Bataan Death March: A WWII vet walked to survive
Never give up. Always help your brother.

Those two themes run through the family of James Downey Jr., two positives that grew from one of the darkest chapters of American military history.

Downey was a young solder in the prime of life, six years removed from an Olympic team tryout, when Japanese soldiers captured him on April 9, 1942. He was put in line with thousands of other prisoners and ordered to start walking.

The rule was simple: Stop and you die.

It became known as the Bataan Death March, and Downey did not give up. Today he is 95 years old with a firm handshake and a memory for detail that is both inspirational and chilling.

"I dream about it sometimes," he said, "like you're being captured."

Help your brother? Downey carried him. Little brother Robert Downey was too sick to walk and, ultimately, he ended up too sick to survive.

The Bataan Death March began after some 75,000 troops under American command surrendered to Japanese forces in the Philippines. The forcible march to a Japanese POW camp covered 60 miles and lasted more than five days.

By some estimates, 11,000 died.

Men were shot, beaten to death, beheaded or stabbed. Even today, Downey cannot shake the images.

"A lot of my friends died along the way," he said. "And sometimes a Japanese tank would go over — Oh God — you'd see them along the road. It was terrible."

His son, Gary Downey, said the themes of never giving up and always helping a brother were impressed upon the children at an early age.

"This journey that happened to him on Bataan, it still continues for him," Gary said. "Dad has sort of gathered people along the way with that, made friends."

In reunions all over the country, the children of Bataan survivors "have that same, never-give-up attitude," Gary Downey said.

James Downey enlisted in the Army in 1934 and he tried out for the 1936 U.S. Olympic team as a swimmer in the backstroke.

He was half-Filipino by birth. His mother was of Philippine and Spanish heritage and his father was from Augusta County, a cavalry officer who fought in the Spanish-American War.

Downey served with the Army's 26th Calvary Philippine Scouts, a decorated unit that still rode horses into battle in the early days of World War II. In January 1942 on Luzon Island, the 26th made what is regarded as the final horse-mounted charge in the annals of the U.S. military.

Downey was on patrol on April 9 when he was captured.

"We came up and I met a Japanese," he recalled. "He said, 'War over!' waving his arms. We slept by a river that night and the next day they lined us up."