In the Bataan Death March, about 75,000 Filipino and American troops on the Bataan Peninsula on the Philippine island of Luzon were forced to make an arduous 65-mile march to prison camps. After the U.S. surrender of the Bataan Peninsula in 1942 during World War II, the Japanese took control of the area, and the prisoner of war (POWs) were subjected to brutal treatment by Japanese guards. An estimated 17,000 men perished during and after the Bataan Death March.
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The day after Japan bombed the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, on December 7, 1941, the Japanese invasion of the Philippines began. Within a month, the Japanese had captured Manila, the capital of the Philippines, and the American and Filipino defenders of Luzon (the island on which Manila is located) were forced to retreat to the Bataan Peninsula.
For the next three months, as the United States began its entry into World War II, the combined U.S.-Filipino army held out despite a lack of naval and air support. Finally, on April 9, 1942, with his forces crippled by starvation and disease, U.S. Major General Edward King Jr. surrendered some 75,000 American troops at Bataan to the Japanese.
The Bataan Death March Begins
The surrendered Filipinos and Americans soon were rounded up by the Japanese in April 1942 and forced to march some 65 miles from Mariveles, on the southern end of the Bataan Peninsula, to San Fernando. The men were divided into groups of approximately 100, and the march typically took each group around five days to complete.
Thousands of troops died because of the brutality of their captors, who starved and beat the marchers, and bayoneted those too weak to walk. Survivors were taken by rail from San Fernando to POW camps, where thousands more died from disease, murder and starvation.
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War Crimes and Atrocities
Survivors of the Bataan Death March have reported countless atrocities suffered during the march and later imprisonment, including starvation, random beatings and stabbings, and a lack of any water, shelter or basic first-aid supplies.
“One of the POWs had a ring on and the Japanese guard attempted to get the ring off,” said one U.S. prisoner. “He couldn't get it off and he took a machete and cut the man's wrist off and when he did that, of course, the man was bleeding profusely. [I tried to help him] but when I looked back I saw a Japanese guard sticking a bayonet through his stomach.”
The mistreatment of POWs was an order from the Japanese War Ministry, which read in part: “Whether they are destroyed individually or in groups, and whether it is accomplished by means of mass bombing, poisonous smoke, poisons, drowning, or decapitation, dispose of them as the situation dictates. It is the aim not to allow the escape of a single one, to annihilate them all, and not to leave any traces.”
Estimates vary widely, but the Department of Veteran’s Affairs estimates that 650 American and 16,500 Filipino soldiers were killed during and after the Bataan Death March. Other researchers claim the total number of deaths—including Filipino civilians who tried to help the marchers—is even higher.
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.-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.
Masaharu Homma and Japanese Atrocities. PBS: American Experience.
The Bataan Death March. The Ohio State University: Stanton Foundation.
Bataan Death March. National Museum of the United States Air Force.