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Bataan Death March survivor celebrates 90th birthday

April 18, 2012 12:00:00 AM PDT
Eli Coloma was surrounded by family Wednesday to mark two milestones. First, the Fountain Valley resident celebrated his 90 birthday.

"Every day is a blessing and we're extremely thrilled and extremely blessed to have him in our lives," said his granddaughter, Alina Di Cesare.

The other milestone is a much darker memory that takes him back to 1942.

"All I had was survival, I hope I can survive this," he said.

Coloma was a member of a U.S. Army unit called the Philippine Scouts. They helped communicate Morse code. On April 9, 1942, he became a prisoner of war when he was forced by the Japanese army into the Bataan Death March.

He was among about 75,000 American and Filipino troops forced to walk more than 50 miles. The march lasted several days and thousands did not make it to the prisoner camp.

"We were not given food or nothing, no food, no water," he said.

Coloma remembers the torture like it was yesterday. He recalls what happened if a prisoner fell or sat down during the march.

"Depending upon the mood of the guard that was guarding us, they will put you on the side of the road and either bayonet you or shoot you in the mouth," said Coloma.

During the death march, Coloma turned 20. While it was far from a celebration, he says since then birthdays often bring back those memories. He's grateful he survived.

He retired from the military in 1962, after more than 20 years, eventually becoming a successful businessman in Orange County. Coloma still fits into his army uniform.

Coloma says his secret to getting this far is just taking it day by day.

His birthday wish was simple -- to celebrate two milestones with family.

"He went through that during his birthday," said his daughter, Arlene Coloma Smith. "To survive that in his young years and then to be at this age, it's special."

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