(This is part two of a series on World War II veteran John Mims.)
In mid-1941, a U.S. Army recruiter told John Mims that serving in the Philippines was great duty. The weather was nice, he said, and the women were beautiful.
For a little while, at least, it seemed the smooth-talking recruiter was telling the truth.
Just weeks after beginning his second stint in the military, Mims was aboard a troop transport ship heading for Luzon. He was now a private in Company B, 1st Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment.
Still sore at how he was unceremoniously kicked out of the Army a few years earlier, Mims was determined to make a good impression this time around.
“Everything I was assigned to do, I tried to do it better than anyone else,” said Mims.
Of course, he still made sure to enjoy the lovely scenery on Luzon and nothing was as beautiful to Mims as the face of a young girl named Juanita. The two star-crossed lovers met at a skating rink late in 1941 and instantly felt a strong bond.
It was a connection that would endure for more than six decades. The two married in 1945 and remained together until Juanita passed away in 2003.
“If she was here she would still be my angel,” said Mims. “None of God’s angels are any better than my wife. She had a heart of gold.”
Rumors of an impending war with Japan were rampant in December of 1941. But the dark clouds gathering on the horizon were nothing but a passing storm to John and Juanita.
Young and in love, the troubles of the world seemed a million miles away from the idyllic beaches of Luzon.
In fact, the two were relaxing along the sandy shoreline when they heard the news that would bring them crashing back to reality.
“I was at Sunset Beach,” said Mims. “(Juanita’s) boss was giving a party and I was invited. While we were there we heard that Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor.”
The war begins
Hustling back to his camp just outside Manila, Mims was assigned to a .50-caliber machine gun as American and Filipino forces braced for the impending Japanese invasion.
They didn’t need to wait long.
The Japanese began landing troops in the Philippines on Dec. 8 and invaded Luzon on Dec. 12.
Although outnumbered, the Japanese troops were better trained and equipped than the Allied forces. Most of Luzon was quickly overrun and Manila was declared an open city on Dec. 26.
American and Filipino troops retreated to the Bataan Peninsula where they set up a much stronger line of defense.
“We burned all of our barracks,” said Mims as he recalled the hectic time surrounding the retreat. “The only thing I didn’t burn was my uniform and stuff like that. I took a lot of my stuff to (Juanita’s) house and that really helped them during the war. She was able to take one of my khaki shirts or something like that and sell it up in the mountains. It was enough that she could get supplies for herself and her family.”
Mims was initially sent to the small island of Corregidor located right off the coast of Luzon. He spent just a few days there – including Christmas Day – before being shipped back to Bataan.
“Japan dropped everything they had on us during Christmas and the day after,” said Mims. “Then they sent us back to Bataan by barge and we set up (a defensive line).”
It was on the Bataan Peninsula that the defenders put up their most valiant fight. Time and again, they repelled numerous Japanese attacks and inflicted heavy losses on the invaders.
But time and circumstances were stacked against them.
Beginning of the end
While the Japanese could rely upon reinforcements and adequate supplies, the Americans and Filipinos were running dangerously low on everything.
Still, the fight went on.
“We just wouldn’t give up,” said Mims. “We ran out of food, water and ammunition. We ran out of everything.”
Soon, the American soldiers began infiltrating enemy lines to steal whatever they could find.
“We had to use Ranger tactics,” said Mims. “We’d slip behind their lines and take rifles. They also had these (mess kits) they would carry that had all their food. We took those, too. But we couldn’t fire a shot. We had to do all of it by bayonet.”
Shooting another man on the battlefield is grisly part of war, something most veterans never forget. But to kill an enemy soldier with your hands is something totally different, almost impossible to comprehend.
The memory of silently plunging a bayonet into his foes remains vivid to Mims.
“It wasn’t easy,” said Mims. “But if you are hungry and that is the only way to get food, would you not do it? Or, would you go out someplace and just die? That’s the way I felt about it. It wasn’t that I wanted to be cruel. We couldn’t just wound them because then they would talk and tell who did it.”
As the days turned into weeks and the weeks gave way to months, the Japanese slowly pushed the defenders all the way down the peninsula.
Despite putting up a gallant fight, the Americans and Filipinos had no chance of winning a battle of attrition. Disease, hunger and a lack of medical supplies were becoming just as deadly of an enemy as the Japanese.
In the three months of fighting on Bataan, Mims was wounded five times.
“I don’t know how I made it,” said Mims. “I didn’t see a doctor one time. The good Lord was looking out for me.”
As the Japanese relentlessly bombed and shelled the defenders, some men began to crack under the constant strain.
Mims suffered one of his wounds while saving the life of a second lieutenant suffering from shell shock. The officer began wandering around in the open during an artillery barrage and Mims was forced to tackle him and drag him to safety.
“He was out of it,” said Mims, who was hit by shrapnel during the attack. “He didn’t even know he was in the war.”
While some men clung to the hope that a massive naval armada would arrive soon with supplies and reinforcements, most realized the end was near.
“We knew better than that,” said Mims. “We figured out that we were left by ourselves.”
On April 9, 1942, the battle for Bataan finally came to a close. More than 75,000 American and Filipino troops surrendered to the Japanese invaders.
Combat, malnutrition and disease had taken a tremendous toll on the defenders during the three-month battle.
The worst, however, was yet to come.
As the defeated defenders began walking toward prison camps more than 70 miles away, they were beginning a trek of death and cruelty that would epitomize the heartless nature of combat in the Pacific Theater.
The Bataan Death March had begun.
(Part three of this story will appear in next week’s edition.)