An upbeat group of eight survivors at Concepcion, January 30, 1945: Kneeling left to right: Clay Conner Jr., Charlie Stotts, Robert Allen Campbell, and Bob Mailheau. Standing , left to right: Frank Gyovai, William Bressler, Doyle Decker, and Albert Bruce. Image credit: Indiana Historical Society. Caption Credit: Resolve by Bob Welch.

April 9, 1942, thousands of U.S. soldiers surrendered as the Philippines’ island of Luzon fell to the Japanese. A few hundred Americans placed their faith in their own hands and headed for the jungles.

One of them was Clay Conner Jr.—a twenty-three-year-old Army Air Force communications officer who had never even camped before… 

The obstacles to Conner’s survival were as steep as the Zimbales Mountains that Conner had to traverse daily: among them, malaria, heat, jungle rot, snakes, and mosquitoes. Beyond that, the threat of enemy soldiers who would ultimately put a price on Conner’s head, and local natives and villagers who claimed to be his friends only to later betray him. And, finally, he had to overcome his own self doubts, struggle with the despair of having to bury dead comrades, deal with friction among his fellow American soldiers, and survive years passing with little hope of rescue. 

But if conflict reveals character, Conner showed himself to be a man of iron will, unbridled boldness, and endless perseverance. Inspired by an unlikely alliance with a tribe of arrow-shooting pygmy Negritos, by the words in a dog-eared New Testament, and by a tattered American flag that he vowed to someday triumphantly fly at battalion headquarters, Conner would survive and fight for almost three years. 

The following is a view of “a day that ultimately would define much of his life.”

At Little Baguio, Captain Mason ordered Conner to prepare his men to destroy all equipment when the final word came: cars, trucks, radio equipment, everything. That night, a nearby munitions dump was purposely blown. The blast was so intense it blew Conner flat on his back. Smaller blasts, like firecrackers, snapped and popped nearly all night; the sky fluttered light and dark like a strobe light. The air was stained with the smell of burned powder. Nobody slept much.

The next day, April 9, after Conner headed out to scrounge food, he heard the squawk of the receiver in the trailer. Immediately he recognized the voice of a Captain Bert Bank, a fellow 27th Bomb Group officer who, Conner later wrote, “sounded like a mad man.”

“We are retreating from the front lines!” Bank said. “The Japanese have broken through! They are scattering west and east of the main road. The Japanese are almost to Bataan Field. Pull back! Pull back!”

Bank repeated the message over and over. Conner was convinced. He raced to the message center where Captain Mason and a Colonel Gregg were.

“What are we going to do?” Conner asked.

“There’s nothing we can do,” said Mason.

By now the stragglers from the Japanese pursuit to the north had thickened. Thousands of soldiers were arriving at Bataan’s southern tip; there was nowhere else for them—for anyone—to go. Conner got the combat men whatever rations he could find and showed them where they could sleep. Gradually, the stories came out. About thousands of Japanese troops pouring through a hole in the American line, bayonets fixed, eyes ablaze. “Banzai! Banzai! Banzai!” Crazed soldiers wanting to die for the emperor. “And as they, in droves, ran forward into the barbed wire,” Conner wrote, “they formed human bridges of dead bodies as they would project themselves . . . into the face of machine guns. And then the ones behind would climb over the dead bodies of their own men. And finally, they were such an obstacle that the Japs moved their tanks in and crushed the bodies so that more men could come through.”

The Japanese had expected to take Luzon in fifty days; the Americans and Filipinos had held out for four months. “But there was nothing left to fight with,” wrote Conner. No ammunition. No strength. No energy.

Captain Mason hastily reversed his orders. Now the high command didn’t want the equipment destroyed. They figured, wrote Conner, that the cars and trucks would be used to “transport us to prison camps, and that the valuable radios and transmitters would be used to relay information to the States concerning our [status]. They figured by turning their equipment over to the Japanese, they would treat us with greater consideration.”

Not everybody wanted to be so concessionary. A Captain Bernard Anderson was drumming up support for a flee into the jungles. Anderson, a reserve officer and pilot, had been cobbling together a civilian airline business before war broke out, and he knew Luzon well. The Japanese, he pointed out, were funneling nearer to them on Bataan’s main north-south road, along the lowlands stretching to Manila Bay. His plan was to evade capture and, instead, head north into the mountains and avoid the Japanese troops that were heading south. The plan was to link up with a Colonel Claude Thorp, who had established a “spy station” in the Zambales Mountains near Clark Field and Fort Stotsenburg.

Few of the men seemed interested in the idea, least of all Captain Mason and Colonel Gregg, who were older than most of the men and didn’t like their chances in rugged terrain that would be crawling with the enemy. Men were tired. Stomachs, empty. Spirits, dead. Some talked of surrender as the only means of surviving; The Geneva Convention, they said, mandated that the Japanese treat prisoners civilly. And how long could it be? Six, eight months in captivity? That wasn’t bad.

