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Bataan Death March: Japan's WWII massacre

Bataan Death March
The Bataan Death March followed the American surrender at Bataan in April 1942. It was the second biggest defeat suffered by the Allies in Asia after the recent fall of Singapore in Jan. where 130,000 prisoners were taken. (Image credit: Historical / Contributor via Getty Images)

The Bataan Death March was an atrocity perpetrated by the Imperial Japanese Army on Allied POWs in the Philippine Commonwealth from April 9 until April 15, 1942. In the aftermath of Japan's invasion of the Philippines on Dec. 8, 1941 — the day after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor — the American and Filipino defenders that formed U.S.A.F.F.E., or the United States Armed Forces in the Far East, fought on in the Bataan Peninsula for three months but surrendered in the first week of April. 

Nearly 80,000 prisoners of war marched into captivity and were made to travel on foot from the Bataan Peninsula, located northwest of the Philippine capital Manila, to internment camps in the Luzon plains some 62 miles (100 kilometers) away. It is estimated as many as 20,000 perished in the Bataan Death March from sickness, starvation, and violence.

Battle of Bataan

After the Japanese invasion of the Philippines on Dec. 8, 1941, as part of WWII's Pacific War, the U.S.A.F.F.E. were quickly overwhelmed and on the back foot. On paper the Allied forces in the region were an impressive overseas army trained and led by Americans and furnished with airplanes, howitzers, ships, and tanks. Thousands of Filipino conscripts meant it had the manpower and resources to beat a full-scale Japanese invasion.

In reality, the Japanese soon achieved air superiority over much of Luzon, the large northern island of the Philippine archipelago. They landed their troops in several locations, with minimal resistance encountered, all before Christmas Eve.

Carefully drawn plans for stopping the Japanese proved unfeasible, but U.S. officers falsely reassured their troops that help was arriving soon. As early as Dec. 9, a naval convoy sailing for Manila was re-routed by the Department of War to Hawaii and then Brisbane, Australia, according to Louis Morton's book "The Fall of the Philippines (opens in new tab)" (St. John's Press, 2016). No other efforts to resupply the Philippines were carried out.

Map of the bataan peninsula and the Philippines capital of Manila

Map of the bataan peninsula and the Philippines capital of Manila  (Image credit: Encyclopaedia Britannica / Getty Images)

In a last bid to hold out against the enemy the commander of U.S.A.F.F.E., Gen. Douglas MacArthur ordered the initiation of War Plan Orange or WPO-3, which meant a phased retreat to the Bataan Peninsula that guarded the entrance to Manila Bay. 

On Dec. 26 the capital Manila was declared an "open city" by President Manuel L. Quezon following the advice of MacArthur to "spare the Metropolitan area from possible ravages of attack", according to Official Gazette (opens in new tab), the official journal of the Republic of the Philippines. 

The Japanese 14th Army under Lt. Gen. Masaharu Homma routed the Allies in the Luzon plains and took Manila. In early January 1942, the 14th Army concentrated its efforts on Bataan, where as many as 80,000 Allied troops were now trapped. The Allies' plan was to hold out until the promised reinforcements from Australia and Hawaii could arrive. 

The Bataan landmass was split into two sectors each held by a corps-sized formation. Gen. Edward P. King was on the ground organizing layers of defenses that repulsed Japanese attacks on land and sea until March, 1942.

The struggle for Bataan was bitter yet futile, although it did inspire Allied propaganda around the "Battling B*****ds," a title American troops embraced after Gen. MacArthur and his staff escaped the Philippines on March 11. 

"The Allied troops in the Bataan Peninsula were suffering not only from fatigue and disease but also from the feeling of abandonment," wrote Stephen Bye, a U.S. Army historian (opens in new tab)

Eventually supplies of canned meat and juice, then ammunition and medicine, dwindled. Disease spread among the Americans because of foul drinking water, spreading tropical dysentery that roiled their bowels. On April 3 the Japanese Army, reinforced with fresh divisions from mainland China, the Dutch East Indies, and Malaya, launched an attack by air and land. 

