Bataan: March of Death
© 1962 Stanley J. Falk
Japan’s strike at Pearl Harbor was not a solitary military move, but the opening play in a Pacific strategy. Having disabled the American Pacific Fleet, Japanese forces would be free to sweep down on Anglo-American holdings in southeast Asia and create its own empire. The plan went into effect with such rapidity that the Philippines, seized from Spain in the late 19th century, fell under attack on the very day of Pearl Harbor. The Rising Sun found stiffer resistance in the Philippines than it met at Wake Island and Guam, however, and not until early spring 1942 did American forces there surrender. They survived a siege, the weeks of bombardment and short rations, but the most hellish hours were yet to come.
The defense found endurance in retreating to the rocky Bataan peninsula, where for months they held without support or supplies. Increasingly ravaged by disease and malnutrition, however, eventually they had to accept the inevitable. Even in defeat, however, they remained a nuisance to the Japanese: Bataan was the ideal site to launch an attack on the Pacific Gilbralter, the little island fortress of Corregidor whose guns barred Manila Harbor. The defeated needed to be moved out, immediately, and so began a hike of the damned. Though the siege offered plenty of time to plan for dealing with P.O.W.s, Japan’s itinerary of short hikes and feeding/rest areas fell apart almost immediately, overwhelmed by both the sheer number of prisoners and their deteriorated status. The two factors worsened the effect: food and supplies were simultaneously much reduced and much more needed. Every mile of the march saw physically exhausted and disease-ravaged men fall out, and those who did not succumb to injury or infirmity were dispatched with indifferent bayonets . Though the Death March is regarded in propagandized history as an act of cold malice by the Japanese empire, intent on humiliating and destroying those who surrender instead of fighting to the last and dying honorably, Falk here builds a case that the atrocity was more a symptom of the chaos and hell of war aggravated but not initiated by Japan’s severe militarism. The Japanese commanders remained ignorant of both the amount and condition of prisoners headed their way, possibly through errors in translation but also owing to the confused state of American defense: as at Dunkirk, few units were intact; the massed body of ailing defenders were a confused patchwork of commands.
All this is not to say that Bataan was merely a tragic accident. It was the stage of many a war crime, some casual and others more deliberate. Early on, an entire division was beheaded for reasons still obscure. Individual Japanese soldiers practiced chronic and petty acts of cruelty that further bled an already wasted body of men, like the man who amused himself by knocking off the helmets of prisoners who marched by him. Unable to slow down or stop on pain of beating or death, the troops had to leave their precious headgear behind, further exposing them to the roasting tropical sun. Prisoners were robbed not just of equipment and personal items, expected losses in war, but of what little food they had retained or were given. The Japanese were despairingly inconsistent; the food given to men by one command might be taken from them by another. Some Imperials dispensed cooked rice; others forced the prisoners to be content with raw grain. The dehumanization of Japanese military training – in which beatings for small infractions were commonplace – manifested itself in their treatment of the Filipino and American soldiers under their power, but the Japanese government deserves direct scrutiny and condemnation for the “rest areas”, which would have been dangerously overcrowded and wholly unsanitary even if the men shoved into them not been desperately ill with dysentery, constantly soiling themselves and the environment. Campsites were open latrines in which men were forced to lay in a miasma of rotting bodies and feces. The quarter of men who were allowed to ride in trains to the final camp instead of march found it a more torturous alternative, for the cars were nearly completely sealed, permitted standing room only, and collected such heat that the men inside could not touch the walls for fear of scalding themselves.
In a war of genocide, fire-bombings, and mass starvation, the competition for horror is fierce. Though much less severe than the wholesale murder at Dachau and Auschwitz, Bataan is no less grim in its own right. Here are men as the detritus of war, cut off from every resource, given nothing but abuse and mockery, and left to die. Some 20,000 men perished from disease, execution, exhaustion, live burial, or hunger in the sixty-five mile march. Stanley Falk’s history is admirable, neither softening the blows nor attempting to propagandize them. He diligently seeks for the causes of the catastrophe, and finds it a bad situation merely made worst by martial brutishness, instead of being an act of deliberate evil. Bataan is invaluable not just for its information, but for its measured tone.