Published June 24 2011
After 67 years, Bataan Death March POW finds friend’s family
He wanted to thank them, to tell them of the bravery he witnessed on the Bataan Death March.
He wanted to tell them that he never saw Gerald Block back down from a fight. He never saw him afraid. He never saw him cry, until the day the two soldiers were separated.
Frazier recently got that chance, and on Thursday he finally met Block’s survivors in person.
At a convention in Pittsburgh, he met with three of Block’s nine nieces and nephews: Susan Johnson and Linda Ray, both of Jamestown, and their sister, Gloria Burkhardt of Arizona.
In the middle of it all was a New York schoolteacher whose research into World War II photographs made the meeting possible.
Before now, Johnson said, everything they knew about their uncle’s military service was on paper: records of his Army enlistment on July 25, 1941, a picture from the National Library of Congress, a letter from Gen. Douglas MacArthur offering sympathy to Block’s mother.
“I refer to him as the uncle who was but wasn’t, because really all we had of him were the papers that Granny had saved and tucked away in a box,” she said. “It’s really nice to take him out of the box.”
Together in torture
Frazier, who now lives in Daphne, Ala., and Block were untested soldiers when they stepped off the USS Cleveland onto Luzon, the largest island in the Philippines.
Block was 20 years old at the time, while Frazier was only 17, having lied about his age to enter the Army.
They spent six months on Luzon before the Japanese bombed the island on Dec. 8, 1941, six hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
A Japanese ground invasion forced them to retreat to Bataan, a peninsula on Luzon.
Block and Frazier worked side-by-side for the next four months, running ammunition to the front lines. Frazier estimates they were involved in 25 firefights before their commander surrendered roughly 12,000 Americans and 66,000 Filipinos to the Japanese on April 9, 1942.
The Japanese forced the starving soldiers to march 90 miles in tortuous conditions up the east coast to Camp O’Donnell.
“He and I marched right together all the way,” Frazier said of Block.
Shortly into the trek, the prisoners were walking in lines four abreast. Frazier and Block walked in the rightmost lane, exposed to passing traffic on the road. As they marched up an incline, they could see soldiers being pulled out of line at the top of the hill.
At the summit, they saw why: The Japanese were giving the prisoners shovels and forcing them to fill a bomb crater. When the soldiers grew too tired to shovel, the Japanese kicked them into the hole and used long bamboo sticks to shove them into the mud and bury them alive, Frazier said.
Frazier and Block were spared, and they decided to move into one of the interior lines, which turned out to be a crucial decision, Frazier said. As the march wore on, Japanese soldiers in trucks would plow right over soldiers in the outer lines or stick them with bayonets, he said.
“They never did get to us,” Frazier said. “When you’re in a situation like that, you sort of have to look out for yourself because nobody else will. And he and I looked out for each other.”
When the POWs finally reached Camp O’Donnell, Frazier was near death. His tongue was swollen, and he couldn’t pick up his feet after six days and seven nights of marching.
Block had arrived at the camp first, but he soon found his friend.
“I didn’t even know where I was,” Frazier said. “And I heard somebody say, ‘Hey, it’s over with. It’s over with.’ And it was him. And he took a wet cloth and put it on my tongue, and I laid down on the grass. I laid in the grass for two days.”
Lost and not found
Frazier and Block were separated at Camp O’Donnell.
“At that point, he cried. He had tears running down his face,” Frazier said, noting it was the only time he saw Block cry.
Frazier was sent to a slave labor camp and would spend the next 3½ years in POW camps until the formal surrender of Japan on Sept. 2, 1945.
Block was taken to Nichols Field, an airfield south of Manila, where he was forced to work a hard-labor detail.
Frazier said he was later told by someone on the detail that Block was among 50 soldiers burned alive by the Japanese at Nichols Field. Frazier later mentioned it in his book, “Hell’s Guest,” which is dedicated in part to Block.
Frazier looked for Block’s family over the years, including during a visit last year to Moorhead for a speaking engagement.
It would take a teacher named Jason McDonald to set him on the right path to finding Block’s family.
“Without (McDonald), none of this would have happened,” Johnson said.
