- [S106] The Mountain Press, 9 Apr 2012.
Upland Chronicles: Whaley was part of infamous Bataan Death March
by CARROLL McMAHAN
Pvt. Silas Whaley while he was in the Army.
A county fair advertisement for Silas Whaley’s “A Man without a Stomach” act. He died as a Japanese POW in 1943.
Silas J. Whaley grew up in Big Greenbrier Cove where Whaleys were a dime a dozen. His great-great-grandparents, William and Mary Ann Ogle Whaley, settled in the Porter’s Creek section of Big Greenbrier, which was then called “the Injun Nation” around 1830, where they raised 15 children.
Born June 1, 1914, Silas was one of eight children of William McPherson “Mack” Whaley and Pearlie E. Whaley. His siblings included Ferrida, Willard, Carlos, Flora (McConnell), Lillard (Chance), Burl and H.R.
After an earthquake occurred in 1916, Silas’ father, Mack, was working at the foot of Brushy Mountain in a field just above the spring when his mother, Pearlie, went out to fetch some water and discovered the spring was dry. By the time Pearlie called Mack and he arrived the water was again flowing. Water would flow from the spring for seven minutes and then stop for the next seven.
Mack made a long trough out of lumber and placed it through the rocks so the water would flow outside. The water would rise and overflow the trough. People came from near and far to witness the mysterious “Spasmodic Spring.”
While growing up, Silas played in the hollows, streams and fields in Big Greenbrier Cove. Along with his entire family, he attended Friendship Missionary Baptist Church. As a child, he often entertained family and friends by contorting his stomach into unimaginable positions. As a matter of fact, Silas could suck in his stomach until it appeared as if he had no stomach at all.
The family moved to Sevierville when the Great Smoky Mountains National Park acquired their farm. Homesick for the mountains, His father died in 1932 and his mother passed away a year later.
After attending Sevier County High School where he played football, Silas moved away. His sister Lillard Chance later recalled “He just couldn’t stand it around here after our momma died.”
Using his unique ability to contort his stomach as a means of employment, Silas traveled around the country performing in circus acts and county fairs. He billed himself as “The Man without a Stomach.”
In a letter to his sister dated Feb. 27, 1941 Silas wrote, “Surprised to hear that I am in the army? I didn’t wait for the draft, but enlisted for three years. I am leaving for the Philippine Islands. … Maybe I will get to see some action over there against Japan.”
Pvt. Silas Whaley was stationed on Corregidor Island in Battery G of the 60th Coast Artillery Regiment where he was assigned to the communications section and had a job stringing telephone lines. In the last letter Silas wrote to his sister, dated Nov. 23, 1941, he inquired about Christmas gifts and home.
He asked about the weather in Sevierville, comparing it with 100-degree temperature in Philippines. Silas hinted that the U.S. might soon be at war with Japan, concluding “we can whip the Japs in 6 months. Answer me soon and don’t worry. I’ll be O.K keep writing to me often.”
In May of 1942, Corregidor Island fell and the Japanese captured the American soldiers including Pvt. Whaley and forced them to march to a prison camp in what became known as the Bataan Death March.
On May 7, 1942, members of the Whaley family in Sevier County received news from Washington that their brother was a prisoner of war of the Japanese. Later they were informed that he had died in captivity.
The following year his sister Lillard Chance received a certificate of meritorious from President Roosevelt, which stated “In grateful memory of Private Silas J. Whaley, A.S. No. 190506483, who died in the service of his country in the Southwest Pacific area. He stands in the unbroken line of patriots who dare to die, that freedom might live.”
A survivor of the death march, writer Abie Abraham, wrote about his experiences in a book, “Ghost of Bataan Speaks.” He told of the torture and impossible conditions the soldiers endured on their forced march.
Abraham and Whaley built a bond while enduring the unimaginable conditions of the prison camp. In the book, Abraham mentioned that Whaley often reminisced about his friends, raccoon hunts and how beautiful the mountains were in Sevier County.
Gen. Douglas MacArthur assigned Abraham to walk the Death March trail again at the end of the war, looking for American soldier’s graves and disinterring the dead so their bodies could be sent home to be buried near their families in the United States.For more than two years Abraham discovered graves that contained the bones of thousands of soldiers who had fallen along the way and hundreds who were shot by Japanese firing squads because they were too sick to keep up or were executed as examples of Japanese authority.
Abraham found Whaley’s grave and with it a bottle with a note inside. He said the note read, “Tell Mom good-bye for me.”
However Whaley’s relatives believe Abraham misread it because their mother was already dead. Silas often called his sister Moll. Her full name was Lillard Molly, and the Whaley family believed the note was meant for her.
The date Pvt. Whaley died is recorded as May 21, 1943. His remains arrived in Sevierville on April 20, 1949. Silas is buried near his parents in the Pigeon Forge Baptist Cemetery.
Abie Abraham later wrote a second book, “Oh God where are you?”, detailing more stories about the infamous Bataan Death March. Abraham died on March 22, 2012, in Butler, Penn. He was 98.
On the dedication page of a copy of “Ghost of Bataan Speaks” he sent to Silas’ sister Lillard Chance, Abraham wrote “In memory of Private Whaley who bravely fought in defense of the Philippines. Sevierville can be proud of such a brave soldier.”
— Carroll McMahan is the special projects facilitator for the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce. The Upland Chronicles series celebrates the heritage and past of Sevier County. If you have suggestions for future topics, would like to submit a column or have comments; please contact Carroll McMahan at 453-6411 or email to firstname.lastname@example.org; or Ron Rader at 604-9161 or email to email@example.com.
- [S112] Census, 1930.
name: Silas Whaley
event date: 1930
event place: District 1, Jefferson, Tennessee
marital status: Single
estimated birth year: 1915
relationship to head of household: Son
father's birthplace: Tennessee
mother's birthplace: Tennessee
enumeration district number: 0002
family number: 68
sheet number and letter: 4A
line number: 21
nara publication: T626, roll 2256
film number: 2341990
digital folder number: 4548170
image number: 00710
Household Gender Age Birthplace
head Mack Whaley M 43 Tennessee
wife Pearl Whaley F 41 Tennessee
son Ferida Whaley M 20 Tennessee
son Willard Whaley M 18 Tennessee
son Silas Whaley M 15 Tennessee
daughter Flaria Whaley F 14 Tennessee
daughter Lilard Whaley F 12 Tennessee
son Pearl Whaley M 10 Tennessee
son H R Whaley M 7 Tennessee
- [S78] Atchley Funeral Home Records, Volume I, 1930-1954, Larry D. Fox, (Smoky Mountain Historical Society), 20 Apr 1949.
Whaley, Pvt Silas J. age 29 d. Aug 8, 1942 Rec'd Apr 20, 1949 P-Forge Bapt Cem Survivors: 1 sis Mrs John Chance 3 bro Willard Burl H. R. remarks 19056483 volunteered for Philippine Service Feb 20, 1940 & died in Japanese prison camp.
- [S34] In the Shadow of the Smokies, Smoky Mountain Historical Society, (1993), 332.
Tn. Pvt. 60 Coast Arty World War II. Died while prisoner