Kinue Tokudome: The Bataan Death March and the 66-Year Struggle for Justice

Roundup: Talking About History

[Kinue Tokudome is a Japanese writer. She has contributed articles to Japan Focus on the Japanese military comfort women and on US POWs.]

April 9, 2008 marks the 66th anniversary of the fall of Bataan which resulted in the largest surrender by the United States Army in its history. Over 77,000 American and Filipino troops were to become victims of one of the most brutal episodes in the Pacific War—the Bataan Death March.

The March: Beginning of the Ordeal

In 1941, the Filipino people were already promised independence from the United States, which had seized the islands nation from Spain during the Spanish-American War. But with the Japanese expansion to Southeast Asia beginning to pose a threat, Gen. Douglas MacArthur was recalled to active duty to prepare for a possible Japanese attack. When the attack did come, MacArthur’s initial plan to halt the Japanese invasion at the beaches failed. As a result, tens of thousands of US troops who retreated to Bataan, the peninsula in central Luzon, did not have enough food or medicine to sustain their fight. MacArthur, who moved his headquarters from Manila to the island of Corregidor across Bataan, continued to send orders: never surrender.

Then on March 12, 1942, he escaped to Australia. This left the men in Bataan to keep fighting until their ammunition, food, and medicine ran out, upsetting the Japanese timetable for victory and giving the United States precious time to recover from the Pearl Harbor attack. By the time more than 11,000 American and 66,000 Filipino soldiers surrendered on April 9, 1942, they were starving and most were stricken with malaria, beriberi or dysentery. “Thousands of troops and hundreds of planes” that MacArthur had assured them were on the way to rescue them never arrived.

Bataan Death March survivor Lester Tenney of the 192nd Tank Battalion wrote years later:

“In every battle there comes a time when one group of warriors must be sacrificed for the benefit of the whole…,” declared President Franklin D. Roosevelt during one of his fireside radio chats in March 1942. The battle he spoke of was the battle of the Philippines, and the warriors were those fighting American men and women on Bataan and Corregidor…. [1]

Then began the March. The Japanese military had no plan to systematically torture and murder the POWs. But it sought to move American and Filipino soldiers out of Bataan quickly so that it could immediately launch attacks on Corregidor. The Japanese soldiers also despised POWs who chose to surrender instead of fighting to death.

Bataan Death March survivor Glenn Frazier testified in the recently aired PBS documentary The War, “If we had known what was ahead of us at the beginning of the Bataan Death March, I would have taken death.” He described what happened next:

And they immediately started beating guys if they didn’t stand right or if they were sitting down. We didn’t know where we were going... And all our possessions were taken away from us. Some of them had rings that they just cut the fingers off, and take the rings. They poured the water out of my canteen to be sure that I didn’t have any, any water. I saw them buried alive. When a guy was bayoneted or shot, laying in the road and the convoys were coming along, I saw trucks that would just go out of their way to run over the guy in the middle of the road. And when by the time you have fifteen or twenty trucks run over you, look like a smashed tomato or something. And I saw people that had their throats cut because they would take their bayonets and stick it out through the corner of the truck at night and it would just be high enough to cut their throats. And beating with a rifle butt until there just was no more life in them. ...

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