Community & Public Service
John Albert Crago was born on April 3, 1921 in Huntington. He attended Lancaster High School, graduating in 1940. He enlisted with the United States Army in 1941, training in tank maintenance and repair at Fort Knox in Kentucky with the 19th Ordnance Battalion.
In September of 1941, the Crago was with the 17th Ordnance Company that was sent to the Philippines. Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, drew the United States into World War II, and Crago soon found himself in combat. He was involved in the Battle of Luzon at the end of 1941, and the Battle of Bataan during the first three months of 1942.
With their supplies running out, the Americans and Filipinos surrendered to the Japanese in April, a contingent of 75,000 soldiers, including 12,000 Americans. Crago was among those captured and forced-marched on foot to the prisoner of war facility, Camp O’Donnell, a harrowing journey later known as the Bataan Death March.
Crago’s time as a prisoner of war was brutal, beginning with the infamous march through the heat of the jungle. For three days and three nights he was led on foot with other prisoners, and given no food or water. There was no stopping. Anyone prisoner who stopped was killed.
A dazed Crago recalled little of the march, but credited his survival to three things: his shorter stature — as he was five feet, eight inches tall; the sugar cane he managed to swipe from alongside the path that he hid in his shirt and gave him at least a bit of energy; and being toward the front of the mass of POWs, which meant he had a march of three days versus an ordeal of up to 10 days for those at the back of the line. Still, he was delirious by the end of the march, and many men who marched alongside him at the front of the line did not make it through the tortuous three days. An estimated 1,000 American soldiers died on the march.
Those who survived were loaded into train cars that previously transported sugar cane. The cars could normally fit 40 men, but 100 were crammed into each one. The cars were so tightly packed with soldiers that the bodies of those who died during this stage could not even fall to the ground until the train arrived at its destination and those still alive exited the cars. The prisoners were then marched another 10 days on foot before arriving at Camp O’Donnell.
Crago spent four years in Japanese prison camps. Life in the camps was filthy and inhumane; the men were not allowed any extra clothing, and were not allowed to wash themselves or the clothing they had. There was one water spigot for the thousands of prisoners in the camp to use, which meant men sometimes waited in line for up to eight hours just for a sip of water. Medicine brought in for the prisoners was often confiscated by the Japanese and used for themselves, so diseases like malaria and dysentery ran unchecked throughout the camp.
The Japanese also used any excuse they could as a reason to kill prisoners: they had what was known as the “Blood Brother” rule, where if one soldier in a group of 10 tried to escape, the nine others would also be killed. This brutal rule meant the soldiers self-policed themselves of escapees.
Crago was in three separate camps during his captivity. Camp O’Donnell and Camp Cabanatuan were both in the Philippines. In the brutal conditions, as many as 50 men died daily. There was little food, and Crago’s weight dropped from 140 pounds to just 95.
In 1944, he and hundreds of others were sent to the Omire Machi coal mine on the Japanese mainland, where he experienced one glimmer of hope during his time as a prisoner. He recalled his foreman at the mine was an elderly Japanese citizen who did not want the war any more than the prisoners did. The foreman would often bring salt, pepper, and other seasonings for their rice rations, shared his own lunch with the workers, and stood watch while the exhausted soldiers took naps throughout the day.
Crago was at the coal mine when the American POWs were liberated in September, 1945. When the soldiers had been freed, those who had been under the foreman brought him a wagon filled with food and clothing as thanks for his care during their time with him.
Crago arrived back in the United States in October of 1945, after 40 months as a captive. He was discharged from the Army four days before Christmas that year, his tour of duty finally complete. In 1947, he married Florence Walters, and they had four daughters.
Crago dedicated his life to his family and to the men with whom he served and was captured alongside. He served as the National Commander of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor from 1983-84. Due to injuries sustained in the war, Crago retired from the Dana Corporation in Marion at age 56. He died July 12, 2005.