To demonstrate their military superiority, the Japanese Army forced horrified Filipino citizens to view the bodies of dead POWs.
The fierce tropical sun beats down on the heads of the men, all of them exhausted, starving and thirsty; many of them sick. They have had no rest breaks for hours. And there is no mercy for those who stumble or collapse. Soldiers shoot or bayonet anybody who can’t keep up and sometimes even those who do. Corpses lie along the road – a grim reminder to all that, at any moment, death may claim them.
The Bataan Death March, which had its 70th anniversary this year, is listed as one of the atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial Army during WWII. The list includes several massacres and cases of human experimentation, like those of the infamous Unit 731.
The victims of the Bataan Death March were 15,000 US and 60,000 Filipino soldiers – captured after the three-month-long Battle of Bataan in the Philippines in 1942. Of these, around 2,500–10,000 Filipino and 300–650 American men never even made it to the POW camp.
Soldiers carry the remains of POWs who reached Camp O'Donnell but later died from execution, exhaustion or disease.
“Once the march started, everything just sort of froze in my mind,” recalled survivor Alf R. Larson. “I was pretty numb the whole time. I didn't think and I didn't feel. I was like a robot and just kept moving. Other than daylight or dark, I lost all track of time. I had to blank everything out and focus straight ahead. I lived from day to day, in fact, hour by hour. The only thing I thought about was the moment and, the good Lord willing, I'll get through the day.”
American POWs sit with their hands behind their backs. Their weakened condition is obvious.
It started with the largest surrender in US military history. In April 1942, American and Filipino forces had been fighting the Japanese at Bataan for months. Without reinforcements and running low on food and medical supplies, Major General Edward King felt his only option was to surrender his force of 69,500 men to the Japanese, against orders.
Of the 12,000 American soldiers captured, only 2,000 would ever make it home again. General King was one of them – but only after three and a half years of harsh treatment he had to endure as a high-ranking prisoner of war.
On the march
After the surrender, it didn’t take long for the major atrocities to start, with the execution of 350 to 400 Filipino soldiers. One of the problems may have been that the Japanese simply didn’t know what to do with so many prisoners.
Orders came down that the POWs were to be marched to Balanga. From there they were marched to San Fernando, where they were then crammed into trains and taken to Capas. This was followed by a further nine-mile march to the POW camp.
Altogether, the prisoners were forced on a journey of 80 miles of death and hardship. Although known collectively as the Death March, the Bataan movement of prisoners to the POW camp was actually a series of marches, in groups of about a 100 men at a time.
Under close guard, soldiers sit huddled together during the from Bataan to the prison camp at Cabanatuan.
For the first three days of the march, the men were given no food or water at all. Some managed to drink from stagnant water buffalo wallows by the side of the road. But drinking such foul water only compounded the misery of the soldiers, who were likely to end up with diarrhea as a result.
Although there were artesian wells along the route, the prisoners were not allowed to drink from them. So it’s no wonder many of them went mad and tried to make a dash for the wells. Yet they were shot and killed before they could get there.
A break from the marching
Not only were the men denied food for long periods, but they were also tormented by their captors, who cooked and ate in front of them. “During the day, the Japanese soldiers would tell us we would get rice balls when we got to our nighttime destination,” said Larson. “When we got to the field where we were going to spend the night, you could see and smell food cooking across the road.
“They would give some excuse why we couldn't have any. I don't remember exactly what the excuses were. They usually had to do with some phony rule infraction on our part. Anyway, they would eat the food in front of us but we wouldn't get any. I remember this happened two nights out of five on the march.”
POWs bury two of their dead at the camp
When the prisoners were allowed to sit down, it was likely that it was only for further punishment, as they were often made to sit in the hot sun without any kind of protection.
"Eventually the road became so crowded we were marched into a clearing,” Captain William Dyess, a captured fighter pilot, remembers. “Here, for two hours, we had our first taste of the Oriental sun treatment, which drains the stamina and weakens the spirit.”
