The Bataan Death March
Map Illustrated by Mike Reagan
It was a fateful day, April 9, 1942; an army of approximately 66,000 Filipino and nearly 12,000 American soldiers under the command of Major General Edward King, Jr. surrendered to the Japanese. This was the largest U.S. army surrender in history. It occurred at Mariveles, on the southern tip of the Philippines’ Bataan Peninsula. The Japanese under the command of Lt. General Masaharu Homma were an army of 54,000. Though they were winning the battle, the Japanese were surprised by the surrender, fully expecting the fighting to continue and eventually having to take just 25,000 prisoners of war. The intent was to take the prisoners from Mariveles to Camp O’Donnel, a prison camp located north in the province of Tarlac. The individual in charge of the move was Major General Yoshitake Kawane. His plan was thwarted after the surrender by having to move three times as many men as expected. From the start of the surrender, plans did not proceed as intended. Many under Major General King’s command refused to taken as prisoners, and fled. Many were able to join the resistance movement of approximately 180,000 guerrillas that were located throughout the Philippines.
Kawane’s original intention following the surrender was to move all prisoners on foot, to Balanga, nineteen miles from Mariveles. It was expected that this would take one day. It was here that prisoners would board trucks and travel 33 miles north to a rail station at San Fernando. From there they would board freight trains which would move them another 30 miles to Capas, and proceed to walk the last eight miles to Camp O’Donnell.
Dead Bodies of American and Filipino soldiers being Carried by Other Prisoners
During the Battle of Bataan only about 27,000 were listed as “combat effective.” The others were malaria stricken and weak from starvation. Therefore, it was near impossible for the U.S. and Philippine troops to continue to wage battle, but equally difficult for them to follow through on Kawane’s plan to reach Camp O’Donnell. In addition, 4,000 extremely sick and wounded prisoners were in such bad condition that they had to stay behind to be treated. To complicate issues further, the Japanese were short on fighting power, food and supplies since they needed to share all of these with their forces fighting at Corregidor.
The march commenced on April 10, 1942. What was to initially take one day, took three. Only about four Japanese soldiers were in charge of each group of approximately 300 prisoners. Even before reaching Balanga, Kawane knew that he did not have enough transport for all of the prisoners. Therefore, half of the men were force to continue marching in direct sun on asphalt and dirt roads. Blowing dust made it difficult for prisoners already ill to breathe. Often prisoners received severe asphalt burns to their feet. Those who were able to reach the second leg of the journey at San Fernando were locked in able to get some medical care, food, and rest. However, before long some prisoners were jammed into freight trains to Capas. Many died from suffocation and dehydration. However, a majority of the prisoners were forced to walk approximately two-thirds of the 90 miles.
What was to originally have taken two days of travel took nine. Food and water were scare. Prisoners were often beaten at random. Many died of malaria, heat exhaustion, dysentery and dehydration. Prisoners who fell behind were frequently executed. Those who were severely ill were left to die. The long, dusty road was often riddled with moaning prisoners asking for help.
Japanese soldiers guarding prisoners were aided by Koreans. Most Korean soldiers serving in the Japanese army were forbidden to fight on the battlefield. Therefore most Koreans were limited to providing services, such as guarding. Many of them were feared and regarded by prisoners as the most abusive of the guards.
Approximately 18,000 prisoners did not reach their destination at the end of the Dead March. Some records claim that as many as 10,000 Filipinos lost their lives, and upwards of 650 Americans. However, it is difficult to know how many thousands more died in route. Some escaped prior to the march, others managed to escape from their guards. Those who were caught for attempting an escape were often beheaded, and then several more captives selected to be killed in a similar fashion in order to deter others from making the same “mistake.” One Colonel, Takeo Imai made a decision to release more than 1,000 prisoners into the jungle. However, this was a rare occurrence.
U.S. Soldier waiting for Decapitation for Trying to Escape