by Christopher Schurtz
Reprinted with permission from Las Cruces Sun News
the spring of 1941, rising tensions between the United
States and Japan made it clear the two countries were
headed for a show-down. Japan was a relatively isolated
group of islands lacking in raw mineral resources like
oil and iron. After almost a decade of war with China,
an aggressive Japan had ambitions of taking the entire
Pacific Rim, including Australia, as part of a greater
The Philippines lay in their path. The United States
had acquired the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico
in the Spanish-American War with Spain in 1898. Though
plans were underway to grant the Philippines their independence,
the islands had become one of the United States' most
a war against the U.S., time was Japan's weakness; lacking
in steel and fuel, it could not sustain a long war with
the energy and resource rich United States. It therefore
had to strike fiercely and decisively and could spare
no delays. For its part, the United States had a military
10 percent the size of today's. The isolationist policies
of the 1920s and 1930s put America's military behind
and unprepared for war. That partially explains why
thousands of National Guardsmen from small towns around
the country joined thousands of enlisted Army, Navy,
and Air Corps personnel in the summer of 1941 in the
Together, about 30,000 Americans, 25,000 Filipino regular
army and roughly 100,000 Filipino raw volunteers were
to face the battle-hardened Japanese 14th Army. Numbers
were in the defenders favor, but supplies, food, and
medicine soon dwindled due to the large size of the
The Japanese invasion of the Philippines began just
hours after their planes had left Pearl Harbor in flames.
was a Sunday. We were all lined up that morning to go
to the chow hall to eat," recalled Lorenzo Banegas,
who passed away in December. "From there we spotted
this big cloud of planes and we thought they were our
Navy planes that were coming to help with our mission.
We didn't know yet we were at war. When we saw the big
cloud of planes we started waving at them thinking they
were our planes. After they approached they started
dropping little black things that I thought were leaflets
from the pilots to let us know that they were there
to help us. We started running toward where they were
dropping the little black things and then we saw they
were bombs exploding allover the place. This was the
first day of war for us."
It took a day for the American air fleet to be destroyed
and by January, those who had trained in the AirCorps
became support infantry over night. The American and
Filipino forces were soon ordered to head south to defend
the Bataan Peninsula. With battles and skirmishes raging
for four months, the mission was understood: to hold
out and delay the Japanese as long as possible to allow
America and Australia time to build. Rations were cut,
medicine to fight malaria was in short supply, and the
aged, out-dated weaponry used by the Americans, some
of it pre-World War I era, was soon wearing out.
In March, General Douglas MacArthur and his staff had
been ordered by President Franklin Roosevelt to flee
the Philippines by boat to Australia. MacArthur's famous
promise "I shall return" did little to assure
those left to fight on Bataan and Corregidor that help
was on the way. It became obvious it was not.
men soon began to refer to themselves as the "Battling
Bastards of Bataan," and recited the lines "No
mama, no papa, no Uncle Sam...No pills, no planes, no
artillery pieces, and nobody gives a damn" with
a dark sense of irony. Stories of heroism in battle
abounded and numerous citations were awarded for combat
fearing the inevitable and the total slaughter of thousands
of American and Filipino wounded in military hospitals
and knowing the fight could no longer continue, Bataan
commander General Edward King was forced to surrender
his troops on April 9, 1942, despite the wishes of many
who wished to continue to fight. King later took the
blame for the surrender, abdicating his men from responsibility.
The events following surrender were far worse than any
came to be known as the Bataan Death March began almost
immediately after the American and Filipino forces began
to be assembled in the large fields outside of Mariveles.
For the Japanese, it was a logistical nightmare. There
were far more prisoners than they had anticipated and
they had to move them out of the south to the north.
The Japanese were preparing their assault on the off-shore
island of Corregidor where American forces were still
holding on, including hundreds who fled Bataan.
anywhere near enough trucks to transport the 70,000
prisoners of war (some wounded Americans did ride trucks
to San Fernando), a forced march became the only way
to move them. The Japanese also lacked food and medicine
for their prisoners. But based on the utter brutality
meted out by the Japanese for the next three and a half
years, it is unlikely events would have been different
had the Japanese been prepared for so many prisoners.
