World War II vet says simple item saved his life in Bataan Death March

World War II veteran Maurice Chartoff, 95, talks about how he survived the Bataan Death March on November 10, 2017.

World War II veteran Maurice Chartoff, 95, talks about how he survived the Bataan Death March on November 10, 2017.

WOODBRIDGE — At age 95, World War II veteran Maurice Chartoff quickly recalls the simple item that helped him survive the deadly 60-mile Bataan Death March during World War II: a can to fill with water along the way.

He shared his water with many, filling the can at artesian springs along the way and survived, only to then be put in a series of work camps as a Japanese prisoner of war for the next 3½ years.

“The death march and POW camp were both severe and deadly,” said Chartoff, who resides at Brookdale Woodbridge senior living community. “I survived in part because I had a can that held water.”

In his first assignment after the march, Chartoff was placed on a hazardous road building assignment that most did not survive and led to his hospitalization before going on to the next camp. He was sick, weak, working in the hot sun with little water and food, which consisted mainly of rice.

Of 325 men on that road job, only 50 survived and Chartoff was among them, said his daughter-in-law, Karen Chartoff.

His time in the military started in 1941 when, after a year at the University of Vermont — he grew up in Bennington — Chartoff decided to enlist in the U.S. Army because he didn’t have enough money to attend a second year.

He was 20 and figured he’d get an education in the military.

“I didn’t think it was this way,” he said of what would ultimately happen during his time of service. He was trained as a radio operator.

He was based in Manila, Philippines, when World War II broke out and when the Japanese took the capital city, Chartoff was captured with his unit in Bataan.

He was forced into the 60-mile march, in which the Japanese transferred American and Filipino POWs between prison camps. The march took the lives of 3,000 others.

Chartoff, a soft-spoken man, said they took away his watch, water, food, suitcase and helmet for the walk, which during the day was in hot sun.

Someone gave him the can along the way and he filled it with water and what little food they got, sharing with others.

He also volunteered during the walk to help bury bodies of those who couldn’t make it. Many soldiers who stumbled or fell during the death march were shot or bayonetted, he said.

For some reason, they let him keep that can, Chartoff said.

Rife with severe physical abuse and killings, the Bataan Death March was later judged to be a Japanese war crime, according to a press release sent to the Register on his (Chartoff’s) behalf.

The camps he was held at include O’Donnell, Billibid Prison in Manila, Cabanatuan Camp No. 1. Then, in 1944 until liberation, he was moved to a camp in Japan.

In testimony he gave to the United States War Crimes Office in 1946, Chartoff spoke of American prisoners, including himself, being slapped, hit, mistreated and in some cases, severely beaten.

They were made to work even when sick or in a weakened state and he recalled a work party being sent out in a typhoon.

His testimony showed the cruelties in detail.

“Until July, 1945 we ran to the train whenever an air raid alarm sounded. Many prisoners were beaten for not running fast enough…” he told the interviewer.

He also told them that in July 1945 they continued working even with American planes overhead and anti-aircraft being fired at them.

“We were allowed to go to the shelter only after bombs had fallen,” he told the war crimes interviewer, noting an occasion when one POW was killed and another lost his arm.

He testified: “We were only given three rest days a month and on these days we were not allowed to rest until the middle of the afternoon and not then if we desired to be issued clothing or turn clothing in for repair.”

Chartoff spent about 3½ years in captivity until he was liberated at the end of the war, when at 6’ tall, he weighed about 95 pounds.

Chartoff said he felt exhilarated upon being liberated in 1945 and he climbed an electric factory with smoke stacks across from the camp as food and beverages were dropped from a military plane.

After returning from the war, he graduated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1950 and became an electrical engineer.

Although the service wasn’t what he expected at 20, Chartoff said it was worth it to get that education.

“It allowed me to get an education at MIT,” he said.

His son, Dr. Stan Chartoff, for 27 years a reservist in the U.S. Air Force, said his dad didn’t talk about his war experiences while he was growing up.

“It’s a amazing what these World War II vets have been through,” said Stan Chartoff, who has been deployed many times, including to Saudi Arabia, Germany and Afghanistan.

Karen Chartoff, Stan’s wife, said that World War II group of veterans didn’t tend to talk about their service upon returning — they just got back to life.

Maurice Chartoff settled in New Jersey with his now late wife, Doris, and he came to Woodbridge so he could be close to his son and daughter-in-law.

Monica Giuliano, activities coordinator at Brookdale, said she was touched during the dedication of a veteran’s wall at the facility when another veteran announced to the audience that while it was nice to have a wall, it was even better to have a “hero” in their midst, referring to Maurice Chartoff, who received applause.

Chartoff said he doesn’t consider himself a hero at all. He said he was given two guns, which he would never use and also, he said, he was never shot at by someone else.