The Bataan Death March was a forced march of more than 70, 000 American and Filipino prisoners of war captured by the Japanese in the Philippines in the early stages of World War II. Starting out on April 9, 194 2, from Mariveles on the southern end of the Bataan Peninsula, they were force-marched 55 miles to San Fernando, where some were taken by rail to Capas, and from here they all walked the final eight miles to Camp O’Donnell. They were starved and mistreated, often kicked or beaten on the way, and many who fell and couldn’t continue were bayonetted where they lay. Their bodies were left to rot in the sun. Only 54, 000 reached the camp; some 7,000-10,000 died on the way and the rest escaped to the jungle … HS
On that morning of April 9, 1942, our officers told us to stack our arms. They announced the fearful news that our American and Filipino forces on Bataan had surrendered. They further ordered us to march out to the main road that extended from Mariveles to San Fernando. As it so sadly turned out, this was the start of the infamous Bataan Death March.
At the intersection we encountered our first live Japanese soldier. He was an officer, standing alone, and he treated us courteously. He motioned for us to march farther down the main road, which we did. After about a hundred yards we stopped and lined up on both sides of the road and waited. We waited for the victorious Japanese army on its way to take up positions opposite Corregidor. Soon came tanks, artillery pieces, and finally foot soldiers by the hundreds.
A close friend, Charlie Wright, stood next to me “Don’t worry. They’re not going to hurt us,” he said. He was smiling. A Japanese solder saw him smiling, rushed up and slapped him hard across the face. He then grabbed Charlie’s arm and yanked away his ‘Wrist watch. Charlie stood there in awe, the smile gone from his face.
Word now spread through our ranks, “get rid of your Jap stuff.” I didn’t know what “Jap stuff’ they were talking about but I would find out.
Soon Japanese soldiers, noncommissioned officers and three-star privates, broke ranks, rushed up and struck our men for no reason. They hit them with open hands, fists and rifle butts. They began searching our persons, and then went through our packs, confiscating what they wanted. They took our watches, rings, fountain pens, whatever valuables they found. Some even took our shoes. Their officers did nothing to stop them, and, in fact, only seemed to encourage them on, like one does to a dog to force him to attack.
When the soldiers found anything stamped with Japanese markings they went into an uncontrollable rage. An U.S. soldier possessing a shaving mirror with “Made in Japan” markings was beaten unmercifully. Another with Japanese souvenir money was kicked until he became unconscious. The Japanese obviously thought we had taken these items from their dead. We lost no time discarding anything that was Japanese or even resembled Japanese.
After the vanguard of soldiers had passed, armed guards with fixed bayonets herded us into an open field. We had nothing to eat that day, nor any water to drink. We slept on the hard ground without blankets or nets. Mosquitos attacked us with the same determination as dive bombers had the day before.
The next morning our guards ordered us to our feet and herded us back onto the road. We were told to march up the road toward San Fernando, a railroad junction about fifty-five miles distant. We had walked only a short distance when more Japanese soldiers heading to the front came down the road. They too broke ranks, searched and beat us at will. Some became highly angered when they could find nothing of value in our possession. Thereafter we were stopped often to allow more Japanese soldiers and equipment to pass. Their ferocity grew as we marched on into the afternoon. Our stragglers, the men too weak to keep up, were the worst victims. The Japanese were no longer content to maul those who fell behind, or prick them with bayonet points; their thrusts now were meant to kill. The fate of those who fell behind we didn’t know. We-never saw them again.
Mile after mile the looting and beatings continued. They cared not whom they struck. High ranking officers were no exception. I watched one three-star private attack Major General Edward King, the U.S. commander who surrendered our troops on Bataan. Had we been sitting in movie theater, we might have thought we were watching a Charley Chaplin comedy, but in reality there was nothing funny about it. The soldier was so short that he had to jump to strike the general in the face with his fist. He did it time and time again, and the general just stood there. I was only a few yards away and I could do nothing. No one could do anything. Guards with pointed rifles waited for us to do something. Finally, the private gave up in disgust and walked away.
No food was given to us that day either. Again we camped in an open field upon hard ground. We had covered but five miles that day on our way to San Fernando. At the rate we were going, it would take us another ten days, and by then most of us would be dead.
As we were bedding down I noticed a wide shallow stream next to our camp site. Before attempting to sleep I decided to clean up. Without guards noticing I made my way to the stream, undressed and lay down in the water. I heard noises up stream. I focused my attention and discovered the sounds were coming from a group of Japanese soldiers who were spreading a fish net across the stream. I kept low and watched. A small fish, much like a perch, had been stunned by the net and it floated down stream toward me. I grabbed it, shut my eyes, and gulped it down. Another came by and then several more.
I ravenously swallowed them whole, wiggling and alive.
Early the next morning, impatient Japanese soldiers stepped among us and kicked us awake. We were just as exhausted now as we had been when we went to sleep. We were each given a small ball of rice and once again we began ambling down the road more toward San Fernando. The sun burned away the morning dew, and before long the hot surface of the road blistered our feet. The temperature rose by the minute. Noon came and went. The midday heat was scorching and unrelenting. We craved water, even the mud-filth water that lay in the sinkholes in the fields would have sufficed but we could not break ranks. If we had, even to drink the filthy water, death would have followed.
Rumors were now spreading that we were going directly to Manila instead of San Fernando. We also heard that the Japanese needed drivers for the abandoned American trucks scattered along the route. Thinking that I might drive prisoners to Manila, I volunteered. After explaining that I had been a truck driver in America, which I had been, I was selected along with several other prisoners.
A Japanese officer escorted us several miles back over the road from which we had come, and almost immediately I began to wonder if I had done the right thing. I began cursing to myself that I had volunteered, and realized that I had no idea what I was getting into. Maybe it was another of their sadistic games created for their own sordid self-amusement.
I was relieved to learn the mission was legitimate and not a prank. The officer led us to a six-wheel GMC truck with three axles; it was resting helplessly in a ditch beside the road. It appeared at a glance to be in fair condition. As I got into the cab to drive, a Japanese soldier with the rank of private superior climbed in with me, to act as my guard. He had extremely short legs and a mouth filled with gold teeth. He was as sinister looking as any enemy soldier I had so far seen. His actions and his general behavior immediately made me suspicious of his mental stability. Nevertheless, I was aware I had to humor him in any way I could.
The engine turned over, sending out puffs of smoke, and after a couple jerky starts, more for display on my part, we were on our way. The soldier sitting next to me smiled with approval.
The fury of the recent battle was in evidence everywhere one turned. Trees had been stripped from the bomb blasts; the earth marred with shell crater after shell crater and pieces of wrecked equipment were strewn over the road. Japanese infantry soldiers continued streaming south toward the beach that faced Corregidor. We were forced to pull over and stop many times due to heavy traffic snarls. The dust became choking. At all times, on both sides of the truck, I was surrounded by enemy soldiers. Some eyed me curiously, not knowing what to make of my presence; others looked as though they would have liked very much to get their hands on me. An engine failure would probably have meant my life. I prayed it didn’t happen. As long as we kept moving, or the engine was running, I felt relatively safe behind the wheel. My demented private superior guard didn’t make matters any better. He couldn’t sit there contented to let me drive. He continuously tried to impress his fellow soldiers with his knowledge of American trucks. Every time we stopped in traffic, he would get out of the cab, lift the hood, and start tinkering with the wires. Several times he crawled under the truck to pretend he was making an adjustment of some sort. I held my breath at his antics, afraid of what damage he might do.