James Joseph O'Donovan

James Joseph O'Donovan
War World War II, Prisoner of War
Branch U.S. Army
Rank Major
Group Type
Group Name
Grid b10
Wall B
Direction West
Row 5
Plaque Number 14

MAJ O’Donovan, a highly decorated U.S. Army officer, served in the Philippine Islands during WWII. In the Battle of Bataan he led attacks at the most advanced positions, and proved to be an inspiring leader and an aggressive, courageous fighter. The Philippine defenders put up a stubborn fight, but in 5 months the battle was lost. Jim suffered on the Death March, and died needlessly of Beriberi at Cabanatuan POW camp.

Prior to WW2, Jim was a Captain in the Army Reserves and was professor of Military Science and Tactics at the La Salle Institute, a Catholic military preparatory school in Troy, NY. He'd been married nine years to Evelyn Murray, and they had five young children. In June 1941 he received orders and left everything behind to sail for the Philippine Islands, where war was looming.

Immediately after the Pearl Harbor attack, Japanese bombing attacks in the Philippine Islands succeeded in wiping out that country’s air forces. This unforeseen outcome meant that naval defenses and ground forces were suddenly exposed to annihilation from above. The Navy’s ships sailed for safer waters, while the Army sought cover in the hills of Bataan.

Bataan Peninsula, which juts out into Manila Bay, is covered in jungle, deep ravines and rugged mountains. It was thought to be an ideal place to defend. The decades old plan of defense was sound, especially had its assumptions been true. It called for a “retrograde defense”, a phased withdrawal behind successive lines into the peninsula. The enemy would have to pay dearly for every mile they advanced, and they did. But the plan assumed reasonably that soon, the American Navy would come to the rescue. After Pearl Harbor, It could not. The men on Bataan were on their own, destined to fight starvation and disease as much as the Japanese Army and ultimately written off.

After the war commenced, no letters from Jim were ever received home. What the family has learned about his actions during the war has come from military orders, books, memoirs, and letters written after the war. By all accounts, Jim was an outstanding soldier and a capable leader. He served in the “All-American” 31st Infantry Regiment, which distinguished itself in battle, earning three presidential unit citations and a Philippine presidential unit citation. He was Executive Officer of the 3rd Battalion, second in command of a force of 400-500 soldiers.

"There is no unit in the American Army which has served with greater distinction both in peace and in war, than the 31st Infantry. At Bataan, it achieved its greatest glory as its lines held firm time and time again against the assault of overwhelming superior forces." – General Douglas MacArthur

"I should like to express...my admiration of the splendid courage and quality which the small American army, under General MacArthur, has resisted brilliantly for so long, at desperate odds the hordes of Japanese who have been hurled against it..." – Sir Winston Churchill

His first trial came at the place called Layac Junction, gateway to the Bataan peninsula. The mission was to delay the Japanese Army, buying time for defenses to be made further south at the Main Line of Resistance (MLR). After an 8-hour artillery barrage, the Japanese attacked. Two companies from 1st battalion of the 31st Infantry fled the defensive line, exposing the flanks of adjoining units. MAJ O’Donovan, with two companies from 3rd battalion, rushed forward under fire amidst constant shelling to counter-attack and restore the line. For his actions he was awarded the Silver Star Citation and the Bronze Star Medal. The awards state:

Silver Star Citation

During the counter-attack made by the Third Battalion, 31st Infantry near Layac Junction, Bataan Province, Philippine Islands, on January 6, 1942, Major O’Donovan set a fine example for the attacking elements by his bravery under severe enemy fire. Major O’Donovan’s leadership and bravery under fire were important contributing factors to the success of the attack.

Bronze Star Medal

For Meritorious achievement in military operations against and armed enemy of the United States while serving with Headquarters Company, 3d Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment on 6 January 1942 in the Philippines. His dauntless efforts and unwavering courage in the Asiatic-Pacific Theater of Operations are traits to emulate. Major O’Donovan’s outstanding performance of duty in active ground combat was in keeping with the finest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, the Philippine Division, and the Army of the United States.

