For Luke Pingno Sr., losing a limb may have saved his life.
The loss of a limb may have saved seaman first class Luke Pingno Sr.’s life in the Bataan Death March of World War II.
Shortly after an American surgeon removed the Louisiana-born sailor’s arm, Japanese troops captured him. They force marched Pingno, 21 years, and 75,000 other captives – Americans and Filipinos – to some of World War II’s most brutal prisoner of war camps.
The deadly trek covered more than 60 miles and took 12 days. About 18,000 prisoners, including approximately 1,000 Americans, perished. Japanese guards murdered many of them.
The Japanese guards randomly shot, clubbed and bayoneted to death hundreds of prisoners. They spared Pingno.
“Losing an arm might have helped Daddy make it,” Luke Pingno Jr. said. “To the Japanese, the loss of an arm in battle made you a hero.”
Pingno’s Catholic faith helped give him the strength to endure the Death March. Most of it was over rough, winding roads beneath a searing sun. The leather-bound missal the amputee sailor carried with him is on display at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.
Pingno was a Japanese captive from May 1942, to February 1945. Luke Jr. said his father’s weight dropped from 135 to 78 pounds before American troops freed him.
The display says Pingno lost his right arm.
“It was the left one,” Luke Jr. said. No matter, he is grateful to the museum for commemorating his father’s long ordeal.
Pingno was police chief of Independence, La., from 1948 to 1980. He was a deputy sheriff from 1980 to 1996 and he also served on the Independence City Council.
Luke Pingno Sr. died in 2000 at age 79.
He married Methel Aycock in 1947. They reared two sons, Luke Jr., and Jesse.
Change of rank
The Great Depression caused Pingno to seek a new home in the Navy in 1939. He was 18. The youngest of six children, he figured he would be one less mouth for his parents to feed.
The Pingnos were barely making ends meet growing strawberries near Independence about 50 miles north of New Orleans.
“Daddy’s family had migrated from Sicily,” Luke Jr. said. “When he joined the Navy, the family was about starving to death.”
When he stepped on the scales at the Navy recruiting station in New Orleans, Pingno weighed three pounds too light to be a sailor.
“A chief petty officer told him to go to the French Market, buy a bunch of bananas and eat them,” Luke Jr. said. “The chief told him to drink plenty of water, too, and to hurry back.”
He did and made the weight.
A cross-country passenger train sped Pingno from New Orleans to boot camp at the San Diego Naval Training Center. He remembered his first taste of Navy chow.
“They got to the training station at 3 a.m., and the mess hall was opened for the recruits,” Luke Jr. said. “It was like a cafeteria, and there were all these entrees. One of them was meat. He asked a fellow what kind of holiday it was. The guy said, ‘What do you mean?’ My Daddy said, ‘Because they’re serving us meat.”
“A chief [petty officer] happened to hear my father. He looked at Daddy and said, ‘We’ve got us a 30-year sailor here.’”
In the battle
After boot camp, Pingno was assigned to the U.S.S. New Mexico. He transferred to a destroyer, the U.S.S. Peary, by the time the Japanese assaulted the strategic islands on Dec. 8, 1941, a day after they attacked Pearl Harbor.
On Dec. 10, Japanese warplanes raided the Cavite Navy Yard on Manila Bay, where the Peary was based. Enemy bombs rained on the warship, which was in the bay. Eight of the destroyer’s crewmen were killed and several more were wounded, including Pingno.
“Shrapnel hit him in the jaw, chest and legs, and he was taken to a field hospital,” Luke Jr. said. “After 2 weeks, he was discharged.”
By then, the Japanese invasion of the Philippines was well under way. Hundreds of sailors, including Pingno were turned into foot soldiers.
Pingno was part of an eight-man patrol mauled by Japanese machine gunners. Four Americans died; two were wounded, including Pingno, whose left arm was mangled.
“A doctor amputated it in a field hospital,” Luke Jr. said. “If it had been a field hospital like they had in Vietnam or today, Daddy wouldn’t have lost his arm.”
The Death March
Pingno was recuperating when the Japanese arrived.
“He said a Japanese officer came in and, in impeccable English, wished everybody a good morning and said they were guests of the Imperial Japanese Army,” Luke Jr. said. “Everything went downhill from there.”
The Japanese soldiers rounded up Pingno, other patients and the medical staff.
The Death March started on April 10, 1942, at Mariveles at the southern end of the Bataan Peninsula. All but 12,000 of the prisoners were Filipinos.
Most of the men were already weak and weary from hard fighting on skimpy rations. Even so, the Japanese were merciless, herding their captives at bayonet point to San Fernando. There they were jammed aboard boxcars for the final leg of the journey to prison camps, including Camp O’Donnell, which had been a U.S. Army base, and Cabanatuan.
“Daddy was able to walk,” Luke Jr. said. “But he hadn’t had any follow up on the stump of his arm so he could be fitted with a prosthesis.”
The Japanese killed prisoners who fell behind. Guards slaughtered stronger prisoners who helped weaker ones.
The heat and humidity sapped the strength of even strong men. On most days, the Japanese denied their captives food and water.
“Some of the roads went through jungles,” Luke Jr. said. “The Filipinos would hide in the jungle and roll out coconuts with water or rice balls in them. If the Japanese caught them, they’d be killed instantly. But they still took the risk and did it anyway.”
The display at the World War II museum quoted Pingno: “They marched us in columns of four. You had to look ahead all the time. If you couldn’t keep up or fell out, they’d shoot you or bayonet you. You didn’t stop for anything.”
The Death March survivors’ suffering did not end when they reached the prison camps. Behind barbed wire, they were denied adequate food, water and medical care. Many died of malnutrition and disease.
Torture was also common in the camps. When an escapee was caught, he was not the only one executed.
“I remember one boy escaping once,” the museum display also quotes Pingno. “They picked out nine men at random, made them dig their graves and then shot them.”
Pingno ended up at old Bilibid Prison, which the Japanese turned into a prisoner of war camp. U.S. soldiers captured Bilibid on Feb. 5, 1945.
“Daddy said they found out later that the commandant had orders to execute all the prisoners on the day before they were liberated,” Pingno said. “For whatever reason, he didn’t do that.”
Not until the year before did Pingno’s family know he was alive. He was listed as “missing,” according to the museum display, which also includes a 1944 postcard the Japanese allowed him to send home.
Eventually Pingno, who earned a pair of Purple Hearts for his battle wounds, was put aboard a British hospital ship which took him to Long Beach. Calif.
“Then they sent him to the Philadelphia Naval Hospital, where he got his first prosthesis,” Luke Jr. said.
Luke Jr. and Jesse donated their father’s precious relics to the World War II Museum.
“The display includes a photo of his father in his navy uniform. Pingno is smiling. But the smile belies the inhumanity he suffered for so long half a world away from the Louisiana strawberry patch he left in 1939.
Berry Craig is a correspondent for O&P Business News.