Survivor of Bataan Death March Comes Home
Sgt. Michael Tortoriello, prisoner of Japs
Three-and-a-half-years, reveals horror tale;
Served seven years in Army
The phone rang in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Carmine Tortoriello of 88 Baldwin Place, Oct. 29, 1945, and Mrs. Tortoriello, answering the ring, heard a voice say: “Hello, Mom. This is Michael.”
It was a voice Mrs. Tortoriello had not heard in seven long, anxious years, for Sgt. Mike Tortoriello was one of the survivors of the infamous Bataan Death March, and a Jap prisoner from April 9, 1942, to Sept. 17, 1945.
After going through years of torture, hardship and marked with death in its most horrid form, Mike is remarkably quiet and cool. Instead of a highly nervous, neurotic individual, which would be expected, he is restrained, but talks without hesitancy, showing an unusual capacity for remembering names, dates and places.
But the ordeal will never be forgotten, said Mike. Two little scars appear on each side of his cheeks, put there by Jap cigarette butts, one of their favorite forms of torture.
Captured one day after the fall of Bataan, Mike had been trying to reach the guerilla troops when Jap tanks caught up with he and several of his buddies. Then began a chain of horrendous nights and days.
FOUR DAYS MARCH IN SUN
For four days and nights the American soldiers and their Philippine cohorts were forced to march during the day under a blistering, tropical sun and at night with a ten minute rest period the only break along the torturous path. Men, driven crazy by thirst, ran off the road to attempt to reach one of the many artesian wells along the route, but were shot, clubbed or bayoneted to death by the brutal Jap guards.
“I kept a small pebble in my mouth, and kept rolling it around,” said Tortoriello. “One instance I remember very well, in trying to get some water. We had reached Camp O’Donnell, a former American camp, and two Americans approached a Jap guard, and by using sign language asked if they could fill several canteens with water. The guard said to go ahead, and they disappeared into the undergrowth. That was the last we ever heard of them. Several Japs went into the bushes after them, while they were filling canteens, and killed both soldiers.”
It was at O’Donnell that more than 32,000 Philippines died and several thousand Americans. A Jap commander, who sported a handlebar moustache, lined the survivors up, and through an interpreter, informed them there was no medicine available for them, and the sick would have to die. The Japs buried the dead in holes about two feet deep, and piled as many as twenty men in these holes, and then threw dirt on the pile. Along would come a rainstorm, wash away the dirt from the bodies and the wild dogs could be heard having a feast at night on the remains.
Then came Camp Cabanatuan in the Philippines. Upon reaching this side, in what was to become one of the famous Jap prisoner-of-war-camps, that more atrocities were committed.
MAKE CAMP LIVABLE
“We had to clean the place up,” said Mike, “there was high grass all around and some dilapidated shacks that were falling apart. We built makeshift roads and constructed more livable quarters. When we first arrived, the Japs put up a fence with only a single strand of barbed wire. So many of the boys escaped, that the little men created the ‘shooting squads.’ The prisoners were divided into groups of ten, and if any one of them escaped, the others would be killed. We thought they were kidding, but one of the boys escaped, and the nine men left were all shot to death.”
Tortoriello, when questioned about the food, related they were given 700 grams of rice a day. The Japs had a trick of filling bags of sand, piling them up with a few sacks of rice on top, and when the officer-in-charge of war prisoners made an inspection trip, he was shown the bags piled up, and what he thought was rice, was principally sand.
“We had gardens,” said Mike, “but when there are 6,000 hungry men, and after eh Japs got through confiscating a lot of the stuff we rised (sic), there wasn’t much to go around.”
In July 1944, the prisoners were shipped to Japan. Upon hearing of the move, the men were struck with the idea they would be better off, for they had heard that the prisoners in Japan at least had the benefit of the Red Cross packages. But conditions were very bad in Japan and they found they had been moved from the frying pan into the fire.
MEN CROWDED IN FREIGHTER
“There were 1,500 men crowded into the hold of this small Jap freighter going over,” said Tortoriello, “and there was no sanitary facilities. We were in a convoy, right in the center, guarded by two carriers and a number of destroyers. But several days before we made port, I had occasion to go on the deck to use the only facility they made available for us. It was about two o’clock in the morning, and suddenly I saw through the cracks in the shack, four distinct flashes over the horizon. Our ship was going like mad, and we later learned that American subs had nailed two tankers and two freighters.”
On August 4, 1944, the prisoners were marched into Camp Yawata, near the city of Moji, on the island of Kyushu. Shortly after arriving there, Tortoriello and some of his buddies were put to work in a steel mill, and then began the real battle of survival.
Sixteen hours a day, for three weeks straight, was the working schedule, and then came one day of rest. Mike operated an electric hammer and between dodging bombs from Yank B-29s and dipping into the Jap black market, became quite proficient in the language.
BLACK MARKET IN EVERYTHING
“The government controlled all the food, and you could not buy any in a store,” he said, “consequently, there was black market in everything. Some of the extra clothing we had went into the market in exchange for soy beans, salt and money. We smuggled clothes out and food back in, but we were caught many times. Then came a little beating. One of the favorite tricks was the Water Cure. They put a hose in your mouth and loaded you up with water. Then when your stomach began to distend, they would jump on it or punch you.”
The men were supposed to be paid for their work, but received practically nothing, as their money was just about worthless. The men learned that a plan had been drawn up in Tokyo to kill all the prisoners-of-war in the event of an invasion, and were kept on edge with this thought staring them in the face.
Then, one day a B-29 appeared and dropped a parachute with a package of food, and Mike said he never thought C and K rations could taste so good.
FLOWN HOME AFTER LIBERATION
The men were brought to Okinawa, after being released by American liberation troops, and from there (he) was flown home. Down to 125 pounds, Tortoriello was treaded for malnutrition and most recently had been at the Rhoadea General Hospital in Utica, N.Y., before being released.
Sgt. Tortoriello was attached to the Air Force , and is now enjoying a 104-day furlough, upon completion of which he will go to California to be discharged.
A graduate of Bloomfield, Tortoriello was a star football player, playing in ’36 and ’37. He was employed at General Motors in Bloomfield, prior to enlisting in the Army for a two-year stretch in 1939.
Courtesy: The Belleville Times
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