Herb Juliano

 Mario "Motts" Tonelli was a fullback on the Notre Dame team from 1936 to 1938. In World War Two, Mario was a prisoner on the infamous "Bataan Death March." As Motts said later, "I think my Notre Dame Football experience helped me on the march. The hard work, the discipline. Getting my mind set to sacrifice for one goal. Of course my goal then was to stay alive." One miraculous bit of luck also helped to raise Mario's spirits when he was down. After surviving the march and put in a Japanese prison camp, he was given a cap with a prisoner number on it. It was #58, his Notre Dame number. "Believe it or not," he says, "this gave me an incredible lift." Here then is the story of Mr. Tonelli, excerpted from Herb's Juliano's wonderful "Notre Dame Odyssey."


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Mario as a Notre Dame fullback Mario in Japanese prison camp

I never knew Mario "Motts" Tonelli, but I wish I had. His story came to my attention in May 1984 when the RED, WHITE & GREEN SPORTS newspaper, the official publication of the National Italian-American Sports Hall of Fame in Chicago, ran a story under the headline: "Bataan Death March" Couldn't Kill Spirit of Notre Dame All-American." That was the same newspaper which six months earlier had printed a story about me and my contributions to sport, under the headlines: "Juliano's Home In Annals of Sports; Notre Dame Curator is Answer Man of Athletics."
Herb Juliano is internationally known and respected in the athletic community for another reason-as curator for Notre Dame University's International Sports and Games Research Center."

But this story is not about me or anything that I may have accomplished. On Friday October 26,1945, the CHICAGO SUN sports section ran this headline: "Motts" Tonelli Comes Back From Death March of Bataan; 58's His Number! At Notre Dame, in Jap Prison Camp, Now With Cardinals." And the story began: "Only a few short months ago there was a No. 58 among the living skeletons still surviving the bestial treatment in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. With a pitifully emaciated body, fed only by the hope of deliverance, mere walking was exertion for him. Sunday that same American, still wearing No. 58, but nursed back to full strength and health, will be among the Chicago Cardinals when they clash with the Packers at Green Bay in a pro football battle."

Mario George "Motts" Tonelli was born in Lamont, Illinois, on March 3, 1917. About a year later, the family moved to Chicago. Young Mario did his prepping at DePaul Academy in Chicago, where he was a three sport athlete. In high school he was all-city in football in 1934 and 1935, all-state in 1935, and captained his basketball and track teams.

In the fall of 1935 Tonelli entered Notre Dame and got his first taste of varsity football in 1936, getting in some games, but not seeing too much action. In 1937, however, he started the season in the first string fullback slot and scored a touchdown. After playing in the scoreless tie with Illinois, injuries plagued him until the last game of the season.

It was in this final game, against Southern California, that Tonelli had perhaps his greatest day. With Southern Cal leading 7 to 6 and only a few minutes left in the final quarter, Tonelli took off over right guard from Notre Dame's own twenty yard line. He went sixty yards before being pulled down from behind on the Southern Cal 13. A teammate's plunge failed to gain, and Tonelli was called on again. This time, there was no stopping him. He went the remaining thirteen yards, crossing the goal line standing up. That won the ball game.

Tonelli's senior year, 1938, was his greatest. He finished second in yardage gained from scrimmage to Bob Saggau, led the team in average yards per carry with 5.8, also led in overall average gain. He carried the ball 42 times for 259 yards and an average gain of 6.2 yards per try. A sort of six-yard-Sitko of 1938.

He opened the season officially with the first touchdown for the Fighting Irish, against Kansas. He also scored the clinching touchdown in the Irish victory over Georgia Tech, 14-6.

Tonelli signed with the Chicago Cardinals after leaving Notre Dame. One of the first to enter into military service just prior to World War II, he spent his basic training days in Texas. He was reported missing on New Year's Eve, 1943. He presumed, when he joined the U.S. Army in 1941, that after a year of service he would be back playing football with the Chicago Cardinals, but it was six years before he again set foot on American soil.

He was sent to the Philippine Island of Luzon, where he was serving when the Japanese pulled their sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. Next target for Japan- the Philippines and the approximately 12,000 Americans and 60,000 Filipinos stationed on Luzon. Forced to subsist on one-third rations, the combined American and Filipino forces held out against the Japanese until April 9, 1942, when after having been pushed to the southernmost tip of Luzon, the Bataan Peninsula, facing the prospect of total slaughter, all troops surrendered.
The already starving prisoners were then forced to endure what has ever since been known as "The Bataan Death March." It lasted seven days, across 100 miles of jungle-like terrain, in sweltering heat and humidity, the allies dragging themselves and their buddies north, along the eastern coast of Bataan, without benefit of food or water.

Historians say about 10,000 soldiers died during the march. Their only reward was that they didn't have to endure the three and one-half years of hell that Tonelli and the other survivors did.

