Bataan, Corregidor, and the Death March:
The poet is unknown.
It is inscribed on the monument to the Pacific War Dead, in Corregidor, Philippines.
Each May 6th, the sun is in such a position that it's rays fall into the center
of the monument, exactly at noon.
article was submitted by Richard M. Gordon of Burnt Hills, NY, who writes,
"While numerous articles have been written on Bataan, Corregidor, and 'The
Death March,' I believe that my article dispels several myths found in other
writings…I am a firm believer in historical accuracy. The myth concerning who
was on the Bataan Death March must be dispelled." Gordon was a defender of
Bataan, a survivor of the Death March, Camps O'Donnell, and Cabanatuan. He is writing a book on his
experiences in the Philippines
from October 1940 to October 1945, when he was liberated in Japan.
The recollection of
these historic events should elicit memories of the early dark days of World
War II. Our fleet had just been crippled at Pearl Harbor.
Hong Kong and Singapore
had fallen. Whatever the Japanese military had touched "turned to
gold." The one bright spot in those dismal days was the Philippine
Islands, where Americans and Filipinos were making a stand on Bataan,
Corregidor, and the southern islands of the Philippines. Such resistance would
disrupt the Japanese military timetable of the conquest of the South Pacific
and gain valuable time for the United States
to recover from Japan's
Each event, however,
was different from the other and the difference often spelled life or death for
the participants. Bataan was not synonymous with Corregidor,
mistaken belief to the contrary. As a result of this error for the past 40-odd
years, many have assumed Bataan, Corregidor,
and the Death March to be interrelated. Corregidor had very little relationship
with Bataan; it had no connection with the
Death March whatsoever. Such a mistaken belief has been spawned by numerous
An example of such
misinformation can be found in the writings of a noted historian, William
Manchester, author of "American Caesar," a biography of General
Douglas MacArthur. Manchester is widely accepted
as a "meticulous researcher," yet he commits an unforgivable sin in
his writing on the subject of Corregidor. In
his book, Manchester writes, "On May 6, a
terrible silence fell over Corregidor. White
flags were raised from every flagstaff that was still standing and the
triumphant Japanese moved their eleven thousand captives to Bataan.
The next day began the brutal Death March."
Aside from the error
in the number of prisoners taken on Corregidor, Manchester made several glaring mistakes in the
above quote. Error number one, the captives were not taken to Bataan, but,
instead, to Manila,
where they were forced to march through the streets of that city to impress the
Filipino with the might of the Japanese military forces. Error number two by Manchester: When Corregidor fell on May 6, 1942, the last
of the Death Marchers had already entered the hellhole called Camp O'Donnell
on April 24, 1942, twelve days before the surrender of Corregidor.
The POWs, from the Death March, arrived in Camp O'Donnell
everyday from April 12, 1942 up to April 24, 1942. After the 24th of April, a
few scattered groups did arrive. Error number three: Captives on Corregidor did
not leave the island for two weeks' time, pending the surrender of Fil-American
forces in the southern islands of the Philippines.
Manchester, however, is not alone in his
misconception of what occurred in the days following the fall of Bataan, and its subsequent Death March. In 1982, a joint
resolution of Congress, perhaps following Manchester's
writings of 1980, made the same mistake when honoring the men of Bataan and Corregidor who made the Death March. Obituaries of men
who were captured on Corregidor often indicate
that the individual made the Death March. Such information obviously comes from
the relatives of the deceased, who also were misinformed.
One can readily see
how powerful myths can be. Someone once said, "When history becomes
legend, print the legend." The Corregidor
garrison did not participate in the Death March, despite any belief to the
About 1,200 survivors
of Bataan are alive today. In perhaps ten
years, they will all be gone. Most, if not all, would like to leave behind them
the truth that was Bataan. To do less would
dishonor those men who died in both events.
