The Bataan Death March

The Japanese were overwhelmed by the number of Filipino and American prisoners of war after their surrender the day before. LtGen Homma, the Japanese commander of the 14th Army decreed that the prisoners were to be treated humanely. But the Japanese code of Bushido, perverted by militarism and nearly unrecognizable from the code practiced by the samurai, said that warriors should fight to the death, and that prisoners were not worthy of honorable treatment. Influential members of Homma’s subordinates and staff ignored him. One staff planner, Masanobu Tsuji, was sent by the Imperial Army General Staff to spy on Homma, directly issued orders for the massacres in Homma’s name. The Japanese guards had nothing but disdain for the 80,000 in their care. The vast majority of the prisoners went through Hell for at least the next five days; for some the March took as long twelve days.
On 9 and 10 April, the prisoners were massed at Mariveles and Bagac on Bataan where they were searched. Any prisoner that had any Japanese souvenirs or money were beheaded or shot. Additionally, the Japanese singled out any Filipino leaders and executed 400 before dumping their bodies in the Pantingan River. Once they were searched, the exhausted and starving prisoners began a sixty mile march to the San Fernando railhead where they would be put on trains for their trip to a prison camp in Capas in western Luzon.

Any wounded prisoners who were unable to march were killed. In 110 degree heat, with no food and little water, they trudged on, with the Japanese guards using any excuse to beat or kill them. Any prisoner that fell out was killed. Any prisoner that couldn’t keep up was killed. If not by the guards, then by drivers of Japanese convoys who gleefully drove over the exhausted and/or sick prisoners, or by Japanese “clean-up crews” who followed behind. There would be an orange flash, and the simultaneous sound of a gunshot and the thud of the bullet hitting the body.

The prisoners were forced to sit in the sun when they stopped. Though they passed many places where they could get something to drink (the American and Filipinos had been surviving on the local and plentiful “artesian wells” throughout the Bataan campaign, some were just a few feet off the road), the Japanese refused to them water. Any prisoner that went to a well was shot. Eventually, the heat drove some men mad, and they ran for the wells only to be killed before they got there. They were forced to drink out of the muddy ditches in passing; any who got sick were killed. The prisoners were playthings for the Japanese. One survivor described a Japanese officer who swung a baseball bat at the prisoners using a turn at a crossroads as home plate. Any women on the march were brutally raped, tortured, and killed. If there were too many corpses on the road, the Japanese had the prisoners push them into the ditches on the side of the road and bury them. More than a few prisoners were buried alive just because they couldn’t move.

At San Fernando, they were stuffed into cattle cars so tight they couldn’t sit, or even fall over when the passed out from the stifling heat. The crowded conditions of the march was conducive to the spread of several diseases, dysentery being the worst. As on the march, the prisoners defecated where they stood. Once they reached Capos, they were forced to march nine more miles to Camp O’Donnell, a former US Army and Philippine Army post, converted into a POW Camp. Their ordeal wasn’t over though, disease continued to ravage the survivors, and several hundred more died every day for weeks.

80,000 American and Filipinos started on the Bataan Death March, but only 54,000 arrived.

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