Manila, Occupied Philippines May 6, 1942

On December 8, 1941, Japanese forces invaded the Philip­pines, a largely self-governing U.S. pos­ses­sion. (Decem­ber 8, Manila and Japa­nese time, was the same date Japa­nese car­rier-based planes attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in a set of inter­locked assaults on U.S. mili­tary assets in the Paci­fic region.) The com­bined U.S.-Filipino force led by 61‑year-old Gen. Douglas Mac­Arthur could not check the Japa­nese advance and with­drew onto the Bataan Penin­sula, across the bay from the Philip­pine capital Manila, where they held out until April 1942. Nearly 80,000 U.S. and Fili­pino troops went into Japa­nese cap­tiv­ity, many of them mur­dered or dying from ex­haus­tion, dehy­dra­tion, expo­sure, and the bru­tal treat­ment by their captors on the sub­se­quent four-day, 80‑mile “death march” out of Bataan to inland prison camps.

The last-ditch U.S. stronghold, the tad­pole-shaped “rock” of Cor­reg­idor in Manila Bay, finally sur­ren­dered its booty of 16,000 Amer­i­can and Fili­pino sol­diers on this date in 1942. The drawn-out fight in the Philip­pines forced Japan to com­mit more troops than 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 (Indo­ne­sia), which surrendered on March 9, 1942.

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). 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 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 II was waged across the Philip­pines. Nearly 80,000 Amer­i­cans and Fili­pinos 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 islands 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 surrender Bataan Death March route 1942

Left: American and Filipino troops surrender to Japa­nese in­vaders on Bataan. 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. Gen. Mac­Arthur and his family escaped Japa­nese capture, evac­u­ated on March 11, 1942, from Cor­reg­idor Island aboard a fast tor­pedo boat. Six days later he landed safely on Aus­tra­lian soil. Upon his arrival in Aus­tra­lia, Mac­Arthur gave a speech in which he famously promised “I shall return” to the Philip­pines. On June 18, 1942, Presi­dent Frank­lin D. Roose­velt appointed Mac­Arthur Supreme Allied Com­man­der, South West Pacific Area (SWPA). Twenty-eight months later, on Octo­ber 20, 1944, at Palo, Leyte, the four-star general made good on his promise.

Right: Route taken during the Bataan Death March. Section from San Fer­nando to Capas was by rail, and from there to Camp O’Don­nell 9 miles further by foot or truck. Another POW camp was located near Cabana­tuan City, where as many as 8,000 Amer­i­can and other Allied POWs and civilians were imprisoned.

POWs on Bataan 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 100–650 Amer­i­can pri­soners of war died from thirst, wounds, dis­ease, and 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. 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 threatment 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.)

The Bataan Death March and Prisoner of War Camps

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