Ex-POW opens up about WWII

Nashua Telegraph & Concord Monitor, July 2006

By Marty Karlon

Steve Raymond spent more than three years in hell, and, 60 years later, he’s lived to tell about it.

“Too Dead to Die: A Memoir of Bataan and Beyond,” Raymond’s tale of his life as a prisoner of war from early 1942 until the close of World War II, is a remarkably candid book that captures the primitive conditions and brutal treatment American servicemen suffered at the hands of the Imperial Japanese Army.

“Overhead the sun boiled down at about one-twenty Fahrenheit. All we had on were shorts, the uniform of the day for the farm. No hat. No shoes. Bearded, gaunt, as brown as the Japanese, hands calloused, fingernails broken, legs and arms covered with festering soars,” Raymond writes of his experience as a slave laborer at Cabanatuan, a work camp in the Philippines where he spent much of the first half of his captivity. “We were talking about what we were going to do when we got back to the States, and at first we didn’t hear the notorious guard Big Speedo sneaking up on us. Several of the guards played this game, trying to catch us talking so they could swing their clubs.”

A retired journalist from Florida, Raymond kept a diary during his captivity – half of which was lost before the war’s end – and spent the first several months after his return to the States in 1946 jotting down his recollections while they were fresh. In subsequent years he worked on the memoir, but found no takers when he shopped it around in the decades after the war.

The project gained a second life in 2003 when Raymond was hooked up with Concord Monitor Editor Mike Pride through a mutual friend.

Pride, the son of an Army officer who served in the Pacific during World War II and participated in the invasion of the Philippines, took on the task of reshaping segments of the text and editing and tightening Raymond’s manuscript into its final form.

This slim, 201-page volume doesn’t attempt to paint the big picture of the war in the Pacific. However, the few hints that Raymond had that things were turning America’s way over the years – news from arriving prisoners, the sight of American reconnaissance planes flying unchallenged over the freighter on which Raymond was being transported to Japan in 1943 – add much to the narrative, and added even more to Raymond’s ability to hang on.

“Too Dead To Die” also doesn’t delve too deeply into character studies of Raymond’s fellow prisoners or the Japanese guards. Mostly, it’s Raymond’s own thoughts and feelings told in a tight chronological narrative, from his decision to enlist in the Army Air Corps in 1940 to avoid being drafted later through his eventual liberation from the Nomachi-Fushiki prison camp in northern Japan in August 1945.

The reason for this, as Pride explains in the introduction, is that life was so hard for prisoners that they tended to turn inward as a defense mechanism. Taking care of himself and avoiding emotional attachments was the way Raymond and many others survived their ordeal.

“(Camp) O’Donnell brought out the parasite in each of us. We moved like robots. We had nothing of substance to talk about. We were not the least bit interested in anyone else’s problems,” Raymond writes of his days at the first prison camp to which he was taken. “When someone gurgled and died alongside us, we permitted him to remain there the rest of the night because he made less noise dead than he had alive.”

That isn’t to say altruism didn’t – grudgingly – have its place.

“Our legs had lost their elasticity, and (Lt. Milton) Geissman, leaning more and more heavily on us, made things tougher,” Raymond writes of he and a buddy helping another man along during the notorious Bataan Death March, a 60-mile trek to Camp O’Donnell after the surrender of U.S. forces in the Philippines in April 1942. Walking the mountainous roads in extreme heat with no food and little water, harassed by violently abusive guards the entire way, thousands of Americans died on the six-day march. “I cursed under my breath. I knew we would have to abandon him. I thought: ‘Can’t carry him to kingdom come. He doesn’t expect it, either. Didn’t he say take off? Fend for yourself or else.’ ”

Despite Raymond’s desire to save his strength, he continued to prop up Geissman until the officer could no longer go on. However, days later, when Raymond was on his last legs near the end of the march, a slightly rested Geissman and another comrade turned up to help him along.

Raymond doesn’t fancy himself a hero in his tale, just a guy who caught some bad breaks and had just enough left inside not to give up. We should all be grateful he made it through, and shared this amazing tale of survival with us.

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