Ex-POW aches with awareness of pain POWs face now WAR IN THE GULF


February 18, 1991|By Alice Steinbach

Sometimes at night, memories of the years he spent in Japanese prison camps leap like flames into his dreams, igniting them into nightmares. It doesn't matter that almost half a century has gone by since Louis Sachwald was a prisoner of war during World War II -- the past still burns like an underground fire in his mind.

Sometimes in his waking hours, mixed in with the daily routine of his life, he will see something that acts on his memory like a match set to gasoline.

It happened last month, says Mr. Sachwald, when he turned on the television and saw the American airmen paraded before the cameras by their Iraqi captors. The sight saddened him. But it was the sound of their voices that hurtled him back into the past, leaping across the chasm of 50 years as though it didn't exist.

"I sat here in my living room and cried," says Mr. Sachwald, his own voice edged with sorrow as well as anger. "I listened to them and I recognized that voice they all talk in. That monotone with no life, no emotion. I know that voice. The Japanese did that to our officers."

He pauses. The blue eyes darken; his shoulders begin to shake. Tears threaten, but he manages to fight them back. What Louis Sachwald cannot fight back, however, are the memories. Memory is his enemy now, a bitter antagonist to be fought off by an old soldier still seeking peace.

Then, very slowly, and with who knows what memories flashing through his head, the man who survived the slave labor camps, the enforced marches and the "hell" ships for almost 42 months, thinks of the American airmen again and says: "God knows what the Iraqis did to them. But I can guess."


Apocalypse Then. Bataan Peninsula, the Philippine Islands. Christmas Day 1941:

"This was the plan: Pearl Harbor was in shambles. Hong Kong had surrendered. Wake Island had surrendered. Guam was already captured. The American troops left in Manila were told to retreat to Bataan. And we were told to hold Bataan at all costs . . .

"The Japanese landed an 80-ship convoy of their best troops. And then they landed a second batch of battle-seasoned troops. We were outnumbered, 11-1. Our equipment was outdated, we had no aircraft left . . ."

It's etched in Louis Sachwald's memory; the instructions he received from his officers almost 50 years ago. He was 23 years old, a schoolteacher from Lancaster, Pa., who had graduated from Millersville State Teachers College and enlisted in the Army before the war began.

"There was a draft and I thought I would serve my year and get out. Go back to school. Maybe study law," he says now, sitting in the cozy comfort of his Pikesville home.

Instead, the young soldier found himself caught up in a desperate struggle to hold a place called Bataan for as long as possible. And for almost 100 days, they held.

Somehow this small army of American and Filipino forces managed to beat back Japanese attacks on Bataan and Corregidor. Historians called the prolonged defense of Bataan a pivotal battle, one that may have altered the course of the war.

Lou Sachwald, the man who was there, doesn't have to read the history books. He remembers:

"By the end, we had no food, we were suffering from pellagra and beriberi, we had almost no ammunition, we were using obsolete weapons. We were dug in. Waiting for help. They were supposed to get us men. They were supposed to get us equipment. What we didn't know was that the equipment we were waiting for didn't exist. It was all destroyed."

There is a silence as old memories stir. A late afternoon sun slants through the window into the living room, its walls lined with family photos and mementos. His life, by all accounts, has been successful. Happily married for 43 years, he is the father of two children, now adults. Professionally, he can look back with satisfaction on a long career in Baltimore as an umbrella manufacturing executive. And, when Mr. Sachwald is not on the subject of his war experiences, he is funny, outgoing, hardy.

The fragility appears along with the wartime memories. And right now Mr. Sachwald is not here in this sunny living room; he's back at Bataan, remembering his instructions:

"We had been told we had to hold the Japanese -- that we were all that was left to stop them from making a victorious march right into Australia," Mr. Sachwald says slowly, breathing each word out with a heavy sigh. "And . . . we . . . held."

JTC The last three words are sobbed out. His wife, Zola, leans forward from her place on the sofa and comforts him: "It's all

right, Lou," she says softly. "It's OK."

Bataan fell on April 9, 1942, followed by the fall of Corregidor and several small island outposts. For Mr. Sachwald, it was the end of the war and the beginning of hell.

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