The bamboo poles groaned from the strain of bodies being hauled
off for burial. The prisoners dug the common graves, each four
feet deep, then stacked corpses five deep. They had stuffed dog
tags into the mouths of the dead, in case Gen. Douglas MacArthur
ever did return to the Philippines, now under the heel of the
Japanese Imperial Army, and their comrades could be disinterred
and given proper rites. In a POW camp decimated by starvation,
disease and murder, the only consolation in serving on burial
detail was the certainty that you were, for the moment at least,
Mario (Motts) Tonelli--once a Notre Dame fullback, now a
survivor of the Bataan Death March, which had brought him
finally to this grim duty--regularly performed a burial of
another sort during his 41 months in captivity. Tonelli still
had his Notre Dame class ring, a personalized gold band with a
black onyx inset. He usually kept it secreted in a tin soap
case; sometimes he buried it in one of the small garden plots
near the edge of camp; sometimes he had to slip the ring beneath
his standard-issue prisoner G-string and into the most private
recesses of his body.
To begin to understand why Tonelli guarded that ring so
jealously, you must visit the sixth floor of Hesburgh Library on
the Notre Dame campus. There, somewhere behind the blessing hands
of Touchdown Jesus, which grace the south facade, is stored a
Movietone newsreel from Tonelli's junior season in South Bend.
It's November 1937. Notre Dame and Southern Cal are tied at six
in the final minutes, with the Irish languishing at their own 17.
You see the two lines clash, then you hear the jump in the
narrator's voice. Tonelli, playing in place of an injured
starter, takes a handoff on a fullback reverse and heads off left
tackle. He cuts back to his right, a convoy of teammates
alongside him, knees pumping high as he edges into the clear,
that prow of a Roman nose unobstructed by a face mask. He covers
70 yards so suddenly that afterward he'd tell his coach, "No
fooling, I don't remember that run."
A Trojans defensive back ran him down at the 13, but two plays
later Tarzan Tonelli scored standing up, dragging a defender into
the end zone, to give the Irish a 13--6 victory. "Tonelli's run
was a honey," Notre Dame coach Elmer Layden said after the game.
"They all jumped up around me when Motts broke jail, so that I
didn't see him go down. I thought he was away."
January 27, 2003
Tonelli was an injured backup for most of his junior year, and
played even less his senior season. But for a moment he was a
Golden Dome hero. Upon graduation he played and coached for the
semipro Providence Steamrollers, and then, in 1940, signed to
play for the NFL's Chicago Cardinals. By that time the U.S. was
preparing for war against Nazi Germany. With teammates and
friends signing up, Tonelli decided at the end of the season to
enlist before he could be drafted. A year and out--that's what
Uncle Sam required and what Tonelli expected. In March 1941 he
reported to Camp Wallace, Texas, carefree as a vacationer. "This
is just like the first few days of spring practice," he told a
reporter. "It's just about that time of year, too. I'll be able
to use this stuff when I get a coaching job." By July he was at
Fort Bliss, outside El Paso, assigned to the 200th Coast
Artillery, an antiaircraft unit formed from the New Mexico
National Guard. With its cowboys, rodeo riders, lumberjacks and
miners, the regiment had a rapscallion spirit. Men made forays
over the border into Juarez for a good time or a good fight, and
commanders figured a Notre Dame man and erstwhile coach would add
a dose of clean-living credibility to a unit that MacArthur
affectionately came to call his "New Mexico horse thieves."
In October, shortly after he and his fiancee, Mary, were wed in
Las Cruces, N.Mex.,Tonelli headed for the Philippines, to Clark
Field, on the main island of Luzon, near the capital. Heedless of
the rumors of war coursing through the Pacific, the men of the
200th loosed themselves on Manila much as they had on Juarez.
