Young Eyes Witnessed Brutality of Bataan Death March: A Sister of Mercy’s personal story
By Gary Loncki
Briefly, she glances away as tears surface.
She struggles, and in a soft voice, relates the story still vivid: a frail, emaciated U.S. soldier – one of many in a long, moving line ‒ eyeing the slice of bread she holds while watching the procession. An onlooker whispers, “Death march.” The soldier extends his pleading hand into which the five-year-old places the half-eaten crust.
Suddenly the hard blow of a Japanese rifle cuts across her face creating searing pain and fear as the angry soldier levels his loaded rifle. Hearing the pleas from the hysterical mother to spare her daughter, the soldier relents and forces the girl to sit along the road for hours in the unforgiving Philippine sun.
“(The American soldier) was begging me. It is the nature of children to give,” said the child, Sister Consolacion, 71 years later. Sister Cones, as she goes by today, was that girl and an eyewitness to one of World War II’s most painful atrocities: the Bataan Death March.
On April 10, 1942, the Japanese Army ordered about 12,000 American and 63,000 Filipino captives to march from Mariveles in the southern end of the Bataan Peninsula to Camp O’Donnell in the north. The prisoners with little food and no water marched 55 miles from Mariveles to San Fernando, where they were jammed into boxcars and transported by train to Capas. From there, those surviving stumbled the last eight miles into the camp.
Emaciated, weak and starving, the prisoners tramped in a hot sun for five days battling thirst and the unspeakable brutality of their Japanese guards. Between 7,000 and 10,000 war prisoners were killed en route.
When the Japanese invaded the Philippines on Dec. 8, 1941, Sister Cones lived on the U.S. Army base in Angeles, Pampanga, on the northern island of Luzon. Her Filipino father was serving as a U.S. Army captain and her mother, was a local dressmaker and designer. She had a younger sister and a brother.
The base – later renamed Clark Air Force Base ‒ was under attack from the war’s beginning. When the Japanese captured the base, Sister Cones watched her father escape through a window and hide in a haystack as Japanese soldiers came searching. Had they found him, he likely would have been killed, she said.
Her mother bravely led her children from the base to search for her husband, an odyssey that would take years without a guarantee of finding him alive. They slept in the streets, abandoned homes, caves and in hollowed trees, trying to avoid the patrols and air strafing. Eventually, the family made their way down the peninsula to where she encountered the starving American soldier.
During the trek, they kept in contact with an “underground” network trying to find her father and others. The horrors of war were close: occasional battles, truckloads of the dead to be buried and random skulls of people killed. They learned that their uncle, a Philippine Army officer, was captured by the Japanese and buried alive.
Finally, after nearly four years of searching for her father, Sister Cones’ family was reunited.
After his escape, her father had eventually worked as a janitor at a Japanese military headquarters and became an informant for the Allies. Through the underground he found his family.
Once U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur made good his promise to return and liberate the Philippines, Sister Cones and her family lived with her grandfather in central Luzon. In 1957, Sister Cones’ father immigrated to Pacifica, Calif. Part of the growing family
joined him three years later, but Sister Cones, who was finishing dentistry studies in Manila, didn’t arrive until 1962.
For the next four years, she worked in San Francisco as a medical assistant and with a poverty program that ministered to alcoholics and drug addicts. The example of a Sister of Mercy there generated an interest in religious life.
She completed her formation, postulancy and novitiate year in Buffalo, New York, and in 1968, she professed her vows in her native land of the Philippines.
She became a licensed dentist and went on to be a supervisor of a small-town family clinic. She returned to the U.S. in the early ’80s and at her father’s request became a U.S. citizen in 1985. She worked as a dental assistant and nurse in New York. Today, she volunteers in the Alzheimer’s Respite Program in Buffalo and in pastoral care at Mercy Hospital.
The experience of war forever shaped her. Her compassion continues and she prays for the soldier to whom she shared the morsel of bread.
“You can find Mercy in darkness,” she said recalling her difficult early years. “It is the light that gives us hope. God can make light from darkness and bring about peace from war.”