Robert Volger Jr. – Bataan suvivor learns ‘We can overcome anything’
By Elizabeth Marie Himchak
Retired Master Sgt. Robert Vogler Jr., a Bataan Death March survivor and World War II prisoner of war, recently led a delegation of fellow POWs to Japan to help with reconciliation between former enemy nations.
When describing his experiences as a prisoner of the Japanese, Vogler, now 90, said, “It was a nightmare. … The march was a living hell.”
On Dec. 8, 1941 (in the Philippines, Dec. 7 in the United States), Japan attacked the Philippines just hours after attacking Pearl Harbor. The Philippines were under United States’ control and had American military bases and personnel there.
Vogler, a Rancho Bernardo resident, said by November 1941 there were signs war was imminent. In 1940, as an 18-year-old, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps and requested to be sent from California to the Philippines because “it sounded interesting … would be kind of fun and I wanted an adventure.”
He was stationed at Nichols Field near Manila and recalled that the night before war started, “I worked all night on an airplane that came out of China.” After returning briefly to his barracks, Vogler learned about Pearl Harbor. “I changed my clothes and never looked back,” he said of quickly being assigned to the infantry to fight in the jungle even though he never completed basic training.
American and Filipino troops were immediately placed on half-rations or less due to a lack of supplies on Bataan and Corregidor. “We were told we … would have to fight to the end,” Vogler said.
On April 8, 1942, they surrendered to the Japanese and the infamous Bataan Death March began. Of the 75,000 American and Filipino prisoners, thousands died from physical abuse and murder by Japanese soldiers, who viewed those who surrendered as less than human. The 60-mile march was a war crime.
Vogler said he, like others, lost a lot of weight and had beriberi before the death march. He survived partly due to “utter determination.”
“They did not know what they were doing,” Vogler said, describing the Japanese army as disorganized when dealing with more prisoners than anticipated. Often they forced prisoners to march several miles, only to have them turn back hours later, he said. “There was mass confusion.”
Soon after the 21-year-old Vogler reached Camp O’Donnell he went blind for several days. Food was very limited and prisoners had to wait in line 10 hours to get water.
Vogler was later sent to the Cabanatuan prison camp, “another nightmare” where he said at least 75 men a day died due to lack of medicine and Japan’s refusal to let the Red Cross help the prisoners. He volunteered to be sent to northeast China in October 1942, transported aboard the Tottori Maru, a hell ship that three times was almost torpedoed by the American Navy, he said.
After surviving 45-degree-below-freezing temperatures in summer clothes while making aircraft parts — a task he said prisoners sabotaged as often as possible — by 1944 he was sent to the Kamioka POW camp in Japan to work in a lead mine. Following an injury, he was reassigned and befriended Japanese guard Masao Okada. Vogler said a friendship formed because they worked together alone and Okada was “a good human being.”
“He was not cruel … and he saved me a couple times,” Vogler said. When liberated in 1945 they planned to keep in touch, but Vogler lost Okada’s address.
“I was 80 pounds when the war was over, in pretty bad shape with gangrene,” he said. Vogler said he chose a post-war career in the Air Force to be sure “Uncle Sam” would care for his medical and physiological issues. “I had a lot of trouble from being malnourished and psychological stuff that is not easy to get rid of even though you look normal,” he said.
Years later, he came to terms with what he endured in part due to friendships formed with Japanese individuals in California. One helped him reconnect with Okada and they exchanged letters from 1961 until Okada’s death in 1993.
Another was an exchange student he and his wife, Berni, hosted in their home. “She was a 14-year-old girl,” he said. “In those two weeks I mellowed quite a bit. She was like a granddaughter.”
Vogler’s job with General Dynamics took him to Tokyo once and in 1997 he returned to Kamioka, “a big breaker” for his remaining feelings because many Japanese citizens apologized for what happened during the war.
Last month, he led a delegation of former POWs in their 80s and 90s who are trying to establish a Japanese-American friendship program. “If we go to another war, they will fight with us,” he said about the need for an alliance.
The trips have taught him “we can overcome anything,” he said. “Forgiveness can be accomplished … but you can never forget.”
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