The day after the Japanese attacked the US Naval Base in Pearl Harbour in Hawaii on 7th December 1941, their troops invaded the Philippines. Within a month Manila was occupied, and the Filipino and American troops became isolated on the Bataan peninsula where pitched battles raged on and off for 3 months, before the Filipino and US troops, dehydrated, starving, sick and worn out, surrendered on 9th April 1942 – the event now known as the ‘Fall of Bataan’.
Somewhere around 70,000 (including 12,000 from USA) allied troops were then subjected to the humiliation of being marched as prisoners for a minimum of 5 days, most from Mariveles and some from Bagac, all the way to San Fernando – some 100 kilometres. From there they were squashed like sardines into enclosed and very hot rail cars and trained to Capas, in Tarlac Province, before a final 11 kilometres walk to Camp O’Donnell. This was the prison in which tens of thousands died over the next 40 months due to continuing starvation, disease and dehydration.
The background to this shameful period during the 2nd World War (1939-45) was the fact that the Japanese soldier was a very proud individual, and had been deeply instilled with the belief that it was entirely honourable to die in battle, rather than to live with absolute dishonour after surrender to an enemy. With this philosophy in mind, the Japanese troops treated the surrendered Filipino and American forces with extreme dishonour, and thousands of hideous tales have subsequently been told of the shameful treatment of the fallen allied prisoners at the hands of the Japanese troops in charge of the event which rightfully became known as the Bataan Death March.
On the march, when prisoners were weak and worn out and fell down or fell behind, Japanese soldiers bayonetted some, and shot others. Beheadings were recorded, and it became known that over the 5 or more day walk the prisoners were only fed with rice on one occasion, and drinking water was very scarce.. Stronger prisoners were disallowed from helping the weaker ones. When Japanese troops found Japanese items like money in the pockets of the prisoners, they reacted with vengeance and killed those who had such items on their person. The true numbers of deaths on the Death March are not known, but some estimates believe that up to 2,500 Filipinos and 500 Americans died or were killed during that vengeful period during the month of April in 1942. It is all a very sad reflection of the viciousness and wicked dehumanising affect of warfare.
In February 1945 Filipino and American troops recaptured the Bataan Peninsula after pitched battles, and by early March Manila was liberated. Finally the Japanese surrendered and the war in the Philippines was over, although one Japanese soldier held his ground till 1976 (31 years after the 2nd WW had ended) on Sabang Island north of Mindoro, believing that the war was still going on – perhaps a hideous reflection of that depth of honour that epitomised the ugly events of the Bataan Death March.
The Bataan Death March was declared as a ‘war crime’, and General Homma Masaharu, the leader of the Japanese invasion forces into the Philippines was held responsible and executed by firing squad on 3rd April 1946.
Bataan Day is again upon us on 9th April, and the Bataan Death March of April 1942 shall never be forgotten on these shores were so many gave up their lives in the on-going struggle to free the Philippines from warfare and occupation. Long Live the Philippines!
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