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Blue Springs man lives with memories of death march

Monday, June 2, 2003

INDEPENDENCE, Mo. -- Harold Costigan lives in a world with no sound and little light -- where the memory of his last clear senses is filled with the faces of hungry and dying soldiers.

Costigan, 86, of Blue Springs, is a World War II veteran and a survivor of the Bataan Death March and the Japanese prison camps in the Philippines. He lost his hearing and most of his sight from disease during his 34 months of imprisonment. He lives daily with the memories of some 8,000 American servicemen who died in the camps.

"I think often of my commanding officer, Col. Miller, and the men who were with me," Costigan said. He speaks quickly, in a loud voice. His hearing impairment requires that he read questions off a large marker board.

Costigan was born in Grain Valley in 1916 and graduated from high school there in 1934.

Costigan and his wife, Merle, both attended the University of Missouri, where Costigan earned a degree in agriculture and was an officer in the ROTC. They married in August 1941, eleven days before Costigan left for active duty with the U.S. Army, 194th Tank Battalion, and was sent to the Philippines.

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, they also launched an assault on Clark Air Force base in the Philippines. It was followed by a massive ground invasion that forced the American troops to fall back to the Bataan Peninsula. The battle raged for months with American troops cut off from supplies and reinforcements.

"We were surrendered by Gen. King on April 9, 1942. Approximately 8,000 Americans were surrendered that day. That was Bataan," Costigan said. "Never doubt that what Gen. King did saved the lives of us men."

60 miles

Many did not survive. Of the 12,000 men surrendered or captured on Bataan, fully two-thirds lost their lives. The others lived in a state of desperate privation for almost three years.

"The first 10 days, we marched the road to the first prison camp. Many men died along the way. That was the death march," Costigan said. "It was 60 miles."

In the camps, men were crowded in like cattle. There was no sanitation, little water and practically nothing to eat.

"Food. Our lives revolved around food," Costigan said. "Meals were twice a day. We got a cup of rice and a serving of King Kong; that's a weed that grows wild in the slums of Manila. We never tired of rice."

On Feb. 4, 1945, Costigan's imprisonment was suddenly over. American troops liberated the camps and prisons all over the Philippines with no resistance.

The Japanese "stayed with us till the day before the troops came. We were scared then because we thought they might kill half of us, but they didn't take it out on us," Costigan said.

He was free from prison but not from the devastation of the ordeal. Costigan weighed only 100 pounds -- a far cry from the 190-pound, former high school quarterback who left home three years before. He spent almost two years in hospitals around the United States, with Merle at his side, before he was discharged on disability in 1947.

Though his life would never be the same, Costigan refused to change his plans. He and Merle bought a farm in Maryville, Mo., and later in Oak Grove, which he worked. In the 1950s, Costigan became involved with the Missouri Bureau of the Blind. He began teaching farm skills to vision-impaired students.

"I always felt I should help him do anything he wanted. You just do what you have to," Merle said of adjusting to her husband's condition. "We have lots of friends and family who helped us, always."

Costigan returned to college in 1960, earning a master's degree in rehabilitation counseling. Merle also returned to school for her master's in education. The couple followed job opportunities to Ohio and Minnesota but returned home to retire and work the farm in 1969.


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