“I got to know Mr. Bank when I worked in the athletic department at Alabama. He was a true American Hero.” – J.P. Sawyer
Bert Bank, best known in sports circles as the founder and long-time executive producer of the Alabama football radio network. Bank will be honored in Birmingham as the recipient of the National Veterans’ Award on Veterans Day Monday. If you don’t think that’s a big deal, try a couple of these folks on for size as former winners: Charles Lindbergh, Gen. William Westmoreland, Gen. Alexander Haig and Neil Armstrong.
Before Bank, a lawyer by trade, revolutionized the way sports broadcasting is done in Alabama, as well as serving for many years in the State House and Senate, he was known for surviving the tortuous Bataan Death March during World War II — enduring 33 months as a prisoner of war.
Bank still chokes with emotion as he tells the terrorizing tales of pain and suffering he endured 60 years ago. While his memories from the Pacific are well known and documented, there are many other things about Bank rarely discussed.
For instance, he was the first white radio-station owner in Alabama to put a black DJ on the air in the late ’50s.
“A bunch of advertisers threatened to cancel, and I told them I would publish their names in the paper if they did,” Bank said. Most backed down.
Bank, who owned two stations in Tuscaloosa, gave many students their first job at WTBC-AM, including a number who have gone on to major network jobs.
Bank also is responsible for proposing and passing legislation to rename the football stadium in Tuscaloosa Bryant-Denny Stadium. It was formerly known as Denny Stadium after George Denny, who served as Alabama’s president for 25 years.
“I did it very quietly and Bryant didn’t even know I had pushed it through until much later,” Bank said.
Bank and Bryant were not only classmates at Alabama but close friends. Often, to inspire a struggling football player, the coach would ask his old friend to tell the story of his brutal internment in the Philippines, particularly stories about how the POWs worked and stuck together.
“The Japanese believed in mass punishment,” Bank said. “If someone messed up, everybody was beaten.”
The statistics on the Bataan Death March are staggering. After surrendering early in the war, about 70,000 American and Filipino troops were ordered to walk 65 miles over six days with no food and water to be placed in prison camps. About 20,000 of the troops died during the Byzantine journey.
“Much of the treatment we received can actually never be told,” Bank said.
Bank added what kept him alive was thinking about his family and one day gaining freedom. “I wasn’t married when I went into prison camp,” Bank said. “My main thoughts were my mother and father. The Japanese, if they thought you were meditating or thinking about loved ones, they would beat you or send you on a detail. If someone tried to escape, they shot the rest of the detail.
“A lot of people didn’t want to live and they just gave up. I wanted to get back and let Americans know how lucky they are.”
Finally, after 33 months, the war turned in America’s favor and Bank and the remaining prisoners were freed.
“I really can’t explain the feeling when the Rangers came in and got us,” Banks said. “I started screaming, ‘Freedom, freedom, freedom.'”
Bank said later that glorious day, a local newspaper got word that he had been freed and called his parents at 3 a.m. to give them the news.
“My daddy was so excited he went outside and starting screaming, waking up everybody in the neighborhood.”
When he’s not traveling with the Alabama football team — he remains producer emeritus of the Crimson Tide broadcasts — Bank speaks to young people about his experiences and works tirelessly with veterans’ groups.
“It’s important that young people understand how important freedom is to this country,” Bank said.
And as Veterans Day approaches, Bank will once again be asked to relate the atrocities as he is recognized with one of the nation’s highest honors. But it won’t change his opinion of what he did 60 years ago or how he somehow lived to tell about it.
“I would like to think I’m a survivor,” Bank said. “I’m not a hero. The heroes are the men who didn’t come back. … I still think about them a lot.”