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Sept. 18, 2021

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Washougal soldier survived Bataan Death March only to die in Japanese POW camp

Box found in attic of man’s childhood home reveals details of his World War II service

By , Columbian staff writer
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Historian Peri Muhich looks over a yearbook at the Clark County Historical Museum that features a photo of Robert Greenman, a Washougal man who survived the Bataan Death March and died in a Japanese POW camp in World War II. At top, Greenman is pictured in the military yearbook in the early 1940s, according to Muhich.
Historian Peri Muhich looks over a yearbook at the Clark County Historical Museum that features a photo of Robert Greenman, a Washougal man who survived the Bataan Death March and died in a Japanese POW camp in World War II. At top, Greenman is pictured in the military yearbook in the early 1940s, according to Muhich. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Staff Sgt. Robert Greenman had just turned 20 years old when he died.

The young man from Washougal was a long way from home — 6,684 miles, give or take — when a bout of dysentery took his life at a prisoner of war camp in 1942. He was one of about 70,000 soldiers from the American and Filipino armies captured by the Imperial Japanese Army and forced to walk more than 60 miles to the camp, a notoriously treacherous hike that historians would later name the Bataan Death March.

Back home, Florence Greenman was working desperately to find out what had happened to her son. He’d been listed as missing in action until January 1944, when the government made public the details of the march. For nearly two years, Florence sent letters to military officials trying to track him down.

She held on to those letters, along with a treasure trove of mementos: a yearbook including Robert’s picture with the 24th Pursuit Group, 21st Pursuit Squadron, V Interceptors Command. A Purple Heart, awarded to her son “for military merit,” according to its inscription. She kept a tiny tin cup with his name embossed on it that he’d used when he was a baby. She kept photographs and newspaper clippings and graduation announcements, holding on to her son through two decades’ worth of keepsakes.

It’s unclear how, exactly, those keepsakes ended up in a box in the Greenmans’ attic. They could have been packed away by Florence, before she died of a heart attack a few years after hearing confirmation of her son’s passing. It could have been Robert’s father, Richard Greenman, who lived as a widower in the house at 602 17th St. for another year before remarrying and moving.

The point is that the box ended up there. It sat quietly, gathering dust on its red block lettering, serving as a time capsule for one local man’s historical military service and a frozen testament to his family’s grief.

The Bataan Death March

A month after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, the United States’ involvement in the Pacific War was in full force. Alongside Filipino soldiers, Americans sought to prevent Japanese ships from entering Manila Bay. The Bataan Peninsula was considered the gateway to the bay. It was also one of the only U.S. strongholds in the region — by this point, Japan controlled most of Southeast Asia.

The Battle of Bataan began on Jan. 7, 1942. Despite a lack of supplies, soldiers held the peninsula over a three-month conflict before surrendering to the Japanese on April 9. Between the American and Filipino soldiers, around 76,000 were captured, the vast majority Filipino. It marked the largest surrender of U.S. forces since the Civil War.

Soon after, they began what would come to be called the Bataan Death March. Prisoners were amassed in Mariveles and Bagac, two towns on the peninsula, and began marching north. Conditions were brutal. The prisoners were beaten, tortured, and denied food and water. Some were shot, stabbed or run over by military trucks. They marched for 60 to 70 miles (reports vary).

Once they arrived at a train depot in San Fernando, they boarded train cars, with around 100 people packed into each car. People died in transport to Camp O’Donnell, and more still continued to succumb to their poor health conditions after they arrived.

The cross-shaped marble headstone at Robert Greenman’s grave, located in the Philippines, indicates that he died on May 13, 1942, a couple of weeks after he would have arrived at Camp O’Donnell.

Casualty estimates of the march range widely, but historians estimate that between 500 and 650 Americans died in the Bataan Death March. At least 5,000 and as many as 18,000 Filipino soldiers died. In 1945, Japanese Gen. Masaharu Homma was arrested by Allied troops and charged with 43 counts of war crimes connected to the march.

— Calley Hair

It remained there when Richard Greenman sold the house to a woman named Lorraine Hancock in 1949. It remained as Hancock stayed in the home for more than six decades, going about her life, having children and eventually grandchildren. It stayed there until Hancock’s granddaughter, Tracy Deschan, volunteered with her husband, Darren, to help clean out the attic.

