A month before Carroll Underwood shipped out of Pittsburgh in early 1944, the American press let the world know about the Bataan Death March. While on a journey that would eventually take him to the Philippines, where the events had taken place, the news—and the shock—was still fresh in Underwood’s mind.
Everyone who followed events in the Pacific knew that the Americans and Filipinos had lost the Battle of Bataan in 1941. Gen. MacArthur wanted to defend Manila by preventing the Japanese from taking the Bataan Peninsula, which formed protection over the bay where the capital city was located.
By that point in the war, Americans also knew that victors in a battle would take prisoners of war. They knew that conditions for POWs could be harsh. It wasn’t until three years later that our nation knew the extent of the atrocities that had been committed on those captured in Bataan.
Japanese Gen. Masarharu Homma had won the battle against the Americans and Filipinos. The number of combat personnel and civilians the Imperial Army had captured exceeded 90,000, overwhelming the Japanese capacity to get them out of the way in time for another assault.
It was said that Homma hadn’t wanted to mistreat the prisoners, that it was his subordinates who were responsible for the infamous 60-mile march through blistering jungle mountains, during which tens of thousands died. Whatever the truth of Homma’s claim, it made no difference to those who were brutalized, tortured, killed or died from the suffering. And it made no difference to the Allied troops who would one day convict Homma of 43 counts of crimes against humanity.
Underwood first saw the Philippines from the deck of the U.S.S. Landing Ship Tank (LST) 667. This 18-year-old from Newton Grove in Harnett County, North Carolina, was technically an electrician’s mate, but sometimes he was called on to man a 20mm anti-aircraft gun. LSTs moved slowly and were easy targets. Fortunately, by the time the ship received orders to go to Lingayen Gulf in early 1945, they had suffered no casualties.
Most of the time, Underwood didn’t know the purpose of the missions or the reasons for landings until it was necessary to be told. On this particular day, it became clear that the ship had been sent to pick up POWs. Underwood, like the rest of America when it learned about the Bataan Death March, hadn’t been prepared for the extent of the horror.
What Underwood saw couldn’t be conveyed in newspaper photos or by a newsreel. The full impact could only be absorbed by seeing it firsthand. That day Underwood saw the reality of the Bataan Death March. The men coming aboard LST 667 seemed like walking skeletons. Their skin was nearly transparent. The impact of the sight would haunt Underwood the rest of his life.
The duties of the men of LST 667 had been made clear. They were simply to talk to the survivors, most of whom seemed happy—at least as happy as they could be in their emaciated condition. The POWs said they couldn’t believe how big the guys of LST 667 looked. What they meant was—in comparison to their own withered, gaunt condition. Still, it had been made clear that the POWs were not to be fed. Bringing them back to health would have to be done under medical supervision.
The daring rescue mission of the POWs earlier that year, led by Lt. Col. Henry Mucci, had suffered casualties, but whatever the danger to the victims of the Bataan Death March, it was better than waiting for death at the hands of their captors. There was reason for those sick and abused men to feel happy onboard LST 667.
LST 667 would continue on to pick up another group of survivors of Bataan on the island of Mindanao. The ship would take part in 10 invasions. There were some close calls, but when the war ended, the ship had lost no men.
Underwood, 91, returned home, where he would eventually have a career with the phone company, got married and had one son. In 1978, he returned to Newton Grove, where he lives today.