Leadership Lessons From WWII Veteran Glenn Frazier
The story of a man who ran away, then endured the unimaginable and became a textbook example of true leadership
The story of Glenn Frazier is an epic tale of leadership, bravery, perseverance, and heroism. Ironically, the story begins with an act of cowardice that was driven by a lack of self-esteem, followed by an act of anger, and then yet another act of cowardice. In the end, we see how the most extreme circumstances can bring the unlikely misfit to become a paragon of exemplary leadership.
Signing up for the military was an impulsive escape plan after Alabama native Glenn Frazier fled his home town and subsequently angered a shotgun-wielding bar owner. Legally too young to enlist, Frazier waited three months to tell his friends and family where he had gone, rather than risk having his mother call the Army and demand that he be sent home.
Once he was safely on another continent, heartbroken 16-year-old Glenn Frazier sent a letter to his parents, letting them know that he was a member of the 75th Ordinance Batallion in the U.S. Army. He explained to them that everything was going to be fine, and assured them that he was safe in the Philippines.
Glenn Frazier sent that letter in November of 1941.
An Irresistible Force Meets an Immovable Object
Frazier grew up in Fort Deposit, Alabama, a small town near the capital Montgomery. The star of the town’s high school football and basketball teams, Frazier was raised as a devout Catholic and came from a society where marriage tended to happen early in life.
Despite being mostly well-behaved and god-fearing, Frazier liked to ride motorcycles, and occasionally had a problem with authority. His rebelliousness was not deemed endearing by many, including the mother of Jamie Morris, a local girl that Frazier had taken quite fondly to.
Jamie was everything to Frazier, and also his planned prom date; however, they had not yet declared that they were boyfriend and girlfriend. In 1941 Fort Deposit, going steady was a seriously important step, and it wasn’t uncommon for it to quickly lead to engagement and marriage. Frazier was hopelessly in love and wanted Jamie to be his girlfriend.
What happened next changed young Glenn Frazier’s life forever.
But Glenn Frazier wasn’t the only boy with his sights set on young Jamie. Another young man, 17 years old and living in Nashville, Tennessee, had quickly become Frazier’s rival for Jamie’s hand. To make matters worse, Jamie’s mother wanted to pair her with a boy from Nashville and she was also no fan of Frazier nor his 1936 Harley-Davidson.
Mrs. Morris had arranged for her daughter to visit the boy and his parents in Tennessee, and Jamie was to leave on the train the next morning.
Frazier and Jamie spend their last night together talking, crying and kissing inside a 1933 Chevrolet that was parked on a secluded patch of grass. In those days, when a young woman went to a young man’s house to meet the parents and family, that meant there might be a marriage. So Frazier warned Jamie that if she didn’t stand up to her mother and instead left for Tennessee, he wouldn’t be there when she got back.
He returned Jamie to her home at 3:00 am and was promptly chased off by Mrs. Morris coming after him with a broomstick, shouting out to Frazier to never to come back.
Jamie’s train was scheduled to depart at 6:30 am. Lovesick, wrought with anxiety, and unable to sleep, Frazier took his motorcycle to the train station and hid behind some bushes to watch. What happened next changed young Glenn Frazier’s life forever.
Jamie arrived with her mother, Mrs. Morris, who walked her onto the train and watched as the train left the station. Frazier, feeling betrayed and heartbroken, followed through on his threat and rode his motorcycle to Montgomery.
Frazier arrived in Montgomery and went to a local juke joint where he and several of his football friends had developed a reputation for getting into fights with the locals. While many of the patrons drank beer, Frazier kept to a Nickel Coke.
Normally, Frazier was in this bar with many of his friends, but that day he was all alone. Recognizing the young man as a trouble maker, the owner approached Frazier and told him to leave right away. Frazier defiantly replied that he’d leave after he had finished his Coke. The owner snatched it out of his hand and barked at him to leave immediately and never come back.
Heartbroken, emotional, and sleep-deprived, Frazier made it just a short couple of blocks away from the bar before anger consumed him, and led him to do something outrageous.
Back in the juke joint, the owner was again behind the bar when Glenn Frazier came charging through the large entranceway on his motorcycle, causing the swinging doors to violently slam into the bar. Frazier proceeded to ride out onto the dance floor, leaving black rubber tracks everywhere as he performed figure eights and donuts.
Then the owner produced a shotgun, and Frazier hit the gas and sped out the door, turning off the driveway and disappearing into the woods to get out of range as quickly as possible.
