By Bob Welch
In the Philippine jungle, Clay Conner Jr. ran with the panicked zeal of a hunted animal. He sloshed through rice paddies, splashed across muddy drainage canals and threaded his way through leaves the size and thickness of B-17 props. His lungs heaved.
It was the morning of March 15, 1943.
Conner fell to his knees, hidden in chest-high cogon grass. He heard a vehicle and the crunch of more boots. Machine-gun fire chattered from the rifles of the Japanese soldiers, playing ominous percussion to his panting. His stomach lurched. He vomited. But to quit was to die.
Clay Conner Jr. did not quit. He did what only a few dozen men did in World War II: Eluded the Bataan Death March and survived for 34 months in the jungles of Luzon.
“I have known no one like him,” Jack Brown, a friend, said at Conner’s memorial service in Indianapolis in 1983. Conner died at age 65.
Only a few hundred U.S. soldiers chose to avoid capture by the Japanese when Bataan fell on April 9, 1942. Thousands would die in the subsequent Bataan Death March. Of the 1,209 men—including Conner—aboard the Coolidge that left San Francisco, only 240 would return—a one in five ratio.
Conner left for the war as a 23-year-old Army Air Forces officer, part of the 27th Bombardment Group (Light). He returned a 27-year-old first lieutenant and was honorably discharged as a major.
“He was an absolutely remarkable individual,” said Wayne Sanford, former chairman of the Indiana Historical Society’s military history section. “Intensely courageous.”
But, at the time he fled the onslaught of Japanese soldiers pushing south on the Bataan Peninsula, he was a self-described gutless soldier who couldn’t have been less prepared to survive a jungle crawling with pythons, enemy soldiers and even a few Americans who would betray him.
Conner was Indiana-born, New Jersey-reared, and Duke University-schooled, where his degree was in economics. But when he took to the jungle on April 9, 1942, few men could have been as ill-equipped. He was a cheerleader and golfer who had grown up living in apartments, had never spent a night outdoors until he joined the military and barely knew how to shoot a gun.
What’s more, he had earned little respect from his men. Though his shooting skills had improved remarkably with daily practice, a few weeks before the Fall of Bataan the first lieutenant had been called out by one of his privates as “gutless.” Conner was speechless. Not because the man was out of line, but because, as Clay would later write, “I agreed with him.” He had to face it. Since the Japanese had attacked, he’d been more observer than participant and was slow to learn the lessons of leadership.
In the frantic moments before the men around him were to become part of the largest surrender in U.S. military history, Conner told his superior officer, Captain Lassiter Mason of the Signal Corps, that he wanted to join a handful of others in his unit and take his chances on escape.
“The front lines are mined, and the Japs are there,” said Mason. “Your chances are one in a million.”
That Conner survived underscores a truth that plays out not only in war but in life beyond—when tested, it’s not who we are when the challenge begins, it’s who we can become. Outwardly, Conner might not have been the guy anyone would have picked to lead them through this ordeal, but he was going to use whatever strengths he did have to the best of his and his men’s advantage.
Among those strengths: salesmanship, diplomacy, imagination and broad-mindedness, all imbued with an odd combination of bravado and humility. And, as important as anything, an absolute resolve to survive.
Eighteen months after heading into the jungle—and mere days after talking his best friend, Frank Gyovai, out of committing suicide—Conner hatched a plan. They would not only try to ingratiate themselves with a band of pygmy Negritos whom the Japanese soldiers feared greatly, but join the tribe. Become, in essence, Negritos themselves.
He was convinced that one Negrito, with some sort of concoction, had saved his life when he had malaria. Others had selflessly guided him through the jungle to Olongapo on Subic Bay. Two little Negrito boys had been helping him learn the language so he could impress the tribe’s leader,
“I call them brother,” he said later of the Negritos. “I was crazy about them.”
Or just plain crazy.
“You be killed,” Humbo, one of the little boys, said when Conner told of his plan to approach Kodiaro, the tribal leader.
