Skip to main content

Pawnee elder tells story of surviving Bataan Death March

CACHE, Okla. - Alexander Mathews carries a high and rare distinction in the Pawnee Tribe.

Considered to be the first Pawnee to see hostile action in World War II the day immediately following Pearl Harbor, he is currently one of only two tribal members for whom the Pawnee Prisoner of War Song can be sung.

Mathews' story, however, is even rarer, as he is a survivor of the Bataan Death March and Hell Ship rides. During this time, Mathews served 3 1/2 years as a POW in both the Philippines and Japan - almost the entire length of WWII.

Mathews' story of surviving the sadistic brutality of the Japanese begins with his upbringing in Pawnee, Okla., where he labored long and hard plowing with draft horses, baling hay and doing farm labor.

''I was born May 11, 1919, and I knew what hard work was,'' Mathews said. ''I had worked for different farmers - a dollar a day.''

Decades before, ''Mathews'' became the family last name when interpreters could not understand his father's name when enrolling at the Pawnee Agency in north Oklahoma.

''The interpreter that was interpreting my dad, he could not interpret or explain what the name was,'' he said. ''There was an Army group there. He said, 'Sergeant, what's your name?' He said, 'Mathews.' 'Okay, your name is going to be Mathews.' My dad's name is Buffalo Chief.''

Mathews said his father was afraid of him working and spending all of his money foolishly. His father always told him, ''If you ever feed me, I'll know then that you understood what I was talking about.'' When Mathews began filling the pantries with food as a young man, he earned his father's respect.

Mathews told Indian Country Today that his military background began with training with the Pawnee, Okla., Company B Infantry and eventually with Haskell Indian School's Cavalry Troop I. Eventually, Mathews served at Fort Bliss, Texas, and was then stationed with the New Mexico National Guard, where he trained with rifles, .50-caliber machine guns and 3-inch guns. By September 1941, Mathews was stationed at Clark Field, where they awaited the Japanese.

After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, they then crossed the international date line and attacked Clark Field on Dec. 8, 1941. Having a limited amount of men, their force of 200 was split, and Mathews was then sent to nearby Nichols Field. Gen. Douglas MacArthur left the Philippines after Christmas 1941, and the remaining American soldiers were left with dwindling ammunition and rations. The general in charge, Jonathan Wainwright, eventually surrendered on April 9, 1942, despite orders from MacArthur to hold the Philippines at all costs.

''They came in,'' Mathews said about the Japanese combat veterans to whom they surrendered. ''They made us get in a line - four abreast. They said, 'We're just getting you out of here.' That's when we started that death march. That's what it was going to represent. Those guys were pretty well worn-out and tired. Some of them had malaria. There they were - couldn't make it. Bayoneted. Clubbed. Some of them were shot.''

Besides the immediate threat of death, Mathews and the others realized that the Japanese weren't going to give them food or water. While risking death to get water, Mathews ran into Phillip Coon, a Creek schoolmate from his days at Haskell, who would also survive the march. Another American Indian on Bataan was a Navajo named Herbert Sherman, who Mathews said did not survive.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

Those who survived the march were then placed on box cars and moved to camps such as San Fernando, Camp O'Donnell and Cabanatuan.

''They put us to slave labor, clearing out all the area there,'' said Mathews. ''They had their fence, their guard towers. When they were all outside, we heard shooting. Finally, we heard them singing. It must have been maybe a squad of them. They were carrying this bamboo pole. By his hair, he was a Filipino. They cut his head off and brought him in there. Just walked right down. There was a fence on the Japanese side, and they had a fence for the POW side. Right down the center, later on, they lumped us together. They told us, 'There will be 10 of you. One escapes, the other nine die.' It was their method of keeping them together in the prison camp. I stayed in there during '42 Christmas.''

