By Darlene Natale
Point Park News Service
Abie Abraham, 98, worked in the jungles after World War II attempting to find the bodies of fallen comrades and elicited the moniker “The Ghost of Bataan.”
His walls are papered with awards, citations, plaques, and certificates from presidents, politicians, clubs, church groups, and schools. Throw him a birthday party and some 300 people – including his friend Rocky Bleier – turn out his Connoquenessing Township farm to celebrate.
But Abraham isn’t resting on his laurels. He still volunteers at the Butler Veterans Administration Medical Center, where he has been helping out since 1988. Even though he uses oxygen and can navigate the halls only with a wheelchair, Abraham tries to help younger veterans when he can.
“I show them where to go,” he said. “I talk with them. What else is there to do? I help the guys if I can.”
The World War II hero, who earned two silver stars, a bronze star, and a purple heart, still has the humility and desire to help the young men coming back after service in Iraq and Afghanistan. Abrahama has volunteered more than 36,000 hours of service over the past 23 years, said Sean Nelson, Acting Director, VA Butler Healthcare.
“Abie, at 98 years old, still supports other veterans,” Nelson said. “He is a true
And many younger veterans say they appreciate his sage advice.
Josh Hudson, 41, a retired Navy combat photographer, said Abraham’s life story sets a strong example. The two men met when Hudson was serving as Navy public affairs officer during Major League Baseball’s 2006 All-Star Game in Pittsburgh, where Hudson was honored. It would have been hard, Hudson said, to have endured the Bataan Death March and three years in prison camps and stay in the military.
“Most people would give it up,” Hudson said. “When you talk about a veteran, he is someone you can look up to. He has the ‘can do’ spirit.”
Air Force veteran William Scholohm, 29, of Butler, served in Turkey providing logistics support for the F-16 engine and at Hill Air Force Base in Utah. He said he looks to Abraham for his stories.
“I got to know him from working here and from what I had read in the papers,” Schlobohm said. “He is a nice guy with a lot of information to offer. “
Over the years, Abraham made sure every vet walking in the front door of the Medical Center felt welcome, got a cup of coffee, and knew where to go to get the services. For years, when he wasn’t at the door he could be found in the canteen talking with other vets. Due to Abraham’s infirmity, he can only hold court from the recliner in his hospital room on the fourth floor or from his wheelchair.
“I try to teach them, tell them not to be nervous, because they are here,” he said. “You are on solid ground now.”
Abraham’s personal travails began unexpectedly in December 1941 with the sound of squealing tires interrupting a quiet day at home in Manila where he was stationed. When Abraham went to investigate the ruckus, he was met by another soldier who breathlessly told him of the bombing of Pearl Harbor hours before. As he and his pal raced back to the base, they spotted Japanese planes and soon bombs were falling.
“The Americans were put on ships to go across (Manila Bay) to Bataan Peninsula,” Abraham said. “The Japanese were bombing us.”
They took constant fire for five months trying to delay the advance of the Japanese. The Americans were cut off from all supplies and support troops and were eventually captured as the U.S. toiled around the clock to rebuild its fleet.
A tank and soldiers herded the Americans to the main road where they joined thousands of troops who were captured hours earlier. The Bataan Death March began at Mariveles on the southern tip of the peninsula. Abraham said the captives marched with thousands of Japanese troops and tanks.
“Some of our boys were hit by trucks or tanks, clubbed, bayoneted or shot,” Abraham recalled.
He said they had been walking in the heat and one boy rushed for a drink in a stream and was beheaded. They were only permitted to drink stagnant or tainted water and that lead to disease.
He said they marched north for six days to San Fernando where they were packed into freight train cars. “Some men died standing up,” he said.
When they got off that train, Abraham and the Americans slogged another 8 miles to a former Filipino base, Camp O’Donnell.
“The march was just the beginning of it,” Abraham said. Many died in the prison camps and digging graves became routine. He was moved to a second prison camp at Cabanatuan where he met some boys from WesternPennsylvania and they talked about home. Those boys and several thousand others died. Abraham kept notes of where the fallen were buried.
He recalled one September day when they heard a buzzing sound that grew loud. American planes were flying overhead. Within a month, the planes were hitting the airfields and the Japanese retreated and ended the war of Bataan and Corregidor.
Abraham was reunited with his family in Manila. His daughters had been sent into the mountains with Filipino friends and his wife was held at an internment camp. Abraham awaited his orders to return home. They did not come. Instead, he received orders to meet with Gen. Douglas MacArthur. He told Abraham he needed someone from the Bataan Death March and prison camps to disinter the bodies of fallen Americans so they could receive proper burial.
As he began this gruesome task, Abraham earned the title “The Ghost of Bataan.” He spent 2 ½ years in the jungles and prison camps exhuming bodies.
“The Ghost of Bataan is also the title of his first book. Abraham worked from his memory, referring to milk can labels he had scrolled on. He interrogated Japanese soldiers, and he got maps of burial pits and graves from survivors.
“For more than two years, I did my best,” Abraham said of his attempt to bring the fallen Americans home.
He said now he doesn’t want to think about it. “I want to think about something nice, like my wife or family,” Abraham said. He said he is on the board at the VA Medical Center and still wants to help if he can.
“Whenever I think of what all Abie went through – his service and sacrifice to our country — I know how blessed I am to have had the opportunity to meet him,” Nelson said. “Abie is an American hero, and loved by anyone who has the opportunity to meet him. He is an inspiration to everyone here at VA Butler Healthcare.”
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