Bert Bank, R.I.P.
We were saddened to learn of the recent passing of Major Bert Bank, U.S. Army (Retired). Bank, a World War II veteran, died last month in his hometown of Tuscaloosa, Alabama at the age of 94.
Mr. Bank's name probably doesn't ring a bell unless you grew up in western Alabama. Around Tuscaloosa, Bank was known as a pioneering broadcaster, civic leader and politician. He put two of the city's first radio stations on the air, and ran them for more than 30 years. He was involved in countless community projects and was elected to both the Alabama House and State Senate, where he served in the 1960s and 70s.
Mr. Bank also earned the undying loyalty from fans and alumni of his alma mater, the University of Alabama. In 1953, he put together the first state-wide radio network for broadcasts of Crimson Tide football games, and produced those broadcasts for almost 40 years. Even in retirement, he remained a fixture in the press box at Bryant-Denny Stadium and was named producer emeritus for Alabama sports broadcasts, a title he held until his death.
By any standard, Bert Bank crammed an amazing amount of achievement and service into his 94 years on this planet. But it's equally amazing that Mr. Bank lived long enough to become a broadcast executive, a pillar of his community and a successful politician. In fact, it's remarkable that Bank lived to see his 30th birthday, given the horrors and deprivation he endured as a member of the U.S. military.
You see, long before Bertram Bank bought that first radio station or won his first political campaign, he survived the Bataan Death March and nearly three years of hellish captivity in a Japanese POW camp. Many of his comrades weren't as fortunate; thousands perished during the march to the camp, or during their years as "guests" of the Emperor.
Readers of Ghost Soldiers, Hampton Sides' masterful account of the Death March, the camps and the ultimate liberation of the POWs by Army Rangers know something of Bank's ordeal. He was interviewed at length by Mr. Sides, and is one of the book's central characters, offering a dramatic testimony of defeat, captivity, and (ultimately) his return to freedom.
As recounted in the book, Mr. Bank's passage to Bataan began (oddly enough) during his college days. A classmate suggested he would look good in uniform, so Bank joined the Army ROTC program at the University of Alabama. After graduation and commissioning, he spent a brief stint with a coastal artillery unit before transferring to the Air Corps, with an assignment as a B-17 bombardier at Clark Field in the Phillippines. He arrived in the fall of November 1941, just a few weeks before the Japanese attack.
Mr. Bank's flying career was cut short on December 8, 1941, when Japanese aircraft destroyed most of the B-17s at Clark and other airfields in the Philippines. The few surviving bombers--and trained crew members--were dispersed to other bases and eventually moved to Australia. Other personnel (including Bert Bank) were reassigned to the infantry for the defense of Bataan, the narrow peninsula where General Douglas MacArthur planned to fight a holding action against superior Japanese forces.
Working as a G-2 (intelligence officer), then-Lieutenant Bank was given the task of determining the enemy's location. "But that wasn't hard to figure out," Bank later told Hampton Sides, "The enemy was everywhere."
As the battle raged, the situation on Bataan went from bad to desperate. U.S. and Filipino troops were desperately short of food, ammunition and medical supplies--with no hope of resupply from the United States or Australia. Despite exhortations from Washington to "hang on," General Edward King, the senior commander on Bataan, surrendered his forces on April 9, 1942. It was the largest capitulation in U.S. military history.
Mr. Bank was among those Americans who passed into captivity with General King's surrender. A few days later, he became one of the thousands of sick, emaciated men who were force-marched to prison by their enemy.
As Mr. Sides describes it, the Death March represented a clash of cultures and poor planning by Japan's high command. Under the Bushido code, surrender was considered shameful--Japanese troops could not imagine that most of the exhausted Americans and Filipinos would choose surrender over death on the battlefield. As a result, they found themselves with many more prisoners than they had estimated, and Japan lacked the transportation and logistical resources to handle thousands of American and Filipino prisoners.
But those problems do not provide a rationale for the brutal treatment of American and Filipino prisoners by the Empire of Japan. Mr. Bank's eyewitness account of the march and the camps affirms all of the atrocities associated with those events. Walking towards Camp O'Donnell--the former U.S. military post that Japan converted into a POW camp--Bank saw the worst of it. A Lieutenant Colonel he had been holding up slipped from his grasp and fell into the road; instantly, a Japanese solider ran him through with his bayonet. He was later forced at gunpoint to bury several Filipino prisoners who were severely wounded, but still alive.
Conditions in the camp were equally grim. Thousands of prisoners died from beatings, illness, malnutrition or a combination of those factors. But Mr. Bank persevered, a reflection of his courage and good humor that inspired other prisoners as well. They nick-named him "garbage mouth," not because of Bank's language, but his willingness to eat the often-putrid "food" offered by the Japanese.
But the years of captivity took their toll. The lack of necessary vitamins in his diet caused Bert Bank--and hundreds of other prisoners--to lose much of their vision. Bank also suffered from a form of neuropathy that left his feet numb. Both conditions would plague him for the rest of his life.
Mr. Bank and his fellow POWs were finally liberated in early 1945 during a daring raid by the U.S. Army's 6th Ranger Battalion. The story of that mission--and the men who carried it out--form the other half of Ghost Soldiers, and it's a compelling read. The Rangers, led by their charismatic leader, Lt Col Henry Mucci, marched 30 miles into Japanese territory, freed more than 500 Allied POWs, and escorted them back to American lines.
Bert Bank was one of those men who made the dangerous journey, despite his condition. The raid--and liberation of the prisoners--came just weeks after the Japanese began to systematically exterminate many of the remaining POWs. In fact, plans for the raid were put in motion after a handful of captives (including Army Private Eugene Nielsen) escaped and reported the execution campaign. Guerilla leaders provided similar information to U.S. intelligence, adding urgency to liberation efforts.
After a stay in military hospitals, Mr. Bank returned to his hometown, embarking on his broadcasting career. He launched the Alabama football network just five years before a former classmate moved back to Tuscaloosa, and became the head coach of the Crimson Tide. His name was Bear Bryant.
In his book, Hampton Sides observed that the Bataan Death March--and the men who survived it--have been largely forgotten by history. And despite a flurry of interest that accompanied the publication of Ghost Soldiers (2001) and the film it inspired (2005's The Great Raid), Mr. Sides' assessment seems accurate.
This year, on the 67th anniversary of the march--and the 64th anniversary of the POWs return to freedom--Japan actually did more to commemorate the event than our own government. In March, Japan's ambassador to the U.S., Ichiro Fujisaki, addressed the final convention of Bataan and Correigdor survivors, and offered a belated apology for the Death March. Only 71 veterans of that campaign were present at the reunion; with Bert Bank's recent death, their ranks have dwindled yet again.
More on Mr. Bank and his remarkable life from the Tuscaloosa News.