By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN
VISALIA – Cpl. Melvin Dority did not die in battle, but there were many times he may have wished he did. Dority was one of the few American soldiers to survive the Bataan Death March, a tortuous journey for Japanese prisoners of war on the Philippine island of Luzon during World War II. And while Dority died in 2001, the stories he shared with his daughter, Rosemary Hendrickson, were just as harrowing as she recalled them during the Memorial Day Services at the Visalia Public Cemetery on Monday.
“He was an integral part of what we know as the Greatest Generation,” Rosemary said.
Melvin Bernard Dority was born in Grangeville, Calif. west of Hanford in 1916. He volunteered to serve just months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was a bombardier specialist in the U.S. Army Air Corps in the Pacific Theatre of World War II. He was taken prisoner in April 1942 after U.S. Forces surrendered to the Imperial Japanese Army following the Battle of Bataan in the Philippine Islands. The 70-mile death march began at Mariveles on the Manilla Bay where about 75,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war marched the first leg to San Fernando.
Rosemary said because Japan had never signed off on the humane treatment of wounded or captured military personnel approved at the Geneva Convention in 1864, there were no rules when it came to handling prisoners of war.
“Thousands died in the heat, the weak who stumbled were shot, and those who did not stand erect enough were executed,” she said.
From San Fernando, POWs were loaded onto trains where the Japanese captors packed about 1,500 people into a space the size of a large living room enroute to Capas. Rosemary said POWs and Filipino civilians alike had to strip off their clothes to avoid heat stroke and suffocation. Those who died were removed from the cars, providing some relief for the living. Those who survived were rewarded with a 14-mile march from the Capas train station to the POW camp called Camp O’Donnell, where only 54,000 of the original 80,000 made it alive.
The trip for Corporal Dority didn’t end there. From the POW camp, he was loaded onto a “hell ship” where prisoners were not provided much food and water on an 18-day voyage to Japan. “He told me the only way to survive was by eating dead rats that fell from the rafters,” Rosemary said. Now it was the winter of 1944-45 and instead of weathering the humidity and heat, they began battling the bitter cold. One night, when he and four others were trying to find some semblance of normalcy by playing cards, they were caught by a camp sentry. In order to punish them, the Japanese soldier herded them to the edge of a frozen pond and forced them to strip naked and submerge themselves in the icy water. When they came up for air, they were struck on the head with the butt of a rifle.
“My father and another man didn’t even catch a cold,” Rosemary said. “The other three men died of pneumonia.”
While in Japan, Rosemary said her father was forced to use short handled tools to work the fields in a back breaking regimen. “He sustained life long injuries,” Rosemary said. “When I would get up in the middle of the night to get a glass of water, he would be laying in the middle of the living room because he couldn’t sleep comfortably in a bed.”
The POWs at the Japanese camp were released in 1945 after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After three and a half years in captivity, Rosemeary said her father had to spend another month in quarantine as he recovered from the mumps.
Despite enduring hell on Earth, Dority went on to live out his years in Visalia, where he worked for Bank of America.
Gold Star Family
Dority was one of two Stories of Service shared with the crowd gathered under the cemetery Pavilion. The first was told by Travis Verbeek, whose son Jared was killed in combat in 2011.
“Jared’s death hit home the fact that freedom is not free,” Travis said. “Knowing that my son died doing what he believed in is a huge honor.”
Jared Camerron Verbeek was born in 1989 while his father was stationed at Camp Pendleton in Southern California. He was a competitive overachiever who played multiple sports and obtained 23 merit badges in his first month in Boy Scouts. Travis said being the son of a former Marine, Jared was probably already considering military service but there was no doubt after he watched the planes crash into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
“He believed there was still black and white in the world,” Travis said. “He said if you were in the gray that you were playing a little in the black.”
Jared enlisted in the U.S. Marine Crops shortly after graduating from Mt. Whitney High School in 2008. He found himself back at Camp Pendelton where he met his wife, Vanessa. The two had a son Jacob in 2009. He was deployed to Afghanistan as a military police advisor on March 17, 2011. Three months later, Lance Corporal Verbeek was walking through an area where 13 other Marines had walked just before him when he stepped on an improvised explosive device (IED) during a patrol on June 21, 2011.
“He died a week before he was going to be promoted to corporal,” Travis said. “So they promoted him.”
Travis said he was working on his car in the garage when a Marine Corps captain, chaplain, and staff sergeant walked up to him to deliver the news about Jared. He still remembers catching himself against the fender of the car and later hearing the screams of his wife and daughter.
Memorial Day is difficult for the Verbeek family, but it also important. Travis said his family, including his daughter-in-law and grandson, meet every year to raise flag 1794 at the Visalia Cemetery’s Avenue of Flags. Each year, a different family member takes a turn raising the flag before the whole family observes a moment of silence. Travis and his wife wear the gold star, a symbol of parents who have lost a child in combat.
“I am part of a group of great honor, disticntion, and a lot of pain,” Travis said. “We are a Gold Star Family.”