The Bataan Death March

An estimated 7,000 to 10,000 American and Filipino troops died

Filipino and American troops waiting in formation

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The Bataan Death March was Japan's brutal forced march of American and Filipino prisoners of war during World War II. The 63-mile march began on April 9, 1942, with at least 72,000 POWs from the southern end of the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines. Some sources say 75,000 soldiers were taken prisoner after the surrender at Bataan, which broke down to 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 December 7, 1941, the Japanese struck airbases in the American-held Philippines. In a surprise air attack around noon on December 8, most of the military aircraft on the archipelago were destroyed.

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

Cut off from food and other supplies by a Japanese blockade, the U.S. and Filipino soldiers slowly used up their supplies, going from half rations to third rations and then quarter rations. By April, they had been holding out in the Bataan jungles for three months. They were starving and suffering from diseases.

There was no option other than to surrender. On April 9, 1942, U.S. Gen. Edward P. King signed the surrender document, ending the Battle of Bataan. The remaining American and Filipino soldiers were taken by the Japanese as POWs. Almost immediately, the Bataan Death March began.

March Begins

The purpose of the march was to get 72,000 POWs from Mariveles in the southern end of the Bataan Peninsula to Camp O'Donnell in the north. The prisoners were to march 55 miles to San Fernando, then travel by train to Capas before marching the last eight miles to Camp O'Donnell.

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

Japanese Sense of Bushido

Japanese soldiers believed strongly in bushido, a code or set of moral principles established by the samurai. According to the code, honor is brought to a person who fights to the death; anyone who surrenders is considered contemptible. To Japanese soldiers, the captured American and Filipino POWs were unworthy of respect. To show their disgust, the Japanese guards tortured their prisoners throughout the march.

The captured soldiers were given no water and little food. Although artesian wells with clean water were scattered along the way, Japanese guards shot prisoners who broke rank and tried to drink from them. A few prisoners scooped up stagnant water as they walked, which made many sick.

The prisoners were given a couple of rice balls during their long march. Filipino civilians tried to throw food to the marching prisoners, but Japanese soldiers killed those who tried to help.

Heat and Random Brutality

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

Without food and water, the prisoners were extremely weak as they marched in the hot sun. Many were seriously ill from malnutrition; others had been wounded or were suffering from diseases they had picked up in the jungle. The Japanese didn't care: If anyone slowed or fell behind during the march, they were shot or bayoneted. A Japanese "buzzard squad" followed each group of marching prisoners to kill those who couldn't keep up.

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

Simple dignities also were denied the prisoners. The Japanese offered neither latrines nor bathroom breaks along the long march. Prisoners who had to defecate did so while walking.

Camp O'Donnell

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

Upon arrival in Capas, the remaining prisoners marched another eight miles. When they reached Camp O'Donnell, it was discovered that only 54,000 prisoners made it there. An estimated 7,000 to 10,000 had died, while other missing soldiers presumably escaped into the jungle and joined guerrilla groups.

Conditions at Camp O'Donnell also were brutal, leading to thousands more POW deaths in the first few weeks there.

The Man Responsible

After the war, a U.S. military tribunal charged Lt. Gen. Homma Masaharu for the atrocities during the Bataan Death March. Homma was in charge of the Philippines invasion and ordered the evacuation of the POWs from Bataan.

Homma accepted responsibility for his troops' actions but claimed he never ordered such cruelty. The tribunal found him guilty. On April 3, 1946, Homma was executed by firing squad in the town of Los Banos in the Philippines.

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Your Citation
Rosenberg, Jennifer. "The Bataan Death March." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Rosenberg, Jennifer. (2023, April 5). The Bataan Death March. Retrieved from Rosenberg, Jennifer. "The Bataan Death March." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).