September 7, 1998
Lisa Allen/staff photo
(From left) Bryce Lilly, Jim Ausland, Hank Reverman and Doug Freeman swap tales of adventure.
by Lisa Allen
KENMORE--After months of fighting an invading Japanese army in the Philippines just after the onset of World War II, American serviceman Bryce Lilly, and what remained of his unit, began preparing to fight to the death on the morning of April 9, 1942.
"That's what we were ordered to do," he said during lunch with friends last week. "But we had a courageous general who made his way through enemy lines to surrender his troops so we wouldn't all be killed."
Lilly then became part of what was later called the Bataan Death March-a brutal, forced journey in which the captives were walked for days, with little rest and no water. Soldiers who stepped out of line to relieve themselves were shot by the Japanese soldiers, he said. Others collapsed in the searing heat.
Surviving the march, he spent the next four years in various Japanese prison camps. When he was liberated in 1945 he weighed 80 pounds, having survived-while working up to 24 hours a day-on just two handfuls of cooked rice and some grass soup each day.
Although the extended malnutrition resulted in various illnesses, including malaria, it left few long-term effects. Swapping tales with a group of buddies at Denny's Restaurant on Bothell Way, Lilly looked the picture of health.
Lilly, a Kenmore resident, and the same group of friends have been meeting for lunch on a regular basis for almost 30 years, sharing stories of adventure, flying and war.
Hank Reverman, a former World War II pilot, is there. In fact, the business he started after the war, Lake Union Air Service, was where all the group members originally met each other.
From its inception, the seaplane base on Lake Union was always more than just a place to charter airplanes or learn to fly. Because of its location close to downtown and the constant activity, it was a magnet for airplane lovers or even those who wanted to shoot the breeze on a lunch break.
Lilly worked next door at a realty office with another member of the group, Jim Ausland, who later spent years restoring vintage fighter planes and bombers in a hangar on Boeing Field. That hangar is now used by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.
Ausland, also a World War II veteran of the Pacific Theater, is a walking airplane encyclopedia, who can answer just about any question on the subject.
Doug Freeman, a Kirkland dentist who built his own helicopter, and Harry Olson, a pilot/contractor whose company was involved in building the Kingdome, are also regulars.
Reverman tells of his background as a flight officer in the Air Transport Command. In 1944 he was sent to Calcutta, India, to fly C-47's over the Himalayas to China. To get there, pilots flew from South America across the Atlantic to Ascension Island, then across the breadth of Africa before reaching India.
"The Himalayas have the worst weather in the world to fly in," he tells the group. "We often faced winds of a hundred miles an hour and raindrops the size of dinner plates."
He said his first flight over the mountains was in the dark. "When we got to the airport in China, the runway we were supposed to land on had just been bombed and Japanese Zeros were flying under the airplane."
But in the storytelling department nobody can outdo Lilly when he speaks of his experiences as a wartime prisoner. And when he speaks, there is a hushed silence, almost reverently, for one who survived so much misery.
Lilly was a young crew chief for a P-40 fighter base in the Philippines in 1942. But when the planes left the base after the Japanese invaded early in the year, his Army Air Force group was pressed into service as infantry members.
They tried their best to repel a vicious Japanese assault, but it was all in vain.
"They pounded us for days," he said. "We were ordered to fight to the death. But we had little to fight with. I had a bunch of grenades and none of them worked. They were left over from World War I."
But he was fortunate to find a .45 pistol, with which he surprised five Japanese soldiers in a foxhole. Lilly was the only one to come out alive.
Movies, such as the recently released Saving Private Ryan,can recreate just about everything about battle but the smell, he said.
"The smell of death was everywhere," he said. "And the smell and the roar of gunfire. Everything was dead. Even the trees were cut to shreds."
That smell would saturate his senses for the next four years, from the early fighting to the Death March, to various prison camps.
"Starvation in the camps often led to a fatal pneumonia," he said. "Others were shot or beaten by guards. The guards seemed to enjoy watching other people suffer."
He told his lunchtime friends that one camp he was in had about 1,000 men in the beginning. Four months later, there were 10 left alive.
"I have buried thousands of servicemen myself," he says. "We stacked them up like cordwood. It was so sad. They were all young men who wanted to live."
Lilly often speaks at schools about his wartime experiences. Although he says he is surprised by the number of people who have no knowledge of that part of the war, he is heartened by the reaction of school kids who appreciate learning about it.
Reverman asked Lilly if he prayed during his ordeal.
"Are you religious?" Reverman asked.
"Not really," Lilly answered. "Not for myself, anyway. But I did pray for my family members at home. Maybe God was trying to teach me a lesson."