After the Bataan Death March, a Lifetime of Gratitude

The war was finally over, but Katie FitzPatrick was still waiting for news of her lost son.

Bernard had been taken prisoner three years earlier, in 1942, in the Philippines. In Bataan.

And now it was the fall of 1945, and a Western Union courier was walking toward her. A telegram to the family of a missing military man can only mean one of two things.

“I said, do you bring me good news?” she would write herself later. “And she smiled and said yes and read the telegram. My first word was Thank God and I cried with joy.”

It was the first letter she could write to her son, knowing he would read it, and her relief and gratitude bubbled up in every line and pencil stroke.

If joy and gratitude are in short supply this Thanksgiving, let this three-page letter sent from Minnesota 77 years ago serve as a refresher.

“Honestly, Bern, the phone rang all afternoon and the next day asking if the news was [true]”, wrote his mother. “You would not believe how many friends you have and all prayed fervently for your safe return, masses upon masses were said for you. I hope I can talk to you soon instead of writing.”

In three chatty pages, his mother filled him in on the neighborhood and family news, worried about his health, and thanked him over and over again.

“Really Bernie, all the praying got it done. All thank God,” he said. “Please let me know how his health is… As always I love him, Mother.”

Bernard FitzPatrick had survived the Bataan Death March and the years of captivity, cruelty, and forced labor that followed. When he was ready to write about it, like his mother before him, he told a story of gratitude.

On nearly every page of his award-winning memoir, “The Hike into the Sun,” FitzPatrick focuses on acts of bravery and kindness in the midst of horror.

Filipino civilians who lined the roads as they marched, risking beatings or worse to throw water, fruit or small sugar cakes at the sick and starving prisoners. The guards who were friendly. The German priest who doggedly delivered food, supplies, and secret messages to prisoners, until he was captured and executed. All the sick, scared, heartbreakingly young soldiers joking and singing and helping each other.

Bernard FitzPatrick was born into a large family on a small farm outside Waverly, Minnesota, in 1915.

There was no running water on the farm and no electricity. But the FitzPatricks were a family more interested in what they had than what they lacked.

They had their faith. They had music and laughter and a deep appreciation of the power of education. Above all, they had each other.

“As adults, my father and his brothers and sisters never seemed to resent growing up in difficult circumstances,” Bernard’s son, Brian FitzPatrick, would recall during his eulogy for his father in 2004. “I never heard them complain about those difficult times. Instead , they joked about it… They seemed to understand that they were rich in the right values.”

Katie FitzPatrick lost her husband, Florian, in 1939. At one point during the ensuing war, three of her children were missing in action. Two of the children, Leonard and Red, were found safe. But not Bernie. Not for three and a half years of agony.

Bernard FitzPatrick always insisted that the real heroes were the ones who didn’t make it home.

Bernie came home, married the lovely Corinne Hurley, and together they raised eight successful children. Throughout his life, he would be approached by parents, wives, children of those who never made it home, desperate to know what happened to them.

“I would tell you what happened truthfully, but as delicately as possible,” he wrote in the introduction to his book. But he would rather talk about how they lived than how they died. “I preferred to describe the courage and camaraderie that the prisoners of war had exhibited throughout their captivity.”

FitzPatrick himself came home emaciated and ill. The captivity had damaged his vision, his hearing, and his heart muscles. He was diagnosed with malaria, beriberi, scurvy, pellagra, filariasis, dysentery, pleurisy, and intestinal and dental problems.

After reviewing his massive medical file, a new doctor at the VA hospital once diagnosed his patient as a “tough old bird.”

Bernard FitzPatrick died on October 8, 2004. He was 89 years old.

Her family donated her papers and memorabilia to her beloved University of St. Thomas and to the Minnesota Historical Society, so more Minnesotans could hear her story and be grateful.

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