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The Bataan Death March and Beyond

By Les Whittle

Everybody knew the war with Japan was coming, but when it did come it literally "caught us with our shorts down" as stated by Alf Larson a survivor of the Bataan Death March.


On Dec. 7, 1941 Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and incapacitated the Pacific Fleet. On the same day (except divided by the International Dateline) Japan attacked The Philippines, Malaya and Hong Kong . This was all in accordance with Japans grandiose plans to conquer all of the Far East including Australia and New Zealand . The attack in the Philippines virtually destroyed the American Air Force while they were still on the ground. Japan then invaded the Philippines in Northern Luzon and Southern Mindanao Islands. General MacArthur Commander of the Filipino-American forces decided to meet the invaders at the beaches. Under his command were 20,000 Filipino regulars, approximately 20,000 Americans and over 100,000 Filipino reservists who had never held a rifle much less trying to stop battle hardened Japanese soldiers lead by Lt. General Homma. Hong Kong would fall by the end of December meanwhile Fili-American forces, unable to stem the tide of the advancing invaders would fall back to the Bataan Peninsula leaving behind captured prepositioned food stores. Their new mission was to stall as long as possible the advance of the Japanese Army. Not only did the Fili-American forces face the Japanese forces but they faced quickly dwindling food supplies (1000 calories per day by mid-January) ammunition that was of W.W.I vintage, medicine that was in short supply (malaria of all types were particularly viral at time) and various asundry materials were also about gone (especially gasoline.) Non-Combatant Americans and civilians were used as a Provisional Army Unit. Matters at hand did not look encouraging. By the end of December 1941 President Roosevelt, despite his claim that relief was on its way, had confided to Winston Churchill that he had decided to concentrate more of the nation’s efforts on the European campaign than fighting an all out war on both fronts.

The defenders of Bataan or The Battling Bastards Of Bataan as the 1200 or less alive today like to call themselves, continue to hold their ground but without resupply or reinforcement. Disease, malnutrition, fatigue and lack of basic supplies took their toll. In February forces in Singapore would surrender. On March 11, 1942 General MacArthur was ordered to Australia . General Wainwright would go to Corregidor and General King would assume the duties of Commanding General for Bataan . On April 3, 1942 General Homma started a new push. The Fili-American forces gave ground, mostly due to fatigue, less than a meal a day and malaria, beriberi, typhus and jungle rot. By that time it was determined that fighting efficiency was down to 30%. On April 9, 1942 General King surrendered to General Homma. As part of the surrender General King offered General Homma trucks to transport his men to whatever camp General Homma decreed. The Japanese declined thus the beginning of the Death March of Bataan. The march generally lasted from five to nine days from the time each group of men would start. Mariveles was the originating point but prisoners also started from wherever they had been captured. Many thousands of Fili-American prisoners were staged in the Mariveles area and every day several hundred would be gathered up to start the march. Mass confusion reigned. Units were often separated as well as buddies. Filipinos were made to march on one side of the road and Americans on the other. Soon a dog eat dog attitude prevailed as the Japanese soldiers herded their captives up the road (the guards were under a timetable to get the prisoners to camp.) Men were marched during the heat of the day. No rest was given except at night. No water was allowed except at the price of death. Some men were fed (a rice ball) others were not. Men who could not keep up were bayoneted, shot or beheaded. Passing Japanese troops would often hit them over their heads with rifle butts, bamboo canes and swords. Looting of the prisoners was rampant. One officer’s West Point ring finger was cut off to get the ring. Men who fell in the middle of the road were often left to die, one being run over by a tank. Dysentery was one of the worst parts of the march as no sanitary stops were allowed (it would put off their timetable.) Many horrors were witnessed during the march, the burying alive of severely wounded Filipinos, emasculation and disembowelment. The way was littered with dead Filipinos and Americans who were left to rot alongside the road. From Mariveles they marched 65 miles to San Fernando in the Pangpango province where they were forced into steel freight cars that stood in the 120 degree F. heat to the point you could see the vapor coming off the top of the car. More than 100 men were forced into a 40 X 8 space. The doors were closed and then locked. Men were pressed together so tightly that you couldn’t move or breathe. Men often died from lack of oxygen as the 25 mile ride took several hours to accomplish. After their "ride" these men were forced to march an additional 6 miles to the first prisoner of war camp they were to occupy.

Camp O’Donnell at first laid out as a training camp for Filipino forces sat on approximately 600 acres of land and was designed to hold 9000 men. By the end of the death march more than 50,000 men would inhabit it. The Death March of Bataan would end on April 24, 1942 although other groups of prisoners would continue to come in after that. Twelve days after the death march ended the American forces on Corregidor commanded by General Wainwright would surrender on May 6, 1942. Although figures are not exact the estimates are that between 650-750 Americans and 5000-10,000 Filipinos died during the Death March of Bataan. After their arrival at Camp O’Donnell described as a (a putrid place) Americans were to die at a pace of 40-50 per day. At the end of two months 1600 Americans and 15,000 Filipinos would die and be buried in mass unmarked graves. This fact did not concern the Japanese as they felt that "these men were not prisoners of war but members of an inferior race to be treated as the Japanese saw fit."

The Battling Bastards of Bataan 

We are the battling bastards of Bataan
No mama, no papa no Uncle Sam
No aunt no uncles no cousins no nieces
No planes no pills no artillery pieces
And nobody gives a Damn

By Frank Hewlett

For further reading and research, search the internet for "Bataan Death March". Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides Publisher Doubleday 2001 is considered an excellent source. Or, visit the web site of the survivors of the Death March.

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