Judge Carter dies at age 87

Tuesday, April 22, 2003
Arthur Carter held a plaque in 2001 with his Bronze Star for valor when he was a prisoner of war during the Bataan Death March. CCN / Ken O'Toole

Former County Judge Arthur Carter, one of the most valiant and determined men in Arkansas, died early Thursday morning at Carroll Regional Medical Center. He was 87.

Mr. Carter died of heart failure. His family and friends were anticipating his passing for some days, but Mr. Carter proved time and again that he could never be counted out until his time came.

He was much more than a county judge. He was more than a prisoner of war or a state legislator. The Bronze Star for his valor and the pain he suffered throughout his life made him a formidable man.

The lanky "old war horse," as he called himself, still got around town over the past few years, with his trademark good looks still apparent. He once worked as a double for the actor Clark Gable, both men with rugged features, big ears and twinkling eyes.

He is survived by his wife, Marie, daughter Ann, son Abe, and brother George. Obituary details are on Page 2.

Services are 10 a.m. Saturday at the Charles M. Nelson Memorial Chapel in Berryville.

Many times during his life, it seemed Mr. Carter would surely be killed by one formidable enemy or another. Despite war, hunger and thirst, a Japanese prison camp, a typhoon, and cancer, he prevailed.

In 2001, Mr. Carter, who did not like to give interviews about his travails, took a few hours to reflect with this reporter on a remarkable life that had been far from kind to him ---- but then extraordinarily generous, too. He lived through hell on Pacific islands as a Marine fighting the Japanese invasion in World War II, and survived a prison camp that was so brutal he could not speak of many things that he saw.

From the infamous Death March at Bataan to seeing hundreds die at the hands of Japanese soldiers in prison camps, and the "Hell Ship" he was on that was nearly blown up just a few miles from freedom, Mr. Carter was one of very few such survivors of the brutality of the Death March.

After the years of suffering came satisfaction and accomplishment.

Born in Oak Grove in 1916, he came home to Berryville after the war and began a distinguished career as county judge that lasted 28 years. He then went on to the Arkansas Legislature as Carroll County's Democratic representative in the House, where he served two terms before retirement.

At his home on Mountain Street in Berryville, plaques line the walls.

There are proclamations that thank him for his instrumental roles in various civic achievements such as working to build the county's hospital and Heritage Center. And on the wall is his Bronze Star, one of the nation's highest honors.

On Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he was a Marine military policeman in Caviti Naval Yard at Manila Bay in the Philippines, where the bombing began shortly after Pearl Harbor.

As the Japanese invaded and overwhelmed the U.S. forces, Mr. Carter and a small cadre of about 15 men were left behind to blow up an ammunition dump as the rest of the Marines retreated toward Corregidor and the Bataan peninsula.

He said in 2001, "We fought our way through Manila to Bataan. It was already being occupied by the Japanese, and they were machine-gunning us as we went through. We arrived at Bataan late at night, in a bombing raid. I dove under the roots of a Banyan tree. ... We fought there until they didn't need us anymore, then they sent us to Corregidor for beach defense."

"I don't like to do these things (interviews)," Mr. Carter said. "It hurts to do it."

Corregidor was a heavily fortified island in Manila Bay, where the Marines fought for a month after the main forces at Bataan surrendered in early April, 1942.

"When Bataan surrendered," Mr. Carter said, "The Death March began there. Some say it was 60 miles, others say 80, to Cabanatuan prison camp. One of the reasons it was so tough is because we were already starving by then. Plus there were thousands of civilians caught in there with no food. We fought another month, and were captured May 6, 1942."

On Corregidor, Carter first saw signs of the brutality that was to come.

"For the first eight or 10 days (after capture), we had no food or water. The Japanese soldiers were masters of punishment. Everybody had amoebic dysentery. It was terrible, terrible stuff."

He remembered the hunger doubling him over, and also catching raindrops in his mouth, the only water he could get.

"People who have never been hungry cannot know what it's like, the gnawing at your stomach. You're sitting on concrete in the hot sun, for days, and the only relief comes with rain or nightfall. ... I began to get a determination, to get through. I thought I might have a good life if I could just get home."

The captives were then marched through the streets of Manila.

"They marched us five miles down a boulevard so the Filipinos could see us. Some of them tried to throw us food, but the Japanese would bayonet them."

They were loaded on railroad boxcars, 100 men where there should have been 50, so tightly packed they could barely breathe.

"We screamed and yelled that we couldn't breathe but they paid no attention. By the time we got there several smothered to death.

"Then began my part of what they call the Death March. This was hot summer in the tropics, and we were forced along, and people were dying." Japanese guards would shoot or bayonet the men where they fell.

When the forced-march finally reached Camp 3 at Cabanatuan, a Japanese colonel lined the men up and gave a lecture on how they were to behave. An interpreter fumbled one phrase, saying the men could be "severely shot." Despite the circumstances, some men laughed.

Suddenly, Mr. Carter said, the colonel motioned one man to the front, and "killed him with one swat of a big stick. Then there were a lot of deaths, as many as 50 a day."

The torture went on for weeks, with Carter being among the men who had to bury the dead. "Some men would just crawl under a hut, and give up and die," he said. Conditions were gruesome, with dysentery and death as constant companions.