Frazier kept riding until he reached a familiar service station where he would frequently hang out with his friends. When Fraizer arrived, the owner had already heard about what happened, and said to Frazier:
“I know that man. That man is mean. He’s gonna kill you. He knows you live in Fort Deposit and he’s not going to rest until he gets you. But get out of here. I don’t want him shooting you here.”
A few minutes later, his teenage emotions buzzing with both adrenaline and depression, Frazier found himself in front of an Army recruiter’s office.
“I stood out front for a minute and I thought, this might be a good time to try the Army.” — Glenn Frazier.
It was the summer of 1941 and America was at peace. The news had spoken some of Hitler’s provocations in Europe, but no one in Alabama had worried that it would affect them in any way.
Stubbornly determined to keep his word that he was not going to be there when Jamie returned, and fearful for his life, young Glenn Frazier enlisted.
Out of the Frying Pan
The day he signed the papers, Frazier was only 16 years old, but the law required that he be at least 21. In 1941, records were not what they are in 2019, and so the young man was able to convince recruiters that he was indeed old enough to sign up. He looked older than 16, and he was riding a motorcycle, both of which probably helped him with his deceit.
The Army offered Frazier assignments in Alaska, the Panama Canal, or the Philippines. Frazier chose the latter because he figured that it was the one place the juke joint owner couldn’t drive to. That afternoon he was on the train headed for Mississippi’s Camp Shelby.
By the time his parents received the letter he had sent them, the United States was at war with Japan.
Four days after arriving at Camp Shelby, Frazier was on a train bound for San Francisco, where he would take a boat to the Philippines, which is where he would go through basic training.
Once he arrived, Frazier was meant to join the 31st Infantry Division, but the boat arrived too late and he missed the start of basic training. As a result, Frazier was moved to the 75th Ordinance Batallion, the division responsible for all ammunition for every military division in the Philippines.
Frazier felt that his job was easy, and Ordnance School, where he learned the ins and outs of the various explosives, was oftentimes fun. He spent most of his days driving big trucks used to move bombs and bullets from large naval vessels as they arrived in the port of Manila.
Over the next few months, Frazier had made a new best friend, Gerald Block, who was stationed with him at the main base in Manila, also where General Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters were located. Frazier and Block would frequent the entertainment district where they drank alongside Japanese naval sailors.
One night, Frazier and Block got involved in a brawl over the jukebox. The fight was between about twenty Americans and a couple of dozen Japanese sailors. Frazier described the scene as,
“being like a movie, then we hear the whistle that tells you the MPs are coming, so we start bailing out the windows, this was the second floor mind you, and we shinnied out over that roof and waited until the MPs ran in the building, then we started dropping off and running so they wouldn’t catch us.”
While in Manilla, Frazier also met a new girl, a local Filipina named Nelda. While his heart still ached for Jamie, he convinced himself that his new life was here on the other side of the world. Frazier quickly became close with Nelda’s family as well, including her brother, Bobby, who crafted a Filipino-style hunting knife made custom for his new friend and potential brother-in-law.
Meanwhile, back in Fort Deposit, Jamie Morris was waiting for Frazier to return so that she could tell him that she had chosen him, and wanted to marry him. She had not followed her mother’s demands and was not in love with the boy from Tennessee. For Jamie, Glenn Frazier was the one.
Into the Fire
Glenn Frazier turned 17 on December 1st, 1941. Frazier’s company was scheduled to be sent to other airbases in the Pacific later that week, and young Glenn was preparing for travel. Plans quickly changed, however.
By the time his parents received the letter he had sent them, the United States was at war with Japan.
On the morning of Sunday, December 7th, the Japanese fleet launched a massive attack on the naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. General MacArthur froze and did nothing to prepare after learning of the attack at Pearl Harbor. Hours later, Japanese planes bombed Corregidor Island, just across the bay from Manila. This was just the beginning of a full assault against the Americans in Philipinnes. By morning, approximately 6,000 Americans and Filipinos had been killed, and the Japanese had successfully destroyed multiple targets around the islands.
The commanders in charge in Pearl Harbor, where 2,500 lives were lost, were relieved of duty for falling victim to a sneak attack. There was never any formal reprimand for MacArthur, however, even though he managed to be caught unprepared despite hours of advance warning.
