American POWs and the Bataan Death March

June 6, 2009 marked the 65th anniversary of the massive invastion of the Normandy beaches by Allied forces that led to regaining control of France and ultimately led to the defeat of Germany and Italy during the Second World War.  This was why recently there was a lot of international media spotlight on the Normandy coast of France, highlighted by a ceremony attended by world leaders including President Barack Obama.

While we are remembering the history of WWII, it is important to point out another significant event that occurred shortly after the single largest defeat in United States military history, the 99-day Battle for Bataan in the Philippines that ended on April 9, 1942.  This resulted in the surrender of more than 76,000 American and Filipino troops under American command.  However, the end of the Battle of Bataan marked the beginning of one of the cruelest episodes in the history of modern warfare, the little known Bataan Death March.  It is important to know what happened in the aftermath of this battle to the heroic soldiers who fought, and then died or survived this battle and subsequent imprisonment, including many shipped to Japan’s massive biological/chemical weapons factory in Northeast China.  Also, as we will discuss later in this article, a significant remembrance of this event occurred recently during its 67th year anniversary.

The Bataan Death March

The Japanese attack on the Philippines started shortly after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.  This three-month-plus battle that culminated in the Battle at Bataan helped delay Japan taking control of a key location in the Pacific.  The American soldiers involved were the first American soldiers engaged in fighting the ground war in WWII.  But unfortunately they were ill prepared by our military for that battle.  They were armed with outdated and inadequate equipment and were cut off from their food supplies.  So slowly the soldiers became weak and sick in that insect-infested Bataan peninsula, and finally starved.  They slowly gave up ground, and finally had no choice but to surrender.  Little did they know what was waiting for them.

The approximate 76,000 American and Filipino soldiers who surrendered were already enduring exhaustion, starvation, and sickness.  The nearest Japanese prison camp was at Camp O’Donnell, which was more than 60 miles away (could be longer depending on the starting point).  Either not having enough transport vehicles or not willing to use their scarce transport vehicles, the Japanese forced the prisoners of war (POWs) to do the 60-plus mile march on foot to Camp O’Donnell (with a short railroad car ride sandwiched in the march on foot).  Thus began the Bataan Death March.

Normally a 60-plus mile march by soldiers is not extraordinary.  However, these POWs experienced unimaginable inhumane treatment at the hands of the Japanese soldiers, thus this march earning the name the “Bataan Death March.”  The Bataan Death March was not a single march of 76,000 POWs, but a series of marches by subgroups of the POWs.  The series of marches spanned several weeks, with each march lasting almost a week.

Before the march began, the POWs were already extremely weak with exhaustion and starvation, and many were injured or sick.  During the march, the POWs were not given any food, except for a rice ball or two during the whole march (not per day).  They were also not given any water, even though there was plenty of fresh ground water nearby.  Any POW who tried to get water from these fresh water sources were shot or bayonet to death on the spot.  The POWs had no choice but to gather whatever water they found in the water puddles along the trail, even though these water puddles were usually dirty and infected.  They were given little rest, and anyone who stopped on his own or was not able to continue was killed on the spot, including those who were sick or injured.  Furthermore, anyone who showed any sign of belligerent behavior or just disrespect was also killed on the spot.  A common method of killing was beheading.

Of the 76,000 POWs who participated in the Bataan Death March, about 25-30% never reached Camp O’Donnell (including the small percentage who were able to escape).  After months of malnutrition and starvation, by the time the survivors reached Camp O’Donnell, many were only a skeleton of their former selves, with weight loss of up to 50%.  The additional deaths after reaching Camp O’Donnell from delayed effects of the march or subsequent atrocities will never be known, but definitely many.