Filipino and American prisoners of war marched from Mariveles to San Fernando

Filipino and American prisoners of war marched from Mariveles to San Fernando. (Image credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)

The opening bombardment caused brush fires that so terrified the Filipinos the entire Bataan front fell to pieces. "Stragglers poured to the rear...until they clogged all roads. Units disappeared into the jungle...an army evaporated into thin air," wrote Morton.

Days later, Gen. King met with the Japanese and set terms of surrender. The men and women under him did not have large enough ships to escape Bataan by sea. Although a few thousand, including many exhausted nurses, reached the nearby island fortress of Corregidor where Gen. Wainwright's headquarters still held on. By this point in time, Gen. MacArthur and staff were gone.

Between Jan. and April 1942, the Japanese besieged fortress Corregidor with artillery and airstrikes, leaving the island in total ruin. "The face of Corregidor, once almost gardenlike, a kind of military resort with flowers and lawns and clubs and pools...was now a wasteland, denuded of its natural beauty reduced to gray rubble and piles of dust in the crosshairs of a hundred thundering cannon," wrote Elizabeth Norman in "We Band of Angels (opens in new tab)" (Random House, 2013).

Meanwhile in Bataan, the Allied troops destroyed their heavy weapons to prevent the enemy from capturing them. "Knots of tired refugees and straggling soldiers clogged the road and the trucks, buses, jeeps and battered sedans that carried many of the women either broke down or were stuck in traffic," wrote Norman.

The Death March begins

Once the Americans and Filipinos were relieved of weapons their captors berated them for surrendering. "The rabid militarists who took over Japan inculcated in their soldiers a contempt for the defeated and a hate for other races, the white race included," wrote Norman. This explained the scorn and ill-treatment the Japanese exhibited toward Allied POWs.

On April 7 the U.S.A.F.F.E. remnants mustered in the foothills of the Bataan Peninsula's dormant volcanoes long overgrown by wilderness. The Japanese moved freely as they collected the surrendered. All in all, the official post-war tally of POWs in Luzon in 1942 puts it between 10,000 to 12,000 Americans and between 60,000 to 70,000 Filipinos. 

The total casualties from the Bataan Death March is estimated at 11,000, according to the U.S. Army's official history (opens in new tab), with the majority being Filipinos. The death toll among the Americans varies from approximately 1,000 to as high as 5,000.

In May, 1942, another 12,000 Americans marched into captivity after Corregidor surrendered. This was the largest internment of American forces in wartime. By comparison, during the entire length of the United States' commitment in the Vietnam War (1965-1973) less than 800 prisoners were taken captive by the North Vietnamese.

American POWs at Bataan

American POWs are allowed a moment's rest before resuming their journey on foot. At least 1 in 4 of them died from sickness. (Image credit: Keystone / Stringer via Getty Images)

In 1942 almost a hundred thousand Americans — soldiers, civilians, women and children — were held as POWs by the Japanese in varying circumstances. 

The movement of POWs from the Bataan peninsula to the Central Luzon plain, where Camp O'Donnell was located along with the secondary internment area Camp Cabanatuan, began on April 9. The majority of the POWs were still able-bodied but the addition of so many walking wounded, the sick and the diseased, would portend the difficulties to come. 

The Japanese Army did not spare the trucks needed to move the POWs. The awful part was the nearest railway depot in San Fernando was at least 31 miles (50 km) away from Mariveles, which was the tip of the Bataan peninsula. 

In April 1942 the heat in the region was compounded by mud and dust as columns of prisoners began their march toward the railway.

Eyewitness accounts

The Bataan Death March lasted a full week, from April 9 until 15, but dragged on for several more days because of the thousands involved. The American POWs were exhausted by the time they left their former stronghold. The Filipinos managed a little better under their Japanese captors although they were not spared scorn and punishment. 

Many of them were raised in the countryside, meaning they knew how to forage fruit and edible leaves. American POWs had the opposite experience. Once they were in captivity these soldiers went through a hard day's march with just muddy water for sustenance. 

"Some of the men had reached a state of mind bordering insanity, from the lack of water. In desperation they would scoop it up from stagnant pools in the road ditches...a stagnant pool is virtually alive with dysentery germs," wrote Ernest Miller, a colonel and former POW who survived the event, in his book "Bataan Uncensored (opens in new tab)" (Barajima Books, 2020), one of the most detailed accounts of the march. 

