A belated funeral for a war hero

Seventy-three years after his death aboard a ‘Hell Ship,’ honor falls on a hero of Bataan and Corregidor

On Memorial Day, May 29, 2017, a ceremony was held at Fort Bragg for Master Sgt. Aaron Kliatchko, a hero of Bataan and Corregidor, in which Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, was finally chanted for him by Chaplain Rabbi Yisahar Izak, more than 73 years after his death aboard a “Hell Ship.” He was also awarded the Purple Heart, together with a Victory Medal for World War I, a World War II Victory button and a Prisoner of War Medal. On June 29 of this year, a funeral will be held for him at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.

Born in 1887 into an Orthodox Jewish family in Eastern Europe, where life revolved around prayer, observance of ritual and the study of religious texts, Aaron Kliatchko was an unlikely candidate to be a military hero. But by 1905 he had already taken part in the Russo-Japanese War, becoming a POW of the Japanese. Two years later, he was a resident of New York’s Lower East Side, having already emigrated to the U.S.

Within three years, Aaron enlisted in the Army and was assigned to the Coastal Artillery, where he started a self-study correspondence course in engineering. When World War I broke out, he was transferred to the Army Corps of Engineers. By war’s end, Aaron was a first sergeant and had achieved the prestigious title of master engineer.

With WWI behind it, his unit was sent to the Philippines, then a U.S. Commonwealth, tasked with completing Corregidor’s fortifications. The following year, Aaron was discharged and joined a U.S. engineering firm and was made project manager in the construction of two major irrigation projects which significantly increased the country’s rice output.

At that point, Aaron Kliatchko, not yet 40 years of age, married a local woman, purchased land north of Manila and settled down into the life of a gentleman farmer raising rice and other crops, living the good life. Occasionally he would go into Manila to transact business, but in reality, he was actually there as an Army counter-intelligence agent, code name “KV.”

All this changed on Dec. 8, 1941, when, soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Philippines was also attacked. Aaron, then 55 years of age, bid his family goodbye and joined the U.S. troops of Bataan and Corregidor. When the troops surrendered, Aaron was taken captive and it is assumed that he took part in the infamous Bataan Death March. Subsequently, the Japanese treated the POWs very harshly, denying them medication and keeping them on a starvation diet.

At Cabanatuan POW camp in the Philippines, Aaron officially tended to the carabao, the local version of the ox, but he was also instrumental in a smuggling operation that brought much needed money, food and medicine into the camp, and which is credited with saving the lives of untold number of Americans. In addition, with his deeply rooted foundation in the tenets and ceremony of Judaism, Mr. Kliatchko became the unofficial chaplain for the several hundred Jewish POWs and was known by all as The Cantor of Cabanatuan. It was he who chanted the Kaddish for dead for Jewish soldiers.

On Oct. 20, 1944, Gen. Douglas Mac-Arthur set foot on Philippine soil, keeping his promise of “I Shall Return,” but the reconquest of the islands was far from fruition. In mid-December, the Japanese shipped nearly all the remaining POWs, Aaron Kliatchko included, to Japan on what is known as a “Hell Ship” on which they were essentially denied all sustenance.

Off the Philippine coast, the unmarked ship was attacked by American planes, killing and wounding many Americans. But the trip to Japan continued. On Dec. 31, 1944, Aaron Kliatchko, then 58 years old, died of the combined effects of disease, starvation and wounds sustained in the earlier air attack. His body was unceremoniously disposed of into the sea. His remains were never recovered and no one said Kaddish for him. In 1948 he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Freedom, the highest honor the U.S. can give a civilian.

And so it was, until 73 years later, when on Memorial Day, 2017 Rabbi Izak, at long last, chanted Kaddish for him.

On June 29, 2018, a funeral service with full military honors, in which a headstone will be unveiled, will be held at Arlington National Cemetery for Master Sgt. Aaron Kliatchko.

  •  Jerome Kleiman is an independent historian who lives in New City, New York.