Mathews was then sent from Cabanatuan to Lipa to help build an airfield for the Japanese. Mathews said that the only food available there was rice, three times a day. Mathews also said that Lipa was full of nothing but brutality. Mathews recalled that one of the 200 in Lipa was called ''Pappy'' White because he was older than the rest of the prisoners. For some reason, their guard - called ''Three Whiskers'' by the guards - hid some of the implements used by White.

''[Three Whiskers] made us fall in,'' said Mathews. ''What did you have? Pick, shovel. Pick, shovel. That one didn't have it, and that was Pappy White. He said, 'I don't know what could have happened to it.' He took him out there, walked over, picked up a pickaxe and took the head off. Wham! Right in the back. He didn't hit him once - he hit him five or six times. The welts, you could see them. Old Man White was standing there, looking at that Jap just like he said 'You S.O.B., if I had my hands on you ...' But he couldn't, because the guards were all standing around. There was brutality. You had to be very careful.''

After working as a prisoner of war in the Philippines, Mathews and several others were placed within the hulls of Japanese ships to be transported for work details in Japan in 1944. Known as ''Hell Ships,'' these vessels were not marked with anything that denoted the carrying of POWs. Instead, two of these four Japanese ships were sunk by American submarines. Mathews' ship was detoured and went to Hong Kong for 10 days, went for a brief stay in Formosa, and then made its way to Japan.

The food that the prisoners ate - hot rice - was lowered to them in buckets. Buckets were also lowered for urination and defecation. ''We don't know if they ever changed the buckets or what they done,'' Mathews said.

At one point on the Hell Ship journey during the stay in Hong Kong, one of the buckets of hot rice overturned and burned Mathews and several others.

Mathews was made to work in a carbon-producing facility in the Japanese province of Nagoya; Mathews said he didn't know why they were making carbon. He also unloaded ships.

Toward the end of his time as a POW, ''I had to unload the inner island ships,'' Mathews said. ''In doing so, we wondered - the Yanks must be pretty close the way these Japs are getting fidgety. We went to work in the morning to the docks to unload. It was quiet down where I looked. The Japanese, all in uniform, were listening to a radio. It was kind of easy, laying around. Finally, they came back and said, 'Yasame,' which means 'rest.' We marched back to our area there where we were staying. That's how I found out they dropped the atomic bombs way down on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We were up north, and they hit down south. That's when they realized that it was about there. In a day or so, they came in and said they surrendered. It was a part of what I've gone through - three and a half years of hell.''

Some of Mathews' souvenirs during this time include a pair of hobnail shoes issued to him by the Japanese, which he has since donated to the Bataan Memorial Military Museum and Library in Santa Fe, N.M. Inside a frame, Mathews keeps a diary made from rice paper, with the Aug. 15, 1945, entry reading, ''Free at Last! August 15. WOW!'' Mathews also has a Japanese officer's katana (sword), given to him by a friend while working on the San Carlos Reservation years later. Mathews also wears his medals from his service - including a silver star - on a beaded red and blue blanket owned by his father, Buffalo Chief.

Mathews' life has been full upon returning to the United States. He first married his sweetheart from before the war, Lorraine Coosewoon, and they had four children together. Mathews also worked for the BIA until retiring in 1974. In the mid-1990s, Mathews served as Pawnee tribal chairman for one term. Lorraine passed on in 1994, and Mathews eventually married Darlene Joyce Codopony years later.

Currently, Mathews speaks of his experiences on both the high school and college level, where he has participated in interviews for the archives of Haskell Indian Nations University, as well as being a part of ''Remembering America's Heroes,'' a high school education program based out of Portland, Ore.

During the time he was a prisoner of war, Mathews had several encounters with death, including a time in ''zero ward,'' the lowest level of sickbay before dying. Christmas is also a special day for him, since there were four of those days he wasn't fully allowed to worship. Much of what helped Mathews and others survive was their faith in God and ''just knowing that you're blessed with another day,'' he said. ''That's the only thing you can turn to.''