. Six or seven hundred men were left dead on the side of the road.
After three months and fifteen hundred deaths at Camp O’Donnell, the prisoners were transported to the nefarious prison at Cabanatuan. William remained there until September 1943. It was in the latter months of 1943 that the Japanese government began to transport American prisoners back to the mainland to work in the coal mines. Wallace and six hundred other prisoners were crammed into the hold a cargo ship, which set a course for Osaka.
Along the way, the ship detoured to Formosa in China. The men were sent to a coal mine and were worked more than a half day, every day. William was forced to push a heavy coal car up hill. Any slip might result in a beating. A prisoner’s daily diet consisted of three cups of rice. If they were lucky, the men were given a prize morsel of meat, a pickled grasshopper, known to its consumer as a “Georgia Thumper.”
By 1944, William was assigned to a coal mine of the Rinko Coal Company in Japan. Conditions in the mine were unbearable. The men were placed in an open building, left to face the brutal winters with virtually no shelter. Each man was given old clothes to wear and a single blanket to keep them warm. On the coldest of nights, six men would lie on one blanket and lie together, three with their heads on one end and three at the other end, with the five blankets on top. At least the meals were better. Stewed fish and boiled soybeans were added to the customary, but highly treasured, three daily cups of rice. Once a week, the men got a bath.
Wallace described the winter of 1945 as the worst. Snow falls ranged from three feet and more. In order to avoid work and gain a stay in the hospital, Wallace would hold his breath and fall flat into the snow to make it appear that he had lost consciousness on six or seven occasions. His captors never realized his ruse. Had they done so, he would have been immediately executed on the spot. “Getting out the snow, the freezing rain and still being allowed to eat was worth the risk,” said Wallace. During that winter, William suffered from dysentery and double pneumonia and spent Easter Sunday, his 23rd birthday, in the hospital.
Conditions in the camp began to deteriorate rapidly. The men began to steal food and cigarettes from each other, but were strongly disciplined if caught. Distribution of food was scrutinized down to the pro rata bean and crumb of rice.
William was not released until the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When he left the coal mine, he weighed 87 pounds. Constant hunger and debilitating malaria and beriberi nearly killed William. Thousands of others who weren’t so lucky.
In August 1945, William returned to the United States and entered a hospital in California. When he arrived home, he possessed six stitches in his head, a result of an unprovoked attack by a Japanese civilian with a large chunk of coal. After a period of recuperation, William returned to Georgia. Among the first to greet him was his high school sweetheart Mary Dickey. The couple married in 1946, but William believed his obligation to his country was not yet completed. He returned to the Army Air Corps for a three-year hitch. Though he tried to live a normal life, the haunting memories of his incarceration prevented William from sleeping with a light off for more than eight years. Talking about his experiences was difficult, if not impossible. It wasn’t until the survivors held their first reunion when William began to relate the horrors of his internment. Wallace’s remembrances are featured in Donald Knox’s “Death March,” the story of the Bataan Death March and its survivors.
Wallace told Knox, “the further we went into captivity, the worse it became.” He began to doubt whether or not he could ever survive, but came to realize “that the human body can suffer nearly everything and still survive.”
William Wallace graduated from Mercer University with a double major in religion and history. For forty-one years, he served small rural Baptist churches in our area and worked at Warner Robins AFB until poor health forced his retirement in 1943. His last sermon was delivered in 1991.
In January 1992, nearly fifty years after his capture, William Wallace was presented the Congressional Prisoner of War Medal in his hospital bed by Congressman J. Roy Rowland. Never bitter toward his captors, Wallace was disappointed that Japanese Americans interned in camps in our country were given a reparation of twenty thousand dollars, while he and the four thousand survivors and the families of the five thousand who died never received a cent of compensation.
The Rev. William Wallace died on February 27, 1995. The lung disease he contracted in the camps eventually killed him. Wallace survived one of the most brutal prison camps in the history of the world. He endured to serve his fellow man and to espouse the word of the Gospel and spread the message of peace and love toward all mankind. On this Memorial Day, take a moment to remember William Wallace and the millions of brave Americans who sacrificed their lives, their homes and families to preserve our freedoms.