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Palm Beach resident (AKA Grandpa Wallace) to see Memorial Day through his brother’s eyes

I don’t know if my Grandpa Wallace got a new PR agent or what, but he’s been in the Palm Beach news three times in the past year. The most recent was on Memorial Day, with the following article about his brother Robert McTammany who died during World War II:

Palm Beach Resident to see Memorial Day through his Brother’s Eyes
(via Palm Beach Daily News)

By John Nelander

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Robert McTammany was one of 12,000 American soldiers forced by the Japanese during World War II to march under brutal conditions to a prisoner of war camp in the Philippines. Miraculously, he survived 61 miles of starvation, beatings and random executions only to die of malaria after he reached his destination.

His four brothers — including Wallace McTammany of Palm Beach — didn’t learn of Robert’s death until years later in 1945. But the family, originally from Providence, R.I., never forgot, and Wallace doggedly pursued official recognition of his brother’s heroic deeds.

His efforts were rewarded earlier this year when an array of medals honoring Robert were delivered to Wallace’s home. They include a Purple Heart, a World War II Victory Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, a bronze Prisoner of War Medal and an Honorable Service Lapel Button.

It will make this Memorial Day — almost exactly 70 years since Robert enlisted in the Army — a little more special.

Robert joined the Army in September 1940, and left for the Philippines as a sergeant on Oct. 6, 1941, two months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. He became embroiled in the historic Battle of the Philippines after the Japanese invaded the island chain just before Christmas.

Fighting raged in January through April 1942, with the American troops under the command of Gen. Douglas MacArthur defending the strategic island of Corregidor and the Bataan Peninsula.

It ended with the surrender of American and Filipino troops on April 9. Ten thousand Allied troops died and 20,000 were wounded — and 75,000 (including 12,000 Americans) were taken prisoner. They were forced to walk the 61 miles to a prisoner of war camp, a journey that became known as the Bataan Death March.

It was marked by beatings, casual shootings, starvation and even beheadings. Still, Robert somehow made it to Camp O’Donnell, a temporary holding facility for American soldiers before they were sent on to other Japanese-held camps.

Wallace keeps a copy of a newspaper clipping from 1945 that announced Robert’s death at the age of 30 — he was counted as missing for three years. He also keeps an unnamed and unmarked copy of a book describing the camp in which his brother spent his final month.

“The sanitation was so appallingly bad, the stench so overwhelming, that the few Japanese who ventured inside the camp almost invariably wore surgical masks,” the author says.

There was one place in camp to house the critically ill, which the soldiers came to call St. Peter’s Ward because they believed there was no chance of survival. Patients died of malaria, dysentery, acute dehydration and starvation.

Wallace says simply: “It was a horror show.”

Robert was buried in Manila, in a cemetery for American soldiers. The McTammany family chose not to have his remains moved back to the United States.

Fast forward to 2009. Wallace had been taking morning walks with another World War II veteran, Martin Davidson, a retired Marine major who fought in Iwo Jima. They began chatting about McTammany’s brother Robert.

“I’d been reading in a military magazine that the government had opened up new opportunities for getting Purple Hearts,” Davidson recalls. “So I told him about it. It’s a good thing, no matter when and how it was received. It puts the government in a good light, which doesn’t happen very often.”

Of the Bataan Death March, Davidson adds: “It’s hard to imagine what these guys went through.”

Four of five McTammany brothers, including Wallace, entered the military. They served in various capacities and locations — Wallace in the Bahamas, the Caribbean and West Palm Beach. “I just lucked out,” he says.

Wallace went on to a career doing architectural renderings. Robert never had the chance to pursue his career as a classical musician. Before enlisting, he had played string bass in the Providence and Boston symphony orchestras.

“All five of us boys were industrious,” Wallace says. “Bob had a lot of different jobs, but he loved music. He was different from the rest of us.

“He would sit in a corner in a rocking chair when he was home, and listen to this huge Stromberg-Carlson radio. He’d just be carried away.”

And now his memory lives on in the hearts and minds of his family, the collection of medals and honors Wallace proudly displays in his home office, and within the flag he flies each Memorial Day on the balcony of his condo on South Ocean Boulevard.