Portion of US 184 to be named for Bataan survivor

Published 3:16 pm Friday, November 20, 2009

James Arnold Flowers isn’t sure how he survived the hellish trek through the Philippines, passing the corpses of fallen comrades and beset by atrocities so extreme that it became known as the Bataan Death March.

He was just happy to come home to Mississippi after World War II and back to a quiet farming life. Flowers never expected to receive widespread praise for his service, but on Thursday, a portion of a Mississippi highway will be named for the 87-year-old Laurel native, a rare honor for a living person.

Flowers survived one of the most brutal chapters in war history, when American and Filipino prisoners of war endured starvation, beatings and torture on a forced march across the Philippines to Japanese prison camps in 1942.

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The march, dozens of miles in the tropical heat with little food or water, was too much for many men. Those who fell behind were beaten or killed, some stabbed with bayonets or shot.

“They started passing out and the (Japanese) were killing them one way or another, cutting their heads off or running over them with trucks,” Flowers told The Associated Press in a phone interview. “I don’t know how anybody made it through. I can tell you this: If I was over there again, I would probably do what some of the men did and just lay down my head. It was too hard a life.”

At one point along the march, Flowers reached down to dip his canteen into a puddle and was startled to see the bodies of American soldiers in the water. Extremely thirsty, he drank it anyway.

“I’m a survivor,” he said, rejecting the hero label. “I touched the hand of hell, that’s what I think.”

Mississippi officials rarely name a section of blacktop after a living person, but the Legislature approved the measure during the 2008 legislative session. Among the few living people to be honored in such a way was Evelyn Gandy, the first woman elected to the statewide offices of treasurer, insurance commissioner and lieutenant governor. She died in 2007.

The Mississippi Department of Transportation will dedicate a section of U.S. Highway 184 in Jones County as the “James Arnold Flowers Memorial Highway” during a ceremony Thursday evening in Laurel.

“It means a lot,” Flowers said. “Mostly because my wife wanted it …”

Mary Frances Ingram died about a year and half ago after 60 years of marriage, he said.

No one knows exactly how many men died on the Bataan march, but most agree it was thousands. Many others later died in prison.

Flowers was captured April 9, 1942, survived 11 days on the march and spent 3 1/2 years as a prisoner. By the time he was rescued Sept. 14, 1945, he weighed just 76 pounds.

Flowers returned to Mississippi, where he farmed and worked at Masonite International in Laurel.

Daughter Beverly Evans of Tuscaloosa, Ala., said her father “is very humble.”

“Daddy’s always been our hero,” she said.

More than 60 years after the war’s end, the ranks of World War II survivors are dwindling. Flowers said he may be the only one of 65 men left from his aviation ordnance group in the war.

“I’ve had a wonderful life. I have four wonderful children and a lovely wife, Flowers said. “I’ve got four kids, 13 grandkids, 23 great grandchildren and more on the way.”