Elias Coloma bought his house in Fountain Valley's Green Valley subdivision in 1972 for a whopping $32,000. It was still just a wooden frame, but he loved it so much that he lived in a motor home on the lot until it was finished. By then, he'd already retired from a career as an engineer with Hughes Aircraft, and eventually went on to start a successful basket importing business.
Coloma celebrated his 90th birthday last month, and he still lives in that same house, which he now shares with one of his granddaughters and her husband. By every possible standard, he's lived a long and extraordinary life -- all the more impressive given that, by all accounts, he was lucky to live past his 20th birthday.
Coloma was one of 75,000 American and Filipino troops forced to endure what is now known as the Bataan Death March during World War II. Even after 70 years, he still remembers almost every detail from the ordeal, which, including his imprisonment at the end of the 65-mile march, lasted more than six months.
Coloma served in a unit of the U.S. Army called the Philippine Scouts, which was made up of native Filipinos serving under the command of American officers. In April of 1942, after the Battle of Bataan, the Japanese told Coloma and his fellow Scouts that the war was over and that they were free to go home. But as Coloma made his way toward his home in the city of Guimba, he soon discovered the Japanese had other plans -- and that the war was far from over.
"The Japanese were very tricky," he said. "They said, 'Now you're all free. You can go home. We have freed you from the American imperialists.' We were happy. By the time we reached [Dinlupihan], the Japanese guards were already waiting to stop us."
Coloma and the other prisoners were divided into groups of about 150, six abreast, and the marching began. He avoided starvation by getting what little he could from chewing on sugar cane root, fought dehydration by drinking from roadside ditches, and survived Japanese bayonets by staying in line and keeping up with the group. Those who survived with him long enough to reach the city of San Fernando were loaded into boxcars bound for the city of Capas. From Capas, they marched to Camp O' Donnell, where they were housed in two-story bamboo barracks.
"If you were well, they put you [on the second floor]," Coloma said. "If you were sick, but could still do something, they put you [on the first floor]. If you were dying they put you [underneath the building]."
Even after arriving at that camp, prisoners died by the dozen every day. Because he had some education, Coloma's captors made him one of the camp's "couriers," whose lone deliveries each day were the names and serial numbers of the previous day's dead.
By September of 1942, the Japanese decided to move the prisoners from Camp O' Donnell to a larger prison camp in the city of Cabanatuan, and civilians lined the road leading away from Camp O' Donnell to watch as the prisoners were marched out of the camp. In one brief moment of random kindness, one of those onlookers gave Coloma his life back.
"This was funny," Coloma said. "Somebody pulled me over to the side, took my clothes and said, 'Put this on'-- you know, clean clothes -- 'and don't move, just watch.' The Japanese thought that I wasn't a prisoner. So, as the prisoners were marching by, I was watching, too."
It wouldn't be the last time Coloma would hide in plain sight. He made his way home to Guimba, and stayed just long enough to recover before joining a group of guerilla insurgents. Because any direct action against Japanese troops would have been met with swift and brutal retribution against entire villages, Coloma and his fellow guerillas specialized in espionage and sabotage, and their specialty was derailing Japanese supply trains by removing pieces of track at key railroad junctions.
When World War II ended, Coloma reported to an American military base that had been established in the city of Calasiao to reprocess troops like who had been displaced as he had. By then he had decided he was a lieutenant in his guerrilla unit -- "I commissioned myself," he said -- and fashioned a white bar from a tin can to reflect as much on his uniform.
Coloma's former bosses weren't amused, but nonetheless brought him back into the fold, promoting him from his original rank of private third class to sargeant. From there, he was sent to a base in Manila, where he met his wife and was selected for a type of fast-track officers' training that allowed him to transfer to Okinawa and eventually to the U.S.
Coloma retired from the Army in 1962 after his superiors tried to transfer him to Fort Collins, Colorado in the dead of winter. He went on to get an engineering degree from Long Beach state and worked eight years in the private sector before retiring for good in 1970, moving to Fountain Valley two years later, and buying that perfect pile of two-by-fours where he still lives today.
It's a life that seems at once incredibly fragile and impossibly charmed, and it all boils down to a single thought Coloma had 70 years ago in the middle of the jungle.
"My feeling was, even with all the dead people who I passed by, I was strong-minded, and I said 'I will survive.'"