The last American horse cavalry charge rode into history during the defense of the Philippines in the opening days of World War II. As in Vietnam, when the Air Cav came to the rescue in helicopters, other mobile cavalry units rode into military history in armored personnel carriers and tanks. The horses may be gone, but the American military still has the “mounted” cavalry ready to come to the rescue.
On April 9, 1942, as Allied forces surrendered to the Japanese invaders after the three-month battle for Bataan, the cavalry — horse-mounted or armored-mounted or otherwise — had no horses or other equipment available to mount another courageous charge. The battle was over.
A forced and brutal march began following the Allied surrender: the Bataan Death March, a miserable and murderous 70-mile trek to a POW enclosure called Camp O’Donnell. Between 500 and 650 Americans perished, a discrepancy of 150 souls. What was the total figure? What were their names? And, where are their remains? Among the Filipino prisoners, the discrepancy is enormous: 5,000 to 18,000, a gap of 13,000 human beings, not to be remembered by name, only by well-intended memorials.
Weary, starving, dehydrated Allied prisoners trudged forward. Exhausted, many fell, but were compassionately picked up and carried by fellow POWs. Others fell, only to be shot or buried alive by the Japanese captors. Those who fell in front of enemy tanks were crushed by tank treads, then pulverized into pulp as more tanks moved forward. Filipino citizens attempting to give water to the marching miserable were either shot or brutally beaten.
A few doctors were among the marchers. One was a captain from Pikesville, Md., named Frank Cone. And this is Part II of his story.
The last letter, March 2, 1942:
Before the surrender, Cone penned a lighthearted letter to his wife, Marian, obviously not wanting to upset her with details of the pending disaster, yet descriptive enough concerning various encounters with the Japanese and native ambiances. Excerpts include a paragraph complaining that someone had “borrowed” his mattress, yet living somewhat comfortably under “a thatch of banana, nipa, and bamboo” not far from the “bathtub” (the water of a cold stream). Breakfast consisted of stewed raisins, corned-beef hash, French toast, and coffee. For dinner: rice, stewed Jack-fruit, sardines, coca, and cake of some sort. The only shortage was razor blades.
He talked of a pet monkey:
“My monkey just came to sit in my lap and have his belly scratched. He’s a cute little rascal, except when he ‘throws his waste’ on the table and chair, about eight months old. We caught him shortly after arriving in Bataan and finally got him tamed down a little bit ago.”
On his activities:
“Since December 8 my activities have varied. I won’t mention anything medical because I know they would be censored if this letter gets through. In addition to my medical duties, I’ve served as forward observer, when, one night I was on the beach and saw two Jap boats go by. I reported them over the radio, but fortunately the receiver at the other end decided to let them go by as long as they weren’t trying to land – that was back in December. Also have been a tractor driver, telephone linesman, messenger, mechanic, airplane lookout, and so forth.”
On another occasion:
“I was assisting a man with a bad foot when a Jap plane down hell-bent-for-election, machine gunning — no, he missed! After driving two nights and a day with two swallows of Scotch and a cigar for food, stopped in at a church — had a bath, put on one of the priest’s dressing robes, had a fine meal of soup, papaya, bananas, rum, wine, various meats, etc., and then went to sleep in a 200-year-old Spanish bed with priceless antique hand-embroidered linens also 200 years old. Woke up five minutes later damn near burning up — ANTS! Hundreds of tiny black ‘P-Ants’ as we call them. The Spanish priest wouldn’t even let me put a peso in the poor box for his kindness.”
Still another time:
“I had my charge (horse) under cover while three two-motor bombers were patrolling looking for us! Tell you about that when I get home. Out checking my aid men when the enemy opened up and shelled our position for 3½ hours! At another location next day had a bomb drop close enough to lift me up and throw me against a tree.”
His worst day:
“As a ‘lookout’ I saw a formation of 3 bombers circling – called out to take cover and laid down on the ground, on my back, to watch them. They peeled off into a dive and all I could see was three propellers with wings headed straight for me. Rolled over on my belly, tucked my arms close to my chest and heard the bombs whistling down…then boom, BOOM, and boom, etc., and stuff started falling all over me. After nine bombs exploded, I shook myself and found I wasn’t hurt, went down to the telephone and found out that there had been NO casualties. The Colonel looked at me and laughed, ‘Doc, you been digging with your nose?’ I turned to get my mirror when the Major said, ‘If he did, it was a good job — he’s got dirt and leaves on his neck!’ That’s as close as I’ve been and is as close as I’m going to get. I still dream of those damn props with wings headed straight for me. Near one of our positions I was playing Russian Bank with the Communications Officer when an enemy battery opened up. We listened to the shells scream and burst and then there was a long loud scream — I hit the dirt alongside of the table and then heard the shell explode some mile or so away. Got up rather sheepishly and the Colonel who was up at the dug-out was laughing harder than I’ve ever heard him laugh.”
Ending his letter on a positive note:
“Aside from the above, and having the window of my car shot out by a sniper a few weeks ago, everything has been fine and this has been a lovely war. In the three months of war we have had less than 1.3 percent of our command killed, less than 2.3 percent of the co-command killed and wounded. We have no epidemics and very few days lost from illness. A good number of our cases in my hospital should be diagnosed as ‘constipation, acute.’ The C.O. has put me in for a promotion to Major, but doubtful it will be approved since in December I made Captain. Everything has been nice and quiet lately.”
