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To hell and back: Daughter tells a father's WWII story

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September 27, 2007

By JOHN FLOWERS

MIDDLEBURY — Though the late Bob Blakeslee is recalled as a selfless and giving man, there was one thing he didn’t care to share — stories of his experiences during World War II.

“We just had little bits and snippets,” Middlebury resident Nancy Blakeslee Wood said of her father’s story. “He told us things in a humorous way. He talked about how he would sleep (in the jungles of the Philippines) and the rats would chew at his calluses.”

He never really opened up about it to his wife, Ruth, and his two children, Stephen and Nancy.

“I think men of that generation figured women and children don’t need to know that kind of thing,” Wood said. “He might have talked about it with war buddies … but he didn’t talk to us about it.”

As a result, Blakeslee’s heroic wartime legacy could’ve very easily died with him in 1976, when he succumbed to an illness.

But Nancy Blakeslee Wood’s chance discovery of a small cardboard box in her mother’s closet has yielded a treasure trove of information about how her dad miraculously survived the infamous Bataan Death March, three prisoner-of-war camps and myriad bullets, bayonets and diseases before being literally blasted to freedom by an American torpedo.

More than a war story, the collection of photographs, letters, telegrams and newspaper clippings paints the tender love story between Bob and Ruth Blakeslee, a bond that helped sustain him through physical torture at the hands of his Japanese captors and her through the crushing heartbreak of not knowing her husband’s fate.

“It’s an incredible story,” said Wood, who has spent eight years organizing and investigating information in the prized cardboard box, accumulated, unbeknownst to her, by Ruth Blakeslee, who died three years ago after battling a memory loss disease. Wood’s sleuthing culminated in a trip to the Philippines around two years ago to retrace her father’s blood-soaked steps from the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines to the island of Mindanao. She has begun telling her father’s story publicly.

“This is a labor of love, and I have spent a lot of time doing it,” Wood said.

It’s a story that begins on March 1, 1941. Robert Blakeslee was one of the first men in Glens Falls, N.Y., to be called to active duty as the U.S. prepared to formally enter World War II. Blakeslee, a chemical engineer at Imperial Paper and Color Corp., was a lieutenant with the U.S. Army Reserve Corps.

Blakeslee was put in charge of the 454th Aviation Co., a group of 200 men attached to the 27th Bombardment Group. They were told their ultimate destination was Fort McKinley, just outside of Manila, the capital of the Philippines. There, they would await the delivery of 54 dive bombers that they would service in order to take flight against Japanese forces.

But before heading to the Philippines, Blakeslee and his comrades would need significant training, the first installment of which would come in Savannah, Ga.

Ruth and young Steven Blakeslee would join the young lieutenant in Georgia for some precious days preceding his long train ride to San Francisco, where he and his colleagues would board a boat for the Philippines.

Blakeslee conveyed his love for his family in a letter he would send just before boarding that train for the West Coast.

“As long as I can keep busy as I did today, I think I’ll get by alright, but I’m afraid it will catch up with me on the train going to the coast and then on the boat,” he wrote.

“Keep smiling and try to remember that this is just a short interlude in a long and happy life together… ”

Even the train’s sounds on the trestle led him to believe he would be making a swift return.

“Every time the wheels click, it means we are further apart,” he wrote during the train trip. “Yesterday, though, I was listening to them click and they were saying ‘We’re coming back, we’re coming back.’ They didn’t say when, but we’ll be together again before you know it.”

Little did he know that what he hoped would be a “short interlude” would stretch for more than three tormenting years, both on the battlefront and the home front.

Lt. Blakeslee would arrive in the Philippines on Nov. 25, 1941. Less that two weeks later, the Japanese would attack Pearl Harbor (Dec. 7) and then Manila, on Dec. 8. The Japanese invasion came before Blakeslee and his men received the planes they have been assigned to service.

All of a sudden, their mission switched to simple survival.

“They are totally caught off-guard,” Wood said as she recounted the surprise attack. “They were trained to take care of planes, but they were given rifles, five rounds of ammunition each, a shovel, a canteen and told, ‘You’re on your own, do the best you can.’”

Members of the 454th Aviation Co. fought valiantly with their Filipino colleagues, but they were cut off from supplies and reinforcements. The defenders are eventually forced down to the Bataan Peninsula, where they made a last stand. Japanese forces overwhelmed them, prompting their surrender on April 9, 1942.

This set the stage for one of the most notorious crimes of World War II: The Bataan Death March, which saw approximately 12,000 American and 66,000 Filipino prisoners of war — including Blakeslee — go on a forced, 90-mile march from Mariveles Airfield to Camp O’Donnell, a facility the Japanese had converted into a prison camp.

Already malnourished, injured and sick, the 78,000 prisoners staggered through the jungles under a searing hot sun. As many as 10,000 men died before reaching Camp O’Donnell; those who fell behind were left to die, while others were executed by the Japanese for daring to ask for water or food.

“They were decapitated, bayoneted or beaten for drinking water,” Wood said.