On Dec. 8, 1941, with word of the Japanese attack on Pearl
Harbor, Clark Field went on alert. But the morning remained
quiet, and the men broke for lunch. Tonelli emerged from the mess
shortly after 12:30 p.m. to see a swarm of planes advancing from
the horizon. Unable to get to his three-inch gun, he fired a
Springfield rifle futilely at swooping Zeros. By the time the
Japanese planes had departed, most of what remained of American
air power in the Pacific after Pearl Harbor lay twisted and
smoldering on the ground. Soon after, Japanese troops landed on
the island. MacArthur ordered a retreat into the hilly jungle of
the Bataan peninsula, across the bay from Manila, in hopes of
holding out until Navy ships could cross the ocean with
provisions and reinforcements. But there was no longer a strong
Pacific fleet; Dec. 7 had seen to that. And to the war counselors
in Washington, the goal of defeating enemies in two theaters
rested on a strategy of Get Hitler First. The brass kept sending
word to MacArthur, and MacArthur kept relaying word to Bataan,
that help was on the way. But within weeks of Pearl Harbor,
Secretary of War Henry Stimson had privately conceded what
Tonelli and his mates in the 200th gradually came to understand:
"There are times when men have to die."
For five months a combined Filipino-American force exasperated the
Japanese, despite half rations, outdated munitions and dwindling
medical supplies to fight the diseases racing through their
ranks. The Allies suffered from dysentery; from deficiency
diseases like scurvy, beriberi and pellagra; and from tropical
maladies such as dengue fever and malaria, which left Tonelli
with chills and sweats. A UPI correspondent wrote the doggerel
that the men quickly took as their own:
We're the battling bastards of Bataan
No mama, no papa, no Uncle Sam
No aunts, no uncles, no cousins, no nieces
No pills, no planes, no artillery pieces
And nobody gives a damn.
Gallant as the Fil-Am troops were, to watch the endgame as they
were bottled up on Bataan was, as one of the emperor's officers
put it, "like watching a cat go into a sack" after a mouse. On
April 9, 1942, their backs at the water's edge, Allied soldiers
raised a dirty bedsheet and awaited the tender mercies of the
Japanese Imperial Army.
There was no shame in their surrender. From his post in
Australia, MacArthur pronounced that "no Army had done so much
with so little." But to a Japanese soldier there was no greater
humiliation than to be taken prisoner. Bushido, the warrior's
code handed down from the samurai, regarded death as not just
preferable to capitulation but heroic in itself, especially if it
came by banzai charge or hara-kiri. Trained never to surrender,
they were contemptuous of soldiers who had. Tonelli was among
78,000 Fil-Am soldiers now assembled in Mariveles, at the
southern tip of Bataan; the Japanese hadn't foreseen capturing
more than 25,000 Allied troops, much less men so wracked by
hunger and disease. Gen. Masaharu Homma desperately wanted to
move this mass of men north while his own troops surged in the
opposite direction, along the same narrow road, to mount an
assault on the sole remaining American position in the
Philippines, the fortress island of Corregidor at the mouth of
As the prisoners began their march, Japanese soldiers heady with
sudden power presided over long columns of captives. Many lashed
out at the enemy that had eluded them for so long. "Speedo!" the
guards shouted, enforcing a pace sadistic for men in such
condition. Lag behind, and the straggler might be set upon by
buzzard squads who would disembowel him with sword or bayonet,
perhaps leaving his penis in his mouth. March off the road or
stray from his column, and the marcher might be kicked, clubbed,
jabbed with bayonets or simply run over by Japanese troop convoys
headed south. Filipino civilians along the route who tried to
offer sustenance met much the same fate. For meals the prisoners
were lucky to receive a spoonful of lugao, a gruel of rice. But
the cruelest treatment of all was to be ordered to stand, in the
high hours of the Philippines' hottest and driest month,
alongside a bubbling artesian spring, knowing that to take a
drink would ensure decapitation. At night Tonelli would lay his
uniform on the grass to catch the dew, then wring out a few
precious drops in the morning.
Japanese troops confiscated the prisoners' money and watches and
pens, but particularly their gold: fillings pulled on the spot
from mouths with pliers; West Point rings taken from officers by
slicing off fingers. Thus, on the first day of the march, did
Tonelli's Notre Dame ring attract the attention of a Japanese
The soldier raised his sword, and another prisoner blurted out:
"It's not worth dying for."
Tonelli handed over the ring, then watched as the enlisted man
took it to a lieutenant. The officer, he figured, was getting men
to shake down prisoners on his behalf.
Moments later the lieutenant approached Tonelli and addressed him
in flawless English--better English than I speak, Tonelli would
later think to himself. "Frisco Nips," the GIs would come to call
these Japanese, some of whom had been educated in the U.S.,
usually on the West Coast.