Orders from the high command called for no sympathy
for those who surrendered.
were several starting points along the march and the
exact number who took part or who died on the march
have been almost impossible for historians to determine.
The chaos following surrender and the destruction of
records, as well as the many, almost faceless deaths
on the march made the numbers hard to track.
about 11,700 Americans and as many as 65,000 Filipinos
began the 65-mile march from the Bataan Peninsula to
San Fernando. Of those, between 600 and 700 Americans
and between 5,000 and 10,000 Filipinos died on the march.
The causes of death were many, from malaria and dysentery
to starvation and sheer exhaustion.
other deaths were indescribably horrific and violent.
Many Filipinos were beheaded and Americans and Filipinos
suffered the "sun treatment" - hours where
soldiers were forced to look toward the sun; falling
out meant death. Others were cruelly taunted by their
Japanese captors, who dangled food or water within reach
before knocking the men back with a bayonet thrust.
Crucen Julio Barela recalled in his autobiography "In
the eyes of the Japanese, we were cowards to have surrendered
as they believed that taking your own life was a far
better fate. We were beaten, slapped, pushed, tortured
and yelled at while we marched.
"I was struck on the back of the head with the
butt of the rifle of one of my captors. I remembered
thinking of my mother and how she would suffer if I
died. So I balanced as much as I could so as not to
fall. Once an American soldier would fall he would be
stabbed with the bayonet or shot.
of my comrades fell from fatigue on top of illness and
would not go on. They were immediately killed. All the
time I thought I would be next."
The Japanese denied water to their prisoners of war,
even though springs were located all along the road.
Men driven mad by thirst plunged into disease-infested
mud pits, only to be shot or beaten. Those who survived
soon came down with any number of diseases, from pellagra
to dysentery. Some received food the first night, but
it was little more than a ball of rice, at best. Many
went without any food or water for the days it took
to complete the march.
the second day, the worn and battered men, many of them
marching the dusty roads in their bare feet, began to
fall. As some fell, those standing close would help,
but this was not always the case. The march became a
matter of survival of the fittest, though there are
many accounts of lives being saved by selfless acts.
of the men were carried into San Fernando by friends
and comrades from their units. Upon arrival in San Fernando,
the men were packed into cramped boxcars and taken by
train to Camp O'Donnell. Those too weak to go further
died in the boxcars, overcome by the heat. Survivors
were then forcibly marched another five miles to Camp
who were glad the march was over found no relief at
Camp O'Donnell, a place whose death toll became so high
the Japanese eventually were forced to close it down.
A campground possibly designed for less than 10,000
people was now packed with 50,000 diseased and starved
American and Filipino prisoners of war. The POWs were
greeted by the Japanese commandant of Camp O'Donnell,
who, as Weldon Hamilton recalled, gave the survivors
a chilling and short speech. He said "We are enemies.
We shall always be enemies. The only thing I am concerned
of is how many of you are dead every morning."
Hamilton remembered the commandant adding the survivors
should envy those who died on the Death March, "For
they are the lucky ones."
Ramirez recalled the conditions at Camp O'Donnell in
a story he wrote last year for the Silver City Sun-News.
"The camp was beyond description. There was no
water, and the dead and dying were everywhere. We dug
straddle trenches for latrines, which soon turned foul.
The rice we were given was watery and worm-infested.
All night long, dying soldiers screamed as their temperatures
rose from dysentery and malaria."
weeks after Corregidor fell on May 6, the new American
and Filipino prisoners of war entered Camp O'Donnell
to find the shocking conditions within. Clearly, those
who made the march stood a worse chance of survival
than those who did not.
day following his arrival after finishing the Death
March, Pedro Espinosa, then a 19-year-old teenager from
Gallup, fought malnutrition and exhaustion to help organize
burial details for the hundreds of men dying from malaria,
dysentery, and malnutrition.
were dropping like flies," Espinosa said in 2000.
