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The bamboo poles groaned from the strain of bodies being hauled off for burial. The prisoners dug the common graves, each four feet deep, then stacked corpses five deep. They had stuffed dog tags into the mouths of the dead, in case Gen. Douglas MacArthur ever did return to the Philippines, now under the heel of the Japanese Imperial Army, and their comrades could be disinterred and given proper rites. In a POW camp decimated by starvation, disease and murder, the only consolation in serving on burial detail was the certainty that you were, for the moment at least, alive. ¶ Mario (Motts) Tonelli—once a Notre Dame fullback, now a survivor of the Bataan Death March, which had brought him finally to this grim duty—regularly performed a burial of another sort during his 41 months in captivity. Tonelli still had his Notre Dame class ring, a personalized gold band with a black onyx inset He usually kept it secreted in a tin soap case; sometimes he buried it in one of the small garden plots near the edge of camp; sometimes he had to slip the ring beneath his standard-issue prisoner G-string and into the most private recesses of his body.
To begin to understand why Tonelli guarded that ring so jealously, you must visit the sixth floor of Hesburgh Library on the Notre Dame campus. There, somewhere behind the blessing hands of Touchdown Jesus, which grace the south facade, is stored a Movietone newsreel from Tonelli's junior season in South Bend. It's November 1937. Notre Dame and Southern Cal are tied at six in the final minutes, with the Irish languishing at their own 17. You see the two lines clash, then you hear the jump in the narrator's voice. Tonelli, playing in place of an injured starter, takes a handoff on a fullback reverse and heads off left tackle. He cuts back to his right, a convoy of teammates alongside him, knees pumping high as he edges into the clear, that prow of a Roman nose unobstructed by a face mask. He covers 70 yards so suddenly that afterward he'd tell his coach, "No fooling, I don't remember that run."
A Trojans defensive back ran him down at the 13, but two plays later Tarzan Tonelli scored standing up, dragging a defender into the end zone, to give the Irish a 13-6 victory. "Tonelli's run was a honey" Notre Dame coach Elmer Layden said after the game. "They all jumped up around me when Motts broke jail, so that I didn't see him go down. I thought he was away."
Tonelli was an injured backup for most of his junior year, and played even less his senior season. But for a moment he was a Golden Dome hero. Upon graduation he played and coached for the semipro Providence Steamrollers, and then, in 1940, signed to play for the NFL's Chicago Cardinals. By that time the U.S. was preparing for war against Nazi Germany. With teammates and friends signing up, Tonelli decided at the end of the season to enlist before he could be drafted. A year and out—that's what Uncle Sam required and what Tonelli expected. In March 1941 he reported to Camp Wallace, Texas, carefree as a vacationer. "This is just like the first few days of spring practice," he told a reporter. "It's just about that time of year, too. I'll be able to use this stuff when I get a coaching job." By July he was at Fort Bliss, outside El Paso, assigned to the 200th Coast Artillery, an antiaircraft unit formed from the New Mexico National Guard. With its cowboys, rodeo riders, lumberjacks and miners, the regiment had a rapscallion spirit. Men made forays over the border into Juarez for a good time or a good fight, and commanders figured a Notre Dame man and erstwhile coach would add a dose of clean-living credibility to a unit that MacArthur affectionately came to call his "New Mexico horse thieves."
In October, shortly after he and his fiancée, Mary, were wed in Las Cruces, N.Mex., Tonelli headed for the Philippines, to Clark Field, on the main island of Luzon, near the capital. Heedless of the rumors of war coursing through the Pacific, the men of the 200th loosed themselves on Manila much as they had on Juarez.
On Dec. 8, 1941, with word of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Clark Field went on alert. But the morning remained quiet, and the men broke for lunch. Tonelli emerged from the mess shortly after 12:30 p.m. to see a swarm of planes advancing from the horizon. Unable to get to his three-inch gun, he fired a Springfield rifle futilely at swooping Zeros. By the time the Japanese planes had departed, most of what remained of American air power in the Pacific after Pearl Harbor lay twisted and smoldering on the ground. Soon after, Japanese troops landed on the island. MacArthur ordered a retreat into the hilly jungle of the Bataan peninsula, across the bay from Manila, in hopes of holding out until Navy ships could cross the ocean with provisions and reinforcements. But there was no longer a strong Pacific fleet; Dec. 7 had seen to that. And to the war counselors in Washington, the goal of defeating enemies in two theaters rested on a strategy of Get Hitler First. The brass kept sending word to MacArthur, and MacArthur kept relaying word to Bataan, that help was on the way. But within weeks of Pearl Harbor, Secretary of War Henry Stimson had privately conceded what Tonelli and his mates in the 200th gradually came to understand: "There are times when men have to die."
For five months a combined Filipino-American force exasperated the Japanese, despite half rations, outdated munitions and dwindling medical supplies to fight the diseases racing through their ranks. The Allies suffered from dysentery; from deficiency diseases like scurvy, beriberi and pellagra; and from tropical maladies such as dengue fever and malaria, which left Tonelli with chills and sweats. A UPI correspondent wrote the doggerel that the men quickly took as their own:
We're the battling bastards of Bataan
Gallant as the Fil-Am troops were, to watch the endgame as they were bottled up on Bataan was, as one of the emperor's officers put it, "like watching a cat go into a sack" after a mouse. On April 9,1942, their backs at the water's edge, Allied soldiers raised a dirty bedsheet and awaited the tender mercies of the Japanese Imperial Army.
There was no shame in their surrender. From his post in Australia, MacArthur pronounced that "no Army had done so much with so little." But to a Japanese soldier there was no greater humiliation than to be taken prisoner. Bushido, the warrior's code handed down from the samurai, regarded death as not just preferable to capitulation but heroic in itself, especially if it came by banzai charge or hara-kiri. Trained never to surrender, they were contemptuous of soldiers who had. Tonelli was among 78,000 Fil-Am soldiers now assembled in Mariveles, at the southern tip of Bataan; the Japanese hadn't foreseen capturing more than 25,000 Allied troops, much less men so wracked by hunger and disease. Gen. Masaharu Homma desperately wanted to move this mass of men north while his own troops surged in the opposite direction, along the same narrow road, to mount an assault on the sole remaining American position in the Philippines, the fortress island of Corregidor at the mouth of Manila Bay.