Like all his buddies in the Philippines, Eddie Laursen was herded into a prison camp and treated to the sardonic wit of a Japanese officer.
"You are now guests," the officer told the exhausted men, "of the emperor of Japan."
It was April 1942. After being overwhelmed by Japanese troops, some 76,000 U.S. and Filipino prisoners of war were forced to trudge 65 miles in tropical heat with almost no water. Those who fell or protested were summarily shot or beheaded. At the end of the trek, which became known as the Bataan Death March, the men were held captive in a crammed hellhole called Camp O'Donnell. They were half-starved, humiliated, beaten and eventually shipped to Japanese labor camps.
Those weren't years that anyone would choose to suffer through again. But for decades, veterans of the death march and the labor camps have gathered regularly to recall them. This weekend, about 30 members of a fast-dwindling group called American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor were gathering at a Ventura hotel in homage to those who were no longer among them, and in tribute to those who survived.
"We can say things to each other that we can't say to our families," said Laursen, 86, of Ventura. "After my father died, I learned that even he didn't believe I went through the hell I said I did. That really hurt."
The youngest of the men who showed up for the reunion of the group's Western chapter are in their early 80s. A few are in wheelchairs or tethered to oxygen tanks. Usually, the members get together every three years; this year, with some rueful references to aging, they voted to meet annually.
As reunions go, the Ventura get-together has been on the sedate side. There was a trip to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, a fish-fry at the American Legion hall and the viewing of a couple of documentaries about Bataan. Mostly, it has been just a chance to enjoy the company of comrades from one of World War II's most notoriously brutal times.
At a table in a hospitality room, Laursen, a retired hotel worker, said he made it through the death march by helping out a weakened pal named Carl.
"I was focused on him," Laursen said. "I could hear the rifle shots and the screaming but I didn't let it get to me."
At O'Donnell, Laursen, one of the fitter prisoners, was placed on burial detail by an American officer. Dozens of men died daily, and, for three months, Laursen hauled their bodies to open pits. He pleaded for another assignment and got one the day before he would have had to haul off the body of his sickly friend Carl.
"We buried them stark naked," Laursen said. The Japanese "wanted to reuse their uniforms. We'd cover their genitals with grass for at least some kind of privacy."
Not everyone present had been on the death march. U.S. troops on the nearby island of Corregidor surrendered after the march. But all of them bore witness to atrocities.
John Perkowski, 82, remembered a friend named Quentin Cooper. While the two were jammed into a sweltering metal warehouse with 200 other prisoners in the Philippines, Cooper argued with a guard about getting water for his parched men.
The guard beat him with his rifle butt, and soon other guards joined in.
"The next morning," Perkowski recalled, "someone said, 'Hey, look over at the signpost.' Quentin's head was hanging from it."
Perkowski, a retired CPA who lives in Gardnerville, Nev., went on to spend a year toiling in a coal mine 35 miles from Nagasaki. Conditions were so bad that some prisoners had others smash their arms and legs with huge rocks; for them, the pain of broken bones beat the pain of another day underground.
The men at the reunion traded stories they'd heard many times.
Most had been stuffed into the stinking holds of "hell ships" for the journey from the Philippines to Japan. Allied bombers sank a number of them, unaware there were American prisoners on board.
Art Beale, 86, of Westminster, misted up when talking about his treatment by a Navy officer who spoke to him during his liberation from a prison camp in Manchuria.
"I was a walking skeleton and I was wearing rags," Beale said. "I weighed maybe 70 pounds. I was so ashamed of my appearance -- but he came over and gave me a big hug."
In a meeting at the reunion, the veterans were urged to write their representatives in support of bills that would compensate prisoners of war.
"Not in my lifetime," murmured a man in the audience.
Much of the meeting consisted of housekeeping. The treasurer read his annual report on the limited state of the group's funds. The newsletter editor urged members to send in their reminiscences; he primed the pump by telling about the time he and another cook skinned a cat for the evening's stew. It turned out to be the pet of the prison-camp commander.
From his wheelchair, Mansfield Young, 81, of Oxnard asked how many in the room had been awarded a Purple Heart. Almost every man raised his hand.
Young, who worked in a Japanese lead mine, believes he should have gotten one. He said lead from the mine ruined one of his lungs, which was removed. Radiation from one of the nuclear blasts in Japan stayed with him, he said, leading to skin cancer.
His daughter bought him a Purple Heart on EBay, but Young said he wanted the government to acknowledge his injuries.
"It just matters," he said. "This should be on the record."
Esther Jennings, a veteran's wife and the group's secretary, read a letter she sent to former President Ford in February. She had recently seen a display in a military museum recounting a 1975 U.S. visit by Emperor Hirohito that included meetings with John Wayne and the president.
"Would you have welcomed Mussolini?" she wrote. "Would you have welcomed Hitler?"
The audience applauded.
Privately, some of the vets said they still felt uneasy around Japanese people.
In a telephone interview, John Oliver, the group's national commander, said he understood that. But for a number of the 1,500 remaining Bataan and Corregidor veterans, those feelings have passed.
"After one meeting in L.A., a bunch of us wound up in a Japanese restaurant at 4 a.m.," he said. "You can't harbor that hate forever. It'll kill you, and it won't hurt them an ounce."