Eventually 1,200 men were shipped off to Manchuria, China, aboard what they called the "Hell Ships." The men were packed in hot, filthy ship's holds, and spent five weeks at sea, where U.S. submarines wolf-packed the Japanese transports, sinking many. During the period, the "Hell Ships" carried 126,000 U.S. POWs to China to slave in war factories. Of those, 21,000 died at sea, 19,000 the victims of U.S. attacks. Carter's ship was attacked but torpedoes barely missed.

After a trek through Korea to China, Carter was greeted by below-zero weather and a new job as a worker in an old factory at Mukden, Manchuria.

Then came three Christmases as a Japanese captive, with so little food that he was down to 96 pounds on his six-foot-one frame, a shadow of the former 200-pound Marine.

As the fourth Christmas approached, a change came over his Japanese captors. "This little boss told me the Americans had dropped a 'block-long' bomb on Hiroshima. I couldn't figure a plane large enough to carry such a bomb; of course I didn't know anything about an atomic bomb."

Soon the Japanese surrender came, and Russian soldiers moved in. Suddenly, his former guards were gone, replaced by new ones. "We would have beat the whey out of them," Mr. Carter recalled. The Russians made the Japanese lay down their arms in front of the POWs, and U.S. planes began dropping food and medicine.

With the end in sight, the Marines were shipped to Korea again, aboard a rusty little transport bound for Okinawa. Within miles of shore, a typhoon came up and the convoy had to put back to sea. After surviving the typhoon, Mr. Carter and the other Marines watched as an old mine washed up along the ship, and floated down the port side. The men hit the deck, he said, just before ---- "Kapoooom! It blew a hole in the side of the ship, and I thought we were going to capsize." Though they were taking on water, the ship managed to make it to port safely, and eventually Carter recovered at the Naval hospital in Oakland, California, before making his way back to Berryville.

Luck is a subjective thing, Carter believed. "I was lucky I went to Manchuria, despite the cold. A lot of POWs went to the salt mines in Japan, which was worse. Luck is relative."

How did he find the strength to survive?

"Well, being a country boy like I was, we managed it a lot better than the city boys. The boys from the Depression era from Oklahoma, Arkansas, and the Navajos from New Mexico, we had it a little rougher before we even got there. Some men lost their will to live. We ate anything we could get ---- mules, lizards, horses, we ate 'em. Horses and mules were pretty good. Iguana tastes like chicken."

"... For a long time after I was home, (nightmares of) shelling and bombing raids woke me right up. ... Anything that happens now, I shrug it off. I say, I can handle this pretty easily."

Mr. Carter finally settled on his 180-acre farm in Berryville with wife Marie. They had been married 56 years, and have a daughter, Ann, of Berryville, and her twin Abe Carter, of Atlanta. Arthur Carter met Marie at a dinner they threw for him at Oak Grove just after the war. Marie was a worker at an aircraft factory in Kansas City during the war.

The Carter family has become legendary in Arkansas. His grandfather was Thomas Maple Carter, "an old war horse," Mr. Carter said. Thomas was a Civil War veteran of the Confederate Army who was shot in the side "through and through" and used to show his battle wound to the young Arthur. His uncle was Abram Lafayette Carter, a physician known here as A. L. Carter, who operated the county's first small hospital in Berryville. Both A.L. Carter, and Arthur Carter when he was county judge, were instrumental in creating what is now Carroll Regional Medical Center. The Carters, Richard Harp, Dr. Wayne P. Jones, Bill Walker and James Garrett all worked hard to get the hospital built here and floated a bond that Mr. Carter remembers was about $28,000. "It was 28 beds, and we thought that was pretty nice for the time [the 60's]," he said.

Carter's old friend, Berryville Councilman Burt George, said in 2001, "Arthur Carter won't brag on himself, but I will. He's about the greatest guy I know, and he was a hell of a county judge."

When Carter took office in 1950, George said, Carroll County was mainly dirt roads. Carter was responsible for paving most of the highways, which were then county roads. George remembers a list including what are now Highways 143, 311, 21 and 221 North and South, 103, 187 around Beaver Lake, Passion Play Road, etc.

"When he took office," George said, "he had one road grader and an old bulldozer that was froze up. The county didn't have much money back then."

In addition to essentially creating the road department, Mr. Carter was also responsible for spearheading with others many improvements such as the county airport.

"He was a leader with the hospital, and with Bill Walker, the airport. He borrowed money personally to buy the land for the airport. I told him not to, but he did it anyway," George said.

Burt George remembers it was Mr. Carter's alliance with the late Gov. Orval Faubus that made it possible to get so much work done on roads and other projects. "Faubus took care of Northwest Arkansas," George said.

"Arthur was a close friend of his. Arthur did so much for this county. He's just an amazing guy, and he still had his sense of humor. He's not even mad at the Japanese ---- he just won't buy their cars."

He survived the nightmares of World War II and the ravages of cancer in his legs. He lost both his knees some time ago, a result he believes of his hardships in the prison camps and perhaps the Death March itself, when he was prisoner #387. A dangerous bout of acute pancreatitis nearly killed him, too.

He has lived several lifetimes as a soldier, a civil servant, a legislator and a cattleman. In 1989, he was named top dairy producer in Carroll County, and he raised turkeys and Holstein heifers as well.

He helped pioneer no-till farming here in 1985, and the list goes on.

In his final days he volunteered around the county, at the Heritage Center and the Berryville Chamber of Commerce office.

And his humor was still intact. "If I'd have known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself," he said two years ago.

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