Notre Dame's Tonelli Faced Horrors of Bataan,

Refused to Die

By John Lukacs
Special for USA TODAY

Tuesday, August 20, 2002

SKOKIE, Ill. — On the afternoon of Nov. 27, 1937, in South Bend, Ind., Notre Dame needs a miracle, the kind found in Hollywood screenplays, not football playbooks. It is late in the fourth quarter, and the Fighting Irish are tied 6-6 with Southern California. Suddenly, Notre Dame fullback Mario ''Motts'' Tonelli takes a hand-off deep in Irish territory, and the bleachers erupt as No. 58 races down the field. After 70 yards, the 5-11, 195-pound Tonelli is tackled, but he scores the game-winning touchdown seconds later.

Afterward in the Notre Dame locker room, Tonelli confesses, ''I don't remember that run. I don't know just what I was thinking about, except just to run.''

Fast forward five years, to April 9, 1942, on the Bataan Peninsula, Philippine Islands. Columns of gaunt, stubble-bearded American prisoners of war, flanked by Japanese troops brandishing bayonets, weave along a jungle road under a blistering sun. Through the dusty haze, Sgt. Mario Tonelli sees a macabre trophy, a mutilated human head bobbing on a spear, as Japanese cavalrymen gallop past.

''We're in trouble,'' Tonelli whispers. Instinctively, Tonelli buckles his steel helmet, ready for action. But there will be no fourth-quarter Hollywood heroics on the Bataan Death March. Unlike thousands of other young soldiers, Tonelli's tale doesn't end in a shallow, unmarked jungle grave. Perhaps it's fate. Or destiny.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of, by any definition, one of World War II's most horrific tragedies and the incredible story of one football player's extraordinary will to survive. Motts Tonelli, 86, was a survivor long before the millennial trend of reality television popularized the term. The yellowed newspaper clippings in the laminated scrapbooks spread across the kitchen table in his suburban Chicago home are proof. And for the former football star and war hero, it's been that way since the beginning. At 6, he suffered third-degree burns on 80% of his body when a trash incinerator toppled onto him.

Tonelli's immigrant father, Celi, a former quarry laborer in northern Italy, stonewalled a doctor's notion that his son might never walk again. He fastened four wheels to a door and taught his first U.S.-born offspring how to move about using his arms. Within months Tonelli was back on his feet, and by 1935 he was the pride of Chicago's prestigious DePaul Academy, a prep standout in football, basketball and track.

Dozens of colleges courted him. After a whirlwind recruiting trip, he was sold on Southern California. But his mother, Lavinea, after a visit from Notre Dame coach Elmer Layden and a priest fluent in Italian, decided otherwise. ''You're going to Notre Dame,'' she said. ''It's a Catholic school, and you won't be far from home.'' ''And that was it,'' Tonelli says, laughing.

Tonelli spent three years with the Fighting Irish varsity, leading Notre Dame to the brink of a national championship in 1938. Following the College All-Star Game in 1939, he received his gold class ring, on the underside of which he had his initials and graduation date—M.G.T. '39 — engraved. He wore the ring proudly during a stint as an assistant coach at Providence College in 1939 and one season of pro football with the Chicago Cardinals in 1940.

In early 1941 Motts joined the Army and was assigned to the 200th Coast Artillery Regiment in Manila. Although the ''Pearl of the Orient'' was a prewar paradise of sun-drenched tropical beauty and cold San Miguel beers, Tonelli hoped to fulfill his one-year commitment and return to his new wife, Mary, and the Cardinals by the 1942 season.

Those plans were irrevocably altered in the early morning hours of Dec. 8, 1941, when Tonelli was roused from his bunk near Clark Field by an air-raid siren. At 0230 hours, a frantic trans-Pacific message had crackled over the airwaves: ''Air raid on Pearl Harbor. This is no drill!''

'Alamo of the Pacific'

After the initial lightning thrusts of the Japanese crippled the Philippines-based U.S. Far East Air Force and Asiatic Fleet, Gen. Douglas MacArthur ordered about 15,000 American military personnel and 90,000 Filipino troops to retreat into Bataan, a steamy jungle realm of rice paddies, nipa (Asiatic palm tree) huts and colossal volcanoes, to fight a delaying action and wait for reinforcements. But with the War Department's mandate from the White House to defeat Adolf Hitler first, these ill-prepared, inexperienced troops, captured with little food and obsolete weapons, would be sacrificed to buy time for their countrymen. As a result, historians nicknamed the gallant stand on Bataan the ''Alamo of the Pacific.''

