Survivor

The Story of Msgt. Frank N. Lovato in Bataan

As told to his son, Francisco L. Lovato

Taken with permission from the author from Somos en Escrito, a Latino literary online magazine.

Commemorating Memorial Day 2012

Chapter 15 God Bless America

Late May, 1942

So far I had experienced almost two months of indescribable horrors watching helplessly as more of my fellow prisoners died from malnutrition, beatings, poorly treated injuries, malaria, and despair. All day long, we dug more trenches and buried even more poor souls. Even in my worst nightmares, I never imagined how horrible an abusive death could be. Together the monsters in the movies “Frankenstein,” “Dracula,” and “The Werewolf” could not have created a more ugly death for a human being to endure than the conditions we had to face in the Japanese prisoner of war camp.

No one was immune from contracting malaria. What we needed to combat the mosquito-borne disease was quinine and there had not been any since the last part of December. The first symptom of malaria was the relentless chills followed by a high fever and uncontrollable sweating. The intermittent chills and fever would go on for hours or days and the soldier would become delirious and sometimes unconscious. The convulsive attacks left the body weak and exhausted or dead.

What we called ‘wet’ beriberi was maybe worse than malaria. The infected were unable to walk because their swollen testicles were the size of a football. Anyone within earshot cringed in sympathetic pain as the medics, without anesthesia, cut a hole in the infected’s scrotum to drain the fluid.

I once saw one of our officers beg for quinine and medical supplies that clearly were available in the Red Cross boxes and crates stacked up outside of the camp fence. The Japanese officers replied by making him dig his own grave then shot him in the head.

The most difficult thing to bear was seeing men so depressed that they gave up the will to live. They would stop eating and within days they would drift into a coma-like state and die. Was it crazier to live this way or crazier to die? When my mind struggled to keep going, I closed my weary eyes and thought of my beloved Mother and Dad, my sisters and my brothers, and our home in the beautiful Rio Grande Valley. I recalled the beautiful ember-red New Mexican sunsets. How the rich, velvety orange and reds deepened as the sun set behind the black volcano dotted horizon or when the big sky above melted from blue-green to deep purple as the fiery pools of starlight magically appeared. I remembered simple things like getting up before sunrise with Dad and my brothers to go hunting at the Rio Puerco in his 1927 Chevy, or Mother making red chili enchiladas topped with an egg, sunny-side up. These memories made me happy inside and reminded me of what was really important. My thoughts of returning to my loving family and beautiful homeland helped me keep my mind focused and strengthened my will to survive.

God Bless America

I had kept my harmonica hidden during the death march and had yet to play it at Camp O’Donnell. Its soothing notes and melodies always lifted my spirits and helped me to forget the trials and tribulations of life. I had felt it in my pocket, familiar and comforting against my thigh, as I trudged every step on the march. It was my constant companion when I felt alone, my only personal possession I had left before being surrendered. Even the clothes and boots I wore came from one of the dead we had buried. Getting this far with my Hohner Marine Band harmonica was my secret little victory. Late at night when darkness fell over the camp and we took the only respite from the day’s toil, I took “Little Victory” out from my hiding place under a loose board beneath my dried grass mat. Just touching it to my lips reminded me of times with my family singing, laughing, and playing alongside Mother on her piano songs like “La Paloma,” (The Dove) and “La Golindrina” (The Swallow).

It was late one warm tropical night in June when I felt I needed to actually play and hear its beautiful notes. Up until this point in time I feared I might get shot or beheaded if I dared play it out loud. Undaunted or maybe out of defiance, I walked to a spot along the fence, farthest away from the nearest guard tower, sat down and took out “Little Victory.” Bright lights from the guard towers illuminated the barbed wire fences around the perimeter and cast a cold, stark glow over the thousands of sleeping bodies.

At first, I didn’t know what song I was going to do when I pressed the harmonica to my lips and closed my eyes to play. But in that quiet moment I thought how a person never really knows how much they love someone, a place, or a thing until it is completely gone and the chance of ever seeing, touching, feeling, or holding them again is only a dream and a prayer. Everything I had ever loved, and now so dearly missed called out to me in the one song that reminded every single one of us of our home and land we loved. In my mind I saw and heard my mother’s sweet voice singing and her piano playing “God Bless America.”