The Japanese forces pressed southward down the peninsula, but were stopped at the MLR. The enemy took massive casualties from the 57th Regiment, Philippine Scouts, but continuously probed the line for weakness. They finally broke through near a sugar plantation called Abucay Hacienda. There the 51st Division HQ was surrounded and the penetration was being reinforced, leaving the entire MLR in jeopardy. Jim and the 31st Infantry were commanded to march 15 miles to Abucay Hacienda, counter-attack, and restore the MLR.

While at Abucay Hacienda he personally led several assaults against prepared enemy positions hiding in mango groves and sugar cane. On one of these missions he led a patrol in a flanking maneuver, attacked the enemy leaving 12 dead and was himself hit by a grenade and hospitalized for three days. He was awarded the Purple Heart.

Jim was at other times wounded in the arm, and again slightly wounded in the head by sniper fire, a constant menace in the trees above. Consequently, he led counter-sniper operations and it’s said that he had several snipers to his credit. To gain volunteers for this dangerous mission he’s quoted as saying “come with me and you’ll get medals, let’s bell the cat”.

Japanese soldiers took cover in the sugar cane that grew close to American lines. Several accounts describe how MAJ O’Donovan personally used fuel to set the cane burning. As the enemy fled they were exposed to withering gunfire described as a “duck shoot”. According to one account, Jim’s clothes were entirely burned off leaving him naked except for a gun belt with two pistols.

He commanded the shell on the night of the withdrawal from the Abucay line. Where once 12 companies had been, three companies remained to fight an emboldened enemy, now sensing retreat. Dr. Ralph Hibbs later described it, “Our machine guns clattered incessantly. Our protective shell was holding. Thank God for the brave and determined men who remained behind”. They held out until the appointed time and withdrew as ordered behind a screen of prepared tanks and self-propelled guns. A thousand Japanese gave pursuit, unaware of the waiting tanks which wiped them out entirely.

The commander of L Company, Captain Donald G. Thompson, later wrote of this event:

I was with Jim throughout that long, terrible, night fighting Japs continuously until 7:00 in the next morning! He was an inspiration to me, as well as all the men in the covering force for his fearlessness, his good judgement and his superior commanding ability. How we got out of that action that night I’ll never know, but Jim O'Donovan had a great deal to do with it!

That month, Clark Lee, an AP reporter embedded with the troops wrote in his column:

The Hacienda battle proved for the first time that American soldiers can outfight Japanese, but it was costly proof. The 31st regimental roster is studded with the names of dead, wounded and missing, as well as those of living heroes.

For his actions at Abucay Hacienda, Jim was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, our nation’s second highest military award after the Medal of Honor.

Distinguished Service Cross

For extraordinary heroism in action in the vicinity of Abucay Hacienda, Bataan, Philippine Islands, during the period January 20-24, 1942. During the four-day battle of Abucay Hacienda, Major O’Donovan was serving as battalion executive officer. His constant exhibition of bravery and effective leadership in front line positions under intense rifle, machine gun, mortar and artillery fire was a significant factor in the successful resistance of his unit. On the night of January 24th, Major O’Donovan, in command of a covering shell of three depleted companies, was charged with securing the withdrawal of his regiment. Shortly after the withdrawal was under way, a general attack was launched by the enemy. Again, his competent leadership and exhibition of bravery in the most advanced positions, contributed to the efficient accomplishment of his mission and the consequent successful withdrawal of the regiment."

Japanese succeeded in taking the MLR but at such a high price they could not afford to press the attack further. They paused during February and March to gather forces for a final assault and subsequent bombardment of the island fortress of Corregidor. Despite the lull in direct combat, the defenders continued to wither away from months of 1/2 rations, and a shortage of medicine, including quinine, essential for treatment of malaria. In mid-march, Jim spent eight days in the hospital, probably due to malaria. This all meant that when the fighting did resume, their effectiveness would be less than 50%.

