A WWII Army veteran remembers a story of kindness during a time of horror and death. Former Notre Dame fullback Mario "Motts" Tonelli recalls how as a prisoner of war in the infamous "Bataan Death March" in the Philippines, a Japanese guard gave him a special gift that he would never forget.
An Act of Kindness Amidst the Bataan Death March of WWII
TOM BROKAW, anchor:
Tonight, as this country ponders the prospects of a major military strike against Iraq, we continue our series THE HOME OF THE BRAVE, the stories of the survivors of the war that saved the world more than 50 years ago, when Japan and Germany were on the march. The young American men who fought in that war are now in their twilight years, and their stories are vivid reminders of how much was at stake. Tonight, a former football star from Notre Dame, the toughest run of his life, the luck of the Irish. Here's NBC's Bob Dotson.
BOB DOTSON reporting:
The winter of life stirs memories. Motts Tonelli recalls kindness shining in a dark place. Fifty-six years ago today, in 1942, Tonelli was an Army sergeant, only 25 years old, battling the Japanese in a steaming Philippine jungle.
Mr. MOTTS TONELLI: We knew we couldn't win. We didn't have ammunition. The ammunition that we did have was old and there were duds.
DOTSON: Only two grenades in 25 worked. Finally, 12,000 GIs gave up—the largest single surrender in American history. Men too weak to defend themselves were made to march 70 miles.
Mr. TONELLI: You'd see them get shot. You'd see them get killed.
DOTSON: It was a death march. Ten thousand American and Filipino soldiers would die. On the first day, a Japanese guard demanded Motts' class ring.
Mr. TONELLI: And he kept pointing at it, and I said, ‘No, I'm not going to give it to you,’ and a couple of guys said, ‘Motts, give him the ring. He's going to kill you!’
DOTSON: The soldier pressed his bayonet into Tonelli's neck, a life-and-death test of wills. Motts surrendered the ring. The Bataan Death March is not known for any act of kindness. But there was one, because of something that happened five years before, here in Notre Dame Stadium.
Motts Tonelli was a fullback then with dazzling speed. Two minutes left in the game against archrival University of Southern California, he ran 76 yards for a touchdown. It was a moment one USC student from Japan would never forget. Five years later, on that jungle path, the student, now a Japanese army officer, recognized Tonelli.
Mr. TONELLI: And he said, ‘Did one of my men take anything from you?’ And I said, ‘Yes, he did. It's in his pocket.’ And he said, ‘Is this it?’
DOTSON: Tonelli's Notre Dame ring.
Mr. TONELLI: And he gave me the ring back.
DOTSON: Because he remembered one glorious run, the officer did something very special: He gave Motts back a piece of his life.
Mr. TONELLI: When you're talking about a war, you're talking about life.
DOTSON: That extraordinary gift helped Motts do something most of his buddies did not, he survived the ordeal, with the ring and the memory of a single act of kindness. Bob Dotson, NBC News, Notre Dame.
BROKAW: Tonelli never saw that English-speaking Japanese officer again. When Tonelli returned from the war, he won again against long odds. He became the first Republican commissioner of Cook County, in Chicago.
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