Remembering GEN Harold K. Johnson: Bataan Death March Survivor

Seventy years ago today, the Bataan Death March began after the surrender of American and Filipino troops on April 9, 1942. In light of this anniversary, I humbly remember one of my esteemed predecessors, GEN Harold K. Johnson, the 24th Chief of Staff of the Army.

Lt. Col. Harold K. Johnson commanded a battalion in the 57th Infantry, Philippine Scouts, when Bataan fell. Captured on April 9, 1942, Johnson survived the Bataan Death March and was held prisoner in Camp O’Donnell, and later Bilibid Prison, Cabanatuan, Philippine Islands.

“Johnny” Johnson recorded his captivity in a diary, in the form of a two-year long love letter to his wife. This poignant letter recounts the last days before the fall of Bataan and his experiences in captivity afterward. What comes through most clearly is his self-doubt, as he wonders if any of his actions were cowardly, and if he did all he could.  It is in this introspection that his true strength shines through.

The diary contains descriptions of how the Japanese treated the POWs, fellow POWs’ names and homes of record, and his duties as camp commissary officer. The diary’s final entry on October 16, 1944, underscores his eternal love for his wife, made all the deeper by his captivity.

The Japanese began moving Johnson and 1600 other POWs out of the Philippines in December, 1944. Johnson left the diary behind with another prisoner, then survived an attack on a Japanese ship carrying him and fellow POWs to Japan, and eventually landed in Inchon, Korea. The 7th Infantry Division liberated Johnson and fellow POWs on 7 September 1945. Johnson returned to Korea during the Korean War, commanding two regiments in the 1st Cavalry Division.

Harold K. Johnson served as Chief of Staff of the Army from 1964 to 1968, during the difficult period of escalation during the Vietnam War. His POW experience surely influenced him as he provided calm, reasoned leadership during that period, and his tenure has guided many of his successors. As we remember the anniversary of the Bataan Death March, let’s salute him and all of our Bataan veterans for their service and sacrifice.

A general view of American prisoners of war (POW) cheering at their liberation from Japanese prison camp at Cabantuan, Luzon by the 6th Ranger Infantry Battalion. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center