Unlike the surprise attack the Imperial Japanese Navy launched against Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Japanese military assault against the Philippines was immediately followed by a ground invasion. Overwhelming in its ferocity, the Japanese army initiated its main campaign in late December 1941. Although it required four months for Japanese troops to conquer the islands, its American and Filipino defenders were later forced to endure a 65-mile march into captivity, to become known as the Bataan Death March.
Landing troops on several strategic spots on the archipelago in December 1941, combined U.S.-Filipino forces staged a valiant defense of the islands, but were forced to continually re-draw defense lines until they were forced back into the narrow defensive position in the Bataan Peninsula on the western side of the country in March 1942. Huddled in a corner, with food, ammunition, and medical supplies exhausted, the Allied forces under Major General Jonathan Wainwright finally capitulated to General Masaharu Homma on April 9.
Initially startled at the vast number of troops surrendering, in sum 80,000 allied troops, 12,000 of which were American servicemen, Homma established a central collection point at Balanga, Bataan, and ordered his army to oversee captives’ delivery to Camp O’Donnell, some 40 miles to the north. Despite the widespread belief prisoners were compelled into a 65-mile march, the movement of captives alternatively included a foot march from Bagac and Mariveles to the east where prisoners were massed at Balanga, and orders to march along the coast north to the San Fernando railhead, some 24-miles to the north. Upon reaching the San Fernando rail depot, prisoners were herded into box cars for an 18-mile rail journey to Capas. The last stop, prisoners marched the final seven miles to the prison camp. This method of transportation, however, did not minimize the brutality inflicted on prisoners, as many died in sweltering rail cars during the journey.
Setting forth on April 10, 11, along the way prisoners suffered routine ill treatment, were deprived of food and water, and obligated to march until exhaustion. Prisoners were allowed rare and brief rests; however, orders to march quickly followed. Forced to cope with the cruelty of their captors, many endured random beatings. Those who fell out of line were greeted by what was later termed “murder squads,” roving groups of Japanese soldiers tasked with “clean up” of prisoners unable to keep pace. Beheadings were common; a crackle of gunfire in the distance signaled “murder squads” had felled another victim. Those who did not succumb to physical torture were often either subdued by the elements or disease; others endured the sadism of Japanese guards and survived.
Included in five-day ordeal were grim reminders of what would become the reality of Japanese occupation: Corpses hanging from trees, bombed out hospitals, gutted human carcasses along the roadside, small towns razed by the new Japanese overlords, and the smoldering ruins of larger cities laid waste by relentless Japanese air attacks.
Reaching their final destination five days later, of the 80,000 captives who arrived at Camp O’Donnell, estimates place American deaths along the march at 500-650 and Filipino deaths at between 5,000-15,000. 1,500 Americans would meet their end at Camp O’Donnell before American troops would liberate the prison in 1944.
A grim chronicle carefully hidden by War Department censors, only the account of one escapee, Lieutenant Colonel William Dyess, reached publication during the war in January 1944.
Following the Japanese surrender in September 1945, Homma, who had been living quietly in retirement in Japan since 1943, was arrested, extradited to the Philippines, tried and convicted for his role in the brutal and inhumane treatment of prisoners of war.
He was executed in Manila on April 3, 1946.