What happened in the Phillippines was a disaster. Most of the American airpower was destroyed that first day, as dozens of fighters and powerful B-17 bombers were blown up on the runway at each of a half-dozen airbases. At one base, Japanese fighter planes were actually able to strafe the airfield with machine-gun fire for 30 minutes, destroying every single plane.
The Philippines were considered lost almost immediately after the initial Japanese attack, and with almost all of the planes destroyed, there was no way to get the thousands of bombs that Frazier and company had spent months storing in warehouses safely to Australia, or onto targets.
Young Glenn Frazier, not yet old enough to vote, had run away because of heartache and escaped a shotgun-wielding bar owner by moving overseas. Now, the 17-year-old found himself in the crosshairs of the Japanese Empire.
The Spirit to Kill
During the first day of battle, Frazier’s company were ordered to secure as much ammunition as possible from the bases deep in the interior of the island. The first bases they were focused on were on what was knowns as the Bataan peninsula.
For Frazier, killing was against God’s commandments, but during one of the trips onto the peninsula, Frazier, along with a fellow soldier named Lou, was attacked by two Japanese fighter planes. After bombing a hospital, the Japanese fighters saw the two on the road below and went after them. Frazier jumped into a ditch on one side of the road, and his friend Lou jumped into the ditch on the other side. One of the fighters dropped a small bomb, and it landed directly on Lou.
Frazier himself was hit in the leg by a small piece of shrapnel, but Lou laid in pieces scattered about the ditch. Frazier took Lou’s left foot to show to their sergeant as proof that his friend had been killed. This was the first time Glenn Frazier had seen death up close and personal, but it would not be the last.
Lou’s death is what Frazier attributed to a change inside of him. The innocent catholic boy from Fort Deposit now believed he needed to murder as many Japanese as he could get his hands on. Frazier would later say that it was that moment that “God gave me the spirit to kill.”
The killing would begin in earnest about a week later when the first Japanese soldiers began invading the island. Though there were more than 80,000 troops under American command in the Philippines, they were quickly outmaneuvered and forced to retreat to the Bataan peninsula. Many of the soldiers led by General MacArthur were Filipinos that had only received four or five days of training. Because of their association with the locally raised soldiers, Frazier and his best friend Gerald Block knew first-hand the abysmal state of the Filipino troops.
The result of the battle in the Philippines would prove to be the worst defeat ever suffered by the U.S. military. Doomed from the start, American forces retreated and were quickly hemmed in on the Bataan peninsula, where they were cut off from most of their supplies, including food and ammo. Frazier and his fellow drivers in the 75th Ordnance were in high demand delivering bullets to the front lines, but they were also involved in constant firefights with Japanese patrols trying to block them from resupplying the troops.
Frazier and Block used their position as supply runners to set up traps for the Japanese soldiers, killing as many as they could. The two teenage boys would tell double agents working with the Japanese that there were supplies of food or ammunition in train cars, or hiding in an empty unattended building. When the Japanese troops arrived to retrieve the supplies, they would unknowingly trigger booby traps that set off large caches of explosive ammunition, killing everyone in proximity.
While the American troops at Bataan held out for help, there would be no reinforcements coming. All of the ships that would have carried a rescuing force were sitting on the seafloor in Pearl Harbor. As time passed, the state of the U.S. forces began to deteriorate, and with limited rations, ammunition, and no air support, the superior Japanese forces were quickly whittling away at the last defenses.
A pivotal battle occurred at a place called Aglaloma Point. MacArthur had retreated to a neighboring island after the land invasion began, but now his outpost was under threat of being overrun. The Navy and Marines had been able to kill many advancing Japanese soldiers in the water, but they were unaware that behind the initial attack were another 5,000 highly trained troops ready to advance and cut the forces in two, thus taking Bataan and neighboring Corregidor, where MacArthur was holed up.
Frazier happened to be driving by Aglaloma Point delivering ammunition to the front lines when an Army Major flagged his Ordnance truck down. The young man from Fort Deposit had the authority to ignore this major, but something inside compelled him to stop.
The major guided Frazier over to a nearby cliff and told him to look below. There, about 500 feet below the two young American men, was a massive force of Japanese soldiers, concentrated on a horseshoe-shaped cove.
The Major explained that there was no way to hit the soldiers below because the cliffs were shielding them from gunfire and that it looked like the troops were preparing to climb the cliffs. Frazier devised a method for using the bombs in his truck, essentially recreating what would happen if they were being dropped from an airplane. The Americans managed to detonate two truckloads of ammunition meant to be dropped from the sky, killing almost the entire force of 5,000 Japanese soldiers.