"Starvation, dehydration, and malaria were prevalent
said his detail buried 76 men in one day. One of the
men he would later bury in the hard volcanic ground
of the Philippines would be his brother Damian.
brother had reunited with Espinosa in O'Donnell, but
he eventually succumbed to the effects of dysentery
died on July 6, 1942," Espinosa said. "That's
when I buried him."
In a little more than a month, more than 1,500 Americans
and 20,000 Filipinos died in Camp O'Donnell, with each
one of those numbers representing a singularly different
and individual experience. Disease, exhaustion and torture,
combined with the cramped conditions and the complete
lack of even the most basic and humane provisions, led
to one of the highest rates of POW death in World War
II. A majority of those who died within the first weeks
were under the age of 30.
Filipinos were set free by the end of 1942, but their
people and their country were under occupation by a
tyrannical force that ruled by fear. The Filipinos were
also singled out for the harshest punishments during
the Death March, but many continued to fight against
the Japanese in guerrilla forces after they were freed.
Camp O'Donnell, 3 1/2 years of imprisonment in forced
labor camps throughout the Japanese empire followed
for Espinosa and the rest of the American prisoners.
Some were sent to the even more horrific Camp Cabanatuan,
the home of the infamous Zero Ward, where thousands
died mind-numbingly painful deaths from beriberi, dysentery,
were sent to as many as 70 Japanese prisoner of war
camps around the Philippines, Japan, and China, where
they endured 3 1/2 years of forced labor in rice fields,
sugar cane processing factories, coal mines, or smelters.
was not until the end of 1942 and into 1943 the Red
Cross was finally permitted entry into the camps. They
brought small food packets and some medicine, but nowhere
near enough. They also provided cards for the POWs to
send to their families at home, but the cards only contained
the most basic information.
death rate did slow as food conditions improved, but
the illnesses and beatings by the Japanese, and their
Korean subordinates, continued.
By the end of 1943, and into late 1944, thousands of
American prisoners of war were being packed into the
dark hulls of cargo ships and sent to forced labor camps
in Japan or China. Not wanting to lose the free labor,
the Japanese were nevertheless transporting the prisoners
in unmarked ships (the Geneva Convention, which the
Japanese did not follow, mandates that ships carrying
POWs must be marked with a Red Cross).
The conditions on the "Hell Ships" defy description;
weeks were spent in the crowded damp hulls of the ships.
There was no room to sit and most had diarrhea or dysentery.
Little to no water or food was given to the men during
the ordeal, and some were driven mad, forced to drink
urine or slash their comrades throats to drink blood.
Hundreds suffocated to death or were killed. American
torpedoes and bombers sunk many ships, and while most
surviving POWs were recaptured, some swam to safety
and became among of the first to report of the conditions
in the Japanese prison camps.
who made it to Japan and China continued to toil in
forced labor camps or in factories owned by companies
still in existence today, such as Mitsubishi. Liberation
for most came by August 1945, though some were freed
earlier in the year by advancing U.S. Marines, Army,
Air Force and Navy forces. Some ex-POWs including Ward
Redshaw, reported seeing the nuclear cloud rising at
Nagasaki that led to the end of the war.
and medicine was air dropped into the prison camps after
surrender August 14, 1945. It was months before many
of them were well enough to go home after treatment
in military hospitals. An estimated one third of those
who returned died within a year, their bodies and minds
ravaged by their experiences. Still others persevered
and stoically went on with their lives, raising families
and pursuing careers.
decades, few spoke of their experiences, though most
were haunted by nightmares and lingering physical effects.
In the past 20 years, recognition of their ordeal has
become more common, as this weekend's events testify.
the Bataan veterans' fight continues, with ongoing litigation
fighting the Treaty of 1951 with Japan. The treaty effectively
denied the vets the ability to sue Japanese companies
for their years of unpaid forced labor. In addition,
American administrations have been reluctant to take
up the fight, preferring a healthy trade relationship
over the Pandora's Box that is the Bataan Death March.
many veterans, it is the final salt in a very deep wound.