Manila, Occupied Philippines May 6, 1942

On Monday, December 8, 1941, Japanese forces attacked the Philip­pines, a largely self-governing U.S. pos­ses­sion, formally known as the Common­wealth of the Philip­pines. (Decem­ber 8, Manila and Japa­nese time, was Sunday, Decem­ber 7, east of the Inter­na­tional Date Line, the day Japa­nese car­rier-based planes attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in a set of inter­locked assaults on U.S., British, and Dutch mili­tary assets in South­east Asia.) Led by 61‑year-old Gen. Douglas Mac­Arthur, the com­bined U.S.-Filipino ground force, 130,000 strong and the largest part of the U.S. Armed Forces in the Far East (USAFFE), could not check the Japa­nese naval and air onslaught (close to 70 per­cent of Mac­Arthur’s army con­sisted of raw Filipino recruits), so Mac­Arthur’s troops, armed with mostly rifles, machine guns, and hand gre­nades, with­drew onto the Bataan Penin­sula, a 530-square-mile finger of land across the bay from the Philip­pine capital Manila. There they held out until April 1942. Their fighting retreat, without naval and air support, was the longest and most gallant in U.S. mili­tary his­tory. Nearly 80,000 U.S. and Fili­pino men and women went into Japa­nese cap­tiv­ity, many of them mur­dered or dying from ex­haus­tion, dehy­dra­tion, expo­sure, and the bru­tal treat­ment by their captors on the sub­se­quent 5 to 10‑day, 80‑plus-mile “death march” out of Bataan to inland prison camps in Central Luzon. Those who sur­vived the march were doomed to live in deplorable conditions, some as slave laborers in Japan beginning as early as July 1942.

After a 4-month ordeal, the last-ditch U.S. stronghold, the tad­pole-shaped “rock” of Cor­reg­idor in Manila Bay, sur­ren­dered its booty of 14,000 Amer­i­cans and Fili­pinos, among them 19 gene­rals, on this date, May 6, 1942. The bitter, drawn-out fight in the Philip­pines, so infu­ri­ating to the invaders, inflicted heavy losses on both sides and forced Japan to send troop reinforce­ments, more equip­ment (artil­lery and mortars), and bombers than orig­i­nally planned to cap­ture an ob­jec­tive far less im­por­tant to their ambi­tions of securing the great min­er­al resources of British Malaya, over­whelmed in mid-Janu­ary 1942, and the Dutch East Indies (today’s Indo­ne­sia), which sur­ren­dered on March 9, 1942. Between Decem­ber 8, 1941, and May 8, 1942, the date the Phil­ip­pines cam­paign offi­cially ended, the U.S. lost an esti­mated 30,000 troops, the Fili­pinos about 80,000, and the Japanese an estimated 12,000.

In the months preceding the outbreak of hostil­i­ties, Japa­nese ex­pan­sionists and policy­makers had counted on the antic­i­pated suc­cesses of their early mili­tary oper­a­tions in South­east Asia to nudge the West­ern colo­nial powers to sue for peace after hostil­i­ties had broken out. When that didn’t happen, the san­guine apprai­sal of how Japan was going to win the Paci­fic War it had started morphed into anx­i­ety and later des­pair. Fully 80 per­cent of Japa­nese troops remained tied down in a ground war in China that Japan had started in 1937 (Second Sino-Japa­nese War), though many his­torians cur­ren­tly date the start of the ground war on the Chi­nese main­land to 1931 (Japa­nese con­quest of Man­chur­ia). The rest of the army and the Impe­rial Japa­nese Navy now had to con­tend with a mas­sive build­up of a revived U.S. Paci­fic Fleet, as well as con­verging attacks by U.S. and British Com­mon­wealth forces from one retaken Paci­fic island after another. In the end, the bushidō spirit (“warrior spirit”) that the Japa­nese fell back on as their for­tunes turned bleaker by the month could not trump the Allies’ supe­rior strength in finan­cial and natural resources, arma­ments, and fighting men, a com­bi­na­tion that secured the Allies victory over Japan in September 1945.

