Saturday, June 04, 2005

A Unique Perspective: Baby of Bataan by Joseph Quitman Johnson


The WWII memoir of Joseph Quitman Johnson is both unique and commonplace. Joe was 14 years old when he enlisted, 15 when the American troops were fighting the retreat on Bataan. He spent his 16th birthday in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp on Corregidor, and his 18th birthday on a hellish prison ship en route to Japan. As a prisoner in Japan, he was put to work in a mine just outside Hiroshima, then transferred just before Japan's surrender to a second mine—near Nagasaki.

His age when all this occured is what makes his account unique, that, and his amazing memory (or fabulous evocation) of what happened to him and the other soldiers he encountered. What his memoir has in common with others from this war is the stoic resolve and quiet accomplishment of the soldiers who served in every theater of World War II.

The first chapter is a brief picture of Joe as a young boy, giving us a glimpse of why this young man might dare to enlist—before Pearl Harbor—at the tender age of 14. After all, a child of 12 who can hop a freight car to set off in search of his father might certainly become, a scant two years later, that daring teenager.

Joe makes several close friends, Army buddies, first in the Fort MacArthur mustering station in California, and then on board the troop ship that will carry him to Manila. Ray Rico and Dale Snyder come alive for us; we understand why Joe is drawn to these men, and why he is devastated by their deaths at the hands of the Japanese.

Johnson has a wonderful descriptive style that brings us into his adventure. In the telling, his own reactions have certainly been filtered through the memories of the adult, but Joe retains enough of the awkward teen to allow us to sense his bafflement at the suicide of Dewey Holzclaw, or the unearned enmity of Sergeant Dempsey.

The minor characters are also finely drawn. Felicia, the young girl Joe meets at Tang's (a Manila whorehouse), and whom he rescues by paying for her stay at a convent school once he realizes she is pregnant. Frisco Smith, the Manila taxi driver and restauranteur, who helps Joe shepherd the nuns and their charges out of Manila in advance of the Japanese. Big Rotunda, the evocatively-named madam of Tang's house. Pierce Manners, the bugler who "wills" his bugle to Joe when he is rotated home. Red Small, the tattooed man, whose neck reads "Cut on the Dotted Line."

Then there are the Japanese, whom Joe reveals to us in the same deft way. "Cherry Blossom" Watanbe, for whom Joe is a reminder of his own son, saves Joe's life in the first Japanese prison camp by sharing his food with the gaunt young man. Tanaka, a guard at the same camp, teaches Joe some Japanese in exchange for learning the words to "My Blue Heaven." "Babe Ruth," a burly Japanese sailor, chooses Joe and five others from the hold of the prison ship Enouku Maru to stoke the engines.

Joe Johnson earned the nickname "Cockroach" for the way he had of surviving adversity. He spent years in Japanese labor camps, first on Bataan and Corregidor, then in Manila, and finally in Japan itself, working underground in mines that were considered too dangerous for the Japanese minors. He escaped dysentery and malaria, survived starvation, beatings and imprisonment in the torturous eiso, a tiny isolation box that allowed him to neither sit nor stand.

In the end, nothing the U.S. Army nor the Japanese did would suppress his spirits entirely. We like Joe Johnson. He's a good guy.

Excessive indentation and an abundance of widows and orphans delayed my getting into this story—but once I got past the sub-standard typography, Joe's story caught me. Genuine, evocative, tragic and uplifting in turns, Baby of Bataan will provide solid enjoyment for any reader. I look forward to Johnson's next memoir, Felicia's story.

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