The Bataan Death March was the forcible transfer from Saisaih Pt. and Mariveles to Camp O’Donnell by the Imperial Japanese Army of 60,000–80,000 Filipino and American prisoners of war which began on April 9, 1942, after the three-month Battle of Bataan in the Philippines during World War II.About 2,500–10,000 Filipino and 100–650 American prisoners of war died before they could reach their destination.
The reported death tolls vary, especially among Filipino POWs, because historians cannot determine how many prisoners blended in with the civilian population and escaped. The march went from Mariveles, Bataan, to San Fernando, Pampanga. From San Fernando, survivors were loaded to a box train and were brought to Camp O’Donnell in Capas, Tarlac.
The 60 mi (97 km) march was characterized by occasional severe physical abuse. It was later judged by an Allied military commission to be a Japanese war crime.
The day after Japan bombed the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, on December 7, 1941, the Japanese invasion of the Philippines began. Within a month, the Japanese had captured Manila, the capital of the Philippines, and the American and Filipino defenders of Luzon (the island on which Manila is located) were forced to retreat to the Bataan Peninsula. For the next three months, the combined U.S.-Filipino army held out despite a lack of naval and air support. Finally, on April 9, with his forces crippled by starvation and disease, U.S. General Edward King Jr. (1884-1958), surrendered his approximately 75,000 troops at Bataan.
Starting on April 9, 1942, prisoners were stripped of their weapons and valuables, and told to march to Balanga, the capital of Bataan. Some were beaten, bayoneted, and otherwise horribly mistreated. The first major atrocity occurred when approximately 350 to 400 Filipino officers and NCOs were summarily executed near the Pantingan river after they had surrendered.A recent historian has dismissed the Pantingan massacre, (in acceptance of General Homma’s defense counsel’s argument that no bodies were ever found), however, the bodies were disinterred in mid-1946, well after the conclusion of Homma’s trial. This massacre has been attributed to Japanese army officer, Masanobu Tsuji, who acted against General Homma’s wish that the prisoners be transferred peacefully. Tsuji intended to kill many of the prisoners, and he gave orders to this end.
The American and Filipino forces fought from an untenable position until formally surrendering to the Japanese on April 9. The Japanese immediately began to march some 76,000 prisoners (12,000 Americans, the remainder Filipinos) northward into captivity along a route of death. When three American officers escaped a year later, the world learned of the unspeakable atrocities suffered along the 60-mile journey that became known as the Bataan Death March.
Japanese butchery, disease, exposure to the blazing sun, lack of food, and lack of water took the lives of approximately 5,200 Americans along the way. Many prisoners were bayoneted, shot, beheaded or just left to die on the side of the road.
“A Japanese soldier took my canteen, gave the water to a horse, and threw the canteen away,” reported one escapee. “The stronger were not permitted to help the weaker. We then would hear shots behind us.” The Japanese forced the prisoners to sit for hours in the hot sun without water. “Many of us went crazy and several died.”
The ordeal lasted five days for some and up to twelve days for others. Although the Japanese were unprepared for the large number of prisoners in their care, the root of the brutality lay in the Japanese attitude that a soldier should die before surrender. A warrior’s surrender meant the forfeiture of all rights to treatment as a human being.
POWs received little food or water, and some died along the way from heat or exhaustion.Some POWs drank water from filthy water buffalo wallows on the side of the road. Some Japanese troops, products of a culture that prized order above all, lost control during the chaos that defined the March and beat or bayoneted prisoners who began to fall behind, or were unable to walk. Some POWs, however, were allowed water and several hundred rode to Camp O’Donnell in trucks.Once the surviving prisoners arrived in Balanga, the overcrowded conditions and poor hygiene caused dysentery and other diseases to rapidly spread. The Japanese failed to provide the prisoners with medical care, leaving U.S. medical personnel to tend to the sick and wounded (with few or no supplies).
Trucks drove over some of those who fell or succumbed to fatigue,and “cleanup crews” put to death those too weak to continue, though some trucks picked up some of those too fatigued to continue. Some marchers were randomly stabbed by bayonets or beaten.
From San Fernando, the prisoners were transported by rail to Capas. At least 100 prisoners were pushed into each of the trains’ un-ventilated boxcars, which were sweltering in the tropical heat. The trains had no sanitation facilities, and disease continued to take a heavy toll on the prisoners. After they reached Capas, they were forced to walk the final 9 miles to Camp O’Donnell Even after arriving at Camp O’Donnell, the survivors of the march continued to die at rates of up to several hundred per day, which amounted to a death toll of as many as 20,000 Filipino and American deaths.Most of the dead were buried in mass graves that the Japanese had dug behind the barbed wire surrounding the compound.
A complete mortality rate of the march is difficult to pin down because although captives were able to escape from their guards, many were killed during their escapes. Most significantly, it is not accurately documented how many anonymous soldiers were disposed of by massive burials and other general Japanese “clean up” strategies.
It was not until January 27, 1944, that the U.S. government informed the American public about the march, when it released sworn statements of military officers who had escaped from the march.Shortly thereafter the stories of these officers were featured in a LIFE magazine article. The Bataan Death March and other Japanese actions were used to arouse fury in the United States
General George Marshall made the following statement about the march:
These brutal reprisals upon helpless victims evidence the shallow advance from savagery which the Japanese people have made. […] We serve notice upon the Japanese military and political leaders as well as the Japanese people that the future of the Japanese race itself, depends entirely and irrevocably upon their capacity to progress beyond their aboriginal barbaric instincts.
In an attempt to counter the American propaganda value of the march, the Japanese had The Manila Times claim that the prisoners were treated humanely and their death rate had to be attributed to the intransigence of the American commanders who did not surrender until their men were on the verge of death.
America avenged its defeat in the Philippines with the invasion of the island of Leyte in October 1944. General Douglas MacArthur (1880-1964), who in 1942 had famously promised to return to the Philippines, made good on his word. In February 1945, U.S.-Filipino forces recaptured the Bataan Peninsula, and Manila was liberated in early March.
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 himself 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.