The Japanese were unprepared for the number of prisoners they were responsible for, and there was no organized plan for handling them. Prisoners were stripped of their weapons and valuables, and told to march to Balanga, the capital of Bataan. Many were beaten, bayoneted, and mistreated. The first major atrocity occurred when between 350 and 400 Filipino officers and NCOs were summarily executed after they had surrendered.
The Japanese failed to supply the prisoners with food or water until they had reached Balanga. Many prisoners died along the way from heat or exhaustion. Prisoners were given no food for the first three days, and were only allowed to drink water from filthy water buffalowallows on the side of the road. Furthermore, Japanese troops would frequently beat and bayonet prisoners who began to fall behind, or were unable to walk. Once the surviving prisoners arrived in Balanga, the overcrowded conditions and poor hygiene caused dysentery and other diseases to rapidly spread. The Japanese failed to provide the prisoners with medical care, leaving U.S. medical personnel to tend to the sick and wounded (with few or no supplies).
In June 2001, U.S. Congressional Representative Dana Rohrabacher described and tried to explain the horrors and brutality the prisoners experienced on the march:
They were beaten, and they were starved as they marched. Those who fell were bayoneted. Some of those who fell were beheaded by Japanese officers who were practicing with their samurai swords from horseback. The Japanese culture at that time reflected the view that any warrior who surrendered had no honor; thus was not to be treated like a human being. Thus they were not committing crimes against human beings.[...] The Japanese soldiers at that time [...] felt they were dealing with subhumans and animals.
Prisoners on the march from Bataan to the prison camp, May 1942. (National Archives)
Trucks were known to drive over some of those who fell or succumbed to fatigue, and "cleanup crews" put to death those too weak to continue. Marchers were harassed with random bayonet stabs and beatings.
From San Fernando, the prisoners were transported by rail to Capas. One hundred or more prisoners were stuffed into each of the trains' boxcars, which were unventilated and sweltering in the tropical heat. The trains had no sanitation facilities, and disease continued to take a heavy toll of the prisoners. After they reached Capas, they were forced to walk the final 9 miles to Camp O'Donnell. Even after arriving at Camp O'Donnell, the survivors of the march continued to die at a rate of 30–50 per day, leading to thousands more dead. Most of the dead were buried in mass graves the Japanese dug out with bulldozers on the outside of the barbed wire surrounding the compound.
The death toll of the march is difficult to assess as thousands of captives were able to escape from their guards (although many were killed during their escapes), and it is not known how many died in the fighting that was taking place concurrently.
Wartime public responses
News of the Bataan Death March sparked outrage in the US, as reflected in this poster
It was not until January 27, 1944, that the U.S. government informed the American public about the march, when it released sworn statements of military officers who had escaped from the march. Shortly thereafter the stories of these officers were featured in a LIFE magazine article. The Bataan Death March and other Japanese actions were used to arouse fury in the United States.
These brutal reprisals upon helpless victims evidence the shallow advance from savagery which the Japanese people have made. [...] We serve notice upon the Japanese military and political leaders as well as the Japanese people that the future of the Japanese race itself, depends entirely and irrevocably upon their capacity to progress beyond their aboriginal barbaric instincts.
In an attempt to counter the American propaganda value of the march, the Japanese had The Manila Times claim that the prisoners were treated humanely and their death rate had to be attributed to the intransigence of the American commanders who did not surrender until their men were on the verge of death.
War crimes trial
In December 1943, (General) Masaharu Homma was selected as the minister of information for the incoming prime minister, Kuniaki Koiso. In September 1945, he was arrested by Allied troops and indicted for war crimes. Homma was charged with 43 different counts of crimes against humanity. The court found that Homma had permitted his troops to commit "brutal atrocities and other high crimes". The general, who had been absorbed in his efforts to capture Corregidor after the fall of Bataan, claimed in his defense that he remained ignorant of the high death toll of the death march until two months after the event. On February 26, 1946, he was sentenced to death by firing squad. He was executed on April 3, 1946, outside Manila.
U. S. Army personnel toiled to identify the charred remains of Americans captured at Bataan and Corregidor and burned alive on Palawan. Picture shows charred remains being interred in grave. March 20, 1945
Post-war commemorations, memorials, and apologies
In 2012, film producer Jan Thompson created a film documentary about the Death March, POW camps, and Japanese hell ships titled Never the Same: The Prisoner-of-War Experience. The film reproduced scenes of the camps and ships showed drawings and writings of the prisoners, and featured Loretta Swit as the narrator.
On September 13, 2010, Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada apologized to a group of six former American soldiers who during World War II were held as prisoners of war by the Japanese, including 90-year-old Lester Tenney and Robert Rosendahl, both survivors of the Bataan Death March. The six, their families, and the families of two deceased soldiers were invited to visit Japan at the expense of the Japanese government.
Dozens of memorials (including monuments, plaques, and schools) dedicated to the prisoners who died during the Bataan Death March exist across the United States and in the Philippines. A wide variety of commemorative events are held to honor the victims, including holidays, athletic events such as ultramarathons, and memorial ceremonies held at military cemeteries.
The Bataan Death March had a large impact on the state of New Mexico. Eighteen hundred New Mexico soldiers from the 200th/515th Coast Artillery of the National Guard were deployed to the Philippines in World War II. Only half these soldiers survived, and within a few years after the war almost one half more had died. The New Mexico National Guard Bataan Memorial Museum is located in the Armory where the soldiers of the 200th and 515th were processed before their deployment to the Philippines in 1941. Every year, in early spring, the Bataan Memorial Death March, a 26.2-mile march/run is conducted at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. As of May 2012 there were 60 survivors, 31 of whom reside in New Mexico.
^McCoy, Melvin; Mellnik, S.M.; Kelley, Welbourn (February 7, 1944). "Prisoners of Japan: Ten Americans Who Escaped Recently from the Philippines Report on the Atrocities Committed by the Japanese in Their Prisoner-War-Camps". LIFE (Chicago: Time, Inc.) 16 (6): 26–31, 96–98, 105–106, 108, 111.
^Jansen, Marius B. (2000). The Making of Modern Japan. p. 655.
Young, Donald J. (1992). The Battle of Bataan: A History of the 90 Day Siege and Eventual Surrender of 75,000 Filipino and United States Troops to the Japanese in World War. McFarland & Company. ISBN0-89950-757-3.