"Did one of my men take something from you?"
"He took my Notre Dame ring."
"Is this it?"
"Yes, that's it."
"I'm giving it back to you. But you'd better hide it, or you'll
run into the same problem again."
Tonelli thanked the lieutenant, who mentioned that he had
attended Southern Cal. The lieutenant somehow realized who
Tonelli was and brought up the 1937 Notre Dame--Southern Cal game
and Tonelli's role in it.
Amidst the horrors unfolding around him, the encounter would take
on the quality of deus ex machina. That same day Tonelli saw the
head of an American soldier on a bamboo pole, its eyes, nose,
ears and mouth swarming with blowflies.
The hike, the GIs called it. Only later, when its sanguinary
particulars emerged, did the public know it as the Bataan Death
March. Historians can venture only a guess, but it's believed
that of the roughly 12,000 Americans to set out, as many as 700
died or were killed en route. The death rate for the 66,000 or so
Filipinos was even higher. All told, one man perished for every
It took Tonelli seven days to cover the nearly 60 miles from
Mariveles to San Fernando. There guards packed the prisoners, 100
at a time, into steel railroad cars, virtual kilns in the
tropical heat. Of the moaning, defecating, suffocating men,
dozens expired during the several hours it took the train to
rattle the 25 miles to Capas. The survivors were marched eight
more miles to a converted Philippine army training ground called
O'Donnell was filled up with five times the number of men it was
designed to hold. Only two water spigots worked, and both only
fitfully because the Allies had done their best to wreck the camp
before their retreat months earlier. The barracks were seedbeds
for disease; Tonelli would come down with scurvy and beriberi in
addition to the malaria that still afflicted him. Over a straddle
trench that served as a latrine, he was forced to do pushups
until he collapsed, exhausted, into it. It was at O'Donnell that
the Japanese introduced a new grotesquerie, the "water cure," in
which water from a hose was forced down a man's throat or up his
At O'Donnell the death rate for the Americans more than doubled;
one of every six prisoners there died. By the middle of May the
POWs were burying 30 comrades a day. It was during the Bataan
campaign that an Army chaplain named William Cummings came up
with the saying, "There are no atheists in foxholes." At night,
in the loneliness of the barracks, Tonelli came to know its
After about seven weeks the Japanese evacuated O'Donnell, moving
its Americans to a camp to the northeast, at Cabanatuan. There
2,500 men expired over the next six months, 740 in June alone. A
diphtheria epidemic alarmed the Japanese into finally permitting
rudimentary medical treatment. But the death rate stabilized
largely because death itself had culled the ranks, reducing the
population to a sustainable level.
How had football prepared a man to survive this? Tonelli enlisted
in crack condition, annealed by the rigors of his years at Notre
Dame. More than 30 former college ballplayers participated in the
Death March, and 12 survived, including ex--Texas star Kearie
Berry, who was 48 when he was captured, and former Penn State
halfback Elgin Radcliff, who later escaped and today lives in
York, Pa. But it would be a stretch to assert that playing
football had made these men survivors. At first, men pulled
together much as teammates would, into mutual-protection groups
based on nationality, geography or regiment. And while the 200th
was as clannish as any for as long as it could be, eventually a
prisoner wondered if, beyond a point, cooperation brought
diminishing returns and a man shouldn't just look out for
Everyone was under orders from the American commandant not to
escape, and here lay one of the psychological cruelties of the
Japanese captivity: It pit an individual's yearning to be free
against the group's interest in working together to survive. The
Geneva Convention recognizes the duty of a captured soldier to
try to escape and forbids reprisals. (Japan had signed the Geneva
Convention but never ratified it.) Yet the Japanese grouped
prisoners into 10-man teams--blood brothers, the POWs called
them--making clear that the escape or even attempted escape of
one would ensure the execution of the others. Still, a prisoner
crazed with malaria might make a run for it anyway; or the
guards, laying food in plain sight just outside the fence, might
lure an addled captive under the barbed wire, only to dispatch
him by bayonet. So the Americans detailed their own guards inside
the fence, to make sure that neither Tonelli nor anyone else
would break this jail.
One rainy night at Cabanatuan, as one of these American guards
took a leak, three prisoners, American officers freshly arrived
from Corregidor and apparently unaware of the rules, made a run
for it. The American guard spotted them and ordered them to halt.
