LAS CRUCES, N.M. (AP) — A story of hope, brotherhood and survival that deeply moved Barry Dunleavey led to a long-term project to bring Bataan Death March survivor Sidney Stewart’s memoir, “Give Us This Day,” to the stage.
Just in time for Veteran’s Day, the play premiered with performances throughout the weekend at the Rio Grande Theatre in Las Cruces.
“I read the story many years ago and thought it was great. In 1942, thousands of American and Filipino troops surrendered to the Japanese Imperial Army, the devastating conclusion to the three-month Battle of Bataan that followed the fall of Manila. The prisoners then were forced to march 65 miles in the blazing heat, denied food and water and executed if they fell out of line,” Dunleavey said.
“Survivors faced years of prison camps, transport to Japan on the infamous ‘hell ships,’ ceaseless torment from hunger and the daily presence of death. Yet somehow, men sustained faith, loyalty to each other and a will to grasp the gift of life,” he said.
Dunleavey said Stewart chronicled “the unconquerable human will to live” along with a Catholic priest who knew no denomination, a Japanese guard who risked punishment for small acts of compassion and the citizens of Manila who sought strength while facing invasion.
The account was so vivid, he said, “I thought of it as a movie running in my head.”
Dunleavey, at that time, was an actor based in New York as well as a veteran who served in the U.S. Marine Corps as a corporal during the Korean War.
He did some research and discovered Stewart was living in Paris, where the two met in October 1997.
Dunleavey arranged to secure rights to the book and began writing a script based on the work in 1998. That’s the year Stewart died.
Dunleavey said he’s always been interested in films and screenplays, as well as acting, and his credits include roles in plays, soap operas and a few commercials.
He decided to interview a couple of Bataan veterans in Louisiana and Oklahoma.
“My niece was engaged to a man whose parents lived in Deming and that was how I learned about the New Mexico connection. I didn’t know New Mexico history and its close affinity to the whole Bataan experience,” said Dunleavey, who moved to Deming in 2004 and met others who had deep connections to the Bataan story.
Gerald Paul Schurtz of Las Cruces was the historical adviser for the play. He became involved when he and Dunleavey were on a committee that worked on the dedication of Bataan Elementary School in Deming.
Schurtz was named for two soldiers involved in the Bataan ordeal: his dad, Paul Schurtz, a U.S. Army major, and uncle, Paul Greeman, a U.S. Army captain.
“They both went over with the New Mexico National Guard and went through Bataan. We sent over 1,800 guys and 900 didn’t come back. My uncle made it back. My dad didn’t. He died on one of the hell ships one day before my 9th birthday, so I know both sides,” said Schurtz.
Greeman, he said, eventually became a father figure for eight children.
“My uncle came home to sire three more sons to go with the son and daughter he had before the war. And he took on the moral responsibility to be a surrogate father to me, my sister and my brother,” Schurtz said.
He feels that the book and the play tell an important part of the Bataan story that is less known.
“Many people know about the march, but not many know about the succeeding three and a half years, and this covers all of that in detail. It’s much easier to see it on stage than read about it in the book. It’s not a comedy. It’s pretty intense and the main characters all end up dying while POWs, except the gentleman who wrote the book. They made an agreement that whoever survives would get their stories written down and Sidney Stewart lived up to that oath,” Schurtz said.
Dunleavey said he would like to see it become a movie and have the play be presented at White Sands Missile Range during the annual Bataan Death March Memorial.
“If possible, we’d also like to take the play to El Paso and to other communities in New Mexico,” Dunleavey said.
He’s been working in recent years to recruit a cast for the play.
Travis Relyea plays young Stew and Dunleavey portrays Stewart in his later years, narrating the Bataan story. The cast also includes James McDaniel, Dylan Sweet, Tyler Robinson, Lara Breeden, Alfonso Loya, Dave Edwards and John Cabrera.
The play’s company will donate on-site contributions and a percentage of admission proceeds to Honor Flight, a nonprofit organization that flies groups of World War II, Korea and Vietnam veterans to Washington, D.C. to visit memorials.