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‘I didn’t think I would live this long’

Eddie Graham never expected to see this day.

Not after trudging more than 60 miles through the jungles of the Philippines at gunpoint in what became known as the Bataan Death March in World War II.

Or seeing fellow prisoners marched away, never to return. Or subsisting on a cup of rice a day, often less because he would sneak some of his portion to others in poor health.

Or digging a new trench every day to bury those who had died overnight, sometimes stacking the bodies four or five deep.

“No, I didn’t think I would live this long,” Graham said softly as he looked around at the large crowd gathered in north Wichita to celebrate his 100th birthday on Saturday. “But I’m still here. Somebody’s watching over me.”

Graham’s birthday is actually on Tuesday, but celebrating it on Saturday carried significance: it not only meant relatives could converge on Wichita from around the country, it was the same day Japan formally surrendered aboard the U.S.S. Missouri in 1945, ending World War II.

Barely more than 50 survivors of the Bataan Death March are still alive.

“When I was a kid, my aunt — Eddie’s wife — told us not to ask him questions because it would cause him to have nightmares at night,” said Wanda Graham, who lives in Portales, N.M. “So we never talked about it.”

Graham kept those horrific memories tucked away until he was into his 90s, when the brother of his caretaker talked him into speaking to a class at a Maize school. That brother is now the mayor of Wichita.

The memories have been trickling out since then, friends and relatives say.

He has never considered himself a hero. He credits his survival to faith and good fortune, friends and family say.

Mayor Jeff Longwell said he asked Graham where he found the strength to persevere during those dark days. Prayer, Graham told him.

One of the few personal items Graham was allowed to keep as a prisoner was his rosary. A devout Catholic, he prayed that rosary every day.

There are moments during his time as a prisoner of war for which there is no explanation, relatives said.

One was when the prisoners were separated into two long lines. Graham was in one line, but felt uneasy about it.

“He didn’t know why, but he felt like he needed to get into the other one,” said Janelle Longwell, the sister-in-law of his caretaker.

When the guards moved out of view, Graham slipped into the other line. The line of prisoners he had been in was marched into the jungle — and never returned.

One day in camp, Graham and a few other prisoners were given red ribbons, Wendy Graham said. Filled with another uneasy feeling, Graham hid the ribbon in the dirt when no one was looking.

He then darted over to the prisoners without ribbons. The prisoners with ribbons were never seen again.

After he was finally liberated, Graham returned to the U.S. and settled into civilian life. He married soon after the war and raised a family, working as a carpenter.

He has always laughed easily and forgiven quickly, relatives say. He harbored no bitterness toward his captors or the Japanese soldiers.

“They were just doing their job,” he told family.

He’s almost impossible to beat at cards and his mind is still sharp at 100, his sister-in-law Angie Graham said.

Graham is more than willing to go serve his country again if called, Longwell said, though he admits that at 100 he doesn’t move as fast as he once did.

“A few years ago, I asked him, ‘What’s the best thing that’s happened to you? What’s the best thing that you’ve experienced?’ ” Wendy Graham said. “And he said, ‘Life.’

“He realized that was the most valuable thing that he had.”

Stan Finger: 316-268-6437, @StanFinger

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