In the ensuing commotion Tonelli brought down one of the officers
with a tackle worthy of his days in South Bend. As the officers
tried to pull rank, the Japanese arrived to sort out the
commotion. They beat the three would-be escapees, confining them
without food or water until sundown the following day. Then they
took them out to be shot.
In the fall of 1942 Tonelli was among 1,000 men shipped from
Cabanatuan to a prison farm on the big island of Mindanao, at the
southern end of the Philippine archipelago, to grow food for the
Imperial Army. "You not here to lazy!" shouted the major in
charge upon their arrival. For some reason--its remoteness from
the administrative center of Luzon, or the luck of drawing a
Japanese commandant who realized that men couldn't work
productively on starvation rations--life here was more tolerable.
For their first several months the prisoners ate fish, bananas
and papayas with their lugao. But over Tonelli's time there
conditions became progressively harsher, deteriorating after
every successful escape, including the flight of former Tennessee
tackle Austin Shofner, who escaped with 11 others in 1943.
Tonelli planted and harvested rice, barefoot, from before sunup
until after dark. In the paddies, waist-deep in mud, he
contracted schistosomiasis from a parasite in his digestive
system, which doubled him over with intestinal pain. The Japanese
now doled out rice in two sizes, reserving a smaller scoop for
those prisoners unable to work. It became known as the Death
By now the war in the Pacific had turned. MacArthur had begun his
island-hopping, pushing north toward the Philippines, well on the
way to fulfilling his promise to return. Determined that POWs not
be freed only to take up arms again and committed to an ever more
desperate war effort, the Japanese shipped thousands of captives
back to the Home Islands and occupied Manchuria, to labor in
factories and mines. The men made the passage under horrifying
conditions, in unmarked ships over the perilous seas north and
west of the Philippines that the Allies now ruled.
On July 1, 1944, Tonelli and 1,000 other prisoners pressed into
the blackness of the forward hold of the Canadian Inventor, a
captured merchant vessel. They sprawled on top of one another,
over a tarp covering a shipment of salt. Down came the benjo
bucket, the commode. Up it went filled with feces and urine. Back
came the same bucket with lugao or brackish water. Tormented by
the foul air and close quarters, prisoners flirted with madness.
For two weeks the ship simply sat in the port of Manila, the men
stewing in the hold. Once the Canadian Inventor finally embarked,
on what they would call "the summer cruise," a typhoon came up
and tossed the boat for five days. Yet the return of calm seas
only made the ship an easier mark for the Allies, who were
unaware that it carried their comrades--and if a torpedo came
close to the ship, the crew would heap further abuse upon the
prisoners. Tonelli had long since been saying that those who died
were the lucky ones.
By the time the Canadian Inventor finally reached the Japanese
port of Moji, it had spent 62 days at sea, longer than any of the
more than a dozen of these hellships. Its passengers were
comparatively lucky. Only one man died during the passage. (At
least five other hellships were sunk, and on most of those
vessels that did make it, scores died.) But many of the men who
accompanied Tonelli to his first stop in Japan, a work camp near
Yokkaichi, were so weakened by the journey that death came within
a few months.
The following June, transferred to a plant near Toyama that
smelted scrap metal into ingots, Tonelli encountered his first
sign of hope since Bataan. At Chicago's DePaul Academy and at
Notre Dame he had worn the same number. It had graced all but one
of his subsequent jerseys--when he played in the 1938 College
AllStar Game in his hometown; for the Steamrollers the following
fall; and for the Cardinals before enlisting. Here prison
officials handed Tonelli that very number, 58, on a small patch
of cloth to be sewn to his cap. He believed it was a sign that he
was destined to survive.
The rest of that summer he nursed those hopes. Throughout the
night of Aug. 1, 1945, as prisoners dived into foxholes, B29s
flew over Toyama, dropping firebombs. Two weeks later, without
explanation, the men were told to quit at noon. They soon learned
that the U.S. had dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Days later B-17s appeared over their camp, passing low, and
Tonelli watched soldiers kick 55-gallon drums on parachutes from
the planes--drums full of K rations and chocolate and condensed
milk, and magazines that told of extraordinary events: Roosevelt,
dead; Truman, president; new men with strange names, like
Eisenhower and Nimitz, who had squeezed the Axis powers on both
sides of the globe. On Aug. 27, after 1,236 days in captivity,
Tonelli was a free man. He weighed less than 100 pounds.
