When asked what the general public knows about the war in the Pacific, they typically know only the attack on Pearl Harbor and the atomic bomb dropping on Hiroshima. Very few know about Iwo Jima, Midway, or the thousands of other significant events that happened in the war in the Pacific Theatre. Even fewer realize that when Pearl Harbor, Hawaii was attacked, the Japanese unleashed warfare on at least a dozen other islands, atolls, and countries simultaneously. One of significance that I will bring attention to this week is the invasion of the Philippines leading to the infamous Bataan Death March. The European side of the war is far more studied and known, yet there are still lapses there which I endeavor to correct. It is my mission to bring knowledge where there is a lack, particularly pertaining to the Pacific Theatre of war.
On December 8, a mere eight hours after it attacked the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese invasion of the Philippines began, sending wave after wave of their fighters and bombers against the American naval and air forces on the islands. Two weeks later, 43,000 Japanese troops invaded to face a large force of American and Filipino defenders, more than 130,000 men, most of them untested and ill trained. Within a month, the empire of Japan captured Manila, the capital of the Philippines and pushed the defenders back again and again until they were forced to retreat to a small thumb of land on the west coast of Manila Bay, the peninsula of Bataan. There, in the jungles and twisted woodlands, they dug trenches and bunkers and an army of Americans and Filipinos prepared to fight for their lives. This was the first major land battle for America in World War II. For the next three months, starting in January 1942, the Japanese took the peninsula under siege and left the combined U.S. and Filipino army, with their back to the sea, cut off from all help and supplies. As the two sides fought, the Japanese taking horrendous casualties, but pressed on, and the Americans and Filipinos were forced to fall back under the Japanese assaults from one “final” defense line to another. At last, on April 9, sick and starving, without an air force to protect them or a navy to relieve them, U.S. General Edward King Jr. surrendered his troops on Bataan. More than 76,000 men of the combined army laid down their arms–the single largest defeat in American military history. The sick, starving, and bedraggled prisoners of war were rounded up by their Japanese captors and forced to walk sixty-six miles to a railhead for the trip to prison camp, a baneful walk under a broiling sun that turned into one of the most notorious treks in the annals of war: the Bataan Death March.
“To label the movement a ‘march,’ as the men took to calling it, was something of a misnomer. During the first few days of walking, there were so many men on the road, one bunch following closely behind another, they appeared a procession without end, prisoners as far as the eye could see, mile after mile after mile of tired, filthy, bedraggled men, heads bowed, feet dragging through the ankle-deep dust. In all, from Mariveles to San Fernando, 66 road miles, 106 kilometers, 140,000 footfalls… Some days, the prisoners trekked ten miles, other days fifteen, twenty, or more. And hard miles they were. More than half of the Old National Road on Bataan was a rural road–its base stone and crushed coral, its surface fine sand–built for the light traffic of the provinces. Four months of army convoys had churned up the hardpan, leaving potholes and sinkholes that tripped the men and shards of gravel that sliced up their shoes and boots… It was the season of drought. From March to May, the sun hung flame white and unshrouded in the Philippine sky, searing everything under it. By early afternoon, the air was an oven, the hardpan as hot as kiln bricks”Norman, Michael, Elizabeth. Tears in the Darkness. Picador. 2009.
They were already withered away from starvation and disease from the months of fighting, but they would face even worse conditions under the watchful eyes of their Japanese captors. Not only would they be starved and deprived of clean drinking water, they were beaten and even killed if they fell behind or went off the track to find water. Tens of thousands of troops died because of the brutality of their captors on the march alone. Exact numbers are still unknown. Those who did survive were taken by rail from San Fernando to prisoner-of-war (POW) camps, including the infamous Camp O’Donnell, where thousands more died from disease, mistreatment, and starvation. Over the next 3 years, they would suffer in camps throughout the Japanese Empire and many would die. As the war dragged on, the U.S. military decided that the Nazis were a bigger threat and focused the bulk of their energies on the European theatre. The men of the Pacific and all the had suffered were all but forgotten until, at last, the tide began the change.
Of the 34,648 Americans held by Japan, 12,935–more than 37 percent–died. By comparison, only 1 percent of Americans held by the Nazis and Italians died. Japan murdered thousands of POWs on death marches, and worked thousands of others to death in slavery, including some 16,000 POWs who died alongside as many as 100,000 Asian laborers forced to build the Burma-Siam Railway. Thousands of other POWs were beaten, burned, stabbed, or clubbed to death, shot, beheaded, killed during medical experiments, or eaten alive in ritual acts of cannibalism. And as a result of being fed grossly inadequate and befouled food and water, thousands more died of starvation and easily preventable diseases. Of the 2,500 POWs at Borneo’s Sandakan camp, only 6, all escapees, made it to September 1945 alive. Left out of the numbing statistics are untold numbers of men who were captured and killed on the spot or dragged to places like Kwajalein, to be murdered without the world ever learning their fate (Hillenbrand).Hillenbrand, Laura. Unbroken. Random House. 2010.
America avenged its defeat in the Philippines with the invasion of the island of Leyte in October 1944. General Douglas MacArthur who in 1942 had famously promised to return to the Philippines, made good on his word. In February 1945, U.S. and Filipino forces recaptured the Bataan Peninsula, and Manila was liberated in early March. After the war, an American military tribunal tried Lieutenant General Homma Masaharu, commander of the Japanese invasion forces in the Philippines. He was held responsible for the death march, a war crime, and was executed by firing squad on April 3, 1946.
If you are interested in reading more about personal accounts of this event, there is one book I highly recommend: Tears in the Darkness by Michael and Elizabeth Norman. It is a thorough account of the Battle for Bataan, the Death March, and the camps. It follows one man’s story in particular, but also gives an amazing overview of what the battle looked like for many on both sides of the conflict.
History. Bataan Death March. History.com. 2018.
Hillenbrand, Laura. Unbroken. Random House. 2010.
Norman, Michael, Elizabeth. Tears in the Darkness. Picador. 2009.