Conner knew Kodiaro and some of the other spoke a bit of Tagalog. So in whatever he could muster from his language lessons with Humbo and his brother Maurio, he greeted the chieftain.
“Magandang hapon. Kumusta ka?”
A glint of surprise warmed Kodiaro’s face ever so slightly. A white stranger saying good afternoon and how are you?
“Mabuti naman,” Kodiaro replied.
“Ako si Clay Conner.”
Kodiaro smiled ever so slightly. “Ako si Kodiaro.”
Kodiaro looked around at his people. They were all surprised the white man had spoken a language some of them knew. Conner kept making small talk in Tagalog, at one point mentioning that he had run out of tobacco. Kodiaro barked a staccato command. A little boy, perhaps 10 years old, stepped out from the circle of people and presented to Conner a tobacco leaf. Conner smiled.
“Maraming salamat,” he said.
Conner was invited to spend the night, a Duke University graduate lying feet to the fire with a handful of Negritos like spokes on a wheel. The next morning he read to the tribe a proclamation from the Japanese army that said all women should willingly give themselves to their soldiers. That, said Conner, was wrong. The people began to understand the difference between American soldiers and Japanese soldiers, Conner believed.
Still, Kodiaro wasn’t entirely convinced that Conner and his men were worthy. Weeks later, he showed up at Conner’s hut and demanded that Clay trade his .45-automatic for Kodiaro’s own pistol. Clay refused. Kodiaro insisted they have a shooting contest. If Kodiaro won he would get Clay’s gun. Clay had recently gone through a spat of blindness, likely caused by malaria, and his vision was still hampered. But he won the shoot-off anyway.
Kodiaro looked his gun over carefully. He pursed his lips and nodded his head slightly, then held it out. A deal was a deal.
Conner took it, looked at it, then handed it back. “I don’t want your gun, Kodiaro,” he said. “I want your friendship.”
Conner and his men were welcomed into the tribe. It saved their lives. They became loyal to the chief. The chief and his tribe became loyal to Clay and his men.
Later, Conner wound up in a stand off with a Communist leader, Sumulong. The two were negotiating. Thirty or 40 men, mostly Communists, pressed toward Conner. The noise level rose sharply, like a rumble of thunder portending the lightning to follow. Suddenly, from out of the jungle they emerged like an angry swarm of bees, 200 Negritos carrying bolos, spears, blowguns and rifles, there to defend Conner. Sumulong froze, his “home field” advantage suddenly gone. Conner exhaled. He realized a single command from him would decimate the Communists. Instead, he turned to his adversary, Sumulong, and made an outlandish demand that nobody would have expected. Conner ordered Sumulong to prepare lunch for him and his 200 friends.
In January 1945, after nearly three years in the jungle, Conner and five other Americans met up with a group of U.S. tankers on a dusty road. The fresh-faced tankers couldn’t believe what they saw. Beyond a handful of sun-scorched Americans were Filipinos and Negritos, one of whom was carrying a tattered American flag that Conner had vowed would one day fly over a free Philippines. Conner had not only galvanized his own men, but cobbled an army of Filipinos and Negritos that numbered in the hundreds.
“The story of that flag is one of the most impressive incidents of my 39 years of active service,” said O.W. Griswold, the lieutenant general who accepted it from Conner in a brief ceremony a few days later in Concepcion. “To me, it symbolizes the highest concepts of service, duty and loyalty to the nation. I shall cherish always the honor of receiving it from your hands.’
That flag given to him by a young officer whose chances of survival had been estimated at “one in a million.”
“Whatever theater of war we fought in and however we fought it—land, sea, or air—the thing that bound us together as Americans in World War II was something (William Ernest) Henley refers to in my favorite poem, Invictus, something that Clay Conner Jr. must have had in spades—an ‘unconquerable soul,’ ” said Don Malarkey, one of few remaining “Band of Brothers” soldiers from Easy Company.
–Bob Welch is the author of Penguin’s Berkley Caliber book, “Resolve: From the Jungles of WWII Bataan, the Epic Story of a Soldier, a Flag, and a Promise Kept,” which tells the full story of Clay Connor Jr.