- Associated Press - Sunday, April 26, 2015

SAN ANTONIO (AP) - A festive atmosphere reigned when Army Capt. Bob Epstein, Texas A&M Class of ‘44, got to the Hotel Manila for Aggie Muster, a university tradition dating to 1883.

It was the spring of 1946, the Pacific War was over and a trip home was at last on the horizon.

“When we got there at the hotel it was just like a courtship weekend,” Epstein, 92, of Houston told the San Antonio Express-News (https://bit.ly/1cYakn1) of seeing old school chums in the South Pacific. “It’s hilarity and everybody’s having a good time. ‘Have a beer! What kind of beer you want? Come on, let’s go! Come on over here and get some food.’”

The 1946 gathering was the most famous of all Aggie Musters, drawing Epstein and 127 other graduates to the mouth of Corregidor’s Malinta tunnel, the bomb-proof sanctuary where some U.S. soldiers made their last stand.

On San Jacinto Day, when Aggies around the world recall fellow students who died in the past year, Epstein helped dedicate a four-panel memorial at the tunnel listing 155 Aggies who were on Corregidor in 1942 and 1946 and 61 others who were in the theater.

The salute to the survivors and victors comes weeks before the 73rd anniversary of the fall of Corregidor, an island across from Manila, and marks the contrast between a pair of Musters that bookend the Pacific war. The ‘42 Muster was a grim occasion that became worldwide news, mostly because of a made-up story. The ‘46 Muster was a celebration muted by the loss of so many troops.

Bataan had fallen and the Death March began on April 9, 1942. Historian John Adams, who will speak at today’s ceremony, said four or five Aggies out of 62 were among more than 70,000 American and Filipino prisoners who marched 55 miles at gunpoint. By the time they arrived at Camp O’Donnell, 14,000 had perished. A few escaped.

On Corregidor, Americans stubbornly resisted, throwing Tokyo off its timetable. Some soldiers there talked of being wiped out in a relentless enemy siege, of dying like Texans did at the Alamo. Surviving the battle seemed remote, prompting Maj. Gen. George F. Moore, Class of 1908, to ask an ex-Aggie yell leader to find every Aggie.

The idea was to learn who was alive and remind them to fill out their military life insurance policies. They found 27, one of them 2nd Lt. William Hamilton, Class of 1940.

“There are times when every man reaches a point where they realize they might die,” said Hamilton, at 97 the sole survivor of the 1942 Corregidor Muster. “However, all you can do in just keep living and hoping it isn’t going to happen to you today.”

Now in a retirement home in Olathe, Kansas, he hasn’t been to many Aggie Musters but said “the ‘42 was not a good time.” Leading an anti-aircraft battery, he took a detachment of men to the beach to defend against the coming invasion. The Pearl Harbor attack was five months earlier, and Hamilton knew they were on their own.

Things were worse than anyone back home imagined. Half the Corregidor Aggies already were dead by the time Lt. Gen. Jonathan Wainwright ordered his troops to surrender May 6, but a highly publicized story that broke before the island fell put a different spin on the siege.

“Texas Aggies, now officers on the much bombed, battered rock in Manila Bay, gathered about their commander, Maj. Gen. George F. Moore, himself a Texan, and celebrated the 106th anniversary of the battle that won Texas freedom,” the Houston Post story said. “As they sang Texas songs, Japanese artillery banged away and the big guns on Corregidor roared in reply.”

The story, which buoyed the spirits of a nation that had little to cheer about, was mostly fiction. Adams, Class of 1973 and author of a dozen books including “Softly Call the Muster: The Evolution of A Texas Aggie Tradition,” said no one gathered at all. But the truth didn’t matter.

“When it arrived in the U.S., of course there had been no good news, no reports out of Pearl Harbor, all they know is they’re trapped on Bataan. All of a sudden the Houston paper has ‘Corregidor Aggies Fete San Jacinto - 35 Texans Bear Down on Famed Fight Song,’” said Adams, 63, of College Station.

“And then that begins to get picked up. It’s picked up by a magazine, the national press, and then (Tom) Connally, the senator, gets on the floor of the Senate and reads it into the Congressional Record, and it really picked up from there.”

Little more was heard from the Philippines until the war ended. Only 31 of the 89 Aggies who were taken captive on Bataan and Corregidor came home. Some survived brutal prison camps only to die aboard Japanese ships that were sunk by Allied fliers toward the end of the war.

The pilots were unaware there were prisoners aboard.

A War Department letter informing Hamilton’s father that his son was a POW arrived on New Year’s Eve 1942. Hamilton, who would survive POW camps in the Philippines, Japan and Manchuria and the sinkings of two ships, sent a card on Japanese army stationery stating he was in “excellent” health in Philippine Prison Camp No. 1.

He asked that “my two insurances (National Insurance Life and United Service) premiums are taken care of,” and closed the brief message on an upbeat note.

“Hope you are all well - don’t worry about me,” he said. “I’m OK.”


Information from: San Antonio Express-News, https://www.mysanantonio.com

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