Some of the most vicious fighting anywhere in World War War War II was waged across the Philip­pines, an archi­pe­lago of 7,100 islands. Nearly 80,000 Amer­i­cans and Fili­pinos, half-starved, battle-weary, and wracked with dis­ease, were taken pri­soner on the Bataan Penin­sula, the name of which is for­ever linked with the noto­rious “death march.” During the three years that Japan occu­pied the archi­pe­lago, 130,000 Amer­i­can and Fili­pinos died. POWs in Japa­nese prison camps were 10 times more likely to die in cap­tivity as those in German camps. When U.S. troops returned to retake the Philip­pines begin­ning in Octo­ber 1944, they pre­ferred not to take any enemy pri­soners at all. Drawing hea­vily on first­hand accounts, Gerald Astor gives voice to the Marines, soldiers, sailors, and air­men who parti­ci­pated in this grue­some period of mili­tary history in Crisis in the Pacific: The Battles for the Philip­pine Islands by the Men Who Fought Them. Astor’s dra­matic nar­ra­tive brought home to me that the physi­cal and emo­tional costs of defeating the Japa­nese in the Pacific were as high, and pro­bably higher, as those incurred in defeating Nazism in Europe.—Norm Haskett

The 80-Mile Bataan Death March Began on April 9, 1942

Bataan death march: Bataan surrender, April 9, 1942Bataan Death March route 1942

Left: In a staged photograph by a Japanese camera­man, American and Filipino troops are shown surren­dering to Japa­nese in­vaders on Bataan Penin­sula. The three-month Battle of Bataan (Janu­ary 7 to April 9, 1942) resulted in the largest sur­ren­der in Amer­i­can and Fili­pino mili­tary his­tory, and was the largest U.S. sur­ren­der since the Amer­i­can Civil War. After a 77‑day resi­dence on the for­tress island of Cor­reg­idor (formally named Fort Mills) 2 miles south of Bataan, Gen. Mac­Arthur, his family, and a small group of staff officers escaped Japa­nese capture, evac­u­ated on March 11, 1942, aboard a fast tor­pedo boat. Six harrowing days later the very symbol of U.S. resis­tance to Japa­nese aggres­sion landed safely on Aus­tra­lian soil. Shortly after arriving Mac­Arthur gave a speech in which he famously vowed “I shall return” to the Philip­pines. On April 1, 1942, Presi­dent Frank­lin D. Roose­velt awarded Mac­Arthur the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest mili­tary deco­ra­tion, for his actions in the Philip­pines and 3‑1/2 months later, on June 18, appointed him Supreme Allied Com­man­der, South West Pacific Area (SWPA) with a single Aus­tra­lian and two U.S. divi­sions under his com­mand. Twenty-eight months later, on Octo­ber 20, 1944, at Palo, Leyte, the four-star general made good on his promise to return.

Right: Route taken during the aptly named Bataan Death March, April 9–15, 1942. (The march dragged on for seve­ral more days because of the thou­sands of pri­soners involved.) From Mari­veles on the tip of the Bataan Penin­sula, it was at least 31 miles by foot to the nearest rail­way depot in San Fer­nando. From San Fer­nando to Capas was 3 hours by rail cramped inside box­cars without ven­ti­la­tion, and from there to Camp O’Don­nell 9 miles further by foot or truck. A secon­dary POW camp was located near Cabana­tuan City, where as many as 8,000 Amer­i­can and other Allied POWs and civil­ians were impri­soned. April 9 is a special holi­day in the Philip­pines—“Araw ng Kagitingan,” or Day of Valor—which com­memo­rates the fall of Bataan and Corregidor to Japanese troops.

POWs on Bataan Death MarchBataan death march: Camp O’Donnell burial detail

Left: U.S. soldiers, their hands tied behind their backs, rest on the Bataan Death March to their prison camp at Cabana­tuan. Approx­i­mately 2,500–10,000 Fili­pino and between 100 to as high as 5,000 Amer­i­can POWs died from thirst, wounds, dis­ease (chiefly dysen­tery due to open latrines every­where and the mil­lions of flies around them), as well as their cap­tors’ savage mis­treat­ment, including executing stragglers, before they reached Camp O’Donnell.

Right: American and Filipino POWs, using im­pro­vised litters, carry the bodies of their com­rades who died shortly after their arrival at Camp O’Don­nell. Survi­vors of the march con­tinued to die at a rate of 30–50 per day, a total of 16,000 cap­tives, including 1,600 Amer­icans, over a 2‑month period. Rosedith Van Hoore­beck Hawkins, a U.S. Army nurse with the Thirty-Fifth General Hos­pital, described the sur­vi­vors of the camp’s libera­tion in 1945 this way: “The boys who’d been in the Bataan Death March came to us, and I’m telling you they were a mess. . . . They couldn’t eat so we just gave them liquids and soft foods. . . . Almost all of them had lost a foot or arm or leg. They’d had no medical treatment and had healed very badly.” (Quoted in Diane Burke Fessler, No Time for Fear: Voices of Ameri­can Military Nurses in World War II, p. 55.)

History Channel’s Bataan Death March. Includes Events Leading Up to March (Age-restricted video owing to graphic images)