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Bataan Death March-1942
By Suzanne Stamatov
The Japanese siege on the American forces in the Philippines transpired over a four-month period. Japan began aerial attacks on the Philippines on the same day it attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii (8 December in the Philippines as it is across the International Date Line). Ordered to guard Clark Field Air Force Base north of Manila, the New Mexican soldiers were the first to fire at the Japanese planes. With their antiquated guns and ammunition, the Americans proved unable to defend the base. The Japanese bombers managed to catch a large percentage of the American Air Force of the Far East on the ground. During the first few days of the attack, Douglas MacArthur, who was in command of the defense of the Philippines, proved incapable of reacting to the assault. When he finally emerged from hiding, he implemented a defensive strategy known as War Plan Orange.
Unable to defend Manila from the relentless fire-power of the Japanese, Americans withdrew from their positions around the capital and filed down into the Bataan Peninsula. Composed of jungles and steep volcanoes, the Bataan Peninsula, twenty-five miles long and twenty miles wide at its base, was, theoretically, the perfect site for the Americans to entrench themselves and to fight against General Masaharu Homma’s Fourteenth Imperial Army. A large flaw in this plan of entrenchment existed. MacArthur, in formulating War Plan Orange, had assumed that the U.S. Navy would bring reinforcements of food and munitions to the trapped forces. The Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor had obliterated most of the Pacific fleet. Without reinforcements, the U.S. troops had little hope of surviving the Japanese troops’ war of attrition. Moreover, it was also unlikely that supplies would find their way to the Philippines since, by Christmas 1941, President Roosevelt had decided to concentrate U.S. resources in Europe.
Without the necessary supplies and supports, the stranded men had little hope of mounting an effective defense. They survived on rations of less than fifteen ounces a day. Their equipment was rusty and outmoded, in some cases dating to World War I. In addition to the casualties of war, the U.S. soldiers of Bataan were dying from disease. Diseases, such as dengue fever, amoebic dysentery, bacillary dysentery, tertian malaria, cerebral malaria, typhus, typhoid, and beriberi, killed men and sapped their morale. Army doctors had no medicines to treat their patients. The men along the front lines fared the worst since they received fewer rations. Much of the food the troops were able to find, consisted of cats, slugs, rats, dried insects, python, and monkey, an unappetizing diet for these American troops.
On 9 April 1942, Major General Edward King, commander of 78,000 American and Filipino soldiers, in addition to some 20,000 Filipino civilians, drove in a jeep to meet with representatives of General Masaharu Homma and to tender an American surrender. King felt that he had no other choice. If he did not surrender, he had a premonition that “Bataan would be known as the greatest slaughter in history.” While he pondered surrender, he came to realize that due to the weakened physical condition of the troops, they would be unable to march to the prisoner camps, wherever those might be. With this in mind, he reserved troop-carrying vehicles and gasoline supplies to help transport his troops into captivity.
Unfortunately, General King had little leverage in the surrender negotiations. In addition to their feeble hold on Bataan, American troops also occupied Corregidor, an island at the tip of the Bataan Peninsula. Unlike the situation on the mainland, the 8,000 troops on Corregidor had held their defensive positions due to better food supplies and a vast underground network of tunnels, catacombs and fortifications that protected them from the protracted Japanese air raids. When King met with Colonel Nakayama, the colonel insisted that the surrender include Corregidor. The colonel also stated that General Homma would conduct negotiations only with General Wainwright (current commander of Corregidor after MacArthur’s departure for Australia). King finally got Nakayama to agree to a cessation of fighting. He requested that the American and Filipino troops be treated in accordance with the terms of the Geneva Convention. He also asked that he be allowed to escort his troops into captivity. Nakayama denied his requests. While the two men negotiated, King heard Japanese artillery bombarding his troops. He knew that his only choice was to surrender unconditionally before more men died. He removed his .45 pistol and placed it on the table in surrender.
Once the news filtered down to the troops, they were confused and unsure what to do. While in training, the recruits had never been told of a protocol of surrender. The troops also knew very little about the enemy. Racial stereotypes dominated the ideas about the Japanese soldiers. A New Mexican, Willie Burrola, said he felt numb. “We knew we were lost — how can a rifle stop a tank? But we were ready to keep fighting." Another New Mexican, Don Harris, believed that surrender was inevitable: “It’s terrible to surrender. But you’ve got Japs running down your neck, and you haven’t got any food. You’re out of ammunition, and you’ve got guys sick with all kinds of diseases. It was the only thing we could do, or none of us would have come back. Not one man.” However practical the surrender, it was not easily accepted by the soldiers. Nick Chintis cried, “it wasn’t from fear — it was from humiliation.”
The Japanese had grossly underestimated the number of surrendering troops. In their original plan of evacuating the troops, they estimated that they would need to provide food and transportation for 25,000 to 40,000 prisoners. Instead the Japanese had to contend with over 100,000 American and Filipino prisoners. The eventual brutalities of the prisoner evacuation were not premeditated atrocities. Instead the sheer number of prisoners and the inability of the Japanese army to cope led to complete chaos. The sweltering heat, racial hatred, and a disintegration of discipline in the Imperial Army led to the Japanese atrocities against the prisoners-of-war (POWs).