April 9, 1989, has
been selected, as "Former Prisoner of War Day." Obviously that date
has been selected to recall the day that Bataan
fell, with the subsequent capture of the largest military force in US military
history. It is important, however, to point out that the "Battling
Bastards of Bataan" did not surrender, as some of us are prone to say, but
were surrendered. A vast difference exists between the two terms. In fairness
to the men of Bataan, and Corregidor, the
difference must be emphasized. Specific orders were given to the Bataan garrison to surrender. Initially, some commanders
refused to do so and were threatened with court-martial if they failed to obey
a lawful order.
The reasons for the
surrender order, given by Major General Edward P. King, commanding officer of
the forces on Bataan, were many. Time and
space do not allow a lengthy explanation of the situation that compelled
General King to give such an order. Suffice to say that only two days' rations
for his troops remained. Medication to treat the countless number of Bataan defenders suffering from the deleterious effects
of malaria were exhausted. Ammunition of every type was about to run out. Weak,
diseased, starving soldiers lacked the physical strength to mount a
counter-attack ordered by General Jonathan Wainwright, on Corregidor.
Continuous aerial bombardment and artillery barrages for several consecutive
days, unanswered, had left the men of Bataan
reeling like a prize fighter who had absorbed too many punches. To prevent a
"slaughter" of his troops, General King opted to surrender. Later, in
a gathering of his men in prison, Camp
O'Donnell, King told
them, "You did not surrender, I did. That responsibility is mine and mine
To begin to understand
the fall of Bataan and the aftermath, the
Death March, one must know what led to its fall. When the Japanese invaded the
Philippine Islands in December 1941, with their 14th Army consisting of two
full divisions (the 16th and 18th), five anti-aircraft battalions, three
engineering regiments, two tank regiments, and one battalion of medium
artillery, led by Lt. General Masaharu Homma, they faced a defending force of
ten divisions of the Philippine Army. Numerically speaking, the advantage
belonged to the defenders. What appears to be an advantage, however, was in
reality a disadvantage: one that hastened the fall of Bataan
and one that contributed to thousands of deaths in O'Donnell's prison camp.
At the end of the
first week in December 1941, the Philippine forces consisted of 20,000 regulars
and 100,000 totally raw reservists, most of who were called to the colors
within the three months preceding the war. The training of their artillerymen,
so vital in any military action, did not take place until after the outbreak of
hostilities. Many of these troops were illiterate and lacked the ability to
communicate with each other. The enlisted men spoke their native dialect,
depending on the area they were from; the officers spoke English, Spanish, or
the so-called national language, Tagalog. Unfortunately, Tagalog was spoken
mainly in and around Manila,
the country's capital. Weapons such as the British Enfield rifle of World War I
were obsolete. Uniforms consisted of fiber helmets (the men were never issued
steel helmets), canvas shoes, short-sleeve shirts, and short pants, hardly
suitable for the jungles of Bataan and their
surprisingly cold nights.
In addition to the
Philippine Army, Bataan's forces consisted of 11,796 Americans and several
regiments of Philippine Scouts who had been part of the United States Army in
for many years prior to the war. These were magnificent soldiers, well trained,
loyal, and dedicated to the war effort. Led by American officers, they
repeatedly distinguished themselves in the four months of combat. Adding to the
number of military in Bataan were civilians
who fled the advancing Japanese. They entered Bataan
of their own free will, yet they had to be fed from military supplies.
Forced to feed such a
large number of military and civilians, food became an immediate and critical
problem to the command. Tons of precious rice were left in the warehouses upon
the withdrawal into Bataan and were destroyed
by the Japanese. Americans accustomed to "stateside chow" found
themselves (mid-January) on half-rations along with the Filipino soldiers. A
month later, these rations were cut again (1,000 calories per day) and
consisted of rice and fish, or what little meat could be found. Most of the
meat came from the horses and mules of the 26th Cavalry, Philippine Scouts, or
the Philippine beast of burden, the carabao, or water buffalo. Occasionally
monkeys, snakes, ECT, supplemented the diet. Malaria ran rampant in Bataan, one of the most heavily mosquito-infested areas
in the world at that time. Medication to offset the effects of that disease
began to disappear early in the campaign.
