They called themselves the Battling Bastards of Bataan. Their story is well-known – a 65-mile march as Japanese prisoners of war in the Philippines, a march that killed 11,000 of them, just about one in every seven.
It’s a story Albert “Doc” Brown told a lot longer than anyone expected.
Brown died this week at 105, the oldest survivor of the Bataan Death March and the three years of captivity that followed. He’d been battered and weakened by it all, so badly he couldn’t resume his stateside dental practice. So badly, his doctor told him to enjoy life while he could, because he wasn’t going to make it past 50.
He made it just a wee bit longer. And for three generations, a lot of people have wondered how.
“He had this incredible spirit to live and overcome,” his biographer Kevin Moore told the Associated Press.
Amazing? Yes. Incredible? I’m not sure. Incredible is literally something that can’t be believed. And I can believe that kind of stubborn spirit – I’ve seen it in the face of concentration-camp survivors, Battle of the Bulge veterans and others who had to endure constant, unrelenting trial.
It’s like trying to chew your way through solid rock. A bit here, a bit there, not able to see the end but not able to stop either.
Life becomes small bites. It has to. No one starts out saying “I’m going to survive three years in a camp” or “I’m going to tell my story 50 years after I should be dead.” It’s too big to contemplate. It crushes you if you try.
Most, I’ve found, told themselves “I’m going to make it through today.” That was enough.
And a lot of todays strung together look mighty impressive when you come out the other side.
One leukemia survivor I know is fond of the phrase “If you’re going through Hell, don’t stop.” He strung enough one-more-days together to eventually run a marathon.
A friend I met in Kansas, Jack Mandelbaum, survived three years in a ghetto and three more in the Nazi camps, as a teenager. He considered every day a victory over Hitler, another move in a game he planned to win. It’s a game he’s still winning.
Most of us won’t ever face anything like that. But we’ll face our own enduring horror, our own pain that has to be met. Our own trial that calls for just one more day of strength. And one more. And one more after that.
Steps in another march.
In a way, it’s its own kind of heroism. A kind that Captain Brown knew very, very well.
His own march has ended. But his journey lives on, an inspiration to others.
May your own road, whatever it may be, know the strength that he found.