But Anderson’s idea was more intriguing to Conner, the same Conner who had zipped across America in a convertible rather than take the train like everybody else, who had so deeply admired the rogue spirit of Rocky Gause, and who had just had his courage questioned by one of his men.

When the gathering broke up, he walked off with Anderson and peppered him with questions. Thorp, Anderson told him, had been commissioned by MacArthur himself back in January to escape through the front lines with ten men. If successful, they were to establish a headquarters in the Zambales Mountains, from a perch where they could monitor the planes at Clark Field, near the Japanese’s main garrison in Fort Stotsenburg. They were to organize guerrilla forces to harass the Japanese. And be prepared to help when the troops returned. Anderson was anxious to join them.

Without the Philippine Scouts the idea was suicidal, said some men. Forget the friggin’ enemy; some guys had gotten lost just going to and from Little Baguio’s latrine. How were they going to survive a jungle that was one mountain after the next, with ridges as steep as the sides of skyscrapers? If the idea piqued Conner’s sense of adventure, he also had great respect for Mason and Gregg—and felt that to leave them would be an abandonment of sorts.

At approximately half past noon, Major General Edward King, after a meeting with Japanese military leaders outside a house in Bataan, removed his .45 pistol and set it on a table. It was official. The United States was surrendering. Meanwhile, as if on autopilot, Conner found himself climbing a flank of Mount Mariveles. He sat on a knoll, looked into the sky, and saw the ever-present clouds that the sergeant had told him about on the deck of the Coolidge, as they’d entered Manila Bay. As Conner watched, the winds were shaping and reshaping the white puff s. In moments, their splendor captivated him, pulled him far away from war and fear and—

Wait. The clouds seemed to be forming something that looked familiar. Bataan. It was as if Conner were looking at the island on a fluff y map, as if it were offering—as maps do—direction. Finally, the clouds began breaking up from inside, leaving distinct blue sky in what appeared to be the upper reaches of the Bataan Peninsula. Of course! The Zambales. The place where Thorp and his men had gone.

Clay Conner had never followed much beyond his mind’s compass; he was a pragmatist. You need money, you go sell Fuller Brushes. You see the boats on fire in Manila Bay, you go around the bay. “I was no ‘sign reader,’ ” he said. But this was different. It was as if something— someone? God?—were telling him: Go. Here. Now.

* * *

Conner Scurried down the pitched slope. He desperately favored an escape attempt, but first he tracked down Captain Mason. He needed approval—no, something deeper than that: a blessing. He found Mason in their makeshift headquarters, already sweating hard in the morning heat. The sound of rifles cracked in the distance, occasionally overlaid with machine-gun chatter.

“Would it be all right,” he asked with a sense of urgency, “if I wanted to go with Captain Anderson? Would you object?”

If the stakes weren’t a tad higher, he might as well have been asking his dad back in Jersey if he could borrow the car.

“No,” said Mason. He looked tired. “No, I wouldn’t object. It’s every man for himself now. General [Edward] King has already been taken by the Japs. We just got word and, officially, you’re on your own. You’re no longer under the command of the United States Army.”

Conner’s edgy spirit grew even bolder. Mason bowed his head and placed his hands on his face.

“We’ve been taken,” the captain said. “We’re through.” He looked up. “But let me tell you this. I’ve been in Bataan for many years, on maneuvers, Clay. And if you want my advice, don’t try it.”

It was as if someone had pulled the plug on a juke box. “What do you mean?” asked Conner.

“You don’t realize how rough, how rugged, how many places that are absolutely impossible to get through in those treacherous craters and canyons and jungles of Mount Mariveles,” he said. “You’ll never make it. It’s impossible.”

Conner didn’t want to hear any more, but Mason had more to say.

“The front lines are mined, and the Japs are there. They’ll be all through the area. Your chances are one in a million.”

“But what about the way we’ve already seen the Japanese treat some of our men?” said Conner. “What about the severed heads in that tank? They’ll kill us.”

“It’s safer to stay and be captured with the rest of us,” said Mason. “Remember, there’s safety in numbers. They can’t kill us all.”

Much as he respected Mason, Conner couldn’t bring himself to bend to the man’s will, as if what he’d seen in the clouds above Mariveles had a stronger, insurmountable pull.

Anderson arrived. “I’ve gotta grab some gear and round up a few others,” he said. “I’ll swing by to see if you’re going.”

Conner tried to rouse some support for the idea of going it on their own. “Boboski,” he said to one of his men, “do you want to go?”