On April 3, 1942,
General Homma finally launched his long-awaited (by both the Japanese high
command and the Americans) final push to crush the Philippines. He easily broke
through the final line of resistance of the Fil-American troops on Bataan, but he did so because of the deplorable state of
the defending forces facing him.
Food supplies stored
on Corregidor often never found their way to the front lines of Bataan, being stolen by hungry rear area troops while the
food was enroute in trucks. Hijacking became a common practice along the way.
Here may be found the first difference between Bataan and Corregidor.
Corregidor troops did not go hungry until
their capture by the Japanese. Consequently, the men of Corregidor
entered captivity in relatively good health and with very few cases of malaria
Such differences were
to have a major impact on who was to survive the prison camps that were to
follow. Comparing rosters of units serving on Bataan and Corregidor, it was
determined that the chances of surviving imprisonment were two in three, if
captured on Corregidor, and one in three if captured on Bataan, an obvious
substantiation of the differences between the two groups at the time of their
On Corregidor, there
were 15,000 American and Filipino troops, consisting of anti-aircraft and
coastal defenses, along with the Fourth Marine Regiment, recently arrived from
China (December 1941), less a detachment stationed on Bataan, as part of a
Naval Battalion. Despite some writings to the contrary, again dealing in
"legends," the Fourth Marine Regiment did not participate in the
defense of Bataan. Their mission was beach
defense on Corregidor. Approximately 43
Marines arrived in Camp
completing the Death March.
Of the 11,796 American
soldiers on Bataan on April 3,1942, about 1,500 remained wounded or sick in Bataan's two field hospitals after the surrender. Others,
relatively few, made their way across the two miles of shark-infested waters to
Corregidor, where they were assigned to beach
defense. About 9,300 Americans reached Camp O'Donnell
after completing the Death March. About 600-650 Americans died on the March. Of
the 66,000 Filipino troops, Scouts, Constabulary and Philippine Army units, it
can be said the approximately 2,500 of them remained in the hospitals of
Bataan; about 1,700 of them escaped to Corregidor, and a small number of them
remained on Bataan as work details for the Japanese after the surrender.
Those captured on
Bataan on or about April 9,1942, were in the general area of the town of Mariveles, at the southern tip of the Bataan
peninsula. Large fields outside this town were used as staging areas for the
thousands of captives, American and Filipino, gathered together.
Mass confusion reigned
in these areas and when darkness fell, it became impossible to recognize
anyone. In a brief period of time buddies were soon separated and, in many cases,
never to see one another again. Two friends from the same unit entered one of
these fields and did not know of each other's survival for over 40 years.
Each morning, groups
of several hundred would be hustled out on Bataan's, one time, concrete road
(National Road) leading north out of the peninsula and began the exodus to
prison camp. No design or plans for the group ever materialized. Each sunrise,
shouting, shooting, bayoneting, by Japanese, would assemble anyone they could
to make up the marching groups.
As a result,
individuals generally found themselves among perfect strangers, even if they
were fellow Americans. Consequently, a "dog eat dog, every man for
himself" attitude soon prevailed. Few helped one another on the March.
Those belonging to the same military unit were fortunate, with their buddies
helping when needed.
During one group's
march, volunteers were sought to carry a stretcher containing a colonel wounded
in both legs and unable to walk. Four men offered to help. After hours of carrying
the man in a scorching hot sun with no stops and no water, they asked for
relief from other marchers. No one offered to pick up the stretcher. Soon, the
original four bearers, put down the man and went off on their own. The colonel
was last seen by the side of the road begging to be carried by anyone.
After the first day of
marching, without food or water, men began to drop out of column. Japanese
guards would rush up, shouting commands in Japanese to get back in the group.
When that approach failed, shots rang, out killing those who would not or could
not rise. Many of those failing to obey the order to march were beheaded by
sword wielding-Japanese guards, usually officers and non-coms.