Aftermaths of the Bataan Death March

Many of these POWs would remain in Camp O’Donnell or other prison camps for more than three years until Japan was defeated and surrendered in August 1945.  Many others were put on unmarked “hell ships” which transported them to Unit 731 in Northeast China, Japan’s infamous massive biological and chemical weapons factory in Manchuria, where they would become human guinea pigs for Japan’s experimentation and development of new biological and chemical weapons.  Many of these ships sank in their journey.  Those who perished in this way were perhaps the lucky ones, because some of the POWs who made it to Unit 731 suffered through vivisections or autopsy operations while still alive.  For more information about Unit 731, see the article “Japan’s Biological and Chemical Warfare in China during WWII” (http://www.dontow.com/Pol_Soc_Commentary.html).

These American POWs suffered twice:  First as prisoners, and then as civilians after returning home.  They weren’t welcomed home as heroes who helped won the war.  They received poor treatment from the Veterans Administration, without adequate counseling or medical care.  Furthermore, many of the ones who ended up and survived Unit 731 had to sign nondisclosure agreements barring them from speaking about their experiences, because the U.S. government granted immunity to many key Japanese scientists and doctors of Unit 731 in exchange for their state-of-the-art data and expertise on biological and chemical weapons.  Our government did not want this immunity agreement to become public knowledge, and it remained a well-kept secret for 35 years until an investigative journalist published in 1980 classified documents about this decision-making process.

The evil Japanese scientists and doctors who performed those horrible inhumane acts established successful careers and lived affluent lives after the war.  Our American POW heroes live their remaining years with horrible memories, with little gratitude from their government for their sufferings, and with many enduring serious injuries that lasted their lifetime.  For an excellent article on the Bataan Death March and its aftermath, see Lee Brandenburg’s 5/24/09 article in www.mercurynews.com/opinion/ci_12440271.  Referring to the survivors of the Bataan Death March, Brandenburg ended his article with the statement “They may have come home, but in a sense they never completely escaped the trauma.”

For the last 64 years, there has been an annual convention of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor.  (Corregidor was another key battle in the Philippines that occurred shortly after the fall of Bataan; it too eventually fell to the Japanese on May 6, 1942.)   This year’s convention was held in San Antonio 5/26-30/09.  Because there are only 73 survivors from the battles at Bataan and Corregidor and they are very advanced in age, this would be the last convention and the group will disband after 6/30/09.  It will be replaced by a new group of its descendants “Descendants Group, an Auxilliary of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor.”

At the last day of the convention on 5/30/09, Japan’s ambassador to the U.S., Ichiro Fujisaki, at the last minute decided to come to the convention and delivered Japan’s first in-person apology on this atrocity.  He said “Today, I would like to convey to you the position of the government of Japan on this issue.  …  We extend a heartfelt apology for our country having caused tremendous damage and suffering to many people, including prisoners of war, those who have undergone tragic experiences in the Bataan Peninsula, in Corregidor Island in the Philippines and other places.  Ladies and gentlemen, taking this opportunity, I would like to express my deepest condolences to all those who have lost their lives in the war, and after the war, and their family members.”  About half, but only half, of the 400-500 attendees gave the Japanese ambassador a standing ovation.

Even though this apology is many decades late, it was a step in the right direction.  We hope that the Japanese government would officially apologize for other atrocities the Japanese military committed during WWII.

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5 Responses to “American POWs and the Bataan Death March”

  1. Rob L says:

    Hello, I know that my great uncle Will survived the Bataan death march, then was put on a ship, and contracted cholera or the black plague. This is very upsetting to me; was he experimented on by Unit 731? The American and Filipino troops who were abandoned in the Pacific deserved better, when they were abused by the Japanese as POWs. To not even be remembered by the public, and even in school history books they were left out. Something isn’t right here! The more I find out about this, the angrier I get. And the way the Japanese act like victims of the atomic bomb when they committed so many atrocities, it is just very upsetting. Thank you for writing this article. The truth must be told.
    -Rob L.

  2. neal flowers says:

    Don Tow. There were two brothers named Tow on the Bataan March. Neal

  3. Don says:

    Neal,

    Thanks for the information. But I don’t think these two brothers are related to us.

    Don

  4. Kim Egbert says:

    My great uncle and godfather was also a member of the march. He would never talk about it before he died. I have the citation from Reagan from when they finally recognized them. I wish I knew more about it but can’t find any more info.

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