NM Times
Military Experience
Pacific Theater

History of Bataan
by Christopher Schurtz
Reprinted with permission from Las Cruces Sun News

          By 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 Japanese Empire.

          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 strategic locations.

          In 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 Philippines.

          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 allied forces.
The Japanese invasion of the Philippines began just hours after their planes had left Pearl Harbor in flames.

          "It 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.

          The 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 heroism.

          But 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 imagined.

          What 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.

          Lacking 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.

          There 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.

          But 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.

          But 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.

          Las 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.

          "Several 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.

          By 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.

          Some 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 O'Donnell.

          Those 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."

          Cipriano 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."

          Several 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.

          The 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.

          "They were dropping like flies," Espinosa said in 2000. "Starvation, dehydration, and malaria were prevalent there."

          Espinosa 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.

          His brother had reunited with Espinosa in O'Donnell, but he eventually succumbed to the effects of dysentery and malnutrition.

          "He 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.

          Most 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.

          After 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, and starvation.

          Others 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.

          It 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.

          The 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.

          Those 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.

          Food 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.

          For 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.

          But 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.

          For many veterans, it is the final salt in a very deep wound.