Picture provides clue
As a student at Fordham University in New York City, McDonald’s undergraduate thesis consisted of creating an online database of nearly 2,000 photographs of World War II, taken mostly from the Library of Congress and National Archives.
He left his website up after he graduated. Soon, he started getting emails from people who believed some of the photo captions were incorrect and misidentified the soldiers in them.
“And I began asking myself, who are these people?” said McDonald, who teaches computers to fifth- and sixth-graders in Brooklyn and is pursuing a master’s degree in history.
In 2007, McDonald decided to redo the website, gathering as much information as possible about each photo. To date, he has vetted about 700 of the 2,200 photos in his World War II Multimedia Database.
One photo – the same one Frazier used for his book cover – shows U.S. soldiers on the Bataan Death March. Frazier claims he’s the soldier in the black pants in the foreground and that Block is walking behind him.
McDonald said he was researching the Japanese photographer who took the picture when he came across a newspaper article about a New Mexico veteran who also claimed to be the soldier in the black pants. (McDonald said he doesn’t have enough information to determine if the soldier is Frazier or the other man.)
During his research into the photo, McDonald contacted Frazier, who told him he had been unable to locate Block’s family.
McDonald did some digging and found a notice about a memorial service being held in Jamestown for Gerald Block and his brother, Norbert Block. He contacted the pastor of the church where the service was being held.
The pastor forwarded the email to Johnson, whose father, Norbert Block, had searched for years for records of his older brother Gerald’s military service.
The Block brothers were born in Beardsley, Minn., and grew up there and in Morris, Minn.
Norbert Block was the younger brother by four years. He enlisted in the Navy on Sept. 2, 1944, and served toward the end of the war in the Pacific Theater, where Gerald was being held as a POW.
“(Gerald) never knew that his brother also had enlisted and was serving in the same area. It’s really heartbreaking,” Johnson said.
‘A message from God’
Norbert Block never found the records he was seeking before he died of cancer in 2000 at age 74.
His children carried on the search while compiling a military history of the family. They struck gold with McDonald, who was able to find records showing that Gerald Block had been loaded onto the Arisan Maru, a Japanese “hell ship” used for transporting prisoners of war.
Gerald Block and 1,782 other American prisoners were aboard the unmarked freighter when a U.S. submarine, unaware of the ship’s cargo, torpedoed and sunk the vessel on Oct. 24, 1944, according to the National Archives. Only nine POWs survived.
As it turned out, Frazier couldn’t find Block’s survivors because they had left Minnesota. When Norbert Block returned from the war, he lived on the West Coast and then moved to North Dakota, where he settled in Jamestown and met his wife, Elinore Block, who still lives there.
Finally, McDonald connected Frazier and Johnson, and the two spoke by phone for the first time on Jan. 19. Nearly 67 years after Gerald Block’s death, it was his family’s first verbal communication with someone who had served with him in war.
“We visited for quite some time,” Johnson said. “It was kind of like a message from God, literally and figuratively, to do this now.”
The first-person account of Gerald Block’s military service was invaluable to his survivors.
“He was able to give us a sense of him as a man, as a soldier, as a friend, and that’s a gift we never thought possible,” Johnson said.
Block gets his due
With their uncle’s history now known, Johnson and her siblings also learned Gerald Block was due medals for his service.
North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad’s office has worked with the family to make it happen: Gerald Block will posthumously be awarded the Purple Heart, POW Medal, Good Conduct Medal, Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal and Bronze Star Attachment, World War II Victory Medal and Honorable Service World War II Lapel Button.
The Department of Defense also provided his reconstructed military records and a 41-page file with survivors’ accounts of the sinking of the Arisan Maru, said Shelly Klein, who handles veteran and military affairs for Conrad in eastern North Dakota.
A military headstone is being sent to Beardsley as a marker for Gerald Block in his hometown cemetery.
Frazier believes the recognition is long overdue.
“He is due the utmost respect, as far as I’m concerned, for what he did for his country,” he said.
Johnson said Frazier also deserves respect for fulfilling his pledge to find the family of his fallen brother in arms.
“What’s really cool is the guy kept his word. He’s looked for 67 years,” she said.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528