Bataan: Lost along the Death March
This year's Bataan Memorial ceremony at the Brainerd Armory will include honors for Technician Fifth Grade Julius Knudsen, a Brainerd native who went with the 194th Tank Battalion into the Bataan Death March during the early days of America's inv...
This year's Bataan Memorial ceremony at the Brainerd Armory will include honors for Technician Fifth Grade Julius Knudsen, a Brainerd native who went with the 194th Tank Battalion into the Bataan Death March during the early days of America's involvement in World War II.
Knudsen likely died along the way, either from hunger, thirst, exhaustion or murder by the Japanese army-not an uncommon fate among the prisoners.
What is uncommon is that Knudsen joined the 194th as a transfer from another unit in California, and his comrades didn't know much of the events surrounding his disappearance. Knudsen was last seen sometime between April 10-15, 1942, as he and his unit were force-marched north to prison camps from the place they surrendered on the Bataan Peninsula of the main Philippine island of Luzon. He's been listed as missing ever since. Regardless, his nephew Jim Knudsen is trying to piece together what happened 74 years ago.
Jim inherited the quest to discover what really happened from his father, after the elder Knudsen passed away six years ago. He has taken up the torch to give justice to his uncle, who died long before Jim was born.
"My dad went to his grave not knowing where his brother was, and my grandmother went to her grave not knowing what happened to her son," he said. "I told my dad, I'd keep up with the search."
Missing In Action
Julius Knudsen was the oldest of three sons, who went off by motorcycle to California to find work. Having secured a job as a truck driver, he joined up even before the attack on Pearl Harbor because he had paid attention to Imperial Japan's aggressive moves against neighboring countries in Southeast Asia.
The unit Knudsen joined in California was bound for Ft. Lewis, Wash.-the same base where Brainerd's Company A was training. Knudsen successfully requested a transfer, and before long he was with the 194th as it tried to stop the Japanese invasion of the Philippines. However, the American defenders of Bataan, including the 194th, eventually were ordered to surrender by their superiors.
It's the time following the surrender April 9 where the facts surrounding Knudsen's plight begin to dwindle. There's an officer's note that indicates Knudsen was seen near the town of Lubao at some point during the march, but that's basically the extent of the clues. Knudsen never reached the prison camps that were the Death March's final destination, so he probably died somehow, somewhere during the journey.
Instead of a body-a thing they could mourn-the Knudsens got a letter acknowledging Julius' disappearance from President Harry Truman, years afterward.
Keeping up the fight for answers
The Knudsen family continues to search, with Jim at the forefront of the investigation. They've given samples of their DNA in the hopes that the military can use it to match any sets of unidentified remains that might be Julius.
In 2015, the Department of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency announced it had identified the remains of Brainerd resident Pfc. Eugene L. "Gene" Erickson, killed in the Korean War, among a shipment turned over by North Korea.
The Knudsens hold out hope for a similar revelation, but Jim said it's unlikely Julius will be found among bodies from a mass grave since they're typical of the prison camps that he never reached.
"We hold our breath for that kind of thing," Jim said. "It's all just so much stuff up in the air, waiting for one little string you pull, like on a wool sweater ... and all of the sudden, it unravels."
The Knudsens have some information they've gleaned from Army records, but Jim suspects some of the files on Julius were destroyed in a famous 1970s fire in St. Louis.
Despite this, caseworkers at facilities in Ft. Knox, Ken., and in-depth researchers in Dover, Del., have helped mount exhaustive combings of information, Jim said.
"These are the guys in a room with no windows, and Coke-bottle glasses," he joked.
It was caseworkers that came up with a list of service medals that Julius was entitled to, but that the family had never received.
Jim said the help of the caseworkers combined with information the family got from an Army-hosted seminar for families of MIA service members both formed a turning point in the search for information about Julius.
"The kindling started to get awful warm," he said.
Jim has made more headway in his investigation than his father did, perhaps because of the rise in prevalence of the internet or changes in military policy toward openness of records.
The family was notified recently they can have a place for Julius where they can visit in the state Veterans Cemetery near Little Falls, Jim said. So if his remains are ever found, there's a space for him not far away from his home in Minnesota.
The Bataan memorial ceremony begins at 10 a.m. Saturday.
ZACH KAYSER may be reached at 218-855-5860 or Zach.Kayser@brainerddispatch.com . Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ZWKayser .