Throughout, he had heeded the words of that Japanese alumnus of
Southern Cal and kept his Notre Dame ring squirreled away.
Looking at the ring, he was transported back to the Grotto on
campus; to Father John O'Hara, the future cardinal, who had
counseled him on the steps of the administration building when
homesickness struck freshman year; to the kindnesses of his
mother and father, as well as nuns and priests, teachers and
coaches. And it repeatedly suggested the question: Why had that
lieutenant given it back to him, when all around them the
Japanese were bayoneting men, and chopping their heads off, and
running them over with tanks?
If you accept, as Tonelli did, that the ring sustained him, then
that run against Southern Cal had allowed him, through the grace
of a man who knew of it, to continue to draw from some talismanic
power. In a sense Tonelli had, on a long ago November afternoon,
run for his life.
Slightly more than one in every three men captured on Bataan
returned home. But few did so to recognition of their peculiar
ordeal. In the flush of V-J Day, Americans yearned for their
antebellum status quo.
In just such a spirit Cardinals owner Charley Bidwill asked
Tonelli, home not even a month, to rejoin the team. It was a
publicity stunt, but one in which all parties eagerly conspired.
War hero Tonelli, The Chicago Sun declared, had been "nursed back
to full strength and health." Tonelli played along. "My weight is
back up to 183 pounds," he told the papers, though he weighed
more like 140. He still had malaria. Since that day his wife,
Mary, and his parents had met him at Chicago's Union Station,
doctors had twice cut him open to treat his intestines.
Bidwill's gesture was well-intentioned, but football doesn't run
on sentiment. Three days after signing in front of the cameras,
Tonelli carried twice against the Packers in Green Bay, each time
for no gain, and so ended his NFL career. The next morning's
Chicago Tribune carried both news of the Cardinals' 33--14 loss
and the headline WAR VETERANS RETURN AND GO HOUSE HUNTING.
Over the next couple of decades Tonelli shuttled in and out of
hospitals, to be treated for the malaria and schistosomiasis. A
kind of depression visited him, too, though names like
posttraumatic stress disorder would come later, with Vietnam. "As
I got older and started to read about Bataan, I wondered how he
couldn't be bitter," says his daughter, Nancy Reynolds. "But back
then everybody just wanted to start over." Skokie, Ill., where he
settled, became home to a large number of Jewish survivors of the
Nazi Holocaust, and there Tonelli seemed unremarkable--just
another man still alive who once almost wasn't.
He took a turn at politics, winning election as a Cook County
commissioner in 1946, at 30 the youngest man ever elected, and
the only Republican to do so for a generation. (Motts breaks jail
again.) He didn't much like his eight years in elective office.
Chicagoans had expectations of their pols, and he came to dread
the calls at home: Hey, Motts, my cousin got this parking ticket,
see.... Or Hey, Motts, a buddy landed up in jail, just a little
problem, see.... Given the chance, he took appointive positions,
staying in county government for 34 more years. He also started a
contracting business, and in 1954 built a one-story house so that
Mary, who had diabetes, wouldn't have to climb stairs. He retired
in 1988, four years after Mary died.
He wore his ring every day. In the late '50s, at Tonelli's
request, a jeweler friend set a diamond in the onyx. Mary had a
fit--she thought it ruined the look. "What, you think it doesn't
deserve a diamond?" Motts replied.
Many returning POWs felt guilty--not for having surrendered but
for having survived. In surviving, as Gavan Daws puts it in his
book Prisoners of the Japanese, "They suffered the intimate and
awful companionship of the dead, making eternal claims on them
that they could never satisfy." But angst wasn't Tonelli's way.
He was as proud to have survived as he was to have served. He
didn't withdraw; he sought people out. A speaker's bureau booked
dates for him. He visited schools, although those visits
gradually left him discouraged, for as the years passed fewer
students, and then fewer teachers, had even heard of Bataan.
It began to gnaw at him: Flag Day with few flags out; Memorial
Day, a pretext for cut-rate retailing. He'd tell of the Death
March and the camps and the hellships, and see the skeptical
looks on the schoolkids before him, faces that said, "Aw, this is
bull." And he'd drive home wondering if, listening to those
stories, he wouldn't react the same way.
