Major Otis Saalman
It is regretful how long it took me to find time for history.
When I was a child, history was conveniently personified in the image of my great uncle Otis during visits to my grandparents’ house. Otis was a war hero, and on his rare Sunday visits, he was treated like dignitary. The admiration and awe exhibited by my relatives in his midst were lost on me, though, despite attempts to coax me to listen to this decorated veteran talk about the death march, work camps, prison ships, starvation and torture he endured for three hellish years as a prisoner of war in the Philippines.
A self-centered southern Indiana boy, I couldn’t sacrifice my time dedicated to a talking G.I. Joe action figure to hear a real GI talk. I pulled my doll’s voice-activating string so many times that it snapped, turning Joe into a mute soldier. I can’t recall one word he spoke now. For all I know, it said, “Buy more G.I. Joes.” Now, I wish I had listened to Great Uncle Otis.
But all is not lost on the Otis front. Recently, I uncovered from my attic a story published in the Tell City News shortly after World War II, detailing the nightmarish period of Otis’s life. I estimate it to be 20,000 words. It’s all there, all his horrors.
On the Bataan Death March, from which he escaped: “When a man fainted or became so weary he could go no farther, he was immediately bayoneted or beheaded or shot.”
On the siege of Corregidor: “During the night time, the skies were so full of flame and explosions that you could continuously read a newspaper, if you had one, for many miles around…The bombardment never ceased and I don’t believe there was an hour passed when there were not Japanese bombers overhead raining down death and destruction…I remember thinking it was like being an “X” on a piece of cardboard at one of those shooting matches back home in Perry County…The whole island was shaking …I thought the whole island would sink into the sea… We were greatly outnumbered. We were firing at point blank range, throwing hand grenades at them and picking up ones they were throwing at us before they exploded and throwing them back. Then they closed in. With bayonets, clubs, rocks and everything we could pick up, we beat off the first wave and waited for the second.”
On the surrender of Corregidor: “There before our very eyes, I saw Old Glory being hauled to the ground and a large white flag of surrender being hoisted. Corregidor had fallen. I hurled my gun into the China Sea, then sat down and cried.”
On his captivity: “There seemed to be nothing more pleasant to the Japanese than to find an excuse to torture or cut off somebody’s head…One of their greatest delights was castration. Another was to take a man and pump water into his body until he could hold no more and then jump up and down on his stomach until his abdomen burst. Much of their bayonet practice was with human bodies.”
On the prison transport ship Oryocu Maru: “…we were all jammed in one of the lower holds. It was so crowded that none could sit down…the last few to get in were knocked in the head by the Japanese and thrown down in on us…the hatch covers were bolted down, and we were like rats in a trap. The air was completely cut off… men began to faint… our ship was attacked by American dive bombers…Men were dying of suffocation and thirst. Many got panicky and many more went completely crazy. Many of them had gone on board without carrying any water with them and they were the first to become affected with the thirst craze. Some of them went so crazy that they cut the throats of some of their fellow men and sucked their blood. Many slashed their own wrists and drank their own blood. Many drank their own urine. All of this just added to their craze. Some committed suicide. At last the situation got so serious that those of us who had kept our heads were forced to kill the crazy. Knives and razors slashed through the air in an attempt to preserve our own lives from the insane.”
Mind you, these few passages barely scratch the surface of Otis’s published horrors. In search of substantiation for such otherwise unbelievable tales, I read an engrossing new book, “Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and its Aftermath,” by Michael and Elizabeth Norman. It details eerily similar accounts from many other POWs who were there. I highly recommend it.
Otis made unimaginable sacrifices for our country. I understand that now. Many medals and honors, including the Distinguished Service Cross, soon followed. He retired a Major. He died in 1989.
Perhaps it is a minor sin to excerpt a war hero’s tale to the great extent that I have done. Someone needs to (re)tell these stories, though, someone needs to remind.
Otis was my great uncle and a great American. This is my attempt to make amends with a soldier relative, who rests in peace. I’m listening to him now.