The Japanese attack on the Philippines on 8 December 1941, hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, led to the defeat of American and Filipino forces. It was not the quick victory the Japanese expected, however. Long after Malaya, Singapore, and the Indies had fallen, Gen. Douglas MacArthur's men held out by a strategic retreat to the jungles of Luzon's Bataan Peninsula and the fortified island of Corregidor in Manila Bay, led by Maj. Gen. Jonathan M. Wainwright after MacArthur was ordered to evacuate to Australia. Although their defense was ultimately overwhelmed, the successful execution of MacArthur's Bataan plan saved the troops on Luzon from immediate defeat, delayed the Japanese timetable for conquest by four months, and kept large Japanese combat forces tied up in the Philippines until May 1942.
But when it ended, tens of thousands of Filipinos and Americans who surrendered to the Japanese, the largest American army ever to surrender, became the victims of a shameful chapter in the history of war, the Bataan Death March.
Situation at the Time of the Surrender
On 9 April 1942, about 76,000 Allied troops on Luzon, most packed into the southern tip of the Bataan Peninsula, surrendered to the Japanese army. They had resisted the Japanese attackers for more than three months even though crippled by starvation rations and epidemics of malaria, dysentery, and various diseases.
The Japanese commander, Lt. Gen. Masaharu Homma, still had to subdue the fortified island of Corregidor, sitting in Manila Bay across from Bataan. Homma had already issued orders to remove any Allied POWs captured on Bataan to the town of Balanga, where they would
assemble and receive food. Then the U.S. and Filipino prisoners would
move thirty-one miles to San Fernando, where they would board trains and
ride to a rail station twenty-five miles away. The prisoners were to finish with a nine-mile walk to Camp O’Donnell, a former military base that would serve as a POW camp. The plan included several stops for food and medical treatment. Most prisoners would go to San Fernando on foot because the Japanese had few vehicles left after the fighting.
The Japanese evacuation plan generally conformed to the terms of the 1929 Geneva Convention for treatment of POWs. In fact, Homma’s evacuation order specified that Japanese troops were to treat all POWs “in a friendly way." But the plan was doomed to failure for several reasons:
About 40,000 relatively healthy and well-fed captives were expected. The surrendering army, however, was twice as large, reduced to starvation rations, and so wracked with disease that, according to an Army doctor, they were “patients rather than prisoners."
The fall of Bataan was expected at the end of April, with the food, medical services, and transportation scheduled accordingly. The surrender happened more than three weeks earlier when little had been prepared.
To make matters worse, the Japanese forces, which had been reinforced and now numbered 81,000 men, were chronically short of food and medical supplies for their own needs, let alone for those of their prisoners.
Transfer of the POWs from Bataan
Captured Japanese photo shows American prisoners using improvised litters to carry comrades who fell along the road from the lack of food or water. This is one of the few photos of the actual Bataan Death March, from the National Archives. Dated May 1942.
Treatment of the Allied prisoners was inconsistent. Although some prisoners traveled in trucks or cars and suffered little, most were forced to march up to 65 miles on foot and received little food, water, or medical aid. Some groups received more food or time to rest; others received less. Some guards treated their captives reasonably well, while others tortured the POWs or murdered them outright as punishment for surrender, considered dishonorable by the Japanese military code of conduct.
For those who marched to camp, the only constant presence was death. Reports from survivors tell of brutal guards who shot or bayonetted anyone who fell behind. The pace was inhuman under hot sun, without food or water, difficult even for soldiers in good condition, deadly for malnourished and sick POWs. By the end of the evacuation in early May 1942, an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 POWs had died. Another 18,000 prisoners died in the first six weeks of imprisonment at Camp O’Donnell. Those who survived remained in Japanese prisons from April 1942 until the end of the war in the Pacific in September 1945, enduring more than three years of torture, beatings, forced labor, illness and near starvation. Those who were liberated were in terrible condition, their bodies skeletal and ridden by diseases such as beriberi, dysentery and scurvy.
Why Were the Japanese So Cruel?
Captured Japanese photo of Death March prisoners with hands tied behind their backs. May 1942.
In his analysis of the Bataan tragedy and the legal aftermath, "A Trial of Generals", historian Lawrence Taylor ascribed the guards’ atrocities to three factors, each of which contradicted Homma’s specific directive to treat the POWs humanely. First was the morale of the low-ranking Japanese soldiers. Having suffered themselves during the fighting, having seen many of their comrades die in battle, and having been trained to regard surrender as dishonorable, the Japanese soldiers sought revenge upon their now-helpless foes. The second factor was a shortage of Japanese officers, not enough to properly supervise the prisoner movement. Because a company of infantrymen might be spread out to guard a mile-long file of captives, its commander could not supervise carefully, leaving sadistic guards free to attack captives with impunity. The third factor was racism of some Japanese junior officers who held the view that the United States was racially inferior to the Japanese.
Aftermath of the Bataan Death March
Shortly after the end of the march to Camp O’Donnell, Homma’s troops attacked Corregidor. Corregidor’s defenders and General Jonathan Wainwright, MacArthur’s replacement as Allied commander, surrendered on 8 May 1942. The remaining Allied armies in the Philippines capitulated soon thereafter. Homma was relieved of command the following month and returned to Japan, where he spent the rest of the war.
News of what came to be called the “Bataan Death March" reached the American public in January 1944, when the U.S. War Department released accounts from several survivors who had escaped from prison and reached Allied territory with the aid of Filipino guerrillas. Secretary of State Cordell Hull, congressional leaders, and newspaper editors throughout the United States expressed outrage and shock at the atrocity, and vowed revenge for the dead prisoners.
Shortly after Japan’s official surrender on 2 September 1945, U.S. Army officers arrested Homma. A U.S. military commission arraigned Homma on 19 December 1945 for forty-seven specifications of the charge of violating the laws of war, primarily concerned with mistreatment of POWs on the Death March and in the prison camps afterward, in addition to the bombing of Manila in violation of the open-city declaration.
In his defense, Homma claimed that he was so preoccupied with the plans for the Corregidor assault that he had forgotten about the prisoners’ treatment, believing that his officers were properly handling the matter. He allegedly did not learn of the death toll until after the war. His defense failed and in April 1946 he was executed by a firing squad, forbidden to wear his military uniform.
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