"We marched from early morning until sundown," recalls Tonelli. "If you couldn't walk anymore, or stumbled out of line, you were shot or bayoneted. Men dropped like flies and I saw some of them get their heads chopped off on the spot, just because they couldn't walk anymore."

Tonelli had endured gruelling drills and practices in three years as a fullback under Elmer Layden at Notre Dame, but no amount of athletic training could have approximated the brutality of the "death march." Mario had been named to some All-American teams and had played in the College All-Star game against the NFL champs before he played his first year in what he anticipated would be a successful professional career, but now it was day-to-day survival that consumed all his thoughts and energies.

One wonders how distant and insignificant his memories of glory days at DePaul Academy in Chicago and in the shadow of the Golden Dome seemed to the 24-year-old prisoner. When the prisoners finally stumbled into San Fernando, they were herded like cattle onto boxcars for the ride to Camp O'Donnell, farther north.

On the way north, many became victims of malaria and dysentery and died as they stood, in a tightly packed mass of diseased humanity. When they arrived at Camp O'Donnell they were given a ball of rice a day, very little water and no bathing. Even worse, no medical attention. On some days 75 men were buried, often as many as 25 of them in the same shallow grave. Escape was often considered, but rarely attempted and even more rarely accomplished. Occasionally, an escape was successful, but the Japanese penalty was 10 remaining prisoners killed for every one that escaped.

About 2,000 Americans died at O'Donnell, along with 20,000 more Filipinos, but Mario survived. 'There were three more years of suffering ahead for him. By the time he was transferred to Japan, he was down from his playing weight of 206 pounds to merely 98.

This was hardly the same three-sport high school star who attracted recruiters from Notre Dame to the University of Southern California. He really wanted to go to Southern Cal, he had a friend playing there, but Notre Dame wanted him and one night two priests from the South Bend campus showed up at his door and asked if they could come in. After a brief talk with Mario's mother, it was decided. He was going to Notre Dame.

This decision to play for Notre Dame and not Southern California hurt the Trojans especially in the 1937 game between them and the Fighting Irish. In the last two minutes of a game that was tied at 7, Tonelli broke an 80-yard run to the USC 3-yard line. Two plays later he took the ball over for the winning touchdown.

Had Tonelli chosen to pursue a track career, he may have been better at that than football. In high school he earned twelve varsity letters, starting on the varsity all four years in football, basketball and track. As a sophomore he long jumped nearly 22 feet, at a time when the world record was only about 25 feet. He could also pole vault 10 feet, using a stiff bamboo pole, and high jumped 5 feet 8 inches. On more than one occasion he scored 15 points by himself, winning the pole vault, high jump and long jump.

When Mario was moved north to the new camp at Cabanatuan, he found sleeping conditions poor-the prisoners slept on the ground-but there was water and they were fed three times a day. Unfortunately, all three meals consisted of a bowl of rice.

When the prisoners were moved from Manila to Japan, although they had no way of knowing it, their imprisonment was almost over. The first signs they had were from observations by the pilots among them, who detected patterns to the flights of American planes that began to fly overhead in increasing numbers. Shortly after that they began taking photographs from the planes and about a month later they really came in. 'There was a lot of pattern bombing, but no bombs hit the prison compound.

Tonelli avoided more friendly fire during the "short" trip by boat, from Manila to Japan. Although in miles it is a minor excursion, because the Japanese ships were under fire by American ships, whose crews did not know they carried American prisoners, the trip took 93 days. Many ships carrying prisoners were sunk and hundreds of Americans died as a result.

The conditions in the hulls of those Japanese ships were reminiscent of the sardine-like cramping the POW's had endured three years earlier on the boxcars. They arrived in Japan lice-ridden and filthy after three months without proper bathing facilities. As they walked down the planks they were sprayed with insecticide.

Shortly after this, the atomic bombs that brought Japan to its knees were dropped. Although it meant freedom for the Americans, they were hesitant to believe accounts of the destruction they heard from Japanese civilians. Tangible proof came days later when a fighter plan zoomed over and dropped a carton of cigarettes with a note attached. The note said: "Hostilities have ceased. We'll see you soon."

Next came 55-gallon drums of food, shoes, clothing and medicine. And finally, the troops came.
"All along we tried to have faith and confidence that America would liberate us," Mario Tonelli said, "You don't realize what freedom is until it's gone and there's nothing you can do about it. With all of its faults, there's still no place like America."

Tonelli found it impossible to regain the football skills that had eroded after five years. After a brief comeback attempt, he entered the political field.

If courage and determination mean anything in this world, then Mario 'Motts" Tonelli must be considered a hero on and off the football field.

To read previous installments of Herb's archive please click below:

September 1998

October 1998

November 1998

January 1999

March 1999

May 1999

July 1999