Frank Francone was just 19 years old when he first laid eyes on Camp O’Donnell. The Denver native was drafted fresh out of high school in the summer of 1945, the final months of World War II. By …
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Frank Francone was just 19 years old when he first laid eyes on Camp O’Donnell.
The Denver native was drafted fresh out of high school in the summer of 1945, the final months of World War II. By the time he completed officer school as a second lieutenant, the war had ended, but he was shipped to the Philippines nonetheless.
There he served with the 57th Infantry of the Philippine Scouts, part of the forces conscripted years earlier by President Roosevelt to fight for Uncle Sam in the Philippines, a U.S. territory.
Camp O’Donnell, an American installation, was held by Japanese forces during the war. Four years before Francone arrived, it was the final destination for tens of thousands of American and Filipino prisoners of war captured by the Imperial Japanese Army.
As time went by, Francone learned some of the story from survivors: how 70,000 troops surrendered on April 9, 1942, and were marched on foot from Bataan more than 60 miles to Camp O’Donnell, which had fallen into Axis hands.
The men were given little food and water, and no rest. As they marched, the men were beaten, and those who fell were bayoneted, shot, or run over. As many as 18,000 Filipinos and 650 Americans died during the ordeal, which came to be known as the Bataan Death March.
In spite of the sacrifices of the Filipino troops, Congress in 1946 passed the Rescission Act, stripping the Filipinos of benefits afforded to other American soldiers.
Francone returned to America, and prospered as an engineer and manager for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and later Martin Marietta, which became Lockheed Martin.
But he never forget the valor and bravery of the Filipinos, their sacrifices at Bataan, or their raw deal at the hands of Congress.
As the decades went by, Francone fought for the Filipinos stateside, advocating for better recognition of their service. Over time, Congress offered some benefits and payments to Filipino veterans.
In 2017, Francone and surviving Filipino veterans were awarded Congressional Gold Medals. To this day he gives talks to schools and other organizations, remembering the men at Bataan.
And on April 9, 2021, Francone paid them another tribute. On a brisk spring morning, 79 years to the day since the men at Bataan laid down their arms and began walking toward their destiny in the jungle, Francone, now 94, set off walking in their memory.
COVID-19 restrictions rendered the annual Bataan Memorial Death March virtual this year. Typically the event is held in New Mexico, where many American troops in the march were from.
But in Littleton, Francone was flanked on the Centennial Link Trail from his home at the Vita Littleton apartment complex by his son Stuart Francone, and by Mike Simbre, a Filipino Air Force veteran who heads a regional chapter of the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project. Behind them trailed neighbors and friends from Vita.
Though the full length of a Bataan Memorial Death March is 26.2 miles — still less than half the distance covered by the surrendered troops — Francone said he was aiming to finish four or five miles. Not bad for a 94-year-old.
What are the lessons of Bataan?
“There’s a wickedness born in man toward his fellow man,” Francone said. “War is hell. People don’t understand how bad things can really get. If we forget the sacrifices those men made, if we take for granted what we have in America, well, we’re putting ourselves in danger.”
For Simbre, marching with Francone was a chance to keep a fading memory alive.
“Men of Frank’s generation are going fast,” he said. “Soon there won’t be anyone left who saw, who heard the stories. When Congress stripped the Filipinos of their benefits, it was like saying their fighting and their deaths were in vain. We can’t let it be in vain.”
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