Horrors Didn't End When Bataan Death March Did

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On April 9, 1942, the United States of America surrendered to the Japanese Imperial Army after the bloody, months-long Battle of Bataan ended. The battle itself was among the most important in the entire Pacific war campaign for a number of reasons.

First, the surrender of ~75,000 American and Filipino forces was the largest in American (and Filipino) history. Second, the losing effort on the part of MacArthur and the Filipinos significantly slowed down the Japanese effort to quickly overtake Euro-American colonial possessions in Asia. Finally, the logistics of transferring such a large number of prisoners of war burdened the Japanese so heavily that Tokyo’s hypocrisy - as a liberating anti-colonial power - was highlighted for all other Asians to see clearly.

Bataan itself is a peninsula situated across the Manila Bay from Manila itself (Manila is, and has been since 1571, the capital and largest city in the Philippines). When the peninsula fell to the Japanese, Tokyo was immediately presented with a difficult conundrum: how transport ~75,000 captured soldiers and another ~40,000 civilians to an inland location far from the fighting. The man tasked with coordinating the transfer of prisoners and refugees, Lieutenant General Masaharu Homma, began marching prisoners on April 10.

As the prisoners were being massed together for the long, 60-70 mile march to Capas, Japanese soldiers executed hundreds of Filipino prisoners and robbed many more of their possessions. Along the road, the prisoners, as well as Japanese infantry tasked with guarding the prisoners, were subjected to harsh jungle conditions (sweltering humidity, tropical rainstorms, snakes and bugs, malaria, dysentery, etc.) and brutal treatment by the guards. Because the Japanese were not prepared for the sheer amount of prisoners, food rations were few and often withheld by equally hungry Japanese guards, beatings were common, and executions random. Torture methods included stripping captives naked and forcing them sit within sight of drinkable water pools, the “sun treatment,” where prisoners were stripped of cover and forced to march in the hot sun, or dangling food and water in front of the marchers before beating the taunted with a rifle butt. If a prisoner fell, he was stabbed with a bayonet, shot, or run over by a truck.

The march eventually came to an end in San Fernando (about 40 miles into the journey), where prisoners were packed into railroad boxcars and shipped like livestock to Capas, which is located 20 miles away. In Capas, the surviving prisoners were held at Camp O’Donnell, a former American military base transformed into a prisoner camp. It was designed for 10,000 people, but the Japanese unloaded 50,000 people there.

Estimates for the total number of deaths from the Bataan Death March vary greatly because the Japanese destroyed most of the paperwork associated with Tokyo’s short-lived governance of the Philippines. The death toll ranges from 5,500-18,000.

Camp O’Donnell was no relief from the Death March of Bataan. In it, disease spread like wildfire and starvation was rampant. The Japanese, who were fighting Americans elsewhere and Filipino guerrillas close by, had no empathy for their prisoners. The prisoners who survived the harsh march from Bataan had another 3 ½ years of hard manual labor in prison camps to look forward to, if they survived the horrific conditions of the camps.

As the Allies began slowly retaking the Philippines from Japanese forces, these prisoners of war were shipped from one of the 70 prisoner camps on the archipelago to China and Japan itself to continue their slave labor for the Empire. The Japanese shipped these prisoners to the mainland on unmarked vessels, a violation of the Geneva Conventions, and it’s possible that the American and British Navies may have inadvertently sunk a number of these vessels.

Known as “Hell Ships,” the conditions on these ships were no better than those found at Camp O’Donnell or during the march. There are anecdotes of prisoners cutting the throats of other prisoners so that they would have something to drink (urine was also a popular choice for drink, though I could find no reported instances of cannibalism).

Masaharu Homma was promoted to Governor-General after the successful implementation of his forced march worked (from the Japanese point of view), but he was later executed on April 3, 1946, for war crimes. Japan has formally and personally apologized to many of the American victims of the Bataan Death March, and dozens of memorials to the March exist in both the U.S. and the Philippines, which gained its independence from the United States on July 4, 1946.

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