James Neton: John J. Wagner showed magnificent courage
While studying the moving story of John J. Wagner’s time serving on the Philippine Islands during World War II, I was forced into a new view of my own life. After reading about his suffering and tragic death all of us will come away with a realization that our own daily struggles can be conquered with a renewed willingness and dedication. Wagner was from Craig.
In December of 1941, the United States came face-to-face with a fanatical Japanese foe wedded to the corrupted ideas of the bushido code and emperor worship. As a technical sergeant trained in aviation repair, Wagner was part of the 24th Interceptor Pursuit Group based on Clark Airfield. A gregarious, somewhat rebellious, and fun-loving man; dating and living with a young Filipina woman (much to the dismay of his strict Nazarene parents) it was Wagner’s fate to experience the worst military defeat in U.S. history, survive the Bataan Death March and live almost three years as a POW.
On Dec. 8 Clark Airfield was decimated. Surviving the initial attack, Wagner melted into the jungle and found his way to the Bataan Peninsula to rejoin the U.S. troops, but he was captured in March of 1942. With no help forthcoming, 76,000 Filipino and U.S. forces surrendered en masse in April of 1942.
While the battle raged, Herbert and Cora Wagner back in Craig could only wait, hope and pray. In a January letter, while -30 F, Cora’s thoughts were focused on the muggy jungles of the Philippines. In a letter she reveals her all-consuming fear: “I’m wondering where and how you are. I do hope ok. I wonder every minute where you are and how you are.” After a church meeting Herbert wrote, “Had a fine time, and so many ask about you…” However, the letter was returned and the Wagner’s lost contact with their son. On March 29, they received joyous news that John was alive… but as a POW.
John faced the maniacal Bataan Death March. Moving a weakened, diseased and starving army inland to POW camps, the savagery of the Japanese took form as men were denied water and forced to sit in the brutal sun. As men lagged, they were brutally bayoneted, beheaded and shot.
In the book “Ghost Soldiers” by Hampton Sides, it is estimated that if the dead were spread equidistant along the length of the 75 mile march, there would have been a body every 20 yards. But Wagner survived.
For two and a half years the family had no knowledge of John. Finally in late 1944 he was able to send a few POW postcards that allowed him to generically circle the status of his health.
Several times John underlined that his health was “good.” But something was wrong. In each postcard he wrote, “Please check on my insurance.” It escaped the eyes of the Japanese and let his family know his health was failing.
By late 1944, U.S. planes were bombing Manila, and the POW’s could sense liberation was near. Weakened from forced labor, torture, malnutrition, sickness, and a daily mental battle to survive, Wagner finally succumbed to dysentery and beriberi. He died on Jan. 14, 1945. Twenty days later the Bilibid POW camp was liberated. All that suffering for the lack of just 20 days.
It is difficult to judge the extent of suffering and death, but surely Wagner’s trials were some of the most extreme in World War II. When you see his name on the new memorial being commissioned by the Museum of Northwest Colorado please remember his courage to persevere to the bitter end. John Wagner’s story can only inspire all of us to bring renewed purpose, vigor, and sacrifice to our own daily struggles.
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