Until a year ago, Arnold Bocksel, a Japanese prisoner of war during World War II who survived the infamous Bataan Death March, could get around on his own.
The longtime Syosset resident, a Bronze Star and Purple Heart recipient, often shared his wartime experience in talks at more than 50 high schools around Long Island and the New York metro area and even wrote a book about it.
"I never thought I'd survive," he remembered Monday about his release from a POW camp. "It was the world opening up again to me."
But now at age 96, Bocksel is confined to a wheelchair. And on Monday, Bocksel received a $63,780 grant from the Department of Veterans Affairs to make it easier to get around his house, providing for a ramp for his wheelchair and other renovations at his house.
"After surviving the Bataan Death March and three and half years in a Japanese prison camp, Arnold came home a hero," said Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington), who handed out a large ceremonial check to Bocksel at his home Monday. Israel said it was one of $3.4 million in various grants to U.S. veterans in need that he's helped give out since 2001, saying that Bocksel "is finally getting the support he earned and deserves."
Bocksel joined the Army as a volunteer in 1941 and served in the Pacific, helping to mine harbors when he and his unit in the Philippines were captured. He wasn't released until August 17, 1945, and his weight had dwindled to 97 pounds.
During his stay in captivity, Bocksel said he and his fellow prisoners were constantly abused, and some beheaded for minor infractions like getting a drink of water. Many who were part of what is now known as the Bataan Death March - the physical transfer of some 75,000 Allied POWs to a camp in the Philippines - died of illness and starvation that left many like Bocksel looking like walking skeletons with skin on their bones.
"The Japanese basically had contempt and scorn for anyone becoming a prisoner of war," Bocksel recalled in his 1991 memoir "Rice Men and Barbed Wire," published locally by a Hauppauge company.
His family had no idea if Bocksel was alive or dead until he contacted them after his release, which happened to be his mother's birthday.
"Mom, I made it," Bocksel told her, a remark that was repeated in newspaper headlines and stories at the time.
The new VA grant to Bocksel is the maximum under a program designed for specially adapted housing measure to aid veterans who are blind, on crutches, in wheelchairs, disabled from severe burns, or lost the use of their limbs. Last year, the VA issued some 1,300 grants to eligible veterans under this program, amounting to about $50 million, said spokesman Phil Budahn.
Sitting in his wheelchair Monday, Bocksel expressed gratitude to his country and remembered those fellow soldiers who died during World War II.
"It's always nice to know you're remembered and to remember all those who are not here today," he said, holding a Japanese sword that he keeps as a memento of his ordeal.