The Tragedy of Bataan, a forgotten battle

Roundup: Talking About History

[Tenney, a resident of Carlsbad, is a survivor of the Bataan Death March and three-and-a-half years as a Japanese prisoner of war.]

On April 9, 1942, Gen. Douglas MacArthur's Armed Forces in the Far East was forced to surrender Bataan to the Japanese, this in spite of his orders of April 3 demanding that no surrender be considered and, if ultimately necessary, to “charge the enemy. Make one last stand.” He likened the situation to Gen. George Custer's last stand at Little Bighorn in 1876, except MacArthur was not there for the onslaught that followed.

On that memorable day 66 years ago on Bataan, 12,000 American service men and women, along with 57,500 Filipino troops, were ordered by Major Gen. Edward King, the commander of all fighting forces on Bataan, to surrender to the Japanese Imperial Army. This was the largest military defeat in the history of the United States, yet it has gone largely unnoticed and forgotten all these years.

Yes, the date has been all but lost. Few remember it or the circumstances that led to the defeat of a once-proud army – except the survivors of this catastrophic event.

Let's retrace a few of the events of that period.

Military records show that on Jan. 15, 1942, MacArthur was quoted as saying to his men, “Help is on the way from the United States ... Thousands of troops and hundreds of planes are being dispatched.” He added, “Our supplies are ample,” and he told his men on Bataan to hold out until aid came. “Any day now,” he said. And, like a faithful dog, all of the fighting men and women on Bataan believed him.

Only days later, on Jan. 24, MacArthur realized the fall of Bataan was inevitable and ordered all stocks of food and ammunition on Bataan be transferred to the island fortress known as Corregidor. It was decided that when Bataan fell, the surviving troops would be transferred to Corregidor, which military leaders believed could not be penetrated. (On May 6, Corregidor fell to the Japanese and 4,000 of our troops were taken by boat to Manila and then on to their first prison camp, Cabanatuan.)

But no troops were transferred from Bataan because they had managed to prevent Japan from breaking through the last line of defense. All well and good, except all the food and ammunition had already been transferred to Corregidor. So as time marched on, the meager supply of food was quickly devoured, which left only horses, mules, monkeys, iguanas, snakes, bananas and pineapples for the daily diet. By this time, the average ration for the troops dropped to just 1,700 calories a day, not enough to sustain a rigorous soldier.

On April 3, the Japanese launched a full attack against the forces on Bataan. But despite the critical situation, MacArthur, in Australia, sent orders to Gen. Jonathan Wainwright, in command of all forces in the Philippines: “I am utterly opposed under any circumstances or conditions to the ultimate capitulation of this command. If food fails, you will prepare and execute an attack upon the enemy.” President Franklin Roosevelt agreed with MacArthur and issued his own “no surrender” orders. On April 4, Wainwright forwarded the orders to Gen. King.

April 8, the Americans and Filipinos could fight no longer. As the Japanese approached, King sadly concluded he had no alternative but to surrender....

Now, after all these years, let them come after me. I guess that was why I was destined to come home, to keep the memory alive and the story accurate.

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