In late winter of ’98, I started to get into Frank’s car and noticed the backseat was filled from a recent shopping spree. Besides his skills of mechanic, pilot, and survivor of the Bataan Death March, Frank Corbi ranked as an expert bargain hunter.

He smiled. "Everything’s from Sam’s Club." I glimpsed a miniature compressor, packets of batteries and pens, cans of coffee and tuna. There were only a couple of filled bags; the rest was strewn across the backseat. I tried to figure out what was there, but he told me to jump in.

"It’s like Christmas there," he said. "I can’t help it. I see all this stuff, all the good deals, and I’ve got to have it."

I was armed with my tape recorder and a list of questions, hoping to add his POW experiences to the book I was writing. Before visiting Frank, I reviewed Japan’s attack on the Philippines, only hours after Pearl Harbor. During the next four months of fighting, supplies dwindled, reinforcements never arrived, and General King, commander of the American-Filipino Forces on Bataan, finally surrendered on April 9, 1942. The men were starving and suffering from disease and injuries.

After King’s surrender, General Wainwright continued to occupy Corregidor, the island guarding the entrance to Manila Bay. In order for the Japanese to make their assault on Corregidor, they had to remove seventy thousand captured American and Filipino soldiers from the Bataan peninsula. The march out of Bataan and the subsequent years of imprisonment began as a logistics problem for the Japanese and ended in a nightmare that took the lives of nearly seven thousand Americans by the end of the war. The March started with ten thousand U.S. soldiers.

I turned on my tape recorder as Frank started answering my questions. He confirmed the many reports of men bayoneted and shot if they straggled to the back of the line or off the road during the five-day march from the southern tip of Bataan to Camp O’Donnell. Frank watched as a Filipino woman was bayoneted, possibly for handing rice wrapped in a banana leaf to one of the prisoners. The Filipinos suffered over five thousand dead on the march alone; the Americans, six hundred.

As Frank named possible restaurants, he corroborated my latest data.

Hoping to eventually become a pilot, he had graduated as an airplane mechanic in 1940 from the Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois. Assigned to the 48th Material Squadron of metal workers, welders, and mechanics, Frank’s unit was sent to the Philippines to support the fighter and bomber aircraft.

"I went over on a luxury ship, The President Coolidge, and later on, another so-called luxury ship took us to Japan."

We stopped by an Italian restaurant that was closed, and Frank mentioned we were near where he had grown up.

This side of town was depressed and shabby; the homes looked neglected; the trees bare and lifeless for months. Winter tipped into spring. Frank turned onto North Liberty, the street where he was born in 1919 and would live until enlisting in the service in 1939.

"When I was a boy I used to watch the planes from my backyard," Frank said. "The Argo factory wasn’t far from my home."

"Argo? Never heard of it."

"Alliance Aircraft Corporation. They built planes before the Depression wiped them out."

He pointed to a shed in the backyard of his old house. "I used that little building for developing pictures." He maintained his love of photography with a laboratory of video and computer equipment in his basement, where he edited wedding pictures or transformed eight-millimeter home movies into video with sound. A guy like Frank could have been born on Lucky Boulevard.

* * *

After General King surrendered his forces, Frank Corbi had a trek of seventy miles to Camp O’Donnell in grueling, one hundred-degree heat. The Japanese allowed the marchers to rest in front of artesian wells but killed anyone who made a dash for the cool water.

"There was no stopping, even if someone fell," Frank said, slowing down in front of another restaurant that was also closed. "That’s why having a buddy was the real life saver. You watched out for each other, supported each other, or you dropped and never got up again."

I mentioned the rumors of MacArthur’s return. Of course there were plenty of them, he said, and for a while, they lent hope. In Donald Knox’s Death March: The Survivors of Bataan, a rumor circulated during the fight for Bataan that a Black Cavalry Unit had landed in Manila to rescue the men. Frank pondered my information then shook his head. "That’s nice, but I never heard that story."

Frank shifted in his seat, gazing left and right, perhaps expecting a familiar corner, small business, or abandoned playground to trigger another memory.

Frank said, "A lot of disappointment with MacArthur leaving us there in the jungle with the Japs all those years–but what could he do? What’s worse is they forgot about us a second time–no reparations. And boy we sure deserved something–prisoners, slaves working the docks and mines. A few of us keep writing, but the politicians are looking the other way, waiting for us to die off."

"That’s a shame."

"You go and check it out with the computer. You’ll see what I mean. That computer and internet must scare the hell out of ’em. You can chase ’em down, build your case a lot faster. Oh, well, we’ll see what happens."

Frank asked if I’d like to drive past the old Taylorcraft plant where he briefly worked and learned to fly after the war. "It’s not far from here. Then I’ll take you to my old-standby place to eat."

He guided the car along the city limits where older homes and empty lots transitioned into forest. Usually, Frank wasn’t prone to talk about his experiences, believing the details of his imprisonment were personal matters of little interest to others. But at eighty, with many of his friends gone, there was a desire to make sense of a long life. A sandpaper company now occupied the long, narrow buildings. Woods and fields surrounded the business. Frank drove up to the spot where a new aircraft would get its final check before the test pilot took the controls. Both of us got out of the car and Frank pointed to where the runways had been located.

"You know, I first saw my wife here. Her group built the wing, starting with just the spar. Another group covered them." Frank looked from the sky to the buildings and smiled. "Aggie worked at a restaurant in town as well, that’s where I started talking to her. I was pretty timid at first, so I’d just come in and buy a pack of smokes, then leave. We didn’t date very long. I had hot pants. Well, that’s what we used to call it."

We got back in the car and drove to his favorite diner.

