The Bataan Death March

American sailors and soldiers have left their bones in lands and seas all over the globe.  One place that lives on in military lore is the peninsula of Bataan, on the island of Luzon, in the Philippines.

United States forces had occupied the Philippines during the Spanish American War, and by terms of the treaty that ended that war that island nation became an American territory.  Important naval facilities were constructed to service American fleets.  But the Filipinos wanted independence, and Washington finally listened to their just demands.  In 1935 the Philippines gained semi-independent commonwealth status, and fully independent nationhood was scheduled to soon follow.  Unfortunately, the outbreak of war in December 1941 disrupted these plans. On the same day they attacked Pearl Harbor, the Japanese struck south with massive invasion forces against British Malaysia and the American Philippines.

General Douglas MacArthur was in command of the American and Filipino troops in the Philippines.  He wished to defeat the Japanese on the beaches of Luzon, but his forces were too ill-equipped and ill-trained for that strategy to work.  Soon the outnumbered and outgunned American and Filipino forces retreated and took up defensive positions on the Bataan Peninsula at the mouth of Manila Bay.  Their only hope was that American naval and ground units would relieve them.  With the destruction of the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, however, relief was not possible.  Indeed, it is highly doubtful that even an undamaged American Pacific Fleet would have been able to overcome the massive Japanese naval forces assembled off Luzon.  We had seriously underestimated Japanese capabilities.

The American soldiers in Bataan soon realized the hopelessness of their situation. The war correspondent Frank Hewlett wrote a bit of doggerel to describe their feelings.

We’re the battling bastards of Bataan;
No mama, no papa, no Uncle Sam.
No aunts, no uncles, no cousins, no nieces,
No pills, no planes, no artillery pieces
And nobody gives a damn
Nobody gives a damn.

They had been abandoned.  They fought on courageously, but on April 9, 1942, after a three-month battle, the starving and disease ridden Filipino and American troops on Bataan peninsula surrendered to the Japanese. Their horrors had just begun.  Immediately after the surrender the Japanese began marching the Allied survivors toward their place of internment at Camp O’Donnell. The number of Filipino captives was estimated to be 66,000, and there were perhaps 10,000 Americans.

During the march, prisoners received little food or water, and many died. Prisoners were subjected to severe physical abuse, including being beaten and tortured. Prisoners often were forced to sit in sweltering direct sunlight, without helmets or other head covering, and anyone who asked for water was shot. “Cleanup crews” executed those too weak to continue, and some marchers were randomly stabbed with bayonets or severely beaten.

As the surviving prisoners arrived in Balanga, the overcrowded conditions and poor hygiene caused dysentery  and other diseases to spread rapidly. The Japanese did not provide the prisoners with medical care, so U.S. medical personnel, with few or no medical supplies, tended to the sick and wounded to the best of their ability.

Moving on to the San Fernando railhead, prisoners were stuffed into sweltering, brutally hot metal box cars, in 110 °F heat, for the one-hour trip to Capas. At least 100 prisoners were pushed into each of the unventilated boxcars. The trains had no sanitation facilities, and disease continued to take a heavy toll on the captives. Upon arrival at the Capas train station, they were forced to walk the final 9 miles to Camp O’Donnell. Even after arriving at Camp O’Donnell, the survivors of the march continued to die at rates of up to several hundred per day.  Altogether, perhaps as many as 20,000 Filipinos and Americans lost their lives in the death march. (For purposes of comparison, that is twice the total American death count in our years of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq,)

It was not until January 27, 1944, that the U.S. government informed the American public about the death march.  Sworn statements were released from some of those march survivors who had escaped Japanese captivity, and shortly thereafter their stories were featured in a Life magazine article. Accounts of the Bataan Death March and other Japanese atrocities aroused fury in the United States.

Most Bataan veterans remained in Japanese prison camps until the liberation of the Philippines in September 1945.  They suffered horribly in captivity, and death rates remained high.  At war’s end, General Masahuru Homma, commander of Japanese forces in the Philippines in 1942, was arrested by Allied troops and indicted for war crimes.  Homma claimed that he was ignorant of the high death toll until some months after the brutal events on Bataan, but he was convicted and executed on April 3, 1946.

The sacrifice of those brave men on Bataan should never be forgotten.


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