From Merrill to Arlington National Cemetery, another Merrill Hero
Michael J. Caylor, Jr.
Seventy years ago this week our nation was beginning to heal from the ravages of World War II. Things had mostly stabilized in Europe after the death of Adolf Hitler and the surrender of German in 1944. The United States had dropped two atomic bombs on the Japanese mainland and Japan had offered their unconditional surrender on Aug. 15, 1945. As a result, our sons and daughters were returning home from the foreign lands and battlefields looking to rejoin their families and start out where they left off before their country called them to war.
But for one native son of Merrill, his days were not so bright. He was sitting in a prisoner of war camp in Manchuria probably not even aware that the war had formally ended. While they were dancing in Times Square and toasting in the taverns across the country, as church bells rang out the good news, Liveo “Ollie” Olivotti was toiling away doing kitchen duty in Mukden Prison, the last work he would be forced to do by his Japanese captors after surviving the Bataan Death March.
Ollie was born in Merrill on Jan. 27, 1921. His high school sweetheart Harriet Pope waited out the war and married Ollie in 1946.
After graduating from Merrill High School, Ollie joined the local Nation Guard post before joining the Army Air Force. As he was completing his schooling at Aircraft Mechanics School in Chanute Fields, Illinois he heard they were taking volunteers for duty in the Philippines, something Ollie jumped at as he wanted to travel and thought the Air Force would eventually pay for his college. Days later he sailed out of New York on the USS Grant and landed at Clark Field in 1940 where he took charge of the electrical shop at the base.
The Japanese bombed Clark Field in December of 1941 and Ollie assisted in trying to get some planes together but on Christmas Eve he and his fellow soldiers manning the base were ordered to the Barrio (train station) and rode off into the night. At the time they did not realize they were retreating to the Bataan Peninsula where they would take part in a four month battle for control of the peninsula. While at Bataan he lived in a hole with a blanket for a bed. As the soldiers endured constant bombardment they survived on only one meal per day. Ollie’s 21st birthday was spent on Bataan.
On April 9, 1942 the rumor went through the camp that the forces there had surrendered to the Japanese. Ollie and several others headed for the hills scavenging. They found a dump with medical supplies and started filling their pockets. Ollie even used a cartridge belt and stuffed that full of things he could use to fight malaria and other illnesses. While the group was scavenging they looked up and realized they were surrounded by Japanese soldiers, many of whom were holding American issued .45 caliber pistols. The Japanese stripped the group of all their valuables such as rings and watches, but they let them keep their medical supplies. Olivotti and his fellow soldiers then all joined what became known as the Bataan Death March.
The Bataan Death March was supposed to be, according to Lieutenant General Masaharu at his later war trial, the humane transfer of 60,000 to 80,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war from Saisaih Point and Mariveles to Camp O’Donnell by the Japanese Army. Along the way about 2,500 to 10,000 Filipino and 100-650 American prisoners died before they could reach their destination. Because many of the bodies were buried along the 60 mile route, the exact number of soldiers involved and the number who were killed or died from disease may never be known. Many also escaped, those captured a second time were usually killed on the spot.
The transfer of the prisoners quickly turned chaotic and bloody. With escapes, men collapsing from the heat, and the barbaric treatment overseen by Japanese army officer Masanobu Tsuji, it soon became what it became known as, the death march. The POWS received little food or water. When water was found some prisoners were shot for leaving the lines to seek relief and refreshment. Some collapsed from heat exhaustion and if that did not lead to their demise, Japanese soldiers would murder them as they struggled to get up, some with their Samurai swords, calling it practice for battle. Once the group arrived at O’Donnell there was not enough food or water to go around and dysentery and other diseases quickly spread through the camp.
Ollie fared better than most during the march. Every time he was given water he would place an iodine pill in it to stave off infection. His only food was an occasional handful of rice, and during his 11 days on the move he ate five of them. One of the things that always lived in his mind was seeing the body of a native on his knees praying, with his head lying on the ground next to him. He would watch as the Japanese soldiers would shoot down the sides of the lines to help keep everyone in formation.
