Mario Tonelli was the son of an Episcopalian minister and graduate of Notre Dame University in 1938. He played football as a fullback for “The Fighting Irish.” Upon his graduation, he joined the military – a career which began in Manila, Philippines; just two months before the Japanese would launch a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and violently plunging the United States into World War II.
Tonelli was stationed at Clark Field, on the main island of Luzon. On Dec. 8, 1941, as word of the Japanese attack reached Clark Field, the installation was put on alert. Later that day, Japanese planes would strafe the installation and send Japanese troops to assault the beaches.
On order of General MacArthur, the Americans withdrew into the jungle of the Bataan peninsula, linking up with the Filipino army and attempt to resist the Japanese occupation of the island. The plan was for the Americans to hold out until the might of the American Navy could be brought to bear, and they could be relieved by the Marines or the Army.
Sadly, after the events of Dec. 7th, there was no longer a fleet powerful enough in the Pacific to effectively resist the Japanese Empire; resulting in the unconditional surrender of all American forces in the Philippines and MacArthur famously vowing “I shall return.” Unfortunately for the American servicemembers who surrendered to the Japanese, General MacArthur would not set foot on the island of Leyte until October 20, 1944.
The American prisoners were rounded up and marched from Bataan and Mariveles, to the province of Capas, ranging from 60 to 69 miles. The forced march was brutal and characterized by severe physical abuse- including starvation, forced dehydration, and bloodthirsty killings; which the Allied military commission would consider a war crime committed by the Japanese empire.
Mario Tonelli was wearing his prized class ring on the first day of the march, when it attracted the attention of a Japanese officer. The officer demanded the ring, to which Mario balked. The Japanese soldier raised his sword, causing another soldier to assure Tonelli the ring was not worth dying for.
He handed the ring over and watched as the soldier inspected it before approaching a lieutenant, and giving him the ring. Moments later the officer approached Tonelli, and – in perfect English – asked him if a soldier had taken the ring from him. Mario answered, stating it was his class ring of 1938, and he had graduated from Notre Dame.
The Japanese officer returned the ring to Mario with a warning that he needed to keep the ring hidden, lest it be taken by another soldier. Then, he informed Tonelli that he had graduated from Southern California University and somehow remembered Tonelli in the Notre Dame-SoCal game.
Throughout the horrors of the Bataan Death March, Tonelli drew strength from that Notre Dame class ring, clutching it tightly during moments of particular despair- of which there were surely many. One must wonder why a Japanese officer found the kindness to allow him to keep it, especially when all around him others were beheading and abusing their prisoners.
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