Such actions on the
part of the Japanese brought many captives to their feet and they continued the
march for awhile longer. As each day and night passed without water, the
marchers began to break from their group to run to anything that resembled
water. Most often they would hurl themselves into a water puddle alongside of
the road and lap up, similar to a cat lapping milk from a saucer, the so-called
water. The puddles were used by the carabao to coat themselves with mud as a
protection against the huge flies constantly about them. Upon rising from the
puddle, the water would assume a "clear" state. Needless to say, the
water was not potable and drinking of it soon brought on cramps, diarrhea, and
eventually dysentery caused by the numerous flies found in the puddle. Such
acts continued for each day of the March, lasting from five to ten days,
depending upon where one joined the March, and continued until the marchers
reached the town of San Fernando, Pampanga, P.I., a distance for most marchers
of over 100 kilometers.
Upon reaching San Fernando, the prisoners were forced into 1918 model
railroad boxcars (40X8) used in France
during World War I. With over 100 men in each car, the Japanese then closed the
doors on the prisoners. There was no room to sit down or fall down. Men died in
the sweltering cars. Upon arriving in Capas, Tarlac, almost four hours later,
the men detrained for Camp
O'Donnell, another ten
estimate that between 44,000 and 50,000 of the Filipinos arrived at O'Donnell
after completing the March. Between 12,000 and 18,000 of their number are
unaccounted for. What happened to them is unknown, but a safe guess is that
between 5,000 to 10,000 of them lost their lives on the Death March. The death
toll for both Filipinos and Americans, however, did not cease upon reaching O'Donnell.
Instead, during the first forty days of that camp's existence, more that 1,500
Americans were to die. At least 25,000 Filipinos died by July 1942 in the same
camp. All of the deaths were the direct result of malnutrition on Bataan, disease, and the atrocities committed by the
Japanese on the March.
Shortly after the last
of these prisoners entered O'Donnell (April 24,1942), Corregidor
fell on May 6. Battered by constant shell fire from Bataan and aerial
bombardment, with their supplies running out, Wainwright, successor to
MacArthur as commanding officer of the United
States forces in the Philippines,
decided his situation was hopeless and surrendered Corregidor and the troops in
the southern part of the Philippines.
With the establishing of a beach head on Corregidor
by the Japanese, he avoided a "bloodbath" that would have most
certainly occurred had the Japanese fought their way from the beach to Malinta
Tunnel, where most of the defenders of the island had withdrawn.
After two weeks of the
famous Japanese "sun treatment" for prisoners, in the sun-baked areas
of Corregidor, these troops were taken across Manila Bay to Manila and then by
train to Prison camp Cabanatuan, Cabanatuan, P.I. The men were in that camp
when the Bataan survivors arrived from Camp O'Donnell
in June 1942. The extremely high death rate in that camp prompted the Japanese
to make such a move, and thereby allowed the American medical personnel to
treat the Filipino prisoners remaining behind until their release beginning in
July 1942. The condition of the prisoners arriving in Cabanatuan
was such as to shock their fellow Americans from Corregidor.
In a short period of time, however, they, too, would feel the full effects of
It was not, however,
until June 1942 that the men of Bataan and Corregidor
began to share a common experience. During the first nine months of Cabanatuan's existence, when the vast majority of the
camp's 3,000 American deaths occurred, most of the deaths were men of Bataan,
still suffering from the effects of Bataan, the Death March, and Camp O'Donnell.
That the men of Corregidor were more
fortuitous than their fellow Americans in avoiding starvation, pestilence, and
atrocities up to this point is beyond question.
It is the author's
hope that by this writing we have contributed to the dispelling of some myths,
provided some insight, and recognized those who died on Bataan,
and its subsequent Death March. If we leave nothing else behind us, when we
leave this earth, let us at least leave behind the truth that was Bataan. Americans on both Bataan and Corregidor share one
common bond: they were both prisoners of the Japanese, but so were those
captured on Wake Island and elsewhere in the
South Pacific. Each group played a distinctive, vital role in World War II.
Maj. Richard M. Gordon
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