SADLER — A Bible and a promise to his mother — that’s what got Whitesboro resident Charles Baum through the Bataan Death March and 42 months as a prisoner of war during World War II.
“When I left home, I promised my mother I would read something in the Bible everyday,” Baum said. The 95-year-old kept that promise by smuggling in his waistband the small Bible he was given when he enlisted in the Army in 1941.
Baum told bits of his story to students at S&S High School on Wednesday. “This opportunity dwindles year after year,” teacher Tim Arrington told the students, referring to the ever-decreasing number of surviving WWII veterans.
“I read this thing all through, I don’t know how many times,” Baum said holding the tattered Bible with a cover that had fallen off in his hands. He also used the pages to keep a journal.
“I never was afraid of being killed,” Baum said. “I had a job to do and my mother had taught me, be there. So I tried to do what she taught me.”
Baum was stationed in the Philippines, which hit by Japanese forces in a surprise attack on the same day as Pearl Harbor. He and his fellow soldiers defended the line until April 9, 1942, when American and Filipino forces formally surrendered to the Japanese. The prisoners, a combination of American and Filipino soldiers, were put in small groups and herded up the road, 67 miles, to Camp O’Donnell.
The men were already starving from the previous months of fighting, and on the march, which for Baum lasted close to two weeks, the prisoners were refused food or water. “They didn’t give us anything to eat, it was what we could steal. We didn’t call it stealing,” Baum said with a laugh, “just borrowing.”
For water, Baum said, rain often provided a drink, but at one point he faked a face-down fall for the privilege to drink from a muddy ditch. In another instance, Baum broke from the group out into a sugarcane field to grab a few stalks. He dodged multiple bayonet swipes from a guard before the guard lost interest.
On the march, the men were beaten for most every infraction. Sometimes it was carrying one of their weaker fellow prisoners; often times those weaker prisoners were shot or bayoneted by the guards. At times, according to the U.S. Army website, prisoners were shot to death simply to be made an example of.
When the prisoners arrived at Camp O’Donnell, conditions weren’t better. They were cramped and food and water was scarce and medical care non-existent. Eventually the American prisoners were transferred to Japan and Manchuria to work as slave labor. The transfer was made by ships where conditions were so cramped that prisoners died of suffocation while standing.
Baum went to Japan to work in a copper factory, where he stayed until the prisoners were liberated in 1945. According to the Army website, two-thirds of the American prisoners who began the marched died in Japanese custody. Baum joined the military weighing more than 200 pounds and returned home at just over 80 pounds. He endured malaria and beriberi, a disease caused by lack of thiamine or vitamin B1.
“He does not regret anything. He doesn’t hold any grudges,” Baum’s daughter Kay Moczygemba said. “He is is a very, very strong man.”
She said he father survived his years as a prisoner by being resourceful — eat chunks of grass and brushing his teeth with charcoal.
“The … things that brought my father back were his mother, this Bible and God,” Moczygemba said.