Louis Sachwald, World War II POW, dies

He served in the Philippines and weighed less than 90 pounds when his ordeal ended

  • Louis Sachwald
Louis Sachwald (Jed Kirschbaum 1991, Baltimore…)
March 08, 2011|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun | Baltimore Sun reporter

Louis Sachwald, who spent 42 months as a prisoner of war during World War II after the fall of Bataan and Corregidor in the Philippines and managed to survive slave labor camps, enforced marches and "hell" ships, died Feb. 28 of dementia at the Charlotte Hall Veterans Home in Southern Maryland.

The former Pikesville resident was 92.

Mr. Sachwald was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and moved in 1934 with his family to Lancaster, Pa. After graduating from McCaskey High School in 1937, he earned a bachelor's degree in education in 1940 from Millersville State Teachers College.

After briefly teaching, Mr. Sachwald was awarded a scholarship to Lehigh University to study law. He decided to postpone his law school studies and enlist in the Army for one year.

Mr. Sachwald was serving as a sergeant with a chemical warfare unit in the Philippines when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and the American forces that were remaining in Manila were forced to retreat to Bataan, where they were instructed to hold Bataan at all costs.

Mr. Sachwald was serving with G Company, 31st Infantry, when he transferred from Bataan to Corregidor just before Bataan surrendered.

The transfer spared him from the infamous Bataan Death March, when 75,000 American and Filipino soldiers were marched by the Japanese to a railhead where they were transported to prison camps. An estimated 17,000 soldiers perished during the 65-mile trek — many of them slain by their captors.

American and Filipino forces had bravely held on against the superior Japanese onslaught and battle-seasoned enemy forces from late December until spring, when they surrendered at Bataan on April 9, 1942, with Corregidor falling shortly afterward.

"By the end, we had no food, we were suffering from pellagra and beriberi, we had almost no ammunition, we were using obsolete weapons," Mr. Sachwald told The Baltimore Sun in an 1991 interview.

"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," he said.

As one ordeal ended for Mr. Sachwald another was about to begin.

Their Japanese captors quickly put the Americans and Filipinos to work repairing bombed docks and other wrecked port facilities.

"We worked day and night with no stopping, no food, no water," Mr. Sachwald said. "Then we had to march — the favorite Japanese way of handling prisoners. We were torn up, bloody, filthy, starved, and they marched us into the main park in the area and brought the Filipinos around to see what their allies looked like. What those no-good Americans looked like."

For the next 18 months, Mr. Sachwald led a nomadic life where he was moved from one prison camp to labor camps in the Philippines, until finally being confined to the notorious Bilibid Prison in Manila.

"By the time I got to Bilibid the only clothing I owned was a G-string, a hat and a pair of wooden shoes that a buddy made for me. I'd never have made it during that period without those shoes," he told the newspaper.

When he came down with cerebral malaria, his captors made him dig his grave and laid him in it. Quinine that had been smuggled into the prison helped Mr. Sachwald regain his health and crawl from his intended grave back to the barracks.

"It was hate that kept me alive," he told The Baltimore Sun. "Hate didn't enter into it at the very beginning. But I learned to hate the Japanese in the camps. They taught me how to do that."

Mr. Sachwald, who had been transported in the hold of a cramped "hell" ship with other prisoners to mainland Japan to work in a copper mine by the end of 1943, was never able to publicly speak about the voyage.

Prisoners were denied use of any toilet facilities and meals consisted of hardtack. They were forced to drink their own urine and eat excrement in order to stay alive.

"I have written it out and it's in the Veteran Administration's archives with a note that no one is ever to read it. Not even my family," he said in the interview.

In the interview, Mr. Sachwald recalled working in the mines for two years where prisoners ate locust to maintain their strength. He recalled that if you stopped working, the "Japanese would kill you."

When the Japanese forces surrendered, Mr. Sachwald explained he had lost the concept of time and remembered the camp commander telling them the war was over and they'd soon be going home.

The next day, food-, clothing- and medicine-laden American planes dropped supplies to the beleaguered prisoners who had to wait two weeks to be liberated by U.S. forces.

"We cried and cheered," he told The Voice, a newsletter published by Beth-El Congregation, where he was a member.

When he was sent home, where he spent time in several military hospitals, he weighed 90 pounds. He was discharged in 1946 and some of his decorations included a Bronze Star and a Distinguished Unit Badge with two Oak Leaf Clusters.

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