UNSUNG HEROES: The World War II Chaplain Who Survived The Bataan Death March

Photo via U.S. Air Force

The Bataan Death March became known as one of the most brutal war crimes perpetrated by the Japanese during World War II. The horrific cruelty started April 9, 1942, at the conclusion of the Battle of Bataan, a three-month engagement in the Philippines between Japanese forces and American and Filipino forces that ultimately led to Japanese victory. Nearly 75,000 soldiers instantly became prisoners of war and were forced to march 60 miles over the course of a week until reaching their final destination: prisons at Camp O’Donnell, a former U.S. Army installation, and Cabanatuan on the island of Luzon.

Robert P. Taylor, an Army Air Forces chaplain who had recently been promoted to captain, saw horrendous violence during combat, but survived both the battle and the Death March, ultimately making it to Cabanatuan. The same couldn’t be said for over 21,000 dead Americans and Filipinos.  Apart from the dirty, bloody fighting, Taylor saw American soldiers die and suffer hideous wounds, but nothing compared to the callous inhumanity he witnessed while marching. If the withholding of food and water wasn’t bad enough, men drank from dirty puddles and water buffalo bogs, which caused dysentery. The resultant diarrhea drove many to try and relieve themselves on the sides of the road, and when they stopped, they were shot, bayoneted, or beheaded by their captors. Compassionate Filipino civilians who tried to quench the hunger or thirst of the marchers were also killed. Still other men were forced to dig their own graves in the surrounding fields for minor transgressions, then shot or beheaded and pushed into the holes. Weakened, many just couldn’t keep up the pace. Those that fell behind were stabbed, shot, beheaded, or horrifically crushed under the wheels of trucks or tank treads.

As a chaplain, Taylor’s charge was to provide spiritual guidance and hope for his fellow soldiers. This was a tall order, but he knew that morale could mean the difference between life and death. With this in mind, he soon became the best-known officer in the camp by prisoners and the Japanese alike. He ministered to his increasingly emaciated and horribly abused flock, providing encouragement in the face of extreme adversity. Soldiers had been routinely denied food and water, sick, and were suffering severe mistreatment. Not knowing when they’d make it home or if their families even knew they were alive, despair consumed many, but Taylor was a beacon of hope.

This picture, captured from the Japanese, shows American prisoners using improvised litters to carry those of their comrades who, from the lack of food or water on the march from Bataan, fell along the road.Photo via the National Archives

According to historian Bill Keith, while in the Cabanatuan prison camp in the summer of 1943, Taylor gathered a group of soldiers around him and said, "Ask me about my condition. I'm dirty, nasty, and all I have on is my underwear. Can you smell the stench of my rotting teeth? Listen to me, listen without pity, I'm not going to die. I'm going to live and you are too, because God is going to give us strength."

In addition to spiritual leadership, Taylor conducted daily services and prayers with the sick and wounded, and was soon able to find a way to smuggle food and medicine into Cabanatuan through an underground American spy in Manila. He knew the risk could be his life, but did it anyway, saving an untold number of Americans in the process. His contact was soon discovered though, and Taylor faced torture and debilitating punishment from the Japanese as a result. Apart from severe beatings, he was placed inside a four-foot by four-foot “hot box” made of tin and bamboo shafts where he was unable to lay down or stand. Incredibly, he endured this for 14 weeks straight in the extreme heat of the south Pacific summer with only his bible as a comfort, which he read through twice. Taylor suffered severe muscle atrophy and sores from sitting on the bamboo, and at the end of the fourteenth week, he slipped into a coma. Convinced he was dead, other soldiers pleaded with their Japanese tormentors to let them take Taylor’s body out of the hot box to ensure he had a proper burial. They found him faintly breathing and he eventually recovered enough to be able to stand again.

In October 1944, the Japanese ordered all American officers to be moved out of the Philippines, and Taylor and about 1,600 others were placed aboard “hell ships” and sent to the Japanese mainland. While in transit, they were bombed by American planes whose pilots didn’t know the ships contained American prisoners of war. Taylor received non-life threatening wounds and was transferred to two other ships, ending up in Formosa, or present-day Taiwan, and soon Japan itself. By the war’s end, Taylor was in a Japanese prison camp in Manchuria and was liberated in August 1945.

Taylor spent a total of 42 months in prison camps in the Philippines, Korea, Japan and Manchuria by the time he was released, ministering to the men in the camps to keep up morale and faith.  Over the course of his career, he received the Silver Star, Bronze Star and the Presidential Unit Citation with two oak leaf clusters.

Taylor was a true American hero, both under fire and in an impossible situation as a prisoner. Before Bataan even fell on April 9, 1942, Taylor had received a Silver Star for gallantry for helping to evacuate wounded Americans from the front lines while under heavy fire. While suffering in the prison camps himself, he remained steadfast, supporting and providing to his fellow servicemen, an inconceivable feat of true humanity that few of us can even imagine today. After the war, Taylor remained in the Air Corps, redesignated the U.S. Air Force in 1947, and climbed the ranks, ultimately reaching the rank of major general. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy appointed him Air Force chief of chaplains, but it was his incredible service in the Philippines during World War II that left an indelible impression upon those he served.

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