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A Bataan Death March survivor remembers

After decades of keeping his story private, my 94-year-old uncle tells how he survived one of WWII’s darkest chapters.

Gracia Lam

UNCLE BERNARD DIDN’T TALK ABOUT his years of suffering. That’s what my parents told me as a child. Occasionally, they offered slivers of information — astounding proclamations like “He had to eat insects.” But there was never enough to build a tale. Because of a rift between brothers over a business venture, our families rarely intersected and my uncle’s past remained a patchwork of dramatic headlines. Across the spread of decades we came to share little except a last name.

Until a month ago. That’s when Bernard Pothier, 94, described to me how he had survived one of World War II’s darkest chapters — the Bataan Death March — and 3½ years of captivity that followed. I’d like to say the meeting came about because of resolve or past-due remorse on my part. But it was his doing. He e-mailed the Globe with a “story that should be told,” and the message made its way to my inbox.

Bernard Pothier

Bernard Pothier in the cockpit.

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A few weeks later, Uncle Bernard greeted me at his Middleton home with a soft handshake and full smile. He was as skinny as I remembered, wearing sneakers that hadn’t touched a speck of dirt. “You’re finally here,” he said. As he grew older, a lifelong reluctance to publicly replay Bataan’s horrors had been overwhelmed by urgency. “It’s not even in schoolbooks,” he said.

This would be no ordinary reunion, wrapped in soft-focus memories. The conversation , our first ever, was going to drill deeply into an ordeal few people could imagine, never mind endure. I felt privileged. Within minutes, we traveled from a living room to Clark Field in the Philippines, where he served with the Army Air Forces. Hours after the December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor attack, Japanese bombs pummeled Clark with similar results. “It was a massacre,” he said, straining his papery voice for emphasis. Overpowered, US and Philippines soldiers backed into the Bataan Peninsula. Cavalry horses were slaughtered for food, soldiers turned on one another, and the enemy kept coming in bloody waves. After four months, orders came to surrender. The Japanese made emaciated US and Philippines soldiers — about 75,000 — walk 65 miles in the broiling heat to a prison camp. Along the way, thousands died. My uncle watched a man be buried alive in the road. A stumble or fall meant instant execution.

At the camp, nourishment came from bug-infested rice. Death was a constant. He volunteered for burial duty — dumping corpses in “a big bulldozed pit, much like in Germany, I guess.” It allowed him to be outside and get “a little extra rice.” Eventually, he and others were sent to work in a mine on the Japanese island of Kyushu. At night, he heard screams of men being tortured. Somehow, prisoner 1,279 avoided the worst, facing “one day at time” while wasting to under 100 pounds. On August 9, 1945, he watched a mushroom cloud erase the sky above nearby Nagasaki. Liberation.

Bernard Pothier returned to his hometown of Medford, slept on the floor at night for a year, and slowly healed (“I had some of that  —  what do they call it?  —  PTSD”). He and Marge, his wife of 63 years, raised five children. He started his own printing company. He has “no hard feelings” toward Japan and jokes about owning a Toyota RAV4 — “a very good car.” He anticipates tomorrows, one by one by one. Shortly after our visit, he sent me an e-mail: “This has been a great experience. It keeps me sharp.”

I wondered so long about what happened to my uncle. Now I know for certain. He lived.

Mark Pothier is the Globe’s deputy business editor. Send comments to connections@globe.com.

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