I blew softly through the harmonica so as not to wake the fellows around me or alert the guards. As the notes softly cut through the tropical night silence, the words rang out in my head “God bless America, land that I love, Stand beside her and guide her, through the night with the light from above.”

“Please, play a little louder, buddy,” the fellows who awoke around me whispered.

Without thinking of the consequences, I blew those sweet notes a little louder. More men began to wake and sit up to sing along just above a whisper with my harmonica. Like a tidal wave, the voices in the night quickly spread throughout the camp. Within a few seconds, over eight thousand prisoners were singing at the top of their lungs with fearless passion. Men with bodies more skeletal than human, bodies ravaged by tropical diseases and injuries, all of them starving, sang out with pride and longing for our homeland.

Guards screamed, “Ni, Ni, Ni!” (No!), but were quickly drowned out by the choir of our voices. Their machineguns shot into the night sky as a warning. But nothing they did could stop our rally of heartfelt pride and prayer to God to bless and save our home. Noble men again stood together, arm in arm, and as tears streamed from their eyes they sang our national prayer “God Bless America.” After three months of degradation and humiliation at the savage hands of the Japanese military, we stood proud and reclaimed our dignity, while asking God through the lyrics to stand beside us and guide us. With each passing minute the voices grew louder. Thirty thousand or so Filipinos imprisoned nearby in a separate compound heard the song and joined the concert of freedom.

As long as I live I will never forget the emaciated faces of some men, more skeleton than flesh, as they sang out with their hearts, and some with their last breaths. No choir in the world could have sung with more feeling, passion, and glory than the POWs on that hot tropical night halfway across the world.

It was hopeless to try to stop the singing, short of killing every last one of us. And sing we did, for at least an hour. When it was over and the whispering had subsided I laid my head down on my tattered grass mat and reaffirmed my will to stay alive and to get back home to the land that I loved. I realized then that many of us weren’t going to make it. But that night, eight thousand miles from home, I finally realized why my dad ritually played “Taps” on his army bugle each time he took me and my brothers hunting to the high desert plains of the Rio Puerco. In the twilight, just before the sun rose over the hazy, purple Manzano Mountains, Dad would ask us to wait while he took his traditional walk alone. He always said the same thing, “Wait here, mehitos. I’ll be right back.” He left his 16 gauge shotgun with us, took the brass bugle out of its canvas bag and made his solitary walk to the same spot on a small knoll, about a quarter mile away. Dad never said much about the “Great War,” other than that he hoped it would never happen again. As he marched up the sloping grade to the knoll, my brothers and I always retold the story about when dad was playing his bugle during a battle charge. An enemy bullet ricocheted off his bugle, interrupting his playing for only a couple of seconds. A bullet-sized dent on the front of the brass instrument was its battle scar.

From where we waited we could see Dad, a solitary sentinel, raise his bugle to his lips. Slowly the haunting notes of “Taps” broke the quiet, autumn morning. As the returning echoes bounced off the nearby canyon walls, Dad accompanied the echoes with additional notes, making it sound as though there were two players. It was like Archangel Gabriel in heaven playing “Taps,” the “Good Night-Good Bye Buddy song” with God. Although he never said it, I realized that night in Camp O’Donnell that he must have played his noble tribute for his fallen buddies in The Great War.

I thanked God for my parents and for the skills they had given me to survive. I prayed for the prisoners who were still alive. God bless us all and God bless America.

Francisco L. Lovato is the son of Msgt. Frank N. Lovato, USAF, and Evangeline Celina Herrera Lovato in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Both his parent’s family roots trace back to the earliest settlers of New Mexico preceding the Pilgrims’ arrival in 1610. A licensed psychotherapist and administrator of programs for the disabled, he now lives in Nevada City, California. Francisco is author of the book, Survivor, which tells the tale of his father’s role in the resistance to the Japanese invasion of the Philippines and in the Bataan Death March. Msgt. Lovato was surrendered on April 9, 1942, walked the entire Death March, was liberated from Nagasaki, Japan, three weeks after the war ended, and died on April 9, 2010 – Bataan Day! Purchase the book at www.Survivorbook.com, or email to francisco@franciscolovato.com, or call Francisco at 530-615-9202.

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