It is just before Christmas 2002, and Motts Tonelli, now 86, has
permitted you to chauffeur him from his house in Skokie to the
center of the world--to Schaller's, the South Side pub across
from the 11th Ward Democratic Club, from which Mayor Richard J.
Daley once ruled Chicago.
Schaller's is the site of an annual holiday gathering of old
ballplayers and their acolytes. Tonelli is royalty here, even
among men who played for Vince Lombardi and Frank Leahy, even as
an erstwhile Republican pebble in the gearbox of the Democratic
machine. Buddies often asked him to switch parties, and he would
firmly say, "No, that's not who I am." And for that people
respected him. Schaller's is an ideal place to toss back beers
and fire up cigars and ask Tonelli the questions he's so often
asked, usually about that Japanese officer and the ring.
Had they been in touch after the war? No; Tonelli assumed he was
killed in combat. Had he tried finding the officer's family? So
many students of Japanese ancestry attended Southern Cal during
the '30s that it would have been very hard to do so. How did that
lieutenant remember who you were? Even if the officer hadn't been
in Notre Dame Stadium that day, Tonelli believed the name might
have stuck from the papers or the radio because the USC team also
had a Tonelli, no relation, named Amerigo.
Few at Schaller's know his liver is failing. But all know of his
frequent stays in the hospital, all traceable to the
schistosomiasis, and many wish him well as he leaves.
Traffic is backed up around the Loop, so Tonelli has a captive
listener for the ride home. There must be something about a
brutal captivity that nurtures the reformer in a man. (See:
Senator John McCain.) "A politician takes all this money from
somebody, and what, he's not supposed to do what that guy who's
bought him wants him to do?" Tonelli says, the coffle of cars on
the Kennedy Expressway giving him unlimited time to make his
case. "The problem with politics is that too often politicians
don't serve the public."
If you didn't know better, you'd suspect that he had a perverse
nostalgia for the camps--where no man wore more than a G-string,
and a malarial mosquito knew no distinctions of nationality, and
an officer was as likely as an enlisted man to see the business
end of a bayonet. "Everyone was the same. You know why? Because
none of us had anything. All you had was your life, and you
helped each other to keep that.
"The world is getting greedy, and we're getting greedy. Americans
are spoiled. It doesn't take a lot to make people happy if they
don't have much."
You pull up to his house. He shuffles from the car toward the
front door of his home. He stops and pats at his pockets. He
looks up and pats again. He has forgotten a key.
"I have another one," he says, urging you to continue to O'Hare
lest you miss your flight. You don't want to leave until you see
him safely out of a Chicago winter, but he waves you off with the
hint of a smile. Slowly he turns and minces down an alley, out of
sight, to break into his own home.
Epilogue: Many of Motts Tonelli's pals at Schaller's reassembled
three weeks later, on Jan. 11, for a funeral mass after Tonelli's
liver finally gave up. Bagpipes bleated out a medley of Amazing
Grace, America the Beautiful and the Notre Dame Victory
March--though church officials declared that Tonelli's request of
My Way was ecclesiastically inappropriate.
The deceased had chosen a Polish restaurant for friends and
family to gather after the burial. To get there, mourners turned
left out of the cemetery, then right onto Highway 58.
Three weeks ago former Notre Dame running back and Army sergeant
Tonelli died from complications related to the diseases he
contracted during the Bataan Death March and his subsequent
41-month internment in the Philippines during World War
THE MEN AT BATAAN WERE TOLD HELP WAS ON THE WAY, BUT THE U.S.
SECRETARY OF WAR KNEW, "THERE ARE TIMES WHEN MEN HAVE TO
TONELLI WAS A BACKUP HIS JUNIOR YEAR, BUT FOR A MOMENT HE WAS A
GOLDEN DOME HERO.
BUZZARD SQUADS WOULD ATTACK STRAGGLERS, DISEMBOWELING THEM WITH
SWORD OR BAYONET.
MANY RETURNING POWS FELT GUILTY, BUT TONELLI WAS PROUD TO HAVE
JAPANESE TROOPS CONFISCATED EVERYTHING; THEY TOOK CLASS RINGS BY
SLICING OFF FINGERS.