Today, Feb 4 marks the 63rd anniversary of Sam Sortland’s release from Bilibid Prison Camp in the Philippines.
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, the Japanese invaded the Philippine Islands forcing American and Filipino defenders to withdraw to the Bataan Peninsula. After three months of fierce fighting, the Japanese took 75,000 American and Filipino prisoners. Some however evaded capture and fled to the island of Corregidor, off the southern coast of Bataan. At Corregidor, defenders held out against the Japanese until May 6, 1942. Their surrender signaled the beginning of the end of organized resistance to the Japanese in the Philippines.
Sam Sortland, a native of Divide County, North Dakota, was on the beach defense at Corregidor when the Japanese landed.
Born in 1914, Sam Sortland graduated from Ambrose High School and attended two years at Wahpeton’s State School of Science before entering the Army Corp in May 1941 with the 803rd Engineers.
The men who surrendered at Corregidor were not part of the infamous Bataan Death March. But as Sortland recalled the surrender had its own death march as 50 to 70 men were dying a day on their journey to Cabanatuan Prison Camp. Without food or water, those who faltered were bayoneted. Philippine citizens who tried to offer water to the prisoners were also punished. According to Sortland, “A lot of people gave up their lives trying to help us.”
At the Cabanatuan Prison Camp, Sortland served on burial detail and worked the prison farm. Nearly blind from malnutrition, the Divide County native recalled accidentally pulling some onions rather than weeds from the garden. The guard saw and “hit me with a pickax handle and flattened my nose and broke out the front teeth. He would have killed me if an officer hadn’t stopped him.”
By early 1945, American forces had landed in the Philippines and were on the offensive. Sam Sortland, along with thousands of other prisoners who had recently been transferred to Bilibid Prison Camp were liberated on February 4, 1945.
But for the prisoners, the battle wasn’t over yet. When released from the prison camp, Sortland weighed a mere 70 pounds, was nearly blind and spent nine months recovering in an Army hospital. Sortland later recalled, “A person doesn’t go through something like that without after effects.” But, he continued, “What my captors failed to realize is that although they shaved my head, starved my body, and denied me basic rights, an American flag fluttered in my heart.”
Sam Sortland of Divide County, ND was awarded a Bronze Star in 1985 and the Purple Heart in 1997 before he passed away in April of 1999.
Written by Christina Sunwall
Divide County History (1974) 257
Fox News: War Stories with Oliver North- http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,162751,00.html
Hingst, Darlene. “Prayers and faith offset horrors of prison camp” Headlines in History: 100 Years of Crosby News from the pages of Divide County Newspapers (Crosby, ND: Journal Publishing Inc; 2004) 94-95
Haskew, Michael E., ed. The World War II Desk Reference (Grand Central Press; 2004)