WWII Survivor Receives Purple Heart
FORT WALTON BEACH, FL – Nearly 70 years later and after trekking 60 miles over unforgiving terrain on what would infamously become known as the Bataan Death March, retired Tech. Sgt. Pete Loss is receiving the Purple Heart for the hell he endured as a prisoner of war in the Pacific theater of World War II.
Colonel Jim Slife, commander of the 1st Special Operations Wing, awarded the Purple Heart to Loss in a private ceremony held at his residence in Fort Walton Beach.
"The Bataan Death March captured the very worst of what our service members endured and the very best of what America represents," Slife said. It's fitting that today, on Veterans Day, that we can award the Purple Heart to a true hero. It's how we should spend every Veterans Day."
The Purple Heart is awarded to persons who have received wounds or lost their lives in action against an enemy of the United States, during periods of war or armed conflict. Loss was among the 75,000 U.S. and Allied forces that were surrendered after the Japanese overwhelmed the strongholds on the Bataan peninsula in the Philippines.
After having never received the Purple Heart for his World War II commitment, a petition was submitted on his behalf to acknowledge Loss' eligibility for the medal. Army officials agreed.
"That's all he talked about, you know," said Magdelena, Loss' wife. "You had to go otherwise they would beat you. No food, no water on the march and if someone died, they just put them on the side (of the road) and they had to see that. So they just had to go. He's so brave - had human grace when there was none for them."
Enlisting in the Army Air Corps at age 22, Loss always dreamed of serving in the military and when the United States entered World War II, he itched to join and serve his country.
"I was crazy about the Army," Loss said. "Four of my brothers had already gone off to war and I had just had to go. Everyone did back then. I'm glad I did. This is America. God Bless America."
Loss served as ordnance observer serving on a little-known island, Luzon, in the Philippines when the Bataan peninsula was surrendered to Japanese forces on April 9, 1942.
During the Japanese siege of the island, the forces slowly starved as rations ran out and reinforcements were not getting through the lines. In the final days of the siege, Filipino members of the unit began to desert by the hundreds. Not being able to withstand the attack, American forces surrendered. The officers were sent by boat to Corregidor, while the enlisted service members, not being allowed to go, marched 10-12 miles to a dirt airfield on the Bataan peninsula. They waited, and the Japanese arrived.
"We waited a couple of days then the Japanese came and told us to get aboard trucks," said Loss in an interview 22 years ago. "Later they told us to get off the trucks and we started marching - the Bataan Death March."
The prisoners - U.S. Army, Army Air Corps, Navy and Marines and Allied forces -- were forced to march north through the Philippine jungles in blistering heat to ad hoc prison camps. During the journey, prisoners were surreptitiously killed or executed for falling behind, randomly beaten and deprived of food and water for days at a time. Over time, thousands of the surrendered forces succumbed to starvation or disease at the hands of their captures.
"We lived worse than anyone," said Loss. "We were starving. Once a (Japanese soldier) caught me trying to take something in one of the vegetable patches and he beat me with a club. Then he beat me again just because. They loved to beat us."
Survivors of the march faced deprivation and other hardships often found in POW camps. They were half-starved, humiliated, beaten and eventually, in 1944, loaded on Japanese freighters, nicknamed Hell Ships, and sent to labor camps in coalmines and farms in Japan. Not long after the U.S. bombing of Nagasaki, Japan, the Empire of the Sun surrendered.
"(The coalmines) were the nastiest places ever. I had decided one day I was through with this. I was going to break ranks that night and escape," Loss said. "But when we were marched back from the mines, we were told the (Japanese) surrendered. I didn't need to go through with my plans after all."
Soon after the surrender, the men were rescued. After more than a year recovering in hospitals in California and New Jersey, Loss decided he hadn't yet had his fill of the military lifestyle. In 1946, Loss reenlisted in the burgeoning new service branch, the U.S. Air Force, until his retirement in 1960 as a technical sergeant.
"I still wanted to be in the military and I figured I would try the Air Force," Loss said.
During his Air Force career, he was sent back to Japan during the Korean War.
"I wanted to go anywhere but there," he said. "I begged but they still sent me. But I don't hate them anymore."
After his stint in the Air Force, Loss continued to work in civil service in the Washington, D.C., area and then to the Fort Walton Beach area in 1972 with his first wife, Margaret, who died in 1975. That same year, his only child, Linda Young, was married in the Washington, D.C., area. Loss married his second wife, Magdelena, in 1979.
Young says that wishes she had been wiser in her youth and asked about Loss' military service earlier.
"I came along a lot later in my father's life, closer to the end of his career," Young said. "I never realized how much he had went through. It's when he got older that I realized what he had gone through and developed a great respect for what he went through. I wish I had developed that a lot sooner in life."
Loss' wish has long been to receive the Purple Heart. His drive to receive the medal is to honor all those who suffered on the Bataan Death March who did not survive or who was never recognized for the trials they endured.
"I'm very happy," Loss said. "Very, very happy, not only for me but for those that didn't get it. There's thousands out there. They're my buddies. They're all my buddies."
(Note: There was a fire at the National Personnel Records Center in 1973 that destroyed approximately 18 million service members' records. Loss' records were among those lost proving he was both a prisoner of war and suffered broken bones and other medical issues during World War II. After the intervention of his current caregiver, Andrea Bard, a social worker with Emerald Coast Hospice, this mistake was overturned.)