Death March

Death March

Seventy years ago on April 9, 1942, the Imperial Japanese Army forced over 70,000 Filipino and American prisoners of war to march from Mariveles, Bataan to San Fernando, Pampanga 88 km. away, then by rail to Capas and finally 13 km. march to Camp O’Donnell. This event has become known in history as the infamous Bataan Death March because only 54,000 reached the camp with almost 10,000 dying along the way and the rest escaping into the wilderness.

This was early in the Second World War. Ten hours after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 8, 1941, the Philippines was invaded by the Imperial Army.
Initial air raids were followed by Japanese ground forces landing in Manila. The Philippines as a territory of the United States had American and Philippine troops defending it. General Douglas MacArthur was recalled to active duty to lead the defense. The superior forces of Japan caused the defenders to withdraw to Bataan and Corregidor at the entrance to Manila Bay. Four months later, Bataan surrendered in April, 1942 and Corregidor in May. Manila, declared an open city, was already in the hands of the Japanese.

The long march was characterized by random vicious physical abuse and murder of helpless prisoners and local civilians who took pity and tried to help. Many died of starvation because the Japanese were not prepared to capture so many prisoners and food and drink were very scarce – so much so that the prisoners scramble for the filthy roadside water where the carabaos wallowed. Those unable to carry on were either bayoneted or shot on the spot.

Japan was in serious violation of the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of victims of war. Witness accounts of survivors include arbitrary beating, bayoneting and even beheading of fallen marchers by Japanese officers practicing their samurai swords from horsebacks. It might be said that Japanese culture then considered a defeated warrior as without honor and need not be treated as human. In the rail cars from Capas to Camp O’Donnell, prisoners were packed like animals causing hundreds to die from heat, disease, starvation and exhaustion.

After the war, an Allied military commission judged the whole atrocity as a Japanese war crime. Since the commander of the Japanese invasion forces was Lieutenant General Masaharu Homma, he was put on trial and charged with the responsibility for the death march. The commission held its court in Manila in January-February, 1946. General Homma was judged guilty, sentenced to death and executed just outside of Manila.

During the past year, the daughter of a survivor, California playwright Cecilia Ilano Gaerlan had been giving lectures on the Fall of Bataan and the Bataan Death March to instill an awareness of this atrocity. She was appalled at how little present-day Filipino-Americans know of the tragic events. She has written the novel In Her Mother’s Image based partly on her family’s experiences during World War II. It is available as an e-book or a paperback.

“War is Hell.” as General William Tecumseh Sherman said in a speech during the American Civil War in the 1860s. Indeed, every protagonist nation throughout history has committed atrocities and inhuman actions especially when it has the power and means to do so. The Balangiga Massacre in southern Samar by occupying American forces was an example I wrote about some time ago. The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by atomic bombs is certainly inhuman but justified by the Americans as the only way to end the Second World War, The My Lai Massacre of over 300 unarmed Vietnamese civilians including many women and children by the “Charlie” Company of the first U. S. Battalion in 1968 during the Vietnam War was inhuman. Thirty soldiers were court-martialed but only the platoon leader Lt. William L. Calley was convicted. He was sentenced to life imprisonment but later reduced to ten years and paroled after four years. This event added fuel to the anti-war movement.

The massacre of 17 Afghan civilians including many women and children in Kandahar just last month by U. S. staff sergeant Robert Bales was an atrocity. The 38-year-old American soldier is back in the States charged with seventeen counts of murder. It is said that he had a criminal record before joining the army but some claim that the stresses of war can cause a man to lose his sanity.

There are, of course, hundreds of inhuman massacres throughout history: the massacres of native Indians of American settlers and vice versa, the massacre of Danes in early England, the massacre of Jews in WW II and at other times, the massacre of Armenians by Russians, the massacre of one African tribe of another, etc.
To quote George Santayana, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.