The long road to forgiveness

Tony Montoya

Photo By Larry Dalton

Tony Montoya is one of the few remaining World War II veterans of the Bataan death march, in which thousands of captured allied soldiers and Philippine civilians marched nearly 100 miles toward Japanese prisoner-of-war camps. Montoya survived two years in a camp—and a few years of bingeing on drugs and alcohol in the states—to become a committed Christian who likes to share his autobiography with other veterans as proof that God answers prayers.

Were you drafted?

I was drafted.

How old were you?

I was 21. I was drafted in March 1941. Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Where were you stationed overseas?

In Fort Stotsenberg—Clark Field. … That’s 50 miles south of Manila.

What were your early experiences in the war?

In December, we landed in Manila. On the 25th of December, Christmas. Then we retreated into Bataan. … I think it was about February that we ran out of rations. More than 100,000 civilians and 80,000 troops bivouacked on a small island ran out of food. And we went to half rations. We started eating everything we could get a hold of: monkeys, wild pig, anything you could get a hold of. In March, it was quarter rations. … There was a cavalry there; we ate all the horses and mules. Starvation. And most of the soldiers were sick with malaria and dysentery and different tropical diseases. We didn’t surrender. We were surrendered. General [Edward] King surrendered us. … The first thing they do is take away our hats, our head cover. That is a good way to torture you in 120 degrees. … They lined us up in columns of a hundred, and they took us on that march. That march consisted of about 80 to 100 miles. It depends on where you were captured. … All we know is just marching. And we had no rest, no water. Some pictures show you the people drinking out of these dead fountains—I mean stale water. I had no water for at least eight days, no food for at least eight days, and the only water we had was taking a rag and soaking it in the [puddles left by] caribou hooves. And by that means, a lot of them got dysentery and different kind of germs, but I never did get any of them things.

Were you finally set free when the war ended?

In 1945, I was about 80 miles from where they dropped the Atomic bomb in Nagasaki. We saw the cloud, saw the sky turn purple and different colors, but we didn’t know what it was. The Japanese knew, because they were running to and fro, and finally our interpreter came and told us it was a big bomb: “They cleaned up Tokyo.” It wasn’t Tokyo. It was Nagasaki. Two days later, we woke up in the morning, and no Japanese guards. American guards. Military. … They took us in trucks through Nagasaki two days later. It was still smoldering. I mean, there was nothing left. Even the steel structures were melted. That was a very powerful bomb.

What happened after the war?

I got married, and I got settled down. Had a civil-service job. I fought for disability for a long time, but I was able to work. I was in charge of the bakery over in Oakland, on the Army base. They shipped me over to Oak Knoll Naval Hospital, as a chief baker. And while I was there, I resigned and went into business in Berkeley. It was a good business. I opened up a bakery, and I was always on dope or drinking. I became addicted. I mean, very, very, very much addicted, and all the profits went into mostly coke and stuff like that.

What year was that?

That was 1950. And in 1957 … I got converted. I became a Christian.

What made that transition for you?

Billy Graham. … I made a commitment to God, and immediately, the next morning—I didn’t buy by the bottle; I bought by the case because I had a lot of friends—I started pouring them down the sink. Everything. Everything left me. The desire left me. The smoking left me. Dope left me. I used to carouse with a lot of women besides my wife—everything left me. I was a new creature. … The love of God came into my heart, to love these people, the people who mistreated me. Up until then, I hated them, the Japanese, and I told my wife, “You know what? I’m going to go to Japan as a missionary.”

And did you?

Not then. … I wanted full credentials so that I could establish churches and ordain ministers … and that’s what I did. Over 140 churches in the 24 years that I served.

What were they called?

The House of Refuge Mission. … I haven’t gone back in five years, but they’re doing fine. I hear from them. They’re doing fine. They’re independent. I don’t tell them what to do, but they’re doing fine, especially in China and Japan.