With an empty canteen, Tonelli began the 65-mile march near Mariveles, a port on Bataan's southern tip. Through dust clouds, he spotted artesian wells bubbling with cold spring water, but he dared not stop: The Japanese savagely executed all who strayed from the march. At dusk, the parched prisoners improvised by spreading their shirts on the ground to collect the dew.

''When morning came, we'd wring them out for something to drink,'' Tonelli recalls. At dawn, cracks of rifle fire echoed throughout the hills. Some guards pumped bullets into those unable to continue; others delivered death with samurai swords. Sympathetic Filipino civilians caught throwing food or flashing the ''V for victory'' sign in the direction of the haggard Americans were rewarded likewise. Japanese tanks often swerved in deliberate attempts to run over wounded GIs lying on litters.

He wears the ring

Tonelli was reflecting on his relative mortality when approached by a guard plundering the possessions of the weary, sunburned prisoners. He demanded Tonelli's Notre Dame ring, and Tonelli refused. The guard reached for his sword. ''Give it to him,'' yelled a nearby prisoner. ''It's not worth dying for.'' Reluctantly, Tonelli surrendered the ring.

A few minutes later, a Japanese officer appeared.

''Did one of my men take something from you?'' he asked in perfect English. ''Yes,'' Tonelli replied. ''My school ring.''

''Here,'' said the officer, pressing the ring into Tonelli's callused, grimy hand. ''Hide it somewhere. You may not get it back next time.''

The act left Tonelli speechless. ''I was educated in America,'' the officer explained. ''At the University of Southern California. I know a little about the famous Notre Dame football team. In fact, I watched you beat USC in 1937. I know how much this ring means to you, so I wanted to get it back to you.''

The surreal encounter ended, and the gridiron and battlefield rivals headed their separate ways. ''I always thought that someday he'd try to look me up,'' Tonelli says. ''I guess he probably didn't make it through the war.''

Number comes up

Nearly 700 Americans and 10,000 Filipinos died on the Bataan Death March, but for those who survived, the nightmare was only beginning. Tonelli absorbed numerous beatings in three squalid prison camps — O'Donnell, Cabanatuan, Davao — over the next 2 1/2 years, but each night he would reach for the silver soap dish where he concealed his Irish ring. Each glimpse of the ring reminded him of better days and provided hope for the future.

Following a hellish, 60-day journey on a filthy, cramped merchant vessel in late 1944, Tonelli was sent to slave labor camps on mainland Japan. When he arrived at Nagoya No. 7, a prison camp near the village of Toyama, in the summer of 1945, Tonelli was a 100-pound skeleton, a mere shell of the bullish fullback that once roamed Notre Dame Stadium, Soldier Field and Comiskey Park. ''I felt that (Toyama) would be my last stop,'' he says. ''I was going to die there or be liberated.''

His body ravaged by malaria and an intestinal parasite, Tonelli wobbled to a table where a Japanese officer assigned prison garb and identification numbers. Tonelli glanced at his new prison number. It couldn't be. Tonelli fought to hold back the jubilant tears. Scribbled on a piece of paper was the number 58, the same number he wore throughout his football career. ''From that point on,'' he says, ''I knew I was going to make it.''

From the NFL to politics

The atomic bomb ended the war, and Tonelli was home by October, weighing 183 pounds thanks to ''a miracle of American roast beef, butter and milk,'' commented Chicago Daily News sportswriter Francis J. Powers.

Cardinals owner Charlie Bidwill signed Tonelli to a contract, and Sunday, Oct. 28, two months after being liberated, Tonelli suited up in a football uniform for the first time in five years.

Tonelli played sparingly in the Cardinals' 33-14 loss to the Green Bay Packers and decided it was time to look for new challenges.

It didn't take him long. Tonelli was sworn in as the youngest commissioner in Cook County history in 1946, and after a distinguished 42-year career in politics and public service, he retired in 1988.

One of the estimated 1,000 remaining Bataan Death March survivors, he speaks about his wartime experiences at local schools.

''Well, that's the end of the story,'' Tonelli says to the visitor sitting in his kitchen. ''Any other questions?''

''The ring. Do you still have it?'' asks the visitor. ''You want to see it? C'mon.''He places a small, golden object in the visitor's left hand. Although worn by the effects of time, both the university seal and the inscription on the inner band remain legible.

''It's kind of worn down, isn't it?'' Tonelli flashes his trademark smile. ''It's over 60 years old,'' he explains. ''Imagine what it's been through, where it's been. The history it's seen. It's been through a hell of a lot, kid, but it's still here.''

Just like its owner.


Copyright 2002 USA Today


Mario G. `Motts' Tonelli, 1916-2003
Ex-Irish star survived Bataan

By Bill Jauss
Tribune staff reporter

The life of Mario G. "Motts" Tonelli reads as though it was scripted in Hollywood. But Tonelli, who died Tuesday at 86, wasn't a Hollywood-type hero. He was a blue-collar, Chicago-type hero.

