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    Last surviving China Band Marine relives experiences

    Last surviving China Band Marine relives experiences

    Photo By Cpl. Michelle Piehl | Donald L. Versaw, now the last surviving member of the 4th Marine Regiment Band the...... read more read more



    Story by Lance Cpl. Michelle Piehl 

    Marine Corps Air Station Miramar

    SAN DIEGO, Calif. - Every Marine a rifleman. Regardless of military occupational specialty, Marines throughout history trained to fight, defend and carry out the duties of an infantryman should their country call. For members of the Fourth Marine Regiment Band, “The Last China Band,” this call to arms became their new persona on Dec. 8, 1942.

    Donald L. Versaw, a retired Marine Corps master sergeant and Bloomington, Neb., native, marched with his fellow Marines in the Fourth Marine Regiment Band, originally stationed in Shanghai, China, in 1941.

    “We performed various concerts for the troops scattered around the city,” said Versaw. “We played in parades and ceremonies for international settlements. Our purpose was to keep America’s best foot forward among the international community.”
    Amid the threat of an impending world war, the entire band was withdrawn on orders from Headquarters Marine Corps and was relocated to the U.S. Naval Station at Olongapo, Philippine Islands.
    “We left Shanghai playing,” said Versaw. “The last time I ever played in the band was November 1941. We never had a chance to unpack our instruments; we never performed as a band again, but we stayed together.”

    While in the Philippines, a day ahead of the U.S., Versaw recalled listening to a sailor’s radio in the middle of the night on Dec. 8, 1941, and hearing the terrible words: Pearl Harbor has been hit. Nearly the entire fleet had been knocked out by the Japanese.
    “It was very hard for us to believe,” said Versaw.

    War had begun. As morning came, the band Marines laid down their instruments and took up their rifles. The Musicians of the 4th Marine Band now made up the 3rd Platoon, Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment.

    “In the Marine Corps, you’re Marines first,” said Versaw. “Everything else is secondary.”

    The band members turned infantrymen took defensive positions along the Olongapo coast in preparation against a beachfront attack.

    Once the threat of such an attack subsided, the fighting bandsmen moved to the tip of the Bataan Peninsula, near Corregidor, the site of the terrible Bataan Death March, which took place a few short months later, Versaw continued.

    While the regiment was spread over the island to resist further attacks from the sea, most of the enemy action had come in the form of artillery fire, Versaw recalled.

    “The band platoon was fortunate in that it was positioned where it didn’t have to come in direct contact with the enemy,” said Versaw. “We just took a heck of a beating. We had to stay in our fighting holes all the time.”

    Things had begun to take a terrible turn for the worse for the band. Seventy years ago, on May 6, 1942, the entire band platoon was taken as prisoners of war.

    “The island was surrendered to the Japanese to prevent the wholesale slaughter of the refugees and wounded in the underground hospitals,” said Versaw. “It seemed to our commander that it was the more humane thing to do. [It] turned out that the war for us had just begun. Our battle with the enemy was survivorship. It was a long three-and-a-half years before we were liberated.”

    Captured Marines were transported on the so aptly-named “Hell Ships.” Comparable to the packed freight cars of the holocaust, more than 1,000 POW’s were stuffed into the hull of the Nissyo Maru, a Japanese vessel. The tightly-packed “human cargo” suffered from sweltering heat, unsanitary conditions, exhaustion, thirst and hunger.

    Seventeen agonizing days later, the ship laid anchor in the dock of Moji, Kyushu, Japan. The POW’s were then transported by train and foot to the coal-mining city of Futase in Fukuoka province.

    “My seniors and [noncommissioned officers] gave me a lot of encouragement,” said Versaw. “It was very depressing. We didn’t know what would happen to us day-by-day, hour-by-hour. You just got up in the morning, counted your bones, checked yourself out and hoped you didn’t get in any trouble that day. [You would hope] you wouldn’t get beat up or abused. You wondered if you would find something to eat.”

    The POW’s worked more than 11 hours a day, seven days a week, for pennies a day.

    Three-and-a-half years later, the POW’s were liberated following the end of the war. The Marines took over a month to return stateside, returning to a long anticipated homecoming.
    After his return to the states, Versaw was years out of practice on the French horn and decided to make a lateral move into another MOS.

    He pursued a career in photography and videography, in the field of Combat Camera. He served as an instructor of Basic Still Photography at the former Navy Photography School in Pensacola, Fla.

    Following his retirement from the Marine Corps, Versaw made a career in the aerospace industry, working on space programs such as the Saturn and Apollo missions, as well as the moon landing mission.

    Versaw also served five years in civil service through the Army Corps of Engineers and the Air Force as a photographer respectively.

    It wasn’t until years after his retirement that he was recognized for his sacrifice during World War II. Versaw was decorated with a POW medal by the commanding officer of Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, Calif.

    Music continues to be a part of his life through the Marine Corps Musicians Association. He recently attended the 27th annual MCMA dinner in San Diego as a distinguished guest.

    “Just being in the same room as him gives me goose bumps,” said fellow MCMA member William F. Schnell, a retired master gunnery sergeant, tuba player and an Avon Lake, Ohio, native. “I don’t know how many people know about [the band POWs], even Marines today. Just to know a bandsman went through that, like he did, is amazing.”

    As the last surviving member of the Last China Band, Versaw’s legacy as well as the band’s continues in his books, “Mikado no Kyaku (Guest of the Emperor)” and “The Last China Band.”
    To read more about Versaw and the ordeal of the 4th Marine Regiment Band Marines, visit the homepage of the Last China Band at



    Date Taken: 05.09.2012
    Date Posted: 05.09.2012 13:07
    Story ID: 88157
    Location: SAN DIEGO, CA, US 
    Hometown: SAN DIEGO, CA, US

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