“The Japanese soldiers seated us on the scorching ground, exposed to the full glare of the sun,” Dyess explains. “Many of the Americans and Filipinos had no covering to protect their heads. I was beside a small bush but it cast no shade because the sun was almost directly above us. Many of the men around me were ill.”
The crowded and uncomfortable conditions of the POW barracks.
It is often said that the Japanese treated their POWs so brutally because they believed that any soldier who allowed himself to be captured rather than fighting to the death was subhuman and not worthy of honorable treatment.
However, this does not explain their cruel treatment of the civilian population they encountered in Bataan. Survivors of the march recall the rape and murder of Filipino citizens along the route as well. Some were shot for their compassion, as they tried to give food to the starving prisoners.
This leaflet lies. Soldiers who used them to surrender were executed for not surrendering earlier.
Nighttime brought little relief for the marching prisoners. “At night, they put us in barbed wire enclosures, just a single string of barbed wire around the trees and they'd herd you in there,” said survivor Leon Beck. “There were no latrine facilities, you defecated right where you were and it got pretty bad and stinky come morning and you couldn't walk around. You had to stay there. Because of the mess, everybody was sick with malaria and dysentery...”
Beck managed to escape the death march by rolling into a river, and he later joined American guerillas fighting against the Japanese.
The route of the Death March
As mentioned earlier, those who could not keep up with the other prisoners, for whatever reason, were killed. There were no exceptions. Men who needed to relieve themselves were forced to simply go as they walked. And any soldiers that fell from sickness or exhaustion, and were not immediately shot or bayoneted, were picked off by “clean up squads.” Occasionally they were even run over.
100 American POWs captured at Bataan and Corregidor were burned alive. Here, their remains are being buried in a grave
Once they reached the town of San Fernando, the prisoners ceased their marching and traveled by train. There was still no respite from their suffering, however. The train cars were built to take a maximum of 30 to 40 men, but they were crammed with up to 115 at a time. There was no room to sit in the stifling, unventilated compartments, and many men suffocated or died of heat exhaustion on the way.
Prisoners rest under the watchful eye of a guard with a bayonet.
When the POWs finally reached Camp O’Donnell, matters did not improve. Immediately after their arrival, anyone found in possession of Japanese articles (including money) was executed, thinning the number of survivors even more.
Camp O’Donnell was built to accommodate 10,000, but six times this number were imprisoned here in the sweltering heat. There was little clean water, inadequate food (mostly swarming with flies) and no medical facilities. With the men kept in such close confines, dysentery, malaria and a host of other tropical diseases spread unchecked. After surviving the hellish conditions of the march, men in the camp died at a rate of between 30 and 50 a day.
General Homma awaits the trial that will find him guilty of war crimes and sentence him to death by firing squad
The shocking numbers continue. Up to 20,000 Filipinos and 1,600 Americans died at Camp O’Donnell before they were finally liberated on January 30, 1945 – almost three years after the death marches began. General Masaharu Homma – who had been in command of the Imperial Army in the Philippines at the time – was charged with war crimes for allowing the atrocities of the death march and POW camps to occur. He was executed by firing squad. Seven other Japanese Army Generals were later also charged and hanged.
Prisoners cheer at their liberation from a POW camp in Luzon.
In May 2009, the Japanese ambassador to the US apologized on behalf of his government for the atrocity of the Bataan Death March. In 2010, the Japanese foreign minister also made an apology to six survivors of Japanese POW camps, including Lester Tenney, a 90-year-old survivor of Bataan. Since then, the Japanese government has paid for survivors and their families to visit Japan under the Japanese/POW friendship program.
Today, there are various memorials in the Philippines and the United States to the men who died on the Bataan March. But only those few survivors still living can really know the true horrors and miseries of what it was like.
“My father was a nervous person,” says Jerry Bullen, the son of survivor John Bullen, who died in 1972, aged just 54. “He was not a healthy man. He suffered so many diseases, all of those diseases that were found in the Pacific.” Bullen’s widow, Nora, hopes that people continue to learn about what happened on the Bataan Death March. “History repeats itself,” she says. “When people forget, the world gets away with it.”