Most Viewed Stories
Death March survivor's drawings document life in prison camp
A Yuma man is cherishing a one-of-a-kind piece of history from World War II that was given to him several years ago by his brother shortly before he died.
Talking in a low tone that was both a mixture of immense pride and deep sadness, Filemon Tellez said his brother, David, survived the Bataan Death March and went on to spend more that three years as a prisoner of war.
“To me he was a hero. He was born and raised on a farm. He used to work his butt off, which is probably what saved his life,” Tellez said of his brother. “I wouldn't like to go through what he went through, that's for sure. What he told us about what happened was horrible.”
Tellez said when his brother died in 2006, he left him a collection of drawings made by Col. Malcolm V. Fortier on scraps of paper and other material that depicted day-to-day scenes from their time at a prisoner of war camp in Manchuria, China.
“What you see in the drawings is what they went through,” said Tellez. “They had to hide them in the camp somehow because they didn't want the Japanese to find them. If they had, there would have been repercussions.”
Tellez recently took the drawings, which he keeps covered in plastic sheet protectors and in a binder, to a presentation at the Yuma Main Library about the Bataan and Corregidor campaigns and showed them to Yuma Proving Ground spokesman Chuck Wullenjohn, who was the speaker.
Immediately recognizing the significance of the drawings, Wullenjohn invited Tellez to bring them out to YPG so they could be digitally scanned and preserved for future generations, which he agreed to do.
“It's a unique piece of history that deserves to be preserved,” Wullenjohn said. “You read history and hear people talk about it, but these drawings bring it to a whole different level.”
Wullenjohn said it took a couple of hours to scan all of the drawings while Tellez, who had worked at YPG as a high-speed photographer for many years, kept a close eye on the process. Even during the short time he spent speaking with YPG Command Sgt. Maj. Keith West, Tellez could be seen glancing back over at the drawings.
“(Tellez) told me he never lets the drawings out of his sight,” Wullenjohn said. “He told me the reason they are so important to him is because his brother gave them to him.”
Now that the drawings can be re-created, Wullenjohn says YPG plans to provide a copy of the images to the base's Heritage Center and to the Army Center for Military History.
Tellez said his brother, who was nine years older than him, spoke to him only once about what had happened at Bataan and what he was forced to endure as a prisoner of war.
“He didn't want to experience it again, so we hardly ever talked about what he went through,” Tellez said.
Tellez said he and his family were living in La Mesa, N.M., in 1945 when his brother enlisted in the Army in February of that year, a few days after his 21st birthday. The following September, his brother was shipped off the Philippines.
The fall of Bataan and Corregidor are famous in history as one of the last stands of American and Filipino soldiers before they were overwhelmed by the Japanese forces. The Japanese army invaded the country in December 1941, and although they were gradually being overrun, the American and Filipino soldiers fought them for four months, winning several tactical victories, before finally having to surrender in April 1942.
In retelling what his brother had told him, Tellez said, prior to the surrender the soldiers, because they were so short on rations, had to eat all of the horses the cavalry had at its disposal. Once they were gone, they continued eating the dogs, cats, chickens, pigs, cows and fowls and anything else they could find, including rats.
After surviving the death march, Tellez's brother and many other American soldiers were put on what was known as a “hell ship” and transported to a prison camp in Manchuria, a journey that took three months.
These ships were slow and decrepit, and 800 prisoners were crammed into the lower decks. Tellez said his brother told him that prisoners were coupled up in twos, standing face to face, while two others sat between their legs.
“These conditions were deplorable since about 90 percent of the soldiers had dysentery, which is the precursor to diarrhea,” Tellez said. “The daily rations were a tiny ball of rice. The ship was also infested with rats, but they didn't last very long because they were all eaten. This is what hunger does.”
Tellez said his brother told him that many of the soldiers died during the long journey and were thrown overboard without any funeral rites given to them.
During their imprisonment, Tellez said, his brother had told him that he and the other soldiers were often beaten and when they went to bury those who had died, since they had buried so many, the blood would seep into the hole they were digging.
Tellez said while they had heard about the fall of Bataan on the radio, the family had no idea what had happened to his brother. A couple of months later, the Red Cross contacted his family and informed them his brother was still alive.
“This was a blessing for my mama. She used to cry about it every day,” Tellez said. “My family never gave up hope that he would return, especially mama.”
Many months later, the family finally got a letter from his brother stating he was fine and everything was OK. Tellez said the family started sending his brother care packages containing items such as canned food, towels, soap and cigarettes.
“I remember rolling cigarettes by the hundreds with a small mechanical machine,” Tellez said. “We would send the package to the Red Cross and they were supposed to deliver it.”
Tellez said his family probably sent his brother about 30 care packages while he was imprisoned, only to find out after he returned home that he only ever received one of them. He suspects the Japanese soldiers kept the rest of them, but he doesn't know for sure.
When the war ended, Tellez's brother was released, returning home in October 1945. A few months later, he married his girlfriend, who had waited all that time for him.
James Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com or 539-6854. Find him on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/YSJamesGilbert or on Twitter @YSJamesGilbert.