First the Japanese forced the men to march north. The Japanese decided not to use the trucks that King had set aside for the purpose of transporting prisoners. The Imperial Army almost always forced its troops to march. They treasured every drop of gasoline. They would not waste it on POWs. Along the march, the guards provided few provisions to the POWs. The Japanese also suffered from the same diseases and saw that the Americans’ meager food supplies were more substantial than what they regularly received. Along the way, the Japanese guards practiced random acts of violence, often singling out men of larger stature. The Japanese troops accepted corporal punishment as a routine part of army life. Guards, who had often been on the receiving end of brutal treatment, now had defenseless men on whom they could take out their anger, aggression and hatred. Yet, in many cases, their brutality went far beyond beatings. As the POWs marched four in a line, anyone who struggled and fell out of formation might be bayoneted. One tank swerved to run over an American who had staggered out of his line. If the Japanese found any Americans with products made in Japan, they assumed the Americans had stripped a dead Japanese soldier. Upon discovery, the American usually suffered a brutal death. In one instance of mass murder, the Japanese rounded up 350 members of the Philippine 91st Army Division and beheaded them. The Japanese also used the American prisoners as a screen for their artillery positions on Bataan. Although the Corregidor gunners initially held their fire, they did eventually attack, killing an unknown number of American prisoners.
When the survivors of the march reached San Fernando, the Japanese loaded the men on tiny, metal boxcars to take them closer to their final destination, Camp O’Donnell. The cars had sat in the sun all day long and had no ventilation. The men, in their weakened and diseased state, stood in the stifling cars, sweating and defecating. When they arrived, many men did not walk off the train. Those who did had to stand in the hot sun for over an hour. Many men dropped from heat exhaustion. They then marched a few more hours and reached Camp O’Donnell. Due to the weakened state of the prisoners, the march north took a heavy toll. An estimate is that 750 Americans and approximately 5,000 Filipinos died from exhaustion, disease, neglect, and murder.
What awaited the men in Camp O’Donnell, however, proved even more horrific than the forced march. A training facility for the Philippine Army, the camp was designed to accommodate 9,000 people. As the men marched into the camp, the population of the camp swelled to approximately 50,000 Filipino and American prisoners. Most men who survived the ordeal only stayed at O’Donnell for fifty days. But those days marked the most extreme deprivation and dehumanizing experiences of the war. The sanitation system was so primitive that it spread disease like wild fire. The food they received, whistleweed soup and a slop of watery rice filled with maggots, did little to nourish the men. They succumbed to a number of tropical diseases. Other men just gave up and died, unwilling to live in such inhuman conditions. The Japanese guards also continued their cruelty, beating, shooting, beheading, bayoneting or torturing men who broke any of the rules. Thirty to forty men died a day and those strong enough worked on the disposal of dead bodies. Close to 1,500 Americans died at O’Donnell.
The Japanese recognized that they needed another prison to contain their POWs. In June 1942, they brought the prisoners to Cabanatuan Camp. Although the conditions at Cabanatuan were somewhat better than those at Camp O’Donnell, survivors of Bataan continued to die from diseases due to a lack of basic medicines. The Japanese used the prisoners at Cabanatuan as slave laborers. Once the Japanese determined that General MacArthur’s troops intended to invade the Philippines, they began to transfer the POWs to Korea, Manchuria, and to Japan. Most of the prisoners went to Japan to labor in factories, mines and dockyards. The Japanese loaded the POWs on ships, known as death ships, and then took circuitous routes to their destinations in order to avoid enemy submarines and ships. The conditions on the death ships mirrored those of the camps; prisoners received little food, water or protection from the elements. Still worse was the fact that submarines often did fire on these unmarked ships, killing all aboard. Close to 11,000 American prisoners died on the death ships.
Those who did make it to the final destinations also suffered deprivation at their new prison camps. But their time in these places was mercifully short. By 1944, the tide of war in the Pacific had turned and the U.S. was winning. On 1 August 1944, the Ministry of War in Tokyo issued a directive to the commanders of POW camps to kill all prisoners. Few commanders, however, had enough time to carry out the command, not knowing when the end of the war would come. The U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on Japan that led to the Japanese surrender on 15 August 1945. Those POWs still alive stayed near their camps and tried to relay the message to the American troops that they needed one thing: food. The POWs in a camp in northern Japan spelled out PW with lime in the yard. Two days later a Navy scout plane dropped a message saying: “Food coming.” Two bombers followed, dropping fifty-five-gallon drums filled with food.
Eventually, the U.S. Army rounded up all of the POWs in the Philippines and in Japan, sending them home to their families and friends. On the ship voyages to the States, the Bataan survivors had time to eat and to reflect on their newfound freedom. When the soldiers finally arrived to New Mexico, New Mexicans welcomed them home with open arms. New Mexicans proudly celebrated the bravery and heroism of their native sons. They named the former state capital building in Santa Fe the Bataan Memorial Building. Outside the building, an eternal flame burns for those who did not return. Each year the National Guard celebrates Bataan Day on 9 April, the day of the surrender of Bataan.
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Sides, Hampton. Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II’s Greatest Rescue Mission. New York: Anchor Books, 2001.