From "Out of Bounds"

Motts Tonelli with your editor at the Leahy's Lads dinner in South Bend, September 2002.

Motts Tonelli with your editor at the Leahy's Lads dinner in South Bend, September 2002.

This month's edition of Out of Bounds features the Motts Tonelli story told by two former ND students in their book Out of Bounds.

Motts Tonelli, Notre Dame fullback from 1936 to 1938, does not revel in it. He's not even sure when the war started. "Let me see. ..," he mutters. "December?" Tilting his head back, he lets his eyes cloud. He is trying to remember something he has every right to forget. "That's it." He brings his eyes level with yours. "December it started."

What Tonelli is talking about is World War II. In the spring of 1942, Tonelli was stationed with the United States Army on the Bataan Peninsula of the Philippine Islands. Now, in the National Geographic Magazine, Bataan may look like some sort of primitive paradise. In reality it is a steaming maelstrom of mountain, jungle and swamp. Bataan simply defies human existence, but never so much as in the spring of 1942.

At that time, the Imperial Japanese Army was attacking from the North. The Americans, boxed into a trap of their own making, were slowly starving to death. For the soldiers, there was a half- ration of rice a day. The horses had already been cooked and eaten. Some people were trying monkey stew.

On Good Friday, April 3, 1942, Japanese General Homma began a new offensive. Debilitated by hunger and disease, facing certain slaughter, the Americans surrendered on April 9. This was followed by one of the most infamous episodes of the Pacific War. American and Philippine prisoners were forced to march out of Bataan -a distance of almost one hundred miles - without food or water. The prisoners were beaten and clubbed to hurry their step. Stragglers, those who could go no further, were bayonetted or shot. This savagery lasted a full seven days. It was called The Bataan Death March, and Motts Tonelli walked every inch of it.

"There weren't too many roads into Bataan," says Tonelli. "So they wanted us out of there and off their supply lines in a hurry. They wanted to get their guys in.

"And it was rough. I remember at night, when we would be pushed over to the side of the road to sleep. I would spread my shirt in the grass to catch the dew. Next morning, I'd hold the shirt above my mouth, and I'd wring out the shirt and try to catch drops of water on my tongue. When it didn't work, I'd suck on the shirt for some moisture.

"It's not easy to explain -it's harder for others to understand -but I think my Notre Dame football experience helped me on the march. The hard work, the discipline. Getting my mind set to sacrifice for one goal. Of course my goal then was just to stay alive."

Tonelli lived through the Death March, and spent the next three-and-a-half years in a Japanese prison camp. Again, he credits his experience at Notre Dame with helping him to survive.

"I would lay there at night," he remembers, "and I'd think a lot about Notre Dame. I'd think about the grotto, and my professors, and people who meant something to me there. I'd pray, and Notre Dame would come back to me. It got me through...well, it got me through an awful lot."

Tonelli works in an air-conditioned office now. He stays in shape. He has lunch with friends, and at night he goes home to his family.

On his desk is a small American flag; scattered across his office, the usual Fighting Irish knick knacks and souvenirs, That's all, for what he and hundreds like him learned cannot be engraved on a plaque or stuck in a record book, Wisdom, courage, hope: big words; words we easily, cynically dismiss. But more than words to Motts Tonelli. Thanks, in part, to Notre Dame.

 

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