Japan’s final assault began April 3rd in sector D of the defensive line, manned by the pitiful remnants of the Philippine Army. After a terrific artillery attack that demolished the majority of defensive preparations, the Japanese advanced, scattering the shell-shocked defenders. The 31st Infantry Regiment, which had been held in reserve, was released April 5th. Their mission was to counter attack a Japanese breakthrough in sector D. By the time the regiment arrived at the line of departure, the enemy was already there and advancing. The mission was changed from attack, to the formation of a defensive line at the San Vicente River.

It was at this line of defense on April 6th that Jim was nearly blown up. The event was described in the book “Bataan, Our last Ditch”:

“… Captain Thompson was receiving orders from Major O’Donovan when Japanese artillery slammed into the area. Thompson was next to a tree that shattered under the fire and peppered him with pieces of tree and shell. He was evacuated to a hospital, not because of fragmentation wounds, but because the shell landed so close he lost his hearing. Sitting nearby, Private Snyder was watching the meeting when he saw the shell hit right among the officers. “It temporarily shell-shocked me” Snyder recalled. “I ran to a foxhole, and after the shelling, the men had a hard time getting me out”

The resistance at the San Vicente River held until April 7th, when their position was attacked, the regiment was cut off, and they received orders to withdraw. The regiment made a disorganized withdrawal to another defensive line on the 8th and finally was surrounded and captured on April 9th.

A letter from Captain Thompson, Company L commander, indicates that after April 7th, Jim had a special mission:

I was wounded on the 6th of April 1942 by Jap heavy artillery and was taken to the base hospital. 3 days later (Apr 9) the surrender came. However, on the last two days of fighting, Jim organized and commanded a small task force of Filipinos, American soldiers, scouts, navy and marines around the town of Mariveles. Thru Jim's command and men, the navy was able to destroy many naval installations rather than surrender them to the Japs. His actions on those 2 days were highly commended by several officers and men I talked to after the surrender.

Upon surrender, the Philippine defenders would be led out of Bataan, because they were in the way of the next offensive, a month long artillery bombardment of the island fortress of Corregidor. The Japanese army gathered a total of 78,000 American and Filipino soldiers, looted them, and in groups of 100 marched them out of the peninsula. Hardly any consideration was given to the sick, injured, or exhausted. Falling behind, stopping to drink, getting out of line, all meant execution. Sadists murdered and tortured men for fun. Men were forced to bury other men alive. Corpses lined the 65 mile trek to POW Camp O’Donnell. The death toll was five to ten thousand Filipinos and about 650 Americans.

Donald G. Thompson later wrote to Jim’s widow:

The night after our surrender I found Jim in the column marching out of Bataan on what has come to be known as the "death march", so I joined him and we marched, slept, & marched for 4 days and nights on that long trip to camp O'Donnell, our first prisoner of war camp. Jim had malaria from the 2nd day and was a very sick man, but he refused to let me or anyone else carry his pack. He said "he was a soldier and a good soldier carries his own load".

After the war, Abie Abraham recalled in a letter:

On the death march he was leading the men; a guard came over telling Major O’Donovan to move faster. Jim kept up a slow pace, he knew by moving fast the men would pass out and get shot. The nip slugged the Major in the face, but he still kept a slow pace and he held his head up as he led the men away.

After the surrender the captives were interned at Camp O’Donnell. The Japanese guards were indifferent to the needs and suffering of their captives, offering no medicine and a starvation diet. In two months, 1500 Americans died of every kind of treatable illness. In June, 1942 the survivors were moved to Cabanatuan POW camp, which was not much better. There, 2700 more Americans would be buried.

Donald G. Thompson, a friend and fellow POW later wrote:

At Cabanatuan Camp Jim came down with malaria and Beriberi and was put into the hospital. No medicine was available and Jim got down to about 100 pounds. His body became bloated from the Beriberi (lack of protein in the blood stream) and it finally reached his heart. He lasted only about 3 days when the infections reached and entered his heart. He died as he had lived, without complaining and at peace with his God! Something I've always admired in any man.

In agony he struggled to survive, knowing what his loss would do to his wife Evelyn and their five children. Sadly, after months of starvation and untreated illness, the great beating heart of Major James J. O’Donovan finally gave out, ending the incredible saga of an American Hero.

Written by Steven Unwin – Grandson of MAJ O’Donovan


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