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Pa. man recounts life after Death March

February 23, 2000

Hatcher, after releaseBy RICHARD F. BELISLE / Staff Writer, Waynesboro

photo, left: Vinson Hatcher

photo bottom: RICHARD T. MEAGHER / staff photographer




GREENCASTLE, Pa. - Vinson Hatcher realized he was free for the first time in 31/2 years when the sight of dozens of men sleeping on the floor in a hospital dormitory surprised the nurse who walked in.

"We had been sleeping on hard ground and bare floors. We couldn't sleep on those soft mattresses," said Hatcher, 85, of Molly Pitcher Highway.

Hatcher survived the Bataan Death March of April 1942 and more than three years in Japanese prisoner camps during World War II.

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On Wednesday he recounted the horrors of those years from the comfort of his living room in the home he shares with Twila, his wife of 52 years. He retired as a machinist at Mack Trucks in 1979.

Over 6 feet tall, he weighed 165 pounds when he joined the Army in January 1940 at age 25 and 95 pounds when he was freed from a POW camp in Japan.

Hatcher nowHis memory fails on exact dates, but he said he can't forget the misery, brutality and years of deprivation suffered by thousands of captured Americans in camps in the Philippines and Japan.

Hatcher, who lived in Greensburg, Pa., and a friend joined the Army together. "It was in the Depression and we couldn't find jobs," he said. They were assigned to the Army Air Corps after boot camp and asked for duty in the Philippines. Two months later they were on a troop ship.

They were assigned to Nichols Field near Manila. "It was like a paradise," Hatcher said. Things were great until Dec. 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed, when the first Japanese planes came over the airfield firing.

They ended up on the Bataan Peninsula in April 1942 with American troops who had been pushed there by the overpowering Japanese. "We knew we were going to lose and that there were no U.S. ships or planes to get us out," Hatcher said.

His capture came when he and five other men found a dugout canoe and tried to paddle to another island.

Hatcher joined the nearly 70,000 other captured American and Filipino troops on the "Death March," a 70-mile trek to a railroad station where they were put on trains to prison camps around the Philippines. The march made history because of its brutality.

"(We) learned real fast that we had better follow orders and do as we were told," Hatcher said. "Many who didn't were killed, even when they just asked for some water."

Hatcher stayed in the Philippines for 21/2 years, mostly working in the rice fields. Camp life became routine, but the cruelty continued. He was often beaten by guards, he said. "They also had fun putting us in front of firing squads and shooting at us with empty guns. I really thought I was going to die the first time they lined me up," he said.

Hatcher was taken to Japan for the last year of his captivity, and the brutality continued. "They needed us to work in their war plants. If someone broke out, the guards would shoot everyone in the squad who was left," he said. It stopped the escapes, he said.

The POWs knew the war was ending when they saw their first B-29s, Hatcher said.

"A week later we were flown to Tokyo, then Okinawa, where we were put on a hospital ship home," he said.

"When we reached Seattle every one of us who could walked down the ramp and kissed the ground. We didn't think we'd ever see home again."

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