The sergeant shook his head no. “I was leery,” he later said, “because I thought the chances of survival there were very slim, if any chance at all.” Conner looked to another. “D’ya want to—”

“No.”

Others looked down or away; not one of Conner’s men dared to follow.

“They didn’t have any confidence in me,” he wrote later. “I was twenty-three. We were heading up a mountain full of pythons and wild boar and savages. Why would they go with me instead of going with 15,000 to surrender?”

Anderson had hardly left when the men heard it: the grinding of tanks to the east, on the Old Highway. The muted cries of “Banzai!” The screaming zing of bombs from above, which, with the tropical forest now drying out, roiled flames through the jungle like dragon’s breath. Hundreds of shells pounded down, the noise like the climax of a Fourth of July fireworks show back home. Clouds of acrid smoke hung in the air. Men scattered for cover. Vaguely, through that smoke, Conner saw them: American and Filipino soldiers waving anything they had that was even remotely white—rags, T-shirts—on the end of bamboo poles. Whatever said: We surrender. Here and there, soldiers frantically dug holes and buried rings and watches. To hell with that; more cynical soldiers flung their valuables into the thick jungle, knowing they were never coming back here—or, for that matter, back to anywhere—but not about to let the conquerors get their possessions.

In the distance, the machine-gun fire intensified. The ghostly silhouettes of Japanese soldiers emerged from the jungle haze. Mason leaned against a tree with a white undershirt in his hand. He was about to become part of what history would remember as the greatest defeat ever suffered by a U. S. force in the field: seventy-five thousand men surrendering to the enemy. Conner nodded a thank-you to his mentor. Mason extended a hand to shake. “Good luck, Clay,” he said.

Conner scurried to the ramshackle headquarters. In his musette bag he madly stuffed seven cans of C rations, two pairs of socks, a couple of handkerchiefs, bandages, iodine, a blanket, a mosquito net, and, of course, Junko. He strapped it all together and threw it on his back.

He met up with Anderson and five others. “Move out,” said Anderson.

They slalomed through the jungle and soon were traversing the steepening eastern flank of Mount Mariveles. Conner was running on adrenaline. His chino shirt and trousers were soaked with sweat, which drew mosquitoes like a dinner bell. Last in line, he stopped to slow the panting, then continued on. Nobody said much of anything. Just the sound of footsteps in the jungle tangle, of breathing, and of leaves being thwacked from side to side.

At nightfall, the seven bedded down atop a small hill. They wanted to start a fire and cook, but the flames would be a dead giveaway. Conner tied the four corners of his mosquito net to bushes and spread out his blanket. Exhausted, stomach aching for food, he crawled beneath it. Not exactly the sleeping porch at the Sigma Phi Epsilon house or even the tattered headquarters the Filipino boy had made for him. But, for tonight, home.

In the distance, the roar of bombs and machine guns had given way to the silence of surrender. In some ways, the quiet carried with it a more sinister sound than war, the emptiness giving breath to the imagination’s darker side. In the night, rain began falling. “I woke up,” wrote Conner, “with a sense of panic.” Until training in Georgia, he had never even camped out. “I was a concrete New York cliff dweller,” he later wrote. “I lived in the upper floor of an apartment most of my life. You can imagine what I knew of guns or anything else. My adventure was in a convertible at Duke University.” He was, in essence, exactly the kind of American soldier the Japanese highlighted in their propaganda: inexperienced, not particularly courageous “mama’s boys,” allegations hard to refute. Now he was challenging a jungle that the famous animal collector Frank Buck had called the densest in the world.

If leaving San Francisco on the Coolidge had been leaving a semblance of certainty—if fleeing Manila had been fleeing an approaching enemy, at least the going had been done en masse. Comfort in numbers, as his men had said earlier in the day. Now Conner lay in a jungle with six strangers, one of them already snoring like a muffler- busted chain saw. Whatever traction in life he’d once had was gone. The challenge had initially been a far-off war that, when seen from a distance, evoked more thrill than threat; then, at Manila, a case in which he at least knew who and where his enemy was.

Now everything had changed: The terrain. The numbers. The mission. The men around him. The supplies. And Conner’s very identity; officially, he was no longer under the command of the U. S. Army. But what had changed most was the enemy, which was now not only an almond-colored man with a rifle, but something even more threatening.

The unknown.

He closed his eyes on a day that ultimately would define much of his life. A day of doubt. A day of decision. A day that began his quest to see if Colonel Mason’s concerns would prove prophetic or if Conner were, indeed, that one in a million.

Excerpted from Resolve: From the Jungles of WW II Bataan, A Story of a Soldier, a Flag, and a Promise Kept by Bob Welch.

Copyright 2012 by Bob Welch.

Reprinted with permission from Berkley Caliber.

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