“I have seen men die overnight when they could not stand the suffering any longer and gave up,” Bernie Pothier wrote in 1946.
He never gave up.
Not when he was among the outgunned US troops and Philippine forces who fought for months until they were overrun by the Japanese Army in April 1942. Not when he was among the tens of thousands of captured soldiers and civilians who subsequently endured hellish conditions during the infamous Bataan Death March, as thousands among their ranks died along the 65-mile trek. Not during 3½ years as a prisoner of war, when he was forced to labor in coal mines.
Mr. Pothier was 99 when he died May 2 in Reading, a couple of weeks shy of his 100th birthday. He was the last Massachusetts survivor of the Bataan Death March, according to a database that tracks those who endured one of World War II’s cruelest episodes.
Some of the recognition for his valor arrived late in his life. He was 98 when he was awarded a Bronze Star in 2016 during Veterans Day ceremonies in Reading, where he had lived in recent years. And just last fall he was officially promoted from corporal to sergeant, an advancement for which he was eligible decades ago, but had never sought.
By order of the secretary of the Army, the promotion was backdated to May 1946, according to the proclamation read at the ceremony. During the same ceremony, he also was awarded the Prisoner of War Medal.
Like many other veterans who survived inhumane treatment, Mr. Pothier didn’t speak much publicly about his experiences through most of his life. Only in the past few years did he reach out to share his story, including with his nephew Mark Pothier, an editor at the Globe.
He told his nephew that he overcame his reluctance, in part, to make sure the Bataan Death March would never be forgotten. “It’s not even in schoolbooks,” he said in 2012.
Mr. Pothier joined the Army in 1940 and was a radio operator assigned to the Headquarters Squadron of the 24th Pursuit Group. He was stationed at Clark Field, northwest of Manila, when Japanese forces bombed Pearl Harbor. Clark Field was attacked the next day. US troops were forced on the Bataan Peninsula, and surrendered in April.
“I was captured on April 9th,” Mr. Pothier said in an interview with Kevin Bohmiller, who is Reading’s veterans’ services officer, and David Maroney, who published an account of the conversation about a year ago in the suburban Daily Times Chronicle.
“I put my wallet, camera, and a few things between two large trees and a big rock,” Mr. Pothier said in that interview. “After the war, I went back to look for them but the jungle had taken over.”
The events from the day of his capture until when he was released were harrowing. During the death march, he and other prisoners “passed many artesian wells. If anyone tried to get water, they were shot, stabbed, or had their heads chopped off,” Mr. Pothier said.
“At one point, they made the prisoners dig a hole in the middle of the road. If they refused, they were shot,” he added. Buried in that makeshift mass grave were prisoners who had died — and at least one who had collapsed and was near death, but still breathing, he told his nephew.
At the end of the march, Mr. Pothier was imprisoned in a jungle area. He told the Daily Times Chronicle that prisoners were “put to work on farms, rice paddies, and forests, cutting down trees that were shipped to Japan. I volunteered to work the trees because they gave us extra food to keep up our strength.”
Eventually, he was shipped to Japan, where he spent the remainder of the war in a camp as prisoner #1279, and worked in a coal mine. They were fed so little that their memories of food provided sustenance. “We would describe how our mothers made certain meals,” Mr. Pothier told Linda Dahl, who posted her interview with him online. The stories “were so elaborate, and most of them were never anything our mothers even cooked!”
One day during a cave-in in the mine, “a large chunk of ceiling fell on my foot and left me a cripple for two months,” he wrote in a 1946 letter that he shared with his nephew. He was reassigned to “topside” duties, doing what his captors “considered light work, such as carrying one end of a railroad track, and receiving beatings for not being able to do so.”
One of five children, Bernard M. Pothier was born in Wedgeport, Nova Scotia. He was a child when his family emigrated and settled in Medford. His father was Alcide Pothier; his mother was the former Loretta LeBlanc.
After high school, he worked for steamship and cruise lines before joining the Army. Returning home after the war, he worked in sales and marketing with his family’s printing business.
“He came home and lived his life to the fullest every day,” said his daughter Marge Falla, of Reading. “He was a person that people were attracted to because the glass was always half-full. Every day he woke up and had his goals, and he would go out and do them. Even if it was going to the dump or the post office, he just did it with zest.”
On Nov. 9, 1949, he married Marjorie E. Lang, and they had five children.
“My dad was always there for his kids,” Marge said. “He was the one who would always be there with a kind word, always encouraging. He told his kids they could accomplish anything in life.”
Mr. Pothier “loved to learn,” she said. “He was kind of like a walking history book. He always read. He had an iPad and was e-mailing up until less than two years ago. And he was an unbelievable photographer. We always had a darkroom in our house. He would take pictures and develop them.”
Perhaps because he went without adequate food during wartime captivity, Mr. Pothier also had a fine appreciation for whatever he was served. “You could give him anything,” Marge said, “and he would say, ‘This is delicious,’ and eat every single bite.”
Services will be private for Mr. Pothier, who in addition to his wife, Marjorie, and their daughter Marge leaves their three other daughters, Judith Jeddrey of Reading, Bernadette of Eastham, and Janet Porter of Chelmsford; a son, Brian of Orleans; 10 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.
His ashes will be buried in the Massachusetts National Cemetery in Bourne and spread in a couple of places that were memorable to him on Cape Cod. He lived in Harwich for much of his retirement.
Mr. Pothier attributed his longevity and his ability to make it through the war to his strong Catholic faith — and to good health. “I was in very good condition — athletic, excellent shape before the war — so because I took care of myself, I believe that helped,” he told Dahl. “Looking back, I must have been a pretty tough guy . . . I don’t know how I made it.”Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.