The Bataan Death March

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Podcast Transcript

On December 8, 1941, as the Japanese were bombing Pearl Harbor, they were simultaneously attacking other Allied positions around Asia. 

One of the biggest attacks was on Manila and the Philippines and the Filipino and American forces on the island of Luzon.

Filipino and American forces ended up surrendering, which began one of the most brutal and horrifying episodes of the entire war. 

Learn more about the Bataan Death March and how and why it happened on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The Bataan Death March was one of the most brutal events that took place in the Pacific Theater of the war, which is saying a lot given how brutal the war was. 

As always, to understand why and what happened, we need to understand the geography and background of the military situation in the Philippines before the Japanese invasion. 

In 1941, the Philippines was still an American Territory. There was a plan for Philippine independence in the works, which eventually happened after the war, but the Japanese invasion put the plans on hold. 

The key to the Philippines was, and still is, its capital and largest city, Manila. 

What makes Manila so important is Manila Bay.

Manila Bay is a fantastic natural harbor, which is why it was selected as the location for the capital of the Philippines. 

The entrance to Manila Bay is defined by the Bataan Peninsula as well as Corregidor Island which is an island in the mouth of the bay. 

Whoever controlled the Bataan Peninsula and Corregidor Island would control access to Manila Bay, which made these choke points strategically valuable. 

In 1936, Douglas Macarthur resigned from the United States Army and was appointed Field Marshall of the Philippines Army by President Manuel Quezon. 

Macarthur grew up in the Philippines, and his father was the territory governor after the Spanish-American War. 

Macarthur always had an affinity for the Phillippines for this reason.

Macarthur was put in charge of what was almost a non-existent Filipino army. His mission was to create the Filipino army to prepare them for full independence. 

They began a draft to fill the army ranks and established a Filipino military academy designed along the lines of West Point. 

On July 26, 1941, President Roosevelt federalized the Filipino Army and recalled Macarthur to active duty service at the rank of major general and appointed him commander of the  U.S. Army Forces in the Far East. 

At the time of the federalization of the Filipino Army, there were approximately 22,000 troops, with thousands more joining over the next several months. 

Prior to the outbreak of war, the United States had developed a plan in the event of a Japanese attack on the Philippines. The US military knew that they didn’t have the manpower to repel a full Japanese attack, and they also knew that they were far from help.

The plan was simple: in the event of an attack, American and Filipino forces would retreat to the fortified Bataan Peninsula and wait there for reinforcements, all the while denying the Japanese access to Manila Bay.

Macarthur actually wanted a more aggressive plan where they would try to hold all of Luzon Island and sink Japanese ships with American bombers. 

Despite promises, the US did a horrible job of preparing and supplying the garrison in the Philippines. By November 1941, 1.1 million tons of equipment intended for the Philippines was stuck in US ports awaiting shipment.

The Japanese attack took place on December 8, nearly simultaneously with the attack on Pearl Harbor. Because it was on the other side of the international dateline, it occurred on December 8. 

The American and Filipino forces were caught completely off guard by the Japanese attack. 

The Japanese targeted their attacks on the first day on Clark Airfield, which is where most of the American aircraft were located. Most of them were destroyed before they could ever get off the ground. 

There were small landings in the north and south of Luzon. 

However, the main Japanese invasion force didn’t actually land on the Philippines until December 22. They arrived in Lingayen Gulf, in the northwest of the island of Luzon. The commander of the Japanese forces was General Masaharu Homma. 

The Japanese quickly advanced south overwhelming the thin defenses that were in their path. 

On the evening of December 24, Macarthur reverted back to the original American strategy and ordered a general retreat to Bataan.

That same evening, Macarthur moved his headquarters to the heavily fortified island of Corregidor. 

Over the next two weeks, American and Filipino forces retreated to Bataan. There was a problem with the change in strategy. Most of the American and Filipino forces were able to fall back to Bataan, but they had to leave their supplies behind. 

The Japanese entered Manila on January 2, and the combined American and Filipino forces had finalized their retreat by January 6.

On January 7, the Japanese assaulted Bataan, and the Battle of Bataan began. 

Initially, the American and Filipino forces were able to repulse the attacks on the Peninsular. However, time was not on their side, as they had few supplies and no reinforcements. 

On January 23, the Japanese landed on the southwest coast of the peninsula and began to threaten the rear of the Allied forces. 

Despite the potential new front, the beleaguered forces still managed to put up a stiff resistance. 

On February 8, General Homma halted major offensive operations on Bataan to regroup and resupply his forces, facing logistical challenges and high casualty rates.

During the entire month of the battle, Macarthur remained on Corregidor, separated from the bulk of his forces. Many soldiers blamed Macarthur, and others thought he was going to pull something out of his pocket. 

Instead, MacArthur received an order from President Roosevelt to evacuate to Australia. 

On March 12, Macarthur and his family escaped by small PT boats to the island of Mindanao, which hadn’t fallen to the Japanese yet, where they boarded B-17s, which flew them to Australia. When he arrived in Melbourne on March 21st, he famously said, “I shall return.”

Back on Bataan, conditions got worse. The Japanese bombarded American and Filipino positions with planes and artillery. The defenders slowly ran out of supplies, including ammunition and food. 