Those who survived, however, scaled the cliffs and began attacking. Glenn Frazier found himself engaged in savage hand-to-hand combat with soldiers as young as he. Thanks to the knife that Bobby had given him, Frazier emerged from that day a blood-drenched hero of the American military. He had also become a hardened killer.
Despite their successes at Aglaloma Point, MacArthur had retreated from his stronghold and was on a speedboat headed for another island south of the Philippines. He took with him his staff, mother, son, and everything else, and ultimately went to Australia. Frazier and the remaining Americans at Bataan would hold out for another two months before the leadership finally gave the order to surrender. Frazier and his fellow soldiers laid down their guns, unaware of the horrors that were to follow.
The Bataan Death March
Glenn Frazier and Gerald Block were captured together, stripped naked, and forced to watch as many of their fellow soldiers were shot and beheaded.
Later that afternoon, they were ordered to start marching.
Along with somewhere between 40,000 and 80,000 other Filipino and American soldiers, and with his friend Gerald Block right behind him, Frazier marched for six days and seven nights, without food or water. During one of the days, Frazier and Block were pulled off the line to fill in a bomb crater using shovels. To their horror, they watched as Japanese soldiers pushed exhausted American and Filipino captives into the pit. When the prisoners were no longer of any use, they buried them alive.
“I marched six days, seven nights. No food. No water. It was about 90 miles total, really, because we had marched 15 miles earlier. We walked together all the way to the last night. The last night, I lost Gerald. He got ahead of me a little bit. I couldn’t even pick up my feet. I had to slide my feet.”
When they finally made it to an old run-down Filipino base called Camp O’Donnell, Frazier collapsed into a patch of grass. Block had been waiting for him with water, and the two spent the next three days nursing each other back to some semblance of health.
More than 18,000 Americans and Filipinos died during the Bataan Death March, and more than 30,000 POWs would die in Camp O’Donnell the coming months.
Never Give Up
Back in Fort Deposit, Jamie was still holding out hope for the young Fraizer. No one in the small Alabama town had any idea of the horrors that their star athlete was facing at the hands of his captors. Letters began to pour into the town informing mothers that their sons had been killed in action. No letter had yet come to Frazier house.
Meanwhile, at Camp O’Donnel, Frazier and Block withstood the putrid stench of death as thousands of men died of dehydration and various wounds after the forced march. Bodies went rank quickly in the tropical heat, and within the first two weeks, as many as 70 prisoners were dying each day.
Conditions at Camp O’Donnell were primitive, as the POWs lived in bamboo huts, slept on dirt floors, and oftentimes huts didn’t have proper coverage. There was no plumbing, and water was scarce. Mosquitos spread malaria-like wildfire, which only compounded the problem of rampant dysentery.
Medicine was in short supply. Food consisted of nothing more than a small ration of rice and vegetable soup, occasionally with scraps of water buffalo meat. Vitamin deficiency illnesses such as beriberi and pellagra developed among many. The Japanese refused most offers of assistance for the POWs, including from the Philippine Red Cross.
Finding a sufficient number of able-bodied men among the prisoners to bury the dead was not the least of the problems with which the camp authorities were confronted. It was not unusual to have several of the burial detail drop dead from exhaustion and overwork in the midst of their duties, and be thrown into the common grave which they were digging for their dead comrades. Not infrequently men who had collapsed from exhaustion were buried before they were even dead.
Frazier and his friend Gerald were put to work carrying the dead and putting them into mass graves.
Unsure of what fate awaited him, the young Glenn Frazier threw one of his two sets of dog tags into one of the mass graves. He figured that if he was never found, that perhaps his family would get peace if they believed that he died at Camp O’Donnell.
Never Say Day
After being inseparable for half a year before the war, then enduring combat together, the Death March, and surviving Camp O’Donnell, Frazier and Block were finally separated after three weeks at the camp.
Block was transferred to another POW camp and placed aboard a Japanese Hell Ship bound for the main islands of Japan.
Frazier’s troubles would continue, as he’d face continued torture and beatings, and several brushes with death which included gangrene, double pneumonia, a standoff with a homicidal Japanese officer, and being locked in a dark pit for ten days.
