The Bataan Death March

The Deadly March of American and Filipino POWs During World War II

Filipino and American Troops Waiting in Formation
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The Bataan Death March was the forced march of American and Filipino prisoners of war by the Japanese during World War II. The 63-mile march began with at least 72,000 prisoners from the southern end of the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines on April 9, 1942. Some sources say 75,000 soldiers were taken prisoner after the surrender at Bataan—12,000 Americans and 63,000 Filipinos. The horrible conditions and harsh treatment of the prisoners during the Bataan Death March resulted in an estimated 7,000 to 10,000 deaths.

Surrender in Bataan

Only hours after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese also struck airbases in the American-held Philippines (around noon on Dec. 8, local time). Caught by surprise, a majority of the military aircraft on the archipelago were destroyed during the Japanese air attack.

Unlike in Hawaii, the Japanese followed their surprise air strike of the Philippines with a ground invasion. As the Japanese ground troops headed toward the capital, Manila, U.S. and Filipino troops retreated on Dec. 22, 1941, to the Bataan Peninsula, located on the western side of the large island of Luzon in the Philippines.

Quickly cut off from food and other supplies by a Japanese blockade, the U.S. and Filipino soldiers slowly used up their supplies. First they went on half rations, then third rations, then quarter rations. By April 1942 they had been holding out in the jungles of Bataan for three months and were clearly starving and suffering from diseases.

There was nothing left to do but surrender. On April 9, 1942, U.S. General Edward P. King signed the surrender document, ending the Battle of Bataan. The remaining 72,000 American and Filipino soldiers were taken by the Japanese as prisoners of war (POWs). Nearly immediately, the Bataan Death March began.

The March Begins

The goal of the march was to get the 72,000 POWs from Mariveles in the southern end of the Bataan Peninsula to Camp O'Donnell in the north. To complete the move, the prisoners were to be marched 55 miles from Mariveles to San Fernando, then travel by train to Capas. From Capas, the prisoners were again to march for the last eight miles to Camp O'Donnell.

The prisoners were separated into groups of approximately 100, assigned Japanese guards, and then sent marching. It would take each group about five days to make the journey. The march would have been long and arduous for anyone, but the already starving prisoners were to endure cruel and brutal treatment throughout their long journey, which made the march deadly.

Japanese Sense of Bushido

Japanese soldiers believed strongly in bushido, a code or moral principles set out by Samurai. Among those rules is that honor is brought to a person who fights to the death, and anyone who surrenders is considered contemptible. Thus, to the Japanese soldiers, the captured American and Filipino POWs from Bataan were unworthy of respect. To show their displeasure and disgust, the Japanese guards tortured their prisoners throughout the march.

To begin with, the captured soldiers were given no water and little food. Although there were artesian wells with clean water scattered along the way, the Japanese guards shot any and all prisoners who broke rank and tried to drink from them. A few prisoners successfully scooped up some stagnant water as they walked past, but many became sick from it.

The already starving prisoners were given just a couple balls of rice during their long march. There were numerous times when local Filipino civilians tried to throw food to the marching prisoners, but the Japanese soldiers killed the civilians who tried to help.

Heat and Random Brutality

The intense heat during the march was miserable. The Japanese exacerbated the pain by making the prisoners sit in the hot sun for several hours without any shade—a torture called "the sun treatment."

Without food and water, the prisoners were extremely weak as they marched the 63 miles in the hot sun. Many were seriously ill from malnutrition, while others had been wounded or were suffering from diseases they had picked up in the jungle. These things didn't matter to the Japanese. If anyone seemed slow or fell behind during the march, they were either shot or bayoneted. There were Japanese "buzzard squads" who followed each group of marching prisoners, responsible for killing those that couldn't keep up.

Random brutality was common. Japanese soldiers would frequently hit prisoners with the butt of their rifle. Bayoneting was common. Beheadings were prevalent.

Simple dignities were also denied the prisoners. Not only did the Japanese not offer latrines, they offered no bathroom breaks along the long march. Prisoners who had to defecate did it while walking.

Arrival at Camp O'Donnell

Once the prisoners reached San Fernando, they were herded into boxcars. The Japanese soldiers forced so many prisoners into each boxcar that there was standing room only. The heat and conditions inside caused more deaths.

Upon arrival in Capas, the remaining prisoners marched another eight miles. When they reached their destination, Camp O'Donnell, it was discovered that only 54,000 of the prisoners had made it to the camp. About 7,000 to 10,000 were estimated to have died, while the rest of the missing had presumably escaped into the jungle and joined guerrilla groups.

The conditions within Camp O'Donnell were also brutal and harsh, leading to thousands of more POW deaths within their first few weeks there.

The Man Held Responsible

After the war, a U.S. military tribunal was established and charged Lieutenant General Homma Masaharu for the atrocities committed during the Bataan Death March. Homma had been the Japanese commander in charge of the Philippines invasion and had ordered the evacuation of the prisoners of war from Bataan.

Homma accepted responsibility for his troops' actions even though he never ordered such brutality. The tribunal found him guilty.

On April 3, 1946, Homma was executed by firing squad in the town of Los Banos in the Philippines.