September 21, 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 the morning of April 9, 1942 preparing to fight to the death.
"That's what we were ordered to do," he said during a recent lunch with friends. "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 would then become part of what was later called the Bataan Death March‹a brutal, forced trek of 70 miles in scorching heat, with little rest and no water. The Japanese commander had ordered thousands of American and Filipino prisoners to march from the tip of Bataan to an inland concentration camp. Those who couldn't keep up were shot by the Japanese soldiers, Lilly said.
Surviving the march, Lilly 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 physical 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 a 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 the group members originally met.
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.
Ausland, also a World War II veteran of the Pacific Theater, is a walking encyclopedia on airplane lore.
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 says. "We often faced winds of a hundred miles an hour and rain so heavy I couldn't figure out how the engines kept on running."
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 Lilly is the storyteller extraordinaire, having honed his skills in classrooms, telling students of his experiences as a prisoner-of-war. And when he speaks, there is a respectful silence.
In 1942, he was a young crew chief for a P-40 fighter base in the Philippines. 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.
"The Japanese 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 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.