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Rangers' daring rescue made them heroes of Bataan POWS

Monday, October 14, 2002

Robert Body signs his autograph
(photo by Scott Welton)
SIKESTON - For one man, the 6th Ranger Battalion Reunion was an opportunity to meet some of the men who had given him a second chance in life.

Born in Canada, Robert Body's family moved to Detroit, Mich., when he was 2 years old.

Looking for a better life, he first enlisted with the Canadian army while he was still 16 years old. Soon after, his age was discovered and he was discharged.

Body then gave the U.S. Army a try, enlisting Feb. 6, 1941. "I enlisted at noon and by 4 o'clock I was on the train to Angel Island." He had his 17th birthday on Angel Island in the San Francisco bay while waiting to ship out.

He arrived in the Philippines April 22, 1941, part of the 31st Infantry. Body said that up until the war started, he enjoyed Manila very much. The weather was warm, the scenery was beautiful, and they only worked half-days.

That a tiny country like Japan could give the mighty United States any trouble was inconceivable to Body and his fellow soldiers.

Body said as they began to fortify Manila after Japan began their assault on the Philippines, they were sure the whole thing would be over with in two weeks.

On Dec. 24, they went to Corregidor, and then on to Bataan.

"Right till the end I was convinced we would get help," Body said. But the expected reinforcements never came.

"We didn't have any food, any water, and our equipment was no good," Body said. He recalled throwing 12 grenades. Only two went off.

Allied forces in the Philippines surrendered April 9, 1942.

Of all the fortunes of war, "One of the worst things that can happen is to be taken a prisoner," Body said.

Among the "Battling Bastards of Bataan," Body was just one of the 75,000 sick and wounded who endured what is now known as the Bataan Death March.

The prisoners were forced to march 85 miles on foot before being crammed into cattle cars for a 40-mile ride. They then endured a final seven-mile march to Camp O'Donnell. From Bataan they had traveled 133 miles to Central Luzon, all in nine days.

By the end of the first week, the prisoners were dying at a rate of 15 per day. In less than three weeks 15,000 Filipino and American prisoners were dead.

Once he arrived in the prisoner camp, Body was sure he wouldn't make it if he was moved to Japan and did everything he could to make sure he stayed in the Philippines. "It wasn't easy," Body said. "I stayed in the hospital most of the time."

Body said he would argue with his captors at every opportunity. They would use pick handles in their attempts to "convince" him they were right. "Every time I went out to work, I got beat up," he recalled.

Body spent two years, eight months and 27 days as a prisoner of war. For a long time, he could even remember the exact length of his imprisonment down to the hour.

On one hand, those who were taken prisoner after surrendering to the Japanese on April 9, 1942, believe they played a pivotal role by tying up forces that could have easily taken Australia or attacked the United States' western coast.

But Body considers himself a survivor, not a hero. "These guys are my heroes," said Body, nodding toward the 6th Battalion Rangers, recalling the night he was liberated. "That was the night I was reborn."