Class ring brings back war memories
(CNN) -- Mario Tonelli left his football memories behind in 1941 for a stint in the Army.
The Notre Dame stand-out fullback wanted to fulfill his year's commitment to his country and return home to Illinois.
But on December 8, the sirens in Manila screamed to the soldiers in Tonelli's 200th Coast Artillery Regiment that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. Within minutes, Japanese planes bombed Clark Field. Thousands of U.S. soldiers were ordered to retreat into Bataan and eventually surrender.
Tonelli, now 86 and a recent inductee of the Italian American Sports Hall of Fame, never dreamed his days on the Notre Dame gridiron would play a vital role on the journey known as the Bataan Death March.
Tonelli was wearing his college ring in the Philippines in April 1942. He was a 26-year-old Army sergeant who, along with more than 70,000 other soldiers, was forced to walk more than 60 miles to a prisoner of war camp.
"The first thing that I remember that made me realize we're in trouble, in the distance I saw something way up in the air and I couldn't figure out what it was but as he came closer on the horse I realized what it was. It was a head. He had it on a bamboo pole. A head on a bamboo pole," Tonelli recalled. "When I saw that, you know, I figured we were in big trouble."
"Everybody was sick with beri-beri, dysentery," he said.
Soldiers who fell to the ground in exhaustion were shot, stabbed with a bayonet or left behind. Then Japanese soldiers would pick up watches, ballpoint pens, Zippo lighters and just about anything else.
"This soldier, this private came up and he saw my ring. He saw it and he grabbed my hand," Tonelli said. He argued with the soldier but another guy in line told him it wasn't worth dying for. "That's when I let him take it."
Tonelli was mad. He watched the soldier take his "class of 1939" ring to an officer, figuring the officers get "all the good stuff."
But then the officer walked back to Tonelli.
"He said in real good English, 'Did one of my soldiers take anything from you?" Tonelli said.
The officer reached into his pocket, pulled out the ring and told Tonelli to hide it. The officer graduated from Southern California the same year.
"And he said 'I remember you playing football and beating our team.' He gave it to me and said good luck," Tonelli said.
In 1937 Tonelli had the game of his life at home against USC. He carried the ball nearly 70 yards on a single play. Two plays later he carried the ball into the end zone for the game winning touchdown.
Tonelli survived the march and 42 months as a POW. He was held first in the Philippines and then in Japan, where his football past again surfaced when he was handed a prison uniform with the number 58.
"That was my jersey number at Notre Dame," he said. "I said, 'I'm gonna make it.'"
Tonelli did make it out of the camp. An American plane eventually flew low, dropping a handkerchief with a couple of packs of cigarettes and a note. "Hostilities have ceased. We'll see you soon."
"I was lucky," Tonelli said. "Sometimes I feel guilty."