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Melvin H. Rosen; Survived Bataan Death March

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By Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb
Washington Post Staff Write
Friday, August 31, 2007

Melvin Herbert Rosen, who died Aug. 1 at 89 of heart disease at his home in Falls Church, trudged 65 miles in four days without food or water in tropical heat during World War II on a road that came to be littered with the bodies of hundreds of American and thousands of Filipino prisoners of war. A young Army captain, he survived what came to be called the Bataan Death March.

He endured crowded, unsanitary and treacherous conditions aboard three Japanese freighters known as "hell ships." The first two unmarked ships became targets for U.S. Navy dive bombers, which sank the ships and forced the POWs on board to swim for their lives. Some POWs died in the attacks. Japanese soldiers rounded up the others.

By the time Col. Rosen was on the last of the ships, the Brazil Maru, the daily death toll had begun to escalate from 20 to 40, Col. Rosen recounted in an oral history for the U.S.-Japan Dialogue on POWs.

"Now we were sailing in the East China Sea with snow coming in our open hatch. Men froze to death, died of starvation, died of thirst, and died of myriad of diseases," he said. "I had managed to keep my West Point class ring hidden, but now traded it to a Japanese guard for half a canteen of oily water."

He was liberated Sept. 10, 1945, at a camp in Inchon, Korea, by the Army's 7th Division.

Col. Rosen, who never forgot his treatment as a POW, was the lead plaintiff in a federal lawsuit in 2001 seeking $1 trillion in reparations from Japan for Americans killed or wounded in the war. He testified in Japan for the suit, though nothing came of it, said his wife, Olive O. Rosen of Falls Church.

Col. Rosen, the son of immigrants from Czarist Russia, was born in Gloucester, Mass. He graduated from high school as class valedictorian and relished his time as a cadet captain and company commander in the Junior ROTC.

"He absolutely fell in love with the military and everything that had to do with it," his wife said.

He finished high school at 16 and was awarded a full-tuition academic scholarship to MIT in 1935. After his first year, he took a competitive examination for a congressional appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and was placed on a waiting list. When two contenders ahead of him failed to meet entrance requirements, he enrolled at West Point in 1936.

At the time, incoming cadets had to choose between mandatory Catholic or Protestant church services. Rosen, who was Jewish, attended Protestant services on Sundays and joined a small group of other Jewish cadets who gave up their free time on Saturday afternoons to attend voluntary Jewish services in the office of the Protestant chaplain. This was the genesis of the first Jewish cadet chapel squad at West Point.

After graduating from West Point in 1940, the young Army officer requested and received duty in the Field Artillery at Fort Stotsenburg in the Philippines. In January 1941, he was assigned to the Philippine Scouts, where, as a second lieutenant, he organized and commanded E Battery, 2nd Battalion, 88th Field Artillery.

By year's end, he was in combat. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, he fought for nearly four months during the Battle of Bataan. When the peninsula was surrendered April 9, 1942, Col. Rosen and other American and Filipino soldiers were forced to make the infamous death march.

Afterward, he was sent to the Davao Penal Colony, where he was kept for 2 1/2 years -- planting, weeding and harvesting rice and working as a lumberjack.

Years later, Col. Rosen reflected on the hardships he endured during World War II.

"It was war, after all, and what I was trained for, but we had every right to assume we would be treated humanely and in accordance with international law. War or not, we could never imagine the racism, the cruelty, the torture, the savagery we would and did experience."

After the war, he recuperated in Massachusetts and returned to active duty. He held several assignments, including at the Pentagon as chief plans and policy officer in the Procurement Division of the Army General Staff. He served in Germany and taught at Fort Leavenworth for four years on the faculty of the Command and General Staff College. He was promoted to colonel in 1961.

During that period, he also completed a master's degree in international affairs at George Washington University. He then spent three years with the Defense Intelligence Agency at Arlington Hall Station.

On the 20th anniversary of the day he was liberated from a Japanese POW camp, Col. Rosen took command of the area where his former POW camp was located.

He returned to the United States in 1966 and was stationed at Fort Belvoir with the Combat Developments Command. He helped to design and establish and later commanded the Army's Institute of Land Combat.

He retired from the Army in 1970 and worked as an analyst and project manager for Research Analysis Corp./General Research Corp., Litton Industries, and Systems Research and Applications Corp. He wrote studies, technical papers and booklets, many dealing with U.S. and foreign reserve components. He retired in 1985.

Col. Rosen was awarded the Silver Star, Legion of Merit with Oak Leaf Cluster, Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster, Army Commendation Medal and numerous other service medals. In 1990, the king of Norway, Olav V, awarded the Saint Olav Medal to Col. Rosen and his wife.

He also was honored in May 2002 during a Memorial Day concert on the Mall, which marked the 60th anniversary of the march.

Col. Rosen never talked much about his wartime experiences until about 1995, his wife said. Then, he lectured at area universities and to veterans groups. From 2002 to 2004, he spoke to sixth-graders at Rocky Run Middle School in Chantilly on World War II history day. "He got such a kick out of the kids and their vital interest in World War II," his wife said.

In addition to his wife of 60 years, survivors include two children, Barbara Rosen of Alexandria and David Rosen of Woodland, Calif.; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.


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