American prisoners photographed during the Bataan Death March, 1942

American prisoners photographed during the Bataan Death March, 1942.  (Image credit: MPI / Stringer / Getty Images)

When the prisoners reached the San Fernando railway terminal the Japanese packed scores of them inside boxcars without ventilation on the brief three-hour journey north to Camp O'Donnell. Another account recalls the brutality the guards unleashed on their prisoners.

Eyewitness Corporal James Bollich, later recalled one of his fellow prisoners being punished when he was caught with an empty water bottle. "They beat him over the head with the bottle until it broke and kept on beating him with the broken glass. I don't know if he survived," Bollich wrote in his memoir, "Bataan Death March: A Soldier's Story (opens in new tab)" (Pelican, 2003).

Prisoner deaths

Those prisoners who made it to Camp O'Donnell were kept in their former barracks, now overcrowded with exhausted POWs. "Dysentery spread… because of the open latrines and the millions of flies around them," wrote Bollich. "Sick men were also covered [in flies], especially those near the latrine, because the latrine itself held the greatest number. It is no wonder, under these conditions, that so many of the prisoners died."

Another eyewitness to atrocities during the Bataan Death March was the American spy Claire Phillips whose husband perished in Bataan. Recovering from malaria while in hiding, Phillips watched the POWs from a distance through binoculars and later tried organizing burial parties for the corpses left behind.

Phillips claims she witnessed the Japanese executing prisoners. "Occasionally a man would drop and then one of his little tormentors would run a bayonet through him and kick his body down the road," wrote Phillips in "Manila Espionage (opens in new tab)" (Lulu.com, 2017). Her account matches the testimonies of other survivors who saw executions and homicides by Japanese soldiers up close.

Lt. General Homma Masaharu

Lt. Gen. Masaharu Homma led the invasion of the Philippines and secured total victory in four months. His troops then arranged the 'death march' that killed thousands of POWs. (Image credit: Bettmann / Contributor via Getty Images)

It was later estimated between 20,000 to 24,000 POWs died in their captivity along with unspecified civilians. More Filipinos were killed in the march than Americans, which explains the catastrophic death toll. By the summer of 1942 Filipino POWs were granted a form of amnesty as long as they joined the local police force under Japanese leadership. 

Beginning in July the U.S. prisoners who recovered from illness and starvation were sent to Japan aboard merchant vessels once used for hauling cargo repurposed into pens for human chattel. Survivors of these journeys described their ordeal. "They [American GIs] went crazy, cut and bit each other in the arms and legs and sucked their blood," survivor John M. Jacobs recalled to "Prologue Magazine (opens in new tab)". 

Gen. MacArthur and the U.S. Army began their reconquest of the Philippines in Oct. 1944, according to the Official Gazette (opens in new tab). After five months the Japanese were either wiped out or routed from island after island and as many as 4,000 Allied prisoners were rescued in places such as the University of Santo Tomas and the Manila City Jail. On its own, the U.S. Army organized separate war crimes trials in late 1945 and this meant Gen. Homma was prosecuted and sentenced to death by firing squad, which was carried out on April 3, 1946. His downfall, in the eyes of his judges, were the thousands who perished in the Bataan Death March.

Today the Philippines reserves April 9 as a special holiday — "Araw ng Kagitingan" or Day of Valor i— to remember those who perished in Bataan and Corregidor. Since 1989 active service members of the U.S. military along with volunteers have participated in the annual Bataan Memorial Death March (opens in new tab) at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The marathon attracts thousands of participants each year who brave a 25 miles (40 km) hike over rugged desert terrain. Survivors are known to participate well into their 90s and centenaries.

Additional resources

If you want to know more about how America became involved in World War II to begin with, you should read about the Pearl Harbor attack.

America's involvement in wars in the Pacific didn't end with World War II as the Korean War followed just a few years later and there's much to learn about that too.

Bibliography

Miguel Miranda is an author based in the Philippines. After his first well-received book on World War II in Asia he established a niche by digging through the same topic for its great untold stories. Miguel is also an in-demand commentator and "quotes guy" for the world's biggest media brands about current events in his part of the world. He divides his time between heavily-researched non-fiction on historical topics and big longform essays. He can be reached on Twitter via @helpfulmiguel