Some years back, KNAU commentator Scott Thybony took an assignment for a magazine article about Native American POWs from tribes of the Colorado Plateau. He interviewed WWII veteran Sam Antonio, an Acoma Indian, who lived through the Bataan Death March, Hell Ships and unimaginable torture by his captors. Antonio credited his survival to his Pueblo religion. In Scott Thybony's latest Canyon Commentary, he tells the story of their first meeting. The two remained friends until Sam's death two years ago.
Sam Antonio sat waiting outside his home in Grants, New Mexico. He stood up when I arrived and led me inside to the kitchen. Having faced starvation for three years as a prisoner of war he felt more comfortable talking with food nearby. He weighed only 87 pounds when rescued at the end of World War II.
For the next two hours the Acoma Indian, then 88-years old, related his story without a break. He survived four months of desperate fighting in the Philippine Islands only to be taken prisoner by the Japanese Imperial Army. During his first few months in a POW camp, 2,000 Americans died of disease, hunger, and savage treatment. “They all the time beating people up,” Sam explained. “They put us in group of ten. If one escapes, the rest gets shot.” And he saw many men simply lose the will to live. “They crawled under the barracks somewhere and just die. They just give up, just tired of living, I guess.”
Sam survived through the death marches and the Hell Ships where men went mad, packed tightly in the dark, suffocating holds. He endured senseless beatings, tropical diseases and germ warfare experiments, while suffering countless acts of degradation designed to break the human spirit. His war years were a succession of terrible ordeals, but through it all he kept his sense of humor intact.
One day Sam was joking with a prisoner called Nick the Greek about all the food they would eat when the war was over. They started laughing, and a Japanese guard thought they were laughing at him. “He turned around,” Sam said, “and boy he hit me right on my chest with a rifle and knocked me down. I got up and I swung at him. Boy, I almost hit him; good thing he duck. If I hit that guy they would have shot me.” The other prisoners grew quiet, waiting to see what would happen next.
“The officer came and took me to the guard shack and make me stand at attention. I stood there twenty-four hours with a bayonet at my neck. You can still see the hole.” He lifted his chin to show me the scar made by a bayonet-tipped rifle wedged between the floor and his jaw. If he had collapsed, it would have impaled him. The guards were rotated every two hours, and twice they let Sam sleep on the floor. Only the kindness of two enemy soldiers saved his life.
Toward the end of the war, Sam was transferred to a slave labor camp in Manchuria. The prisoners could hear fighting nearby and knew liberation was near. With a Navajo friend he decided not to wait. Scaling the prison wall Sam brushed against a three-strand wire not knowing it was electrified. The jolt nearly killed him, and after tumbling off the wall he lay senseless on the ground. “My friend thought, ‘He’s gone now, poor guy, he’s gone.’’’ Sam chuckled, as he did with each twist of fate recounted. “When I came to,” he said, “I could smell burnt flesh, and my hands started to hurt.” Sam held them out for me to see the scars. The skin had a glazed appearance, and he lacked fingerprints.
After the war he made a slow journey home, riding the Greyhound west from Albuquerque on the last leg. His mother knew he would arrive by bus, and every day checked the highway with her binoculars. When a man in uniform stepped off she shouted, “That’s a soldier!” She ran down the trail across the lava flow and greeted her son. “I was so happy,” Sam remembered. “Boy, was I happy.” He laughed quietly to himself, recalling all the unexpected turns a life can take.
Driving back to Flagstaff, I told myself I no longer had any grounds to complain about anything after what I had just heard. Of course, three days later I was sitting in traffic, grumbling over nothing, a luxury we take for granted.
Scott Thybony's Canyon Commentaries are produced by KNAU, Arizona Public Radio.