Tonelli grew up the son of Italian immigrants on the North Side and became a star fullback at Notre Dame in the late 1930s before playing for the Chicago Cardinals in the National Football League in 1940.

After one season, Tonelli entered the U.S. Army and eventually survived the infamous Bataan Death March in World War II and 42 months of brutal treatment in three Japanese prison camps. His weight dropped from 188 pounds to under 100. He suffered from malaria, dysentery, scurvy and beriberi.

At the end of the war, while still a hospital outpatient, Tonelli dressed at about 140 pounds for the Cardinals' final games in 1945. In 1946, he played for the Chicago Rockets of the new American Football League.

Ray Meyer, DePaul's Hall of Fame basketball coach and Tonelli's longtime friend, described him as "a real hero, not just a guy running with a football or dunking a basketball."

Tony Golden, one of Tonelli's closest friends, described how Tonelli strove to avoid being portrayed as a war hero or capitalize on his celebrity status. "A TV crew interviewed him for hours at this year's Michigan- Notre Dame game," Golden said. "It was suggested Motts could make some money from the show. He said, `I don't want any money out of this. I'm just doing it for these people. I'm nobody special.' And he took the crew to lunch and picked up the tab."

Meyer, 89, played sports against Tonelli in Chicago before both of them enrolled at Notre Dame in the mid-1930s. "He was a `young guy,'" Meyer said. "One year behind me in school. I graduated in 1938, Motts in 1939. He was a good fullback. A tough kid. He didn't talk much. A class act. I liked him very much."

After World War II, Meyer said, he and Tonelli met off and on at sports events, Notre Dame functions and at former Cubs catcher Gabby Hartnett's annual birthday parties at Maryville Academy. "He never, ever spoke about the war," Meyer said. "And that story about his Notre Dame ring is true."

Meyer referred to the gold graduation ring Tonelli had made. It held a diamond, and the words "Notre Dame" were inscribed on its sides. Tonelli carried it off to war.

On the first day of the seven-day 70-mile death march in April 1942, Japanese soldiers swept up and down the ranks, confiscating pens, jewelry or other personal possessions from the lines of struggling U.S. prisoners. One captor pointed with his bayonet at the ring on Tonelli's finger. "Give it to him, Motts. Or he'll kill you," whispered one of Tonelli's friends. Tonelli handed over the ring.

Moments later, a Japanese officer confronted Tonelli. In perfect English, he asked, "Did one of my soldiers take this from you?" The officer pulled the ring from his pocket. "I went to the University of Southern California," the officer said. "I graduated the same year you did. In fact, I saw the game when you made that long run that beat us. You were a hell of a player." "He gave me my ring back and wished me good luck," Tonelli recalled many years later.

It would be a nice story if the captors' respect or sportsmanship provided humane treatment for the prisoner. But that didn't happen.

Tonelli endured subhuman treatment for nearly four years as a prisoner of war. He was not freed until after the Japanese surrendered. One-third of the 1,875 men forced on the death march without food or water died. Of 10,000 Americans taken prisoner in the Philippines, only 4,000 returned to the United States.

Tonelli grew up on the North Side near Chase Park in the days before the Depression. Sports became his passion. He played almost all of them and played them well. Tonelli's parents, Celi and Lavania, were Italian immigrants. They realized their son earned his peers' respect for his performance in sport at Our Lady of Lourdes grammar school and at DePaul Academy. At one high school track meet, he won the pole vault, shot put, high jump and 440-yard dash.

Other colleges recruited him, but when Irish football coach Elmer Layden visited the Tonelli home with an Italian-speaking priest, his mother helped Motts make his decision. Tonelli broke several long runs, including one of 45 yards for the winning touchdown against Georgia Tech and the 77-yard run against USC that the Japanese officer recalled three years later on the Bataan peninsula.

Tonelli enlisted in the army in April 1941, five days after he was married. Assigned to serve on Luzon Island in the Philippines, Tonelli had four more months left on his hitch when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Severely outnumbered, the Americans retreated down the Bataan peninsula toward Corregidor Island. They held out until April. Then, wracked by illness and running out of food and medicine, they surrendered.

After his football career ended, Tonelli entered politics and was elected a Cook County commissioner as a Republican. Tonelli is survived by a daughter, Nancy Reynolds. Visitation is from 3 to 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday at Drake and Son Funeral Home, 5303 N. Western Ave. Funeral mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Saturday at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, 4640 N. Ashland Ave.

Copyright © 2003, Chicago Tribune