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World War II Bataan Death March Survivor Speaks to Wakeland Students (April, 2008)

Charles Baum, Bataan Death March survivor

Charles Baum is 91, uses a cane and sometimes loses his train of thought, but he still remembers the name of the Japanese guard who risked his life to smuggle fruit to an ailing Baum in a Japanese Prisoner of War Camp.

“Tanaka” Baum said “He was a honcho. I had taught him a little English. He was a corporal – that was pretty high up for a honcho. He smuggled fruit to me. If he’d have been caught he’d have been shot. He saved my life.”

Baum was a guest speaker at Wakeland High School Tuesday, April 22. Baum is a resident of Whitesboro and a former middle school teacher, coach and postmaster. Baum is also one of the oldest surviving participants of the infamous Bataan Death March. He spoke to Brian Kennedy’s History of American Wars class. The students have been studying World War II through books, recorded personal accounts and documentaries but Baum’s description of boiling and eating fishing worms, the forced march through the rice paddies without being allowed a drink of  water, and his 3 ½ years as a prisoner  brought the realities of war a little closer to home.

Baum recalls receiving the 2 a.m. order to surrender when he was stationed in the Philippines. “We were told to surrender and stack our arms,” he said, noting that they didn’t want to leave anything for the enemy to use. “We stacked our arms in Manila Bay!”

Baum then began an adventure that was “dog eat dog.” Over the years of captivity, he was knocked out, beaten, shot at and went from about 210 pounds to 70 pounds.

The Wakeland students were very quiet as Baum talked. At one point, he stopped to see if anyone had questions and no one spoke up. The former teacher prodded them by reminding them if they didn’t have any questions, they could always be dismissed back to class.

But their quiet attitude was more respect than disinterest. More than once Baum choked up when recounting his memories. He told the students about how he and another prisoner carried another weakened soldier for two days on the march. On the third day, they became too weak to continue and had to put the man down. After a distance of what would have been a few blocks they heard a gunshot. Though never sure, Baum has always assumed the man he carried for two days was killed because he could not walk.

Baum said he is often asked if he killed anyone during the war. He operated a machine gun and said he would have been shooting pretty badly if he hadn’t.

One student asked Baum what he had missed the most during his experience. Baum thought for a moment and answered “Salt!” Baum had described the experience of living on one and a half bowls of rice a day – a half a bowl if you were sick and unable to work – and the awful taste of unseasoned rice day after day.  One of his worst physical experiences of his prison camp days was when he was knocked out and stomped on for daring to eat a few peas that had spilled out of a sack onto the floor. He also told the students of pretending to stumble into a rice paddy so he could get a drink of water. There was a decaying body just a few feet from him and a guard trying to beat him but that didn’t stop him from drinking, he said.

Baum was asked if he ever lost hope during his trial. He attributed his survival to his faith and to the even stronger faith of his mother.

“When I was on the front line, I realized I was going to make it. I was walking the guard line and at the edge of the jungle I saw two trees. They were covered in lightning bugs and looked just like Christmas trees. Then I looked up into the trees and I could see the face of God – from then on it didn’t bother me to do anything. I felt safe. It’s a wonderful feeling.”

 From a generation raised on perhaps a more Hollywood version of the war than fact, one question came asking if he ever tried to escape. The students had also recently read accounts of some prisoners who did escape to join guerilla movements. Baum didn’t see that as a possibility.  “I was a marked man. You can’t walk into a group of Japanese or Filipinos and not be recognized as a stranger.” Baum recounted that men were shot for just veering of the path in the wrong direction.

Baum was 29 years old and single when he volunteered for the Air Force. One student asked if he regretted signing up to serve. “No, I volunteered to serve,” he said emphatically.

Baum survived the death march, extreme thirst, starvation, watching other prisoners dig their own graves, multiple prison camps, 90 days on a “Hell Ship” being transported as a prisoner to Japan, a typhoon and bed bugs. He also survived malaria and beriberi. He still has occasional pains in his feet from the beriberi.  But he told the students he doesn’t hold any of that against “the Japanese boys” who served as guards. He described them as mostly farm boys who had to do what they were told or be killed. “I blame the higher ups,” he said.

When Baum and other POWs were rescued, he and the others were treated for their diseases and treated for starvation. Tables full of candy and cigarettes awaited the prisoners. The cooks were told to be on hand to make the rescued men anything they wanted to eat as long as they had the supplies available. Baum still remembers his first meal of ham and eggs. He said that no one could eat much at one time because they had starved for so long, “but it wasn’t too long until I was back asking for pancakes,” he said.

When Baum returned to his hometown it wasn’t a quiet affair. Whitesboro let school out for the day and the whole town went to meet him. He was their war hero.

For a group of students at Wakeland High School, perhaps he is now their hero, too.