Austin Conner Shofner, 83; Led Escape at P.O.W. Camp



By Wolfgang Saxon,, November 17, 1999


Brig. Gen. Austin Conner Shofner, the marine who got word to the outside world of the infamous Bataan Death March of 1942 after he engineered the first and only successful American team escape from a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, died on Sunday, November 13, 1999, at his home in Shelbyville, Tenn. He was 83.

The desperate plight of the prisoners, as reported by General Shofner's 10-man group, led to changes in Allied strategy and tactics in the Pacific that were credited with saving the lives of thousands of servicemen. For his exploits then and as a guerrilla leader afterward, he was decorated with the Distinguished Service Cross by Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

A Marine Corps captain and company commander, he was captured at Corregidor and spent 11 months in several camps. He surreptitiously managed to chronicle those experiences and the subsequent escape in a diary that is kept in the Tennessee State Library and Archives.

Austin Shofner was born in Chattanooga and raised at an ancestral home in Bedford County, Tenn. He graduated in 1937 from the University of Tennessee, where he lettered in wrestling and football.

In prison camp he remembered the axioms of football that had been drilled into him at Tennessee. One seemed especially made for his situation: Play for the breaks, and when they come your way, score.

He did so by recruiting an escape party of soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines who awaited an opportunity for their break. It came on a work detail outside the Philippine prison camp.

The men took their chances and made it to safety by chopping their way through miles of Mindanao jungle. They brought the first news of the death march and the brutal conditions that by war's end had killed thousands of Filipino, American and other Allied prisoners, the victims of torture, starvation and disease.

General Shofner stayed in the Philippines for six more months, leading Filipino guerrillas who rescued 500 prisoners slated for death in one camp. He later led Marine assault battalions ashore on Peleliu and Okinawa, where he earned the Silver Star and the Legion of Merit. He retired from military service in 1959.

He returned to Bedford County and worked as an executive in insurance and finance. He also was active in local Republican politics, the Sons of the American Revolution and the 1st Marine Division Association, among other groups.

General Shofner is survived by four sons, William E., Martin K. and Dr. R. Stewart, all of Nashville, and Michael M., of Shelbyville, and seven grandchildren. His wife, Kathleen King Shofner, to whom he was married for 49 years, died in 1996.

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© 1999 by Neil Mishalov