Veteran P.C. Miner Survived Bataan Death March
Tom Harrison counts himself among a rapidly dwindling echelon of war veterans known simply as "the greatest generation." He was one of hundreds of thousands of American men and women who fought in World War II.
Harrison admits there were times back then when he thought he’d never live to see his home again. It was in the dark, early days of World War II and Harrison was caught up in one of the most barbaric episodes of that horrific war. His story bears witness to the power of the human spirit and one man’s inexorable will to survive.
Harrison was born in 1918 in Salt Lake City to Mary Frances and William Harrison, a middle child among the Harrison’s four children. His father had come west from Ohio in 1911 to work as a cashier at the Park City Bank.
Harrison describes himself as curious, reflective and quiet. His most vivid memory growing up in the valley was a train ride when he was five years old.
"The Denver and Rio Grande Railroad had a spur line up Parley’s Canyon to Park City," he recounts. "There were lots of switchbacks and we stopped once so the steam locomotive could take on water. The whole trip took about three hours and it was quite a thrill for a five-year-old."
Harrison cherished his memories of that train ride Park City and the mines and credits them with his decision to go into the mining business many years later.
He attended Wasatch School and East High, both on the east side of the Salt lake valley. He describes himself as an average student. "You know, it’s all work when you’re in high school. I did enjoy my math and Latin classes though," he says.
List many young men of his generation, he was active in the Army Reserve Officers Training Program (ROTC) through high school. After graduation in 1936, he attended the University of Utah, where he took engineering classes and continued his involvement in ROTC. He was in and out of college until early 1941, when, with two years of college under his belt, he was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant and assigned to active duty.
"I went down to Fort Roberts in California to train as an artillery officer and then was sent straight to the Philippines to train their artillery soldiers," says Harrison. He was there when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
The posting was almost a death sentence for the mild-mannered Utahn. The Japanese Army and Navy swarmed across the South Pacific after Pearl Harbor, surrounding and cutting off the Philippines in early 1942. American Generals feared the worst. When the Allied forces were ordered to surrender to the Japanese on April 9, Harrison’s long nightmare began.
He wasn’t alone. About 72,000 Allied and Philippine soldiers surrendered on the island of Bataan, where Harrison was stationed. They were rounded up and forced to walk 60 miles over difficult terrain in sweltering heat to Camp O’Donnell.
It became known as the Bataan Death March, one of the greatest tragedies of World War II. It’s estimated that 18,000 men and women were killed by Japanese soldiers or died of exposure and disease during the march.
Harrison was one of the lucky ones. "I wasn’t wounded or sick. The ones that were or couldn’t keep up, they killed," he says flatly. Asked if he lost any friends on the march, he pauses, then says softly, "I lost them all."
From Camp O’Donnell, most of the survivors were packed onto transport ships and taken to prisoner of war camps in Japan. Some of the unmarked ships, dubbed "Hell Ships" by the captives, were torpedoed by American submarines. Harrison was sent to a POW camp in Osaka, Japan where he and his fellow prisoners were forced to work in a steel mill. They were given very little food or water in the camp and hundreds more died. He was there for over three years.
"I don’t know why I made it, what kept me going. Just plain attitude I guess," muses Harrison. "There were times when I didn’t think I would get home. But it worked out OK – for me."
He says some men gave up and died. "I think they were just looking too far down the road and couldn’t see an end to the whole ordeal. I kept my sights closer in, took it a day at a time. That close, you could handle that, you could do that," he says.
When the POW camps were liberated by Allied forces after the Japanese surrender, Harrison and thousands of other American soldiers were sent home on special POW ships. He arrived in San Francisco Bay to a hero’s welcome.
He met Dorothy a few days after his arrival. "It was a blind date and I liked everything about her from the beginning – the way she talked and acted and looked," Harrison admits shyly.
After a few weeks, Harrison came home to Utah. He continued a long-distance relationship with Dorothy by phone and letter. They were married within a year and will soon celebrate their 61st wedding anniversary.
Harrison went to work for the Park Utah consolidated Mining Company in 1946. Over the next few years he graduated from the University of Utah with a degree in mining engineering and rose through the ranks to a supervisory position.
Harrison and his wife settled into company housing near the entrance to the east shaft of the Ontario Mine, not far from the now submerged town of Keetley (it lays in state at the bottom of Jordanelle Reservoir).
The couple began their family there and the two-bedroom house expanded to three bedrooms to accommodate their three children, Jane, Thomas and Paul. All three grew up in the area, married and, among them, have graced the elder Harrisons with five grandchildren.
"I mostly worked underground with the miners," recalls Harrison. "These were hard rock mines, so there was a lot of drilling and blasting involved. We mined silver, lead and zinc and worked for every ounce of ore."
"Park City was a real mining town back then, kind of rough," he continues. "There were about a dozen beer bars on Main Street and the boys did some drinking. We had a lot of friends at company housing and they were friends you could really count on."
Park City went though a recession in 1955 as demand for ore dropped and the Ontario Mine shut down. Harrison soon found work at a uranium mine in Riverton, Wyoming. "Uranium was in high demand and Riverton was real boom town for a couple of years," he says.
Harrison, a partner in the mine, sold out in 1956 and spent the next five years exploring, mining and drilling for mercury, gold, oil and gas throughout the western United States, Mexico and South America.
Tired of life on the road by 1961, he took a job as supervisor in charge of mechanical design with Hercules in Salt Lake City. "Those were the early development days of the big solid rockets," explains Harrison. "They needed someone to supervise the design and fabrication of all the special tooling required for the rocket motors." Harrison remained with Hercules as Superintendent of Mechanical Design until retiring in 1983.
Harrison and his wife, Dorothy, now live comfortably on the east bench in Salt Lake City. They enjoy an active social life, playing bridge with friends and spending time with family at their cabin on the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River in Idaho. At age 89, he’s still an enthusiastic golfer.
Harrison reflects on his war experiences reluctantly. "It’s been so long ago, I don’t think about it much anymore," he says. "I hated the Japanese people for a long time, but not anymore. Over the years I’ve had many Japanese friends. I finally wrote a book about the whole thing about 10 years ago. It’s been pretty well received and it helped to get a lot of those memories out of me and down on paper." The book, entitled, Survivor, is available at local libraries and at Amazon.com. Harrison also has a few copies left at his home.
He credits his wife with helping him get through the worst of times after the war. "I wouldn’t have made it without her," he says. "Just support, moral and physical — you name it and she was there."
Harrison says he would never have chosen to be on Bataan, but admits the experience was the crucible that formed him. "It was my first real test as a man. I guess I passed."
The survivors of the Bataan Death March still get together sometimes, says Harrison. They’ve scheduled their last convention in Louisville, Kentucky for this coming summer. Harrison hasn’t decided whether he’ll go or not. "Maybe I will. There are only about 200 of us left and we’re going fast. We probably won’t be getting together much anymore."
Branch of Service: U.S. Army, Field Artillery
Unit and Division: Artillery Instructor, 2nd Battalion, 21st FA Regiment, Philippine Army
Battles: Defense of Luzon, December 7, 1941 to April 9, 1942
Medals: Legion of Merit
QUOTE: "I don’t know why I made it, what kept me going. Just plain attitude I guess."
CAPTION: Tom Harrison relaxes at home. He and wife, Dorothy ,will soon celebrate their 61st wedding anniversary.
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
Readers around Park City and Summit County make the Park Record's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.
Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.
Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.
Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.
User Legend: Moderator Trusted User
When it comes to the U.S. census, let’s just say Park City has… room for improvement.