May 26, 2008
Beneath Every Flag Lies A StoryBy Lee Cary
Memorial Day comes every time I drive across the bridge near my home over one of the reservoir lakes made by the Army Corps of Engineers to store water for the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. Somewhere out there, thirty feet or so beneath the surface, there must be some shard that marks the homestead where, on September 16, 1916, Raymond Lewis Seagraves was born. Perhaps a few stones from a low fence. A plug of bodark (bois d'arc) wood from a house foundation. An old penny buried in the silt.
Seagraves was a "China Marine." After he served three years in the U.S. Army, he joined the Marine Corps in 1939, at age 22. Maybe he wanted to travel beyond Oklahoma where he'd been stationed in the Army. As part of the Navy, Marines sail the globe. He was assigned to the 4th Marine Regiment posted in Shanghai since 1927 - called the China Marines.
In late November 1941, with war looming, the regiment sailed for the Philippines -- just in time. They'd hardly arrived when the general alarm sounded at the Olongapo Naval Station, 80 miles northwest of Manila in the Subic Bay area. The war was on.
For 19 days the Marines dodged air attacks until, on December 27, they withdrew to a fortified island 3.5 miles long and 1.5 miles at its widest, two miles off the Bataan Peninsula at the entrance of Manila Bay. The Island of Corregidor. On December 29, Japanese bombers destroyed the Marines' barracks. After that they slept in the field.
On News Year's Day 1942, the China Marines prepared to defend Corregidor's beach. They dug trenches, strung barbed wire, and built mortar pits and machine gun emplacement. Then, for the next four months, they hunkered down under air raids and artillery shelling as they awaited the inevitable Japanese landing.
On April 9, 1942, they heard the news of the surrender of Bataan and knew that the Japanese would now turn their full attention to the small island that blocked free entry into Manila Bay.
The Corregidor defenders were not short on ammunition, but they were short of food - about 30 ounces per person per day. Butchered cavalry mules provided their only fresh meat.
On May 4, 16,000 Japanese shells hit Corregidor to soften up the island for the invasion that began shortly before midnight on May 5. On May 6, 1942, 1:30 pm, U.S. and Filipino forces defending Corregidor surrender. Two hundred and fifty-six Marines were killed or wounded in the battle. Of the 1,487 Marines who surrendered, 474 would die in captivity.
Over two years passed and the Americans returned to the Philippines. Seagraves had never left.
He had no way of knowing that, after the U.S. Sixth Army invaded the Philippines in October 1944, General Hideki Tojo ordered the Japanese commander there, General Yamashita, to kill all the American prisoners before they could be liberated.
On December 14, 1944, Seagraves was among 150 POWs laboring on an airfield on Palawan, an island province in the Philippines. Whenever American aircraft attacked the airfield, the Japanese guards would herd the POWs into three trenches covered with wood planks. The shelters were 30 inches wide, 40 inches deep, and 50 feet long. Each shelter accommodated about 50 men.
During the morning of December 14, the POWs repaired bomb craters on the airfield. That afternoon, when two American P-38 fighters approached, the camp guards herded the men into the shelters. Then several of the guards approached with 5-gallon gasoline cans, poured the contents into the shelters, threw in grenades, and fired machine guns into the inferno.
Of the 150 POWs, 139 were killed. Eleven escaped by tearing through barbed wire with their bare hands. The opening minutes of the 2005 movie, "The Great Raid," depicts the atrocity. The remains of 123 victims of the Palawan Massacre rest today in a mass grave at the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery near St. Louis, MO.
Seagraves' name is not among those on the plaque that marks the site. He never left the Philippines.
China Marine and defender of Corregidor, PFC Raymond Lewis Seagraves, USMC, serial number 271830, is buried in Plot A, Row 15, Grave 5, at the Manila American Cemetery.
He died at age 28, after 30 months of captivity. He left behind no wife and no children. His closest family members, first and second cousins, didn't know where he'd been buried, until told. Only one extant photo of him as an adult is retained by an elderly cousin. Years ago, an unsubstantiated story circulated among his relatives that, in a museum somewhere in the Philippines, there was a wallet with his name on it displayed among artifacts from the Battle for Corregidor.
Beneath the surface of each grave over which a flag flies today, there is a story worth remembering. I remember the story of Ray Seagraves. Perhaps you will, too.