After a few months in captivity, Frank and the other men turned their conversations from sex and freedom to the talk of food–all the different foods they’d eat once at home. "You know, I kept a little journal of all the dishes we’d make for ourselves someday. There was picnic food, holiday food and the three squares."

I turned the tape recorder back on and asked Frank about his fish heads and rice diet.

"We didn’t have it all the time, but when we did, it gave me strength. You know someone who wants to go on a diet? Put them on fish heads and rice for three months. They’ll lose weight and stay healthy." Frank smoothed his napkin then added, "Sometimes during the march, they’d let us rest alongside the road and there’d be a little bush with flowers. When we got up to leave, every flower was eaten off that bush."

The flowers were probably abundant in vitamin C, great for the immune system, and possibly an early contributor to Frank’s remarkable health. But Frank reminded me that at the prison camp, Cabanatuan, he contracted both malaria and dysentery during his internment. What saved him from dying of malaria was the quinine acquired by the medics.

When a mound of homefries smacked the hot grill, Frank glanced at the cook then resumed talking.

"Now, if you’re already healthy, and have a good immune system, your best chance to maintain your health is with as little medicine as possible. You see, I believe medicine can make your body lazy, dependent. That little bit of quinine was a miracle, but I had other things go wrong with me, and no other medicine to depend upon."

His toughest hours were aboard the notorious Hell Ships bound for the Japanese mainland. Like many others, Frank hustled to stay alive in camp where there was some room to maneuver, using wit and skill. But the cargo hold of his first ship was filled with men standing shoulder-to-shoulder, front to back. Even managing a breath might depend on a man’s height. Frank said the afternoon before their departure the temperature was well over a hundred degrees. "Imagine that heat, then thrown into a hole of a steel ship." This first Hell Ship was the Oryoku Maru.

Frank paused before digging into his scrambled eggs. "Some men just went crazy down there, and there was nothing to do but kill them. Of course, our big problem was no water, and this made the men do terrible things. Some tried to drink blood."

In the camps, one could imagine how a man might live with hope. But the condition of men pressed into a hot, dark cargo hold, standing in their own filth, and hearing the cries of madness, was a horror that would only be wiped out by the atomic bomb. For the men who survived, the Bomb would be their Black Cavalry that comes riding over the ridge.

I took a rest from my questions and went to work on my omelet while Frank continued.

After the Oryoku Maru was badly damaged from an air attack, a train transported the prisoners to northern Luzon in order to reach the next ship. Boxcars meant for forty men were packed with a hundred. Frank survived this ordeal where other men died standing up.

A torpedo disabled Frank Corbi’s last vessel, leaving it to be towed the rest of the journey by a destroyer. Of the original sixteen hundred men that boarded the Oryoku Maru, only three hundred survived to reach Moji, a seaport not far from Nagasaki. Soon after reaching the slave-labor camp, Frank took ill and required three months to recuperate before he began working daily, unloading ships. The prison camp overlooked the harbor, so it wasn’t uncommon to hear mines exploding below. During the night, allied aircraft would seed the bay with mines, and the next day Japanese mine sweepers and unwary ships set them off. Occasionally, news of the war came from the guards. In the closing months of World War II, these same guards talked in awe of an aircraft called the B-29 and nervously mentioned rumors of a secret weapon.

On August 9, 1945, the ground shuddered as it had many times before. Five days later Japan surrendered. By the terms of the surrender, the Japanese had to provide for the safety and security of the American POWs. When Frank’s liberation came a month later, he learned that the Americans, in the powerful, four-engine B-29, had dropped a new bomb on the city of Nagasaki. The explosion he had heard and felt was detonated seventy miles away.

By train, Frank passed near Nagasaki, bound for the port and an American ship to take him home. He said as you neared the city, the trees furthest from the explosion had lost their leaves. The next group was without branches, until finally, the trees were gone. The burnt steel structures left standing leaned away from the center of the blast.

We left the restaurant and then drove to the hospital to pick up Frank’s wife from her weekly dialysis treatment. Frank Corbi and Agnes Svoboda were married in 1948, raised three children, and lived for the next twenty-three years at Wright-Patterson Air Force base in Dayton, Ohio. Aggie wasn’t quite ready, so Frank and I sat in the waiting room and talked about his time on the B-52.

"They tried out new things with the aircraft all the time," Frank said, referring to his work as a Flight Test Engineer. "Today, someone would object, or try and sue. But you know, we didn’t feel like guinea pigs, we knew what we were getting into. That was our duty." Frank added, "You accepted a situation and improvised."

When they wheeled Aggie into the lobby, she asked if her husband had been driving me crazy with all his stories. Not much, I said, adding that I couldn’t be that critical of a guy who bought lunch.

It took some maneuvering to get Aggie in the front seat and her wheelchair in the back end of the station wagon. I was starting to get in when she warned me about all the junk cluttering my seat.

"Just throw it in back if it’s in your way," she laughed. "Did he buy up the whole store?" Even after today’s treatment and several years of illness, Aggie looked girlish and ready for a fight.

Frank defended himself, saying that he had bought some things for Aggie as well.

He started the car and I had a chance to examine more closely the spoils of his morning shopping spree. Sitting next to this small mountain of gadgets, tools and food, it was like riding around town with Christmas in the backseat. The bearer of those gifts and his wife argued almost continually, on two different tracks–Aggie expecting her husband to be more sensible, thriftier in the future, while Frank insisted that he had forgotten some things and needed to return to Sam’s Club the next day.

* * *

When I think back to that day, I wish now that I had pursued more time with Frank–more note-taking, more recordings over lunch. Hearing his voice today over the tape player, I’m reminded not only of the uniqueness of his life, but his voice as well. His voice is calm, comforting, without sorrow. A voice recalling nightmares that have slipped into history, a voice asking us to remember.

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