I have been so busy lately that I've not been around much. This morning, as I was reading through the news feed on my facebook page, I came across a post from an elementary school classmate of mine, informing those of us who attended Bradley Creek Elementary School, that one of our teachers had died.
Nearly a decade ago, when writing the article that I have at the bottom of this page, I did a quick search to see if I could find Mr. Biggs and failed and had assumed he'd died (I wasn't even sure if his name was Briggs or Biggs). I wish I could have gotten up with him. He might have been proud to know that I have yet to spent time behind bars. I'm pretty sure that's what he expected from a group of us (or maybe he'd just been heartbroken over our failed criminal justice system). We gave him hell! In the obituary, I learned that he wasn't captured in the Philippines (as I seemed to remember), but in China, where he was a Marine assigned to embassy duty in Peiping. And he was captured on that fateful day of December 7, 1941. Seventy years later, he would die on that same day. I also didn't know that he stayed in the Marine Corp for 20 years and retired in 1959, having received three Presidential citations and having become a decorated hero during the Korean conflict. God bless you, Mr. Biggs! For more of my memories of Mr. Biggs, go here and here. I realized that in these posts, I identified him as Mr. Briggs!
Below is an article I wrote from a newspaper in Utah, back when I had a monthly column there...
From the Spectrum, January 17, 2003.
I've had the privilege of knowing two men who survived the fall of the Philippines in World War II. Both men, in their youth, endured three years of horror as Japanese Prisoners of War.
My first encounter was as a fifth grader. At a time when almost all elementary school teachers were women, Mr. Biggs was the only male teacher at Bradley Creek Elementary School. Tall and lanky, we privately called him Mr. Chips. He did resemble the character from the movie. I can’t recall much of his story, but I remember he had enlisted in the military as a teenager, only 16 or 17 years old. Stationed in the Philippines on the eve of the Second World War, he was captured at the fall of Bataan. The rest is history. After the war, he went back to school and became a teacher and, by the bad luck of the draw, ended up with a host of mischievous boys. I regret now that I can recall more of my misdeeds than his experiences.
My second encounter with a survivor of the fall of the Philippines was Kanarraville resident John Lee. Most people his age can recall what they were doing when they heard Pearl Harbor was attacked. With a grin in his eye, John once told me he was in a gin mill in Manila during the early morning hours of that infamous December day. Suddenly lights went up as officers and military police herded everyone back to their duty stations. While other ships headed for the open ocean, John’s ship, the submarine tender USS Canopus, was ordered to stay put. For several months, both the Army and Navy depended on the ship’s extensive machine shop. At one point, the sailors of the Canopus, who had no combat training, were given rifles and pressed into duty as infantrymen to repel a Japanese landing party. Before the fall of Bataan, they scuttled their ship and were transferred to Corregidor, a fortified island in the mouth of Manila harbor. There, the sailors were assigned to the Marines who guarded the beaches. Against a constant bombardment, they held the invaders off for another month. With little ammunition and few rations, and all their big guns out of commission, the island surrendered on May 6, 1942.
John talked rough, but had a gentle heart. He adored my daughter and all other children and adopted many stray animals. When eating out, he always asked for a doggy bag and saved a choice piece of meat for his four legged companions.
Ironically, the hearts of both men who experienced the horrors of war and inhumanity at the hands of their captors were softened. One dedicated his life to children and another tenderly cared for animals. With Mr. Biggs, I missed an opportunity, but with John I was given a second chance. We owe our freedom to their sacrifice and, in their memory, should strive for a more humane world.
John died this past week, his final battle being cancer.