Some of the prisoners, including Blakeslee, rode 25 miles of the trip by train boxcar, but that proved no reprieve from cruelty. Japanese guards packed the soldiers into the cars like sardines, offering them no air, light or water.

“One hundred men died, standing up,” Wood said, recounting stories she had heard of bodies tumbling out of the boxcars when they were opened at Camp O’Donnell.

Turns out that out-living the death march would be but one of the many feats of survival that Blakeslee would pull off during the ensuing three years. During that time, he would miraculously endure stays at three Japanese prisoner of war camps — O’Donnell, Cabantuan and Davao, on the island of Mindanao. Through it all, he would bear witness to unimaginable acts of cruelty and superhuman efforts at survival.

Japanese guards would kill prisoners for little reason, Wood noted. In some cases, condemned prisoners would be forced to dig their own graves before being executed. Survivors were ordered to fill in the graves.

Prisoners would hunt for rats and other vermin in the camps as a supplement to the contaminated rice and other meager rations they were given.

Prisoners had to remain compliant to stay alive.

“My father believed that the best way to get through this ordeal was to keep busy,” Wood said. “The camps were deadly. It was better to volunteer for work for units going here and there. The Japanese used them as slave labor.”

Wood believes her father might well have been killed by his Japanese captors if he had not volunteered to work. His jobs included growing rice for Japanese troops, rebuilding an airstrip and a nine-week bridge renovation job in the community of Gapan during which 37 of his detail of 200 men died in 37 days.

It was not until Dec. 14, 1942 — more than a year after the Battle of Manila — that Ruth Blakeslee finally gets confirmation her husband is a prisoner of war. The Imperial Japanese Army would allow him to send out a handful of postcards home during his years as a prisoner.

“Tell Stephen to take care of mommy until daddy returns. My love to all the folks, but most of it to you,” reads one of the monitored postcards that Blakeslee’s Japanese captors agreed to mail on his behalf.

Meanwhile, Ruth Blakeslee sent scores of letters to her husband that were never delivered.

During these unbearable times, Blakeslee and his fellow prisoners tried to keep their spirits up. On Dec. 25, 1943, they fashioned Christmas trees out of Colgate toothpaste boxes that had been sent by the Red Cross. They received a further morale-booster in March of 1944, when, during a work detail at the Lasang airfield, they noticed Japanese planes coming in with bullet holes.

“They become hopeful there are some American planes nearby,” Wood said.

But Blakeslee’s hope for release took a nosedive on Aug. 20, 1944, when he was among 750 prisoners gathered together and marched three miles to a Japanese freighter at Tabunco Pier in the Davao Gulf, where they are split into two groups bound for Japan. Blakeslee’s group was marched into the hold of a ship where they remained, docked in harbor, for 10 days with little food, water, exercise or ventilation. They were finally transferred to the freighter Shinyo Maru for their journey.

The Shinyo Maru slowly made its way up the coast and eventually into deeper waters. It is there where, in an ironic twist of fate, the freighter filled with American prisoners was torpedoed by an American submarine, the U.S.S. Paddle.

“Part of the problem was, these hell ships, as they were known, were torpedoed and bombed by American fire,” Wood said. “The Japanese did not sign the Geneva Convention agreement, therefore they didn’t mark their ships to say they carried POWs.”

Blakeslee was one of only 82 men out of the 750 prisoners to survive the explosion. The others were either blown apart or shot, as they bobbed up and down in the water, by Japanese soldiers.

Blakeslee managed to cling to some debris. For two days he would paddle while going in and out of delirium. He floated several miles along the coast and further and further out to sea. Blakeslee eventually floated alongside another American on a raft, and they were both discovered by Filipino guerillas on Sept. 9, 1944. The guerillas, based in the Zamboanga region of Mindanao, cared for the survivors until Sept. 30, when the submarine USS Narwhal retrieved them under a cloak of darkness. They were taken to a U.S. Naval base in New Guinea, then to Brisbane, Australia, where Blakeslee was hospitalized for two weeks.

On Oct. 27, Ruth Blakeslee finally received the news she had been praying for more than two years — confirmation that her husband is safe and in friendly hands.

“I was delighted to receive the official letter from the government today, and marvel even more now about your miraculous escape. God has certainly watched over you, my sweet,” Ruth Blakeslee wrote her husband upon hearing the welcome news.

“I love you even more than life itself, and am so proud to be your wife and hope I was your inspiration for survival and your wonderful bravery and courage.”

After being flown back to the U.S., the family was reunited at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 6, 1944. Nancy Blakeslee is born on Feb. 5, 1946.

Wood has done a lot of crying while poring over the material, which she has since assembled into a scrapbook titled, “The Remarkable Story of Robert and Ruth Blakeslee: A World War II Experience.” She plans to donate the contents of the cardboard box to a museum, where it can be shared with everyone. In the meantime, she is addressing various civic groups about her parents’ wartime experiences.

Wood hopes the story gives people a sense of the hardships military families face during wartime, hardships that those fighting the Iraq war are currently facing.

“I think of what a huge sacrifice it was in these people’s lives,” Wood said. “This is about amazing strength.”

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