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Bataan death march survivor shares tale of brutality, redemption

A sixteen-year-old boy from a tiny south Alabama town, suffering from a broken heart over losing the girl he loves to another fellow. A Harley with a full tank of gas and an unfriendly juke joint owner. The boy causes a ruckus and is forced to flee the scene. He lies about his age to join the military and ends up one of “Hell’s guests.” It’s a story of brutality, courage and the resilience of the human spirit.

Sound like a movie? It is, in fact, a real-life story, that of Col. Glenn Dowling Frazier of the Alabama State Defense Force. The Fort Deposit native, who endured more than three years as a POW, is one of the few remaining survivors of the infamous Bataan Death March of World War II.

Frazier spoke to students and guests at Fort Dale Academy on Friday morning as part of their Veterans Day observance.

After getting himself into trouble by riding his motorcycle into a Montgomery juke joint the summer of 1941, the teenager ran away from home to join the military, wanting to get as far away from trouble as he could.

Pretending to be 21, he was sworn into the Army and sent straight to the Philippines, where he never expected things would get bad.

“I thought it was a wonderful paradise. I loved the Philippines and its people,” Frazier recalled. “They were like south Alabama people. If they got to know you, they would do anything for you.”

The young soldier’s idyllic time there would soon end.  Only hours after the attacks on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Japanese planes bombed the Philippines, destroying 90 percent of the aircraft and most of the naval vessels.

“The word didn’t get out, but 6,000 people were killed in those raids . . . we were told to try to hold off the Japanese 14th Army until reinforcements arrived,” Frazier said.

With the help of a major, the private devised an ingenious system based on a hog trough. Defragmented bombs were funneled down chutes over the bluffs to drive off the Japanese, buying precious time.

“We are outnumbered five to one,” Frazier said.

“But we got stubborn and mean; we were like wild animals, backed into a corner, fighting for our personal freedom and our country. The Japanese thought they would be in and out of the Philippines in a couple of months and move on to Australia and New Zealand. We held out four months. And they never got to Australia or New Zealand.”

Ultimately, the troops ran out of food, water and medical supplies.

Surrender time to the Japanese came-but not before Frazier and his fellow soldiers destroyed vehicles, ammunitions and weapons.

“We did what we promised not to do, and they didn’t do what they promised-to treat us humanely,” Frazier said.

Once in Japanese hands, the soldiers were forced to strip naked. Anyone with any property on them that was Japanese in origin was shot on sight.

“We heard a lot of gunshots that day,” he said quietly.

And so began an odyssey of brutality and determination, the men marching mile after mile as new POWs.

“I saw everything. Men buried alive. Trucks running down through a group of men with bayonets stuck out on either side, cutting them down where they stood,” Frazier recalled.

“If someone stumbled and you tried to help them, they would shoot or bayonet both of you.”

Along the way, the young soldier decided to toss one set of dog tags into a mass grave. “I thought it might settle my family’s minds if they thought I was dead,” Frazier said.

Death seemed all too likely.  During his time in captivity, there were many long days of hard labor from sunrise to sunset, little food or fresh water, constant beatings and inadequate medical attention. Frazier was bayoneted in the knee at one point, and on another occasion, he was struck so hard in the head he lay unconscious for three days.

Of the 15,000 POWs in the Bataan march, only 4,000 came home. Of those, 10 percent died within the first year due to health complications. “There are only about 50 of us left today,” Frazier said.

The men wasted no time once they were in the various slave labor camps in Japan, determined to sabotage Japanese efforts whenever and wherever they could, stealing food, destroying weapons parts and causing grief at any opportunity.

And they were pretty ingenious.

“One of the men had an epileptic fit and the guard didn’t know what to make of it. So we told him it was a highly contagious tropical disease. And then we all started coming down with it. It was our ticket out of there as they didn’t want to take a chance on getting it, too,” Frazier said.

For the infraction of having his hands in his pockets on a cold day, Frazier was about to be executed.

But the Lord, he says, intervened.

“The soldier was holding that sword to my neck and I said, ‘He can kill me, but he can’t kill my spirit, and I will enter his body and haunt him for the rest of his days’ . . . I ended up spending five days in solitary confinement in a hole in the ground, pitch black,” Frazier said.

“When they took me out, I couldn’t walk or see. They kicked me until they broke three ribs. You saw that kind of brutality every day.”

When his extra set of dog tags was discovered back in the Philippines, Frazier’s family was told he was dead. His father, however, refused to accept his son was really gone.

As the war drew to an end, the prisoners were certain they would all be shot, and didn’t see any way of escaping.

“We heard about the bomb being dropped on Hiroshima, but just thought it was propaganda. They took us to a rice field and gave us tools and told us to start digging graves. Now, if you were digging your own grave, would you get in a hurry? We didn’t,” Frazier said.

Soon the men heard the Americans and Japanese were in talks, and the war was finally over.

His family was so shocked to hear his voice on the phone, three female relatives all fainted with surprise before his dad got the receiver in his hand.

“Daddy said, ‘Son, I was the only one who didn’t think you were dead, but I think I’ve got three dead women here,” Frazier said with a smile.

It was a difficult homecoming for the young man, troubled by nightmares and animosity against his captors.

“I had to go out west to live . . . I struggled with hatred for the Japanese for 30 years. You’ve got to watch what you hate,” the POW said.

“I found myself on my knees praying at 2 a.m. one morning, asking for forgiveness. It had taken me a long time to get it out of my system . . . I haven’t had a nightmare since then.”

He advised the young people present to recognize they still have much to learn, and to value the knowledge of their elders.

A clip of Frazier’s appearance in the acclaimed Ken Burns’ PBS documentary “The War” was shown following his talk.

Frazier also signed copies of his memoir, “Hell’s Guest,” for a long line of those in attendance.