With the Allied surrender, letters and communication to home from Cone ceased immediately. A fellow medical officer, POW, and survivor of the Bataan Death March and Camp Cabanatuan, Wade D. Robinson, wrote Cone’s family a detailed, informative, yet emotionally charged letter after the war. Excerpts include:
On the Death March:
“I saw Frank during the march only once, near Capas, where we were being loaded on railroad boxcars to Camp O’Donnell. He had obtained permission to set up a little aid station by the roadside and was busy helping, and helping, and helping; as usual. He looked well at that time…”
Medical officers Robinson, Lemoyne Bleich, and Frank Cone survived the Bataan Death March and found each other at Camp O’Donnell. The doctors lived in a barracks-like section of the camp, but the living conditions were still awful as described in Robinson’s letter:
“Men slept on the wooden floor cushioned with a pad of grass they picked. This was a hell-hole and I can only tell you that we were starved, sick, and half dead.”
Hungry, the men thought only of food:
“Everyone from a buck private to a general carried a recipe notebook with him and talked of food-food-food all day long. They also listed names of good restaurants all over the U.S.”
In June 1942, most of the POWs at Camp O’Donnell were moved to a larger facility at Camp Cabanatuan. In his letter, Robinson recalled:
“From the moment we arrived, Frank felt tired and ran a high fever. We tapped the Filipino black market and smuggled food for Frank, usually an egg or rice cake, or a banana. Despite our efforts, Frank’s condition continued to worsen and a tender mass developed in his lower right abdomen. Frank went into the camp hospital and then was moved to the Provincial Hospital in the town of Cabanatuan on Aug. 13, 1942. Colonel Jack Schwartz performed surgery and found an inoperable form of intestinal cancer. Although put in a ‘miserable corner of the hospital to die,’ Frank hung on. Five days later, the Japanese returned Frank to the POW camp.”
During the rough ride on a bumpy road, Cone’s surgical would split open and would not heal. According to Robinson, “The cancer took its toll, too, but Frank was free from pain and remained lucid.”
On Sept. 12, 1942, Robinson saw Cone for the last time. Cone realized his days were numbered. He told Robinson, “This is it. You won’t see me again.” Cone gave Robinson his personal effects and asked that Reverend Samuel Donald, a chaplain in the camp, read the 23rd Psalm over his body. Cone died the next day, Sept. 13. Army doctors Robinson and Bleich shaved and bathed Cone, then wrapped his body in a sheet. He was buried in a common grave at the POW camp.
After the war, Robinson sent Cone’s personal effects to Marian on Nov. 10, 1945. They included a watch and fountain pen; a notebook containing the sketch of a brooch Cone planned to have made for Marian in the shape of Luzon with a pearl inset in Bataan; a notebook of the debts he owed; a list of recipes, places to eat, and a coin purse with three checks for debts owed by fellow soldiers in the camp; a medical brassard; U.S. and medical corps insignia; and a leather thong holding a pearl. Robinson wrote, “Frank carried that pearl in a little leather case attached to the dog tags around his neck. The Japanese never discovered it.”
Before the outbreak of war, Cone penned a poem and sent it to Marian. Entitled “Lament of a Medical Officer Isolated by a Typhoon,” a short excerpt reads:
“In a lonely little Field Camp, on a well secluded ridge,
The hero of this story, was cut off by a bridge,
He was restive, he was angry,
He was lonely, he was weary. Do you think he thought of home?, it’s an even money bet,
He thought of little Marian, of Jamie and of Bink.
And the more he thought of these folks, the lower he did sink.
It was raining, it was misting, and the mildew it did sink.
And all that he could really do, was think, and think, and think.”
The POWs at Camp Cabanatuan were liberated by U.S. Army Rangers, Alamo Scouts, and Filipino guerillas on Jan. 30, 1945 in one of the most famous POW raids of WWII. Over 500 Allied prisoners gained their freedom. After the war, the bodies of American soldiers who died at Cabanatuan were exhumed and reinterred in other cemeteries, including that of Frank Cone. The site of Cabanatuan is now a Filipino park with a rebuilt replica of the POW camp, including a memorial wall listing the 2,656 Americans who died there.
General Douglas MacArthur sent a letter of condolence to Marian, dated Nov. 1, 1945:
“My deepest sympathy goes to you in the death of your husband, Captain Frank Cone, while a prisoner of war of the enemy. You may have some consolation in the memory that he, along with his comrades-in-arms who died on Bataan and Corregidor and in the prison camps, gave his life for his country. It was largely their magnificent courage and sacrifices which stopped the enemy in the Philippines and gave us the time to arm ourselves for our return to the Philippines and the final defeat of Japan. Their names will be enshrined in our country’s glory forever. In your husband’s death I have lost a gallant comrade and mourn with you.”
I completed Frank Cone’s story on July 3, 2019. Thursday was July 4, our Independence Day. Complaints were already being registered that the American flag is offensive and needed not to be displayed. Certain political factors are complaining about the military-oriented parade in Washington, D.C., comparing it to the likes of North Korea.
Perhaps Congress, and yes, even the Supreme Court, should take a trip to the Philippines and hike the trail of the Bataan Death March, ride the 20 miles in a hot railroad boxcar to Camp O’Donnell, then visit and walk the dirt ground of Camp Cabanatuan.
Finally, visit the grave of Frank Cone in the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial at Fort Andres Bonifacio. Walk the grounds, view the headstones of 17,000 fallen American men and women, plus the names of 36,000 missing. When they find Cone’s grave, they, like he, in some respects are already home. Cone’s grave is covered with grass propagated from two square yards of sod from Beltsville, Md., his home state.
Perhaps after their visit, Congress and the Supreme Court may truly understand the cost of freedom, and stop being so laissez-faire concerning Old Glory and our national treasures. After all, they did it for you.