Frazier ultimately survived all of it and was transferred to Osaka on mainland Japan, where he was placed in a slave labor camp working for the Japanese. During his time there, he and the other American captives worked tirelessly to sabotage Japanese ammunition, equipment, and other supplies.
In a factory where the Japanese made the graphite batteries for their one-man Kamikaze submarine torpedoes, Frazier’s crew learned the markings for good batteries versus bad ones and began switching them, sending nothing but defective batteries out for use aboard the subs, perhaps saving hundreds of American lives.
Working for months on a drydock, they staged repeated fake fights with each other during which time other members of the prison crew would dump rocks and junk into freshly poured concrete to weaken the doors of the new dry dock, which failed when the Japanese finally tested it. The resulting landslide destroyed a submarine and killed several guards.
Frazier and company further spent weeks slowly maneuvering a huge boulder up a hill next to a giant cement mixer, and slipped it in the hopper when the guards were distracted by one of the fake fights. Two weeks later, the boulder finally dropped into the mixer and destroyed it. This set back the Japanese Naval effort by weeks.
After three years in the prison camps, American bombers started showing up, attacking the port towns where Frazier was located. As things turned for the worse for the Japanese war effort, Japanese officers began making plans to execute all of the POWs in order to hide their war crimes. One day, Frazier and many other prisoners were ordered to dig their own grave and wait around until the guards had received the verdict about what to do with them.
The order to kill the prisoners never came, and instead, one day a courier arrived and delivered the message that Japan had surrendered, and that the war was finally over.
Many Japanese soldiers fled, while others stopped caring. Rather than wait around and see what happened, Frazier and about twenty others took the opportunity to escape and headed for General MacArthur’s new HQ in Japan. Once they arrived, they were promptly sent to a military hospital.
Back at the Rail Station
By the time Glenn Frazier was released from the Army, he had gained back most of the weight he had lost. Frazier first had a stop in Manilla, where he would connect to another flight bound for San Francisco. Once there he was greeted by Bobby, who informed him that almost his entire family, including Nelda, had been killed.
Just over two weeks later Glenn Frazier arrived at Pier 7 in San Francisco, the first time he’d set foot on U.S. soil in five years.
As was the protocol for POWs, the now battle-hardened war veteran Frazier was sent to a hospital, where he learned that his dog tags had indeed been discovered in that mass grave. Glenn Frazier’s family had been informed six months earlier hat he was dead, and so had Jamie Morris. When he called to tell his family otherwise, both his sisters and their mother fainted.
Two weeks later, Frazier was picked up at the same rail station where he had his heart broken. His cousin had taken his motorcycle, and he retrieved Frazier from the station on that very same bike. Frazier actually arrived at the family home in Fort Deposit on the very same day that his brother returned from the European theatre, where he too had been missing, but for only four months.
Jamie, the girl that caused him to run off in the first place, was actually due to be married the day after he returned, but not to the boy from Tennessee. Frazier visited with Jamie, and she explained how she had waited for him, but then gave up hope years later. Frazier quickly forgave her.
Glenn Frazier went on to be married twice, and have several children of his own. He spent the rest of his career in the military and retired with the rank of Colonel. After finally saying farewell to the life of a soldier, Glenn wrote a book about his experiences during World War II and trying to adjust to life in America afterward.
The story of Glenn Frazier is indeed tragic, but had it not been for the series of unfortunate events that led him into that hellish situation, he would not have been where he was needed in order to change the world. Frazier, and people like Frazier, were forced to endure years of terror and torture, and yet played a pivotal role in shaping the outcome of history’s most decisive war.
The geopolitical landscape of today and the prosperity resulting from it exists because of unlikely fighters such as Glenn Frazier. Even after the war, Frazier went on to speak the unpopular truth about General MacArther, and of how the United States ultimately abandoned soldiers on Bataan. The story of Glenn Frazier does not support a political ideology — instead, it supports a leadership ideology.
Glenn Frazier never passed up an opportunity to help one of his fellows, regardless of the risk. He put others before himself, to the point of taking a bayonet to the knee and subsequently suffering for weeks with gangrene. When given the chance to weaken his enemy, he took it, despite the reality that it could have meant the end of his life. Frazier admitted that he was always terrified when facing his enemy.
Glenn Frazier lived to be 94 years old and leaves behind him a legacy of perseverance and fortitude that can be an example for everyone. While being brave might have prevented Frazier from experiencing the horrors of the Pacific War in the first place, being scared turned him into a hero.