It was only then that the couple stumbled across the box, realized the significance of what they’d found, and thought they ought to tell somebody who could do something about it.

Which brings us to the present day. In November, the Clark County Historical Museum received a box of clues that had sat undisturbed for nearly 80 years.

“That’s a huge piece of this whole story: How many times this could have easily been missed,” said James Matlick, collections manager at the Clark County Historical Museum.

The museum put together a small exhibit at the Washougal Cemetery, where the contents of the box and an informational panel will be displayed on Monday for Memorial Day. Florence’s grave will be marked for people who want to pay their respects. Afterwards, the exhibit will travel to the Washougal Community Center, Matlick said.

Clues from a short life

Peri Muhich, a volunteer historian, took on the task of putting the puzzle of Greenman’s life together.

It’s meticulous work, but it’s also affecting. Muhich, over months of intense research, came to feel like she knows the Greenmans.

“I’m very emotionally attached to the story. Because he’s a young kid, and the family didn’t know what happened to him. And then the more I read the stories from the survivors, the more it touched me,” Muhich said, tearing up. “War is bad for anybody, but these were kids, you know?”

Richard worked at the Washougal woolen mill. Florence was a homemaker. The pair married in Portland and Florence gave birth to Robert soon after, and then the family made the move to Washougal sometime in the 1930s. Robert was their only child.

The son graduated from Washougal High School in 1940 and enlisted in the military in early 1941. He shipped off to Hamilton Field, Calif., for basic training and learned how to be an aircraft engine mechanic.

According to a diary unearthed by Muhich — kept by John Patterson Burns, also of the 21st Pursuit Squadron — the men left for the Philippines on the ocean-liner-turned-troopship SS President Coolidge on Nov. 1, 1941. Greenman became known among his shipmates as a talented musician, bolstering morale during bad weather by playing the piano.

“It is a shame that the musical talent that some men have should be wasted on the battlefields,” Burns wrote.

A newspaper clipping found in the box indicates that Greenman was wounded in action sometime in January 1942.

His military career was short, but apparently illustrious. He was promoted from corporal to staff sergeant in just a few months.

Muhich isn’t sure yet about the circumstances of his promotion, because the office that would usually handle that record request is operating at a limited capacity during the pandemic. If Muhich had to guess, she’d say it probably involved some selfless act, because in researching Greenman’s life that’s how she’s come to know him.

There’s clues that point in that direction, like a letter Florence received on Oct. 2, 1945.

The sender was a man named Robert Dow. Dow had survived the Bataan Death March and described her son as a friend “from the time we left the states ’til the day he passed away.”

“I’ll never forget the second day of the death march. I was running a high fever from malaria. Your son was taking a small rest by the side of the road. He had a little bottle of quinine. He called me over and gave me half of it. That may not sound like much, but I believe it saved my life, and at that time it was every man for himself. Your son was one of the very few who weren’t.”

Muhich looked into Dow. He went on to live his life in the United States and had children and grandchildren.

Piecing it all together

In the box is a photo of 18-year-old Greenman. He’s sitting with a gang of friends outside a Washougal drugstore, dressed to the nines and puffing on a cigar with a cocky grin. He might be showing off for his buddies a little bit — he looks every bit a teenage boy.

“You really get that sense of how charismatic he must have been. He had a real presence,” Matlick said.

The box includes a receipt for a cigar. Muhich’s theory is that Robert had purchased the cigar just after enlisting and posed for a photo at his farewell celebration just before he shipped off. It makes sense that Florence would save the receipt.

The box also includes a mystery photograph of a young, dark-haired woman. The cardboard frame indicates that she would have been a graduate of Washougal High School one year behind Greenman.

“We don’t know who the girl is,” Muhich said. “We would like to know, was this a girlfriend that he left behind? It’s the only photo in there that wasn’t a family member.”

Muhich has been trying to track her down, with no luck — it doesn’t appear that WHS printed a yearbook in 1941, she said, and chances to track down old friends or classmates have dwindled over the last 80 years.

She asked The Columbian to print the mysterious photo, and is hoping that one of our readers might be able to tell us who this woman was and who she was to Greenman.

“I don’t believe in things just happening by chance,” Muhich said. “I’m a historian, genealogist. I’ve been doing these things for years. I believe it’s a way of people of the past reaching out to us saying, you need to tell this story. People need to know this story.”

Columbian staff writer
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