Local veteran tells of POW horrors

Erwin Johnson, an American prisoner of war in WWII
Erwin Johnson, an American prisoner of war in WWII

Erwin Johnson lived the misery shown in old photos on the second floor of the National WWII Museum.

Johnson was in the U.S. Army on the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines on December 7th 1941.  A few months after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, they began a siege of Bataan.

"We were on half-rations and we were down to quarter-rations and the ammunition had just about run out," said Johnson, a New Orleans native.

By April 1942, American and Filipino forces on Bataan surrendered.  Erwin says their Japanese captors were ruthless. They were forced to march almost 70 miles to the first POW camp -- something the historians now call the Bataan Death March.

"About six days, we had maybe two cups of rice and were allowed, one time, to put some water in our canteen," he said. "If a guy started walking slow and trailing, he would be bayoneted or shot."

The tens of thousands of soldiers who endured the madness made it to a prison camp. Johnson would stay at Camp O'Donnel for two weeks before he ended up spending years in a camp in China.

"It didn't hit me until I was an adult of what he had gone through," his son Raymond said.

Erwin organized a meeting in New Orleans with other POW's this week, part of a decades-long healing process.

"It helps to be able to talk to the guys to get it out of your system," said the veteran.

When Erwin and other POW's were liberated in 1945, it didn't erase the pain.  Still, he wants the story told for generations to come.