- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
One rainy night at Cabanatuan, as one of these American guards took a leak, three prisoners, American officers freshly arrived from Corregidor and apparently unaware of the rules, made a run for it. The American guard spotted them and ordered them to halt. In the ensuing commotion Tonelli brought down one of the officers with a tackle worthy of his days in South Bend. As the officers tried to pull rank, the Japanese arrived to sort out the commotion. They beat the three would-be escapees, confining them without food or water until sundown the following day. Then they took them out to be shot.
In the fall of 1942 Tonelli was among 1,000 men shipped from Cabanatuan to a prison farm on the big island of Mindanao, at the southern end of the Philippine archipelago, to grow food for the Imperial Army. "You not here to lazy!" shouted the major in charge upon their arrival. For some reason—its remoteness from the administrative center of Luzon, or the luck of drawing a Japanese commandant who realized that men couldn't work productively on starvation rations—life here was more tolerable. For their first several mondis the prisoners ate fish, bananas and papayas with their lugao. But over Tonelli's time there conditions became progressively harsher, deteriorating after every successful escape, including the flight of former Tennessee tackle Austin Shofner, who escaped with 11 others in 1943. Tonelli planted and harvested rice, barefoot, from before sunup until after dark. In the paddies, waist-deep in mud, he contracted schistosomiasis from a parasite in his digestive system, which doubled him over with intestinal pain. The Japanese now doled out rice in two sizes, reserving a smaller scoop for those prisoners unable to work. It became known as the Death Dipper.
By now the war in the Pacific had turned. MacArthur had begun his island-hopping, pushing north toward the Philippines, well on the way to fulfilling his promise to return. Determined that POWs not be freed only to take up arms again and committed to an ever more desperate war effort, the Japanese shipped thousands of captives back to the Home Islands and occupied Manchuria, to labor in factories and mines. The men made the passage under horrifying conditions, in unmarked ships over the perilous seas north and west of the Philippines that the Allies now ruled.
On July 1, 1944, Tonelli and 1,000 other prisoners pressed into the blackness of the forward hold of the Canadian Inventor, a captured merchant vessel. They sprawled on top of one another, over a tarp covering a shipment of salt. Down came the benjo bucket, the commode. Up it went filled with feces and urine. Back came the same bucket with lugao or brackish water. Tormented by the foul air and close quarters, prisoners flirted with madness. For two weeks the ship simply sat in the port of Manila, the men stewing in the hold. Once the Canadian Inventor finally embarked, on what they would call "the summer cruise," a typhoon came up and tossed the boat for five days. Yet the return of calm seas only made the ship an easier mark for the Allies, who were unaware that it carried their comrades—and if a torpedo came close to the ship, the crew would heap further abuse upon the prisoners. Tonelli had long since been saying that those who died were the lucky ones.
By the time the Canadian Inventor finally reached the Japanese port of Moji, it had spent 62 days at sea, longer than any of the more than a dozen of these hellships. Its passengers were comparatively lucky. Only one man died during the passage. (At least five other hellships were sunk, and on most of those vessels that did make it, scores died.) But many of the men who accompanied Tonelli to his first stop in Japan, a work camp near Yokkaichi, were so weakened by the journey that death came within a few months.
The following June, transferred to a plant near Toyama that smelted scrap metal into ingots, Tonelli encountered his first sign of hope since Bataan. At Chicago's DePaul Academy and at Notre Dame he had worn the same number. It had graced all but one of his subsequent jerseys—when he played in the 1938 College All-Star Game in his hometown; for the Steamrollers the following fall; and for the Cardinals before enlisting. Here prison officials handed Tonelli that very number, 58, on a small patch of cloth to be sewn to his cap. He believed it was a sign that he was destined to survive.
The rest of that summer he nursed those hopes. Throughout the night of Aug. 1, 1945, as prisoners dived into foxholes, B-29s flew over Toyama, dropping firebombs. Two weeks later, without explanation, the men were told to quit at noon. They soon learned that the U.S. had dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Days later B-17s appeared over their camp, passing low, and Tonelli watched soldiers kick 55-gallon drums on parachutes from the planes—drums full of K rations and chocolate and condensed milk, and magazines that told of extraordinary events: Roosevelt, dead; Truman, president; new men with strange names, like Eisenhower and Nimitz, who had squeezed the Axis powers on both sides of the globe. On Aug. 27, after 1,236 days in captivity, Tonelli was a free man. He weighed less than 100 pounds.
Throughout, he had heeded the words of that Japanese alumnus of Southern Cal and kept his Notre Dame ring squirreled away. Looking at the ring, he was transported back to the Grotto on campus; to Father John O'Hara, the future cardinal, who had counseled him on the steps of the administration building when homesickness struck freshman year; to the kindnesses of his mother and father, as well as nuns and priests, teachers and coaches. And it repeatedly suggested the question: Why had that lieutenant given it back to him, when all around them the Japanese were bayoneting men, and chopping their heads off, and running them over with tanks?
If you accept, as Tonelli did, that the ring sustained him, then that run against Southern Cal had allowed him, through the grace of a man who knew of it, to continue to draw from some talismanic power. In a sense Tonelli had, on a long ago November afternoon, run for his life.