Japanese War Crimes – The Bataan Death March

Japanese War Crimes – The Bataan Death March

News of the Bataan Death March sparked outrage in the US, as reflected in this poster.

Just hours after the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor with a surprise attack that led the United States actively into World War II, the Japanese also struck American airbases in the Philippines.  Due to the surprise element, American and Filipino troops were forced to retreat into the Bataan peninsula, where they were quickly shut off and blockaded from incoming supplies by the Japanese.  After a short three month battle, the American and Filipino troops surrendered to the Japanese. US General Edward P. King did the honorable thing as his men were weak and exhausted, expecting to be transported to a POW camp where he assumed at the very least be able to receive some medical treatment and food for his troops. His action resulted in the largest surrender in US Military history and he had gone against his orders to counter-attack.

Japanese crimes

Several occurrences took place with the surrender; the Japanese were unprepared and unorganized to handle 70,000 POWS that quickly, and had few motorized vehicles for transport.  They were also anxious to get the Americans away from the area so as to not be witness to their amphibious training maneuvers. The result was to march the prisoners on foot almost 65 miles from Mariveles, Bataan to San Fermando, Pompanga, and then transport by freight train to Camp O’Donnel in Capas, Tarlac.

Dead soldiers on the Bataan Death March.

This plan, involving transporting soldiers that were already weakened physically from a three month battle, then from the lack of food and water before surrender, turned into what is now known as “the Bataan death march.”  The atrocities performed along the route, the physical and mental abuse and the lack of any kind of respect for life was highly evident by the Japanese culture.  To the Japanese, surrender was equal to dishonor, thus the American and Filipino soldiers were classed as subhuman beings to be treated less than animals.

After several hundred executions at the very beginning of the march, the soldiers were marched out in groups.  The pace was grueling, the heat was intense, and very little food was provided.  Although there was fresh water wells along the route, the soldiers had to drink from ditches and were not ever allowed to stop for urination or defecation.  They were forced like animals to drop human waste as they walked.  They had no weapons, no supplies; they were routinely beaten, bayoneted and mistreated.  They fell ill due to disease, dysentery and heat exhaustion and were left to be buried and “finished off” by cleanup crews called “buzzard squads.”

Route of the death march. Section from San Fernando to Capas was by rail cars

Civilians were also killed if they tried to help the prisoners in any way, although it is thought that some POWs may have managed to escape into the civilian throngs. There were beheadings, and some were run over by trucks.  Once they reached the destination to travel by train, over 100 men were shoved into unventilated, overheated boxcars. Only 54,000 POWs managed to reach Camp O’Donnel, and even then died at a rate of 30 to 50 a day from sickness and exhaustion from the inhumane treatment of the march before arrival.

When the American soldiers surrendered before the March, General Douglas MacArthur had publically announced that American troops “would return.”  When the news and atrocious treatment of the POWs reached the public in 1944, it was shortly before American troops did indeed return and took back Bataan and Manila and liberated the Philippine Islands.

Prisoners on the march from Bataan to the prison camp, May 1942.

After World War II and the Japanese had surrendered, the occurrences that happened during the Bataan death march were cited as Japanese war crimes.  Lt. General Masaharu Hamma who had been in charge of the operation was found guilty of 43 counts of brutal atrocities and high crimes against humanity and was sentenced to death by firing squad.  Seven other Japanese generals were sentenced to death by hanging and many more Japanese officers were imprisoned anywhere from 7 to 22 years after the war was over.

General King had spent 3 ½ years as a POW resulting from his historical surrender, but was generally recognized as a hero after the war.  It took over 60 years, but in 2009 and 2010, the Japanese formally apologized for actions committed during the march out of Bataan. As of 2013, there are less than 12 men who survived the march still living; now in their 90s.