Once they arrived at Camp O’Donnell, Ollie saw a truck with men and tools in it so he jumped on hoping it would lead to a camp with better conditions. The truck took him and his fellow prisoners out to a location where the Japanese wanted him to build a bridge. He could actually bathe here but the water was muddy. Sleeping quarters were far more impressive on the floor of a school house. While he was there Ollie had an attack of malaria and was singled out by the Japanese soldiers. So he took the remaining pills he had saved after the battle at Bataan. Whatever the infliction was, the pills were the cure as he was quickly allowed to re-join his fellow soldiers in the school house. Despite the improvement in living conditions, the Japanese soldiers would still demonstrate their ruthless behavior at times. One night a soldier escaped. The guards took out 10 men, five from each side of his bunk and shot them all, making the other prisoners watch.
The next location Ollie was moved to was at Cabanatuan; there he was placed on burial detail. His best friend Clifford Clegg of Chicago died there. But the food was slightly better as it included buns. The buns were often infested with weevils, but it was a welcome change.
On Oct. 8, 1942 Ollie and 3,000 of his fellow prisoners boarded the ship Tottori Maru heading to Formosa. The ship was known as the Hell Ship. It contained American prisoners and 4,000 Japanese troops, many of whom were headed to Korea. Dysentery ran throughout the ship and the men were on strict rations including only one cup of water per day. While on the ship the soldiers nearly lost their lives when the American submarine Grenadine sent two torpedoes at it. Luckily for the souls on board, the captain turned it at the last minute causing the torpedoes to pass alongside of it.
Always wanting to be working, Ollie volunteered one day to carry buckets when the Japanese asked for five prisoners to help. While doing that he slipped and fell on a wet gangplank fracturing his shoulder. Laid up with the broken shoulder, he laid moaning in pain suffering from the effects of dysentery and beriberi, Ollie was given last rights by a Catholic Priest. Luck again came to Ollie’s side in the form of Dr. Scabart, an American doctor who was also a captive. He set his arm and in a few days the pain was gone, although whenever Ollie looked at the wooden splint he would see the lice running up and down it.
Ollie ended up in Mukden; prisoners who had experience in aircraft repair were often sent there to work. Because of his arm, Ollie was at first sent to the kitchen. His only brush with the Japanese was when he was caught out of his bunk at night. He had realized he forgot his soap, a precious commodity at the time, and got caught going out to retrieve it. His punishment was being in a 7×7-foot cell for two weeks. During the day he was required to stand at attention. Luckily for Ollie, a high ranking officer came to visit and he was let out of his punishment.
Liberation day came on Sept. 20, 1945 when the Russian Army arrived. (Most articles say the camp was liberated in August and the sick prisoners were sent off immediately, healthier ones stayed until late in September, so the date of the 20th in his obituary may mean the day he left the camp). Ollie returned to the United States and continued to serve in the Air Force until he retired in 1960 after service in Korea. His accolades were well deserved and many as he received the Bronze Star Medal, Prisoner of War Medal, World War II Victory Medal, Air Force Commendation Medal, Good Conduct Medal, American Defense Ribbon, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Ribbon, National Defense Service Ribbon, Air Force Longevity Service Ribbon, Presidential Unit Citation, Philippine Republic Presidential Unit Citation and the Army of the Occupation (Japan) Ribbon.
After his retirement at the rank of Warrant Office, Ollie and his wife Harriet settled in Livermore, California where he became involved in many civic organizations. His many wood projects were highly regarded as it seemed he was always busy working on them in his shop with the results bringing amazement of his family, friends, and fellow Shriners. And then fittingly on the day our Nation celebrates its independence and remembers those who fought for it, July 4, 1995, Ollie passed away quietly at his home in Livermore with his wife of 48 years and other family members by his side.
A service was held at Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Livermore on July 8. And from there the Callaghan Mortuary arranged for his transfer to Virginia where he was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.
Sources: Olivotti Obit, Foto News, July 1995; Defenders of the Philippine’s Library, Mukden Prisoner of War Remembrance Society, interview used with permission by Mukden Society.