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TONELLI'S RUN
Alexander Wolff
January 27, 2003
Trapped in a hell where the bravest thing a man could do was to just stay alive, Motts Tonelli clung to hope—and his Notre Dame class ring
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January 27, 2003

Tonelli's Run

Trapped in a hell where the bravest thing a man could do was to just stay alive, Motts Tonelli clung to hope—and his Notre Dame class ring

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As the prisoners began their march, Japanese soldiers heady with sudden power presided over long columns of captives. Many lashed out at the enemy that had eluded them for so long. "Speedo!" the guards shouted, enforcing a pace sadistic for men in such condition. Lag behind, and the straggler might be set upon by buzzard squads who would disembowel him with sword or bayonet, perhaps leaving his penis in his mouth. March off the road or stray from his column, and the marcher might be kicked, clubbed, jabbed with bayonets or simply run over by Japanese troop convoys headed south. Filipino civilians along the route who tried to offer sustenance met much the same fate. For meals the prisoners were lucky to receive a spoonful of lugao, a gruel of rice. But the cruelest treatment of all was to be ordered to stand, in the high hours of the Philippines' hottest and driest month, alongside a bubbling artesian spring, knowing that to take a drink would ensure decapitation. At night Tonelli would lay his uniform on the grass to catch the dew, then wring out a few precious drops in the morning.

Japanese troops confiscated the prisoners' money and watches and pens, but particularly their gold: fillings pulled on the spot from mouths with pliers; West Point rings taken from officers by slicing off fingers. Thus, on the first day of the march, did Tonelli's Notre Dame ring attract the attention of a Japanese soldier.

Tonelli balked.

The soldier raised his sword, and another prisoner blurted out: "It's not worth dying for."

Tonelli handed over the ring, then watched as the enlisted man took it to a lieutenant. The officer, he figured, was getting men to shake down prisoners on his behalf.

Moments later the lieutenant approached Tonelli and addressed him in flawless English—better English than I speak, Tonelli would later think to himself. "Frisco Nips," the GIs would come to call these Japanese, some of whom had been educated in the U.S., usually on the West Coast.

"Did one of my men take something from you?"

"He took my Notre Dame ring."

"Is this it?""

"Yes, that's it."

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