Whenever I think of tough going in war, I’m drawn to images of men fighting amidst the blaze of gunfire and cannon blasts. Medic Ralph Rodriguez showed me another image of bravery and of sheer determination. The story starts with the Bataan Death March and plays out to its end at Camp O’Donnell.
Camp O’Donnell was a U.S. military installation. There is nothing in the name that makes it stand out but what happened there is quite remarkable. On April, 1942, when the United States and its allies surrendered the Bataan peninsula to the forces of the Japanese Empire, the Death March of Bataan began and thousands of Americans and their Filipino allies either perished, or spent the next three years in unimaginably horrific conditions. Ralph Rodriguez survived and he is adamant that clinging tightly to hope was the difference between life and death. “I made it my mission to come home,” he recalls and it was that dogged determination that was his strength throughout the years of misery.
The atrocities started along the march. “As soon as you fell,” Ralph told me, “the Japs butchered you…They killed people right and left for little or no reason.” He recounts instances in which soldiers were bayoneted for being as little as one or two steps behind on the tortuous sixty mile march. The Red Cross insignia he wore, he added, may have helped him escape the onslaught of Japanese bullets and bayonets to which so many innocents fell. Ralph made it, despite eight episodes of Malaria, a disease that often kills its victims in the first round, despite the malnutrition and the inhumanity of his captors. “I made it my mission to come home, he said, and emphasized that only hope could save the men destined to endure the ordeal. Even a perfectly healthy man who gave up hope would die within a day, he added. One thousand in his camp never did get home. There was no escape, just a constant struggle to stay alive.
Days turned to into months and then into years. Finally, in late January, 1945, units of the Sixth U.S. Army Rangers, in a daring covert operation 20 miles behind enemy lines, rescued Ralph Rodriguez and his comrades, the men of Camp O’Donnell. Ralph remembered the day vividly:
“The Rangers came in and started shooting… All Hell broke loose…Within fifteen or twenty minutes it was all over.”
The men started off on another march. This time it was a march not to enslavement, but into freedom. Elements of the 6th Army Rangers made sure the pursuing Japanese forces never again took these men prisoner. The Rangers accomplished their mission of liberation and Ralph Rodriguez accomplished his, to never give up hope and to make it home!
I hope you will support me (and hundreds of World War 2 enthusiasts and volunteers around the world) in challenging American teens across America, who are interested in military history, to participate in the iHistory Project-WW2. We are committed to preserving these great World War 2 stories and memories and to bringing them to life so future generations will understand and appreciate the events of this conflict and how they shaped our world.
For more information, visit the I-History Project-WW2 or contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org