The Bataan Death March was the forcible transfer from Saisaih Pt. and Mariveles to Camp O’Donnell by the Imperial Japanese Army of 60,000–80,000 Filipino, and American (including Filipino-American) prisoners of war which began on April 9, 1942, after the three-month Battle of Bataan in the Philippines during World War II. About 2,500–10,000 Filipino and 100–650 American prisoners of war died before they could reach their destination. The reported death tolls vary, especially among Filipino and Filipino-American (U.S. Nationals) POWs, because historians cannot determine how many prisoners blended in with the civilian population and escaped. The march went from Mariveles, Bataan, to San Fernando, Pampanga. From San Fernando, survivors were loaded to a box train and were brought to Camp O’Donnell in Capas, Tarlac.
The 60 mi (97 km) march was characterized by occasional severe physical abuse. It was later judged by an Allied military commission to be a Japanese war crime.
Starting on April 9, 1942, prisoners were stripped of their weapons and valuables, and told to march to Balanga, the capital of Bataan. Some were beaten, bayoneted, and mistreated. The first major atrocity occurred when between 350 and 400 Filipino-American officers and NCOs were summarily executed near the Pantingan river after they had surrendered. (A recent historian has dismissed the Pantingan massacre, accepting General Homma’s defense counsel’s argument that no bodies were ever found; however, the bodies were disinterred in mid 1946, well after the conclusion of Homma’s trial.) This massacre has been attributed to Japanese army officer, Masanobu Tsuji, who acted against Homma’s wish that the prisoners be transferred peacefully. Tsuji intended to kill many of the prisoners, and he gave orders to this end.
POWs received little food or water, and some died along the way from heat or exhaustion. Some POWs drank water from filthy water buffalo wallows on the side of the road. Some Japanese troops, products of a culture that prized order above all, lost control during the chaos that defined the March and beat or bayoneted prisoners who began to fall behind, or were unable to walk. Some POWs, however, were allowed water and several hundred rode to Camp O’Donnell in trucks. Once the surviving prisoners arrived in Balanga, the overcrowded conditions and poor hygiene caused dysentery and other diseases to rapidly spread. The Japanese failed to provide the prisoners with medical care, leaving U.S. medical personnel to tend to the sick and wounded (with few or no supplies).
In a 2001 commemorative speech in front of the United States House of Representatives, Representative Dana Rohrabacher stated:
They were beaten, and they were starved as they marched. Those who fell were bayoneted. Some of those who fell were beheaded by Japanese officers who were practicing with their samurai swords from horseback. The Japanese culture at that time reflected the view that any warrior who surrendered had no honor; thus was not to be treated like a human being. Thus they were not committing crimes against human beings.[…] The Japanese soldiers at that time […] felt they were dealing with subhumans and animals.
Trucks drove over some of those who fell or succumbed to fatigue, and “cleanup crews” put to death those too weak to continue, though some trucks picked up some of those too fatigued to continue. Some marchers were harassed with random bayonet stabs and beatings.
From San Fernando, the prisoners were transported by rail to Capas. One hundred or more prisoners were stuffed into each of the trains’ boxcars, which were unventilated and sweltering in the tropical heat. The trains had no sanitation facilities, and disease continued to take a heavy toll on the prisoners. After they reached Capas, they were forced to walk the final 9 miles to Camp O’Donnell. Even after arriving at Camp O’Donnell, the survivors of the march continued to die at rates of up to several hundred per day, leading to about 1,600 American, and as many as 20,000 Filipino dead. Most of the dead were buried in mass graves the Japanese dug out with bulldozers on the outside of the barbed wire surrounding the compound.
The death toll of the march is difficult to assess as thousands of captives were able to escape from their guards (although many were killed during their escapes), and it is not known how many died in the fighting that was taking place concurrently.
Wartime public responses
It was not until January 27, 1944, that the U.S. government informed the American public about the march, when it released sworn statements of military officers who had escaped from the march. Shortly thereafter the stories of these officers were featured in a LIFE magazine article. The Bataan Death March and other Japanese actions were used to arouse fury in the United States.
General George Marshall made the following statement about the march:
These brutal reprisals upon helpless victims evidence the shallow advance from savagery which the Japanese people have made. […] We serve notice upon the Japanese military and political leaders as well as the Japanese people that the future of the Japanese race itself, depends entirely and irrevocably upon their capacity to progress beyond their aboriginal barbaric instincts.
In an attempt to counter the American propaganda value of the march, the Japanese had The Manila Times claim that the prisoners were treated humanely and their death rate had to be attributed to the intransigence of the American commanders who did not surrender until their men were on the verge of death.
War crimes trial
In December 1943, (General) Masaharu Homma was selected as the minister of information for the incoming prime minister, Kuniaki Koiso. In September 1945, he was arrested by Allied troops and indicted for war crimes. Homma was charged with 43 different counts of crimes against humanity. The court found that Homma had permitted his troops to commit “brutal atrocities and other high crimes”. The general, who had been absorbed in his efforts to capture Corregidor after the fall of Bataan, claimed in his defense that he remained ignorant of the high death toll of the death march until two months after the event. On February 26, 1946, he was sentenced to death by firing squad. He was executed on April 3, 1946, outside Manila.
Also in Japan, Generals Hideki Tōjō (later Prime Minister), Kenji Doihara, Seishirō Itagaki, Heitarō Kimura, Iwane Matsui, and Akira Mutō, along with Baron Kōki Hirota, were found guilty and responsible for the brutal maltreatment of American and Filipino POWs, and were executed by hanging at Sugamo Prison in Ikebukuro on December 23, 1948. Several others were sentenced to imprisonment between 7 and 22 years.
Post-war commemorations, apologies, and memorials
In 2012, film producer Jan Thompson created a film documentary about the Death March, POW camps, and Japanese hell ships titled Never the Same: The Prisoner-of-War Experience. The film reproduced scenes of the camps and ships showed drawings and writings of the prisoners, and featured Loretta Swit as the narrator.
On September 13, 2010, Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada apologized to a group of six former American soldiers who during World War II were held as prisoners of war by the Japanese, including 90-year-old Lester Tenney and Robert Rosendahl, both survivors of the Bataan Death March. The six, their families, and the families of two deceased soldiers were invited to visit Japan at the expense of the Japanese government.
Dozens of memorials (including monuments, plaques, and schools) dedicated to the prisoners who died during the Bataan Death March exist across the United States and in the Philippines. A wide variety of commemorative events are held to honor the victims, including holidays, athletic events such as ultramarathons, and memorial ceremonies held at military cemeteries.
The Bataan Death March had a large impact on the state of New Mexico, given that many of the U.S. soldiers in Bataan were from New Mexico, specifically from the 200th/515th Coast Artillery of the National Guard. The New Mexico National Guard Bataan Memorial Museum is located in the Armory where the soldiers of the 200th and 515th were processed before their deployment to the Philippines in 1941. Every year, in early spring, the Bataan Memorial Death March, a 26.2-mile march/run is conducted at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. In about 2012, there were fewer than 1,000 survivors of the March still living.