Bataan Death March veteran legacy marches on through ISR Airmen

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FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. (AFNS) —
The year is 1942, and Pfc. Francis Michael Bania of the 10th Signal Service Detachment, and 75,000 other U.S. and Filipino servicemen, marched for several days, about 65 miles, to prison camps in the Philippines. During his grueling journey, Bania had no idea that many years later an Airman would create a bond with his legacy, honoring him in the 75th Annual Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico.

It takes only a moment

Master Sgt. Jake Higginbotham, the 70th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing command chief, first learned about Bania on Facebook. In a group dedicated to those participating in the Bataan Memorial Death March, Higginbotham came across a post by one of Bania’s daughters, and he reached out to Kay Bania-Wells to express his gratitude for her father, and the family’s sacrifices.

Kay and her sister, Beth Bania, replied with excitement, because someone acknowledged their post and showed respect for the Bataan veterans.

“Just out of the blue, he saw my post,” Kay said. “He was willing to send me a few souvenirs from the march and we started talking more and more. It just got to the point that my sister and I felt it was important for us to send some of my dad’s memorabilia from being a POW (prisoner of war) to Jake [Higginbotham] to carry with him at the march.”

Within a week of their conversations, Higginbotham walked to his mailbox one morning and pulled out a small box. Inside was something he will remember for the rest of his life, he said.

“When I received the package from the Bania family, I knew what was inside was special,” Higginbotham said. “With my adrenaline surging, I carefully opened the package and saw the black ring box that contained two medals. One was his Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal 1941-1945 and the other was his American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor Medal. The last item in the package literally took my breath away. It was the sole item he was allowed to leave captivity with … it was his POW identification armband issued by his Japanese captors.”

The message was subtle but powerful which inspired Higginbotham to share Bania’s story with his Airmen. On March 19, 2017, Higginbotham and 19 Airmen from the 70th ISRW will honor Francis and his family at the Bataan Memorial Death March. With them, a piece of Pfc. Francis Bania: the two medals and armband.

“I was overwhelmed with sadness, pride, patriotism and faith in the human spirit. I still can’t believe they sent me those precious items,” Higginbotham said Higginbotham. “They are priceless and until returned, I will protect them as if they were my father’s.”

To understand the impact his story has created among these Airmen, a person must know the journey Bania took, Higginbotham said.

His will, his legacy

The young Bania, a Detroit native, was only 19 when he enlisted in the Army.

“He joined the Army right out of high school, in 1939, and was in the Signal Corps,” his daughter, Beth, recalled. “He made a lot of really good friends there, and they all ended up being in Bataan when Pearl Harbor was bombed.”

On April 9, 1942, Bania was one of thousands who were taken by the Japanese and forced to march the route known today as the Bataan Death March, Beth said.

“After the 65-mile march in the heat in the Philippines, they were forced into metal box cars and taken in the box cars, literally shoulder to shoulder,” Kay said.

Bania spent the next three years in Camp O’Donnell, Cabanatuan, Las Piñas and Bilibid imprisonment camps, where he was beaten, bruised and malnourished, and worked as a slave, day in and day out, she said. During his imprisonment, he endured fractured kneecaps, a fractured fibula, a fractured skull and severe disease due to malnutrition and parasites over the course of his 1,257-day captivity.

Bania’s captors kept up with the thousands of prisoners by giving them a numbered burlap armband, which he, then his daughters, kept all these years.

In 1944, Bania’s journey took a turn when he was forced aboard a ship, the Oryoku Maru, also known as one of the ‘Hellships.’ Soon after boarding, the ship was targeted by American aircraft and naval vessels, not knowing the POWs were aboard, Kay said. He was one of only eight who survived the ship sinking. He was sent onto another ship, but that one was bombed as well, she said.

The war-torn and battered Soldier was released by his captors on Sept. 15, 1945, in Nagasaki, Japan, only 40 days after witnessing the second atomic bomb. Despite everything he endured, he chose to re-enlist in the Army and was eventually medically retired as a master sergeant in 1947. Bania continued federal service, working 36 years for the U.S. Postal Service.

The stories of Bania’s experiences and the events he endured flourish now, but that was not always the case. His daughters said he rarely spoke of the experience, but they do recall going on family vacations to a resort where Bataan survivors would meet annually. It was from the stories and books the survivors and others wrote that Kay and Beth were able to piece together their father’s memories and to better understand his behavior after the war and throughout the rest of his life.

After the war, Kay said her father was still shaken, as any former POW would be.

“He would lose his voice for months and not be able to speak, just because that was his brain’s way of shutting down, not being able to talk about what happened to him,” she said. “But, he still worked full time at the post office, and he was a clerk. He was there for 36 years.”

Sadly, Bania passed away Feb. 17, 1985, but his legacy continues to touch lives, and stories of him continue to be shared.

Beth and Kay said their father was a driven man who loved his country so much that he fought, not just to retire, but to serve his country. “He would’ve crawled back if they let him,” Beth said jokingly.

The daughters expressed their gratitude for the men and women of the 70th ISRW who will be honoring their father at the memorial march.

They recognize the Airmen are not doing this just because it’s a long march and a marathon, Kay said. “They’re doing this for the men who survived, and the men who didn’t survive, and the sacrifice they made.”

“To realize that’s their motivation for that march is just overwhelming to us. I thought most of them did it for the physical marathon, but no,” she said, “I’ve come to realize that’s not why they are doing it. They’re doing it because they appreciate the ones who’ve come before them. We certainly appreciate them.”