Help was nowhere on the horizon.

On April 3, the Japanese made a final push on the Bataan Peninsula. 

Finally, after three months of holding out, on April 9, Major General Edward P. King Jr., commander of the forces on Bataan, surrendered unconditionally to the Japanese to prevent further loss of life. Approximately 70,000 Filipino and American troops became prisoners of war.

It was the largest surrender of US forces in history.

It should be noted that the vast majority of these prisoners were Filipino. 

Here, I should note that at this point, before the events that were known as the Bataan Death March even took place, the survivors of the Battle of Bataan were weakened, starved, and many were sick. 

The Japanese, for their part, didn’t expect to capture so many people and were unprepared for so many prisoners. They didn’t have enough automobiles to accommodate the large number of sick people.

The Japanese decided to march everyone up the Bataan Peninsula to the city of San Fernando, about 65 miles or 105 kilometers away. From San Fernando, they could reach railways that would take the prisoners to the city of Capas, the location of the former US military Camp O’Donnell.

All of the prisoners were split into groups of 100, which were guarded by four Japanese soldiers. 

Almost immediately, atrocities began being committed. 

On April 12, 400 Filipino officers were summarily executed on the orders of Colonel Masanobu Tsuji. 

Colonel Tsuji had no respect for the prisoners and didn’t even consider them to be prisoners of war. He issued secret orders to unit commanders, contrary to the instruction of the commanding officer, General Homma, to kill all prisoners in custody. More on Colonel Tsuji in a bit….

This order wasn’t followed by every officer, but it was followed by some. There was a general air of cruelty by the guards. 

Prisoners were beaten constantly with rifle butts or by the pommels of swords. Prisoners were not allowed to eat or drink, even though they were walking in the middle of the day in blistering heat. 

There were no bathroom breaks. If you had to go, you did so while walking.

Almost everyone who fell down was bayonetted and killed immediately. 

Japanese soldiers took whatever they could. There was one report of a man having his hand chopped off so a guard could steal his ring. Other soldiers had their teeth knocked if they had a gold tooth. 

There were reports of prisoners being shot for even asking for water.

Filipino civilians who tried to get the prisoners food were shot for doing so.

When prisoners arrived in San Fernando, conditions didn’t improve. They were herded into boxcars. They were packed in so tight that if you passed out, there was no room to fall down.

Temperatures in the box cars reached 110F or 43 °C.

They were in the boxcars for several hours. 

When the trains arrived, the hardship still wasn’t over. They were put on another forced march of nine miles to make it to Camp O’Donnell.

Of the estimated 70,000 men who began the march, only about 54,000 made it to Camp O’Donnell. Estimates are that somewhere between 7,000 and 10,000 men died, with the rest escaping into the jungle, most of which joined guerilla forces that fought the Japanese for the rest of the war. 

Only about 650 of the men killed were Americans. The rest were all Filipino, and estimated for the total number killed has run as high as 18,000.

The survivors who managed to make it to Camp O’Donnell were weakened, hungry, dehydrated, and many were sick and injured. Over the next several weeks, several thousand more prisoners died. The total death toll may have doubled, factoring in the deaths in the camp. 

The events on the Bataan Peninsula loomed large over the rest of the war in the Pacific. 

Douglas Macarthur was driven, on a personal level, to retake the Philippines.

He returned to the Philippines when he walked ashore on the island of Leyte on October 20, 1944. 

Camp O’Donnell, the final stop on the Bataan Death March, was recaptured on January 30, 1945.

The American public wasn’t informed of the events on Bataan until January 1944. Life Magazine reported tales of survivors, which aroused anger and support for the war. 

At the end of the war, a war crimes tribunal was established. General Masaharu Homma was charged with 48 separate counts of violating the rules of war and crimes against humanity. 

There was controversy surrounding his trial because there was little evidence that he was actually responsible for the atrocities. His defense was that he had let his subordinates organize the transfer of prisoners as he was focused on the assault on Corregidor. 

He was found guilty and sentenced to death on the basis that he was responsible for the actions of his subordinates. He was executed by firing squad on April 3, 1946. 

In 1948, two of Homma’s subordinates were also sentenced to death and hung. 

The one man who escaped justice was the one man with the most evidence against him, Colonel Masanobu Tsuji. 

Tsuji disappeared after the fall of Japanese-controlled Burma in 1945. He fled to Thailand and then China, where he worked for Chinese intelligence.

He later returned to Japan and was never placed on trial. He was elected to the Japanese legislature in 1952 and was reelected on two occasions. In 1961, he traveled to Laos and was never heard from again. Some believe he was killed in the Laotian Civil War, and others think he went on to work for the North Vietnamese.

Today, there are memorials for the men who fell in the Bataan Death March in New Mexico, where many of the American victims hailed from, as well as in the Philippines. 

The Bataan Death March was one of the most brutal and horrific events of the Pacific Theater of the war. Somewhere between 10,000 to 20,000 people died, depending on the estimates and the time frame used. 

The Bataan Death March remains a poignant reminder of the horrors of war. The bravery and suffering of those who endured the march have left an indelible mark on history, serving as a testament to the capacity for human cruelty and the spirit of human perseverance.