A Hell Worse Than War: The Bataan Death march

(APRIL 1942)

At 1300 on 9 April 1942, after holding out for more than four agonizing months, the Allies finally ended the siege on Bataan. As ordered by General King, the 12,000 American and 66,000 Filipino soldiers on the peninsula reluctantly laid down their arms. Many had been wounded; even more were sick. Nearly all were exhausted, starving, and deeply demoralized.

Many felt betrayed by their leaders, who had long promised that help was on the way. MacArthur, for weeks derided as “Dugout Doug” for commanding from the deep concrete tunnels on Corregidor, was, by the time of the surrender, being disparaged for having departed to Australia for his new command. Though some men escaped to continue to fight as guerrillas, fewer than 2,100 of those who had endured the battle of Bataan made it across the channel to join the defenders on Corregidor, where General Jonathan Wainwright vowed to fight on.


For the next twenty-six days, the Japanese pounded “the rock” nonstop with air strikes, naval gunfire, and artillery. Many of the rounds fired at the fortified island were made in America and had been captured on Bataan. By 6 May, Corregidor’s “holdouts” could endure no more. General Wainwright surrendered unconditionally that afternoon. By noon the following day, the Japanese had assembled enough small boats and barges to begin transferring 15,000 dazed American and Filipino prisoners from the battered island to Mariveles, on the southern tip of the Bataan Peninsula. On 8 May, they began the long trek north, following the bloody footsteps of their countrymen on the “march of death.”

Bataan Death March


Among those who were surrendered on Bataan on 9 April, others who escaped to fight as guerrillas, and the handful of “holdouts” who joined Wainwright on Corregidor were Sergeant Richard Gordon, Private Andrew Miller, Private John Cook, and Medic Ralph Rodriguez, Jr. Their eyewitness accounts of what they and their comrades endured are testament to the worst and best of humanity: horrific cruelty and incredible courage.



Bataan Peninsula, Philippines

9 April 1942


When MacArthur realized that he could not stop the Japanese with his Filipino army, he reverted to War Plan Orange, which dictated that we withdraw into Bataan itself. What he failed to do, though, was to bring the supplies for the Filipino troops that had already gone north to fight the Japanese that had landed on northern Luzon. The army left behind tons of food and stuff that we desperately needed later on Bataan. So when we moved over to Bataan, we were already short of rations.

On 12 January [1942], MacArthur issued orders to cut the rations in half. And on 6 February or thereabouts, they cut the rations in half again. And in March we cut them again. So by the time the Japanese were closing in on us, in April, we were already living on fewer than 1,000 calories a day. And it’s totally impossible, given the environment of that area and the rugged terrain, to fight on under 1,000 calories a day.

Most of the supply ships had been sunk by the Japanese, who had a tight blockade around the island of Luzon. We ate canned salmon and rice twice a day during the last two months of fighting on Bataan. We kept holding out, figuring things had to get better. In the meantime, the weight of the men dropped off something fierce. And before we knew it, there was no combat effectiveness whatsoever.

And then disease came in. Men came down with malaria and dysentery, and it spread like wildfire. By the end of March they were committing 1,000 malaria patients a day to the field hospitals. That left us with only about 30 percent of the troop strength to fight off the Japanese by the time we began the final retreat to the bottom of the peninsula, in the hopes of escaping from Bataan.

Later on I heard that Henry Stimson, the secretary of war, made the statement “There are times when men must die.” But it’s a good thing I never heard about that remark until after the war.

We sort of figured out that help would not be forthcoming. It never happened. But you know, from my point of view as a professional soldier, I could accept it. But most of the men were youngsters just drafted into the military, or National Guardsmen who had no training to speak of. For them it was a much more precarious situation.

By the first week of April it was pretty clear that our military wasn’t going to be able to rescue the Philippines. We knew it all depended on the American Navy coming to our rescue. But since Pearl Harbor was destroyed, that pretty well sealed our fate.

The first realization that we were in really deep trouble was when the order came to lay down our arms and surrender to the Japanese. Until then we didn’t think that surrender was possible. Many of the men cried when that order was issued. As bad as things had gotten, we were still holding out hope that somehow Uncle Sam would be able to bail us out. We’d been promised it so often right along for the four months that we were in Bataan that we had come to believe it. We believed it because President Roosevelt made a speech to that effect—that arms, equipment, and everything else was coming our way. General MacArthur had said, “Hold on . . . don’t give any ground. Food and help are on the way, hundreds of planes, and thousands of men.” And of course, you live on those rumors. But the rumors never came true. On 9 April we found out that nothing was coming.

General Ed King had absolutely no choice other than to surrender, and it took a great deal of courage, knowing full well that he might be court-martialed after the war. General King knew he had the lives of [66,000 Filipinos and 12,000 Americans] in his hands. But the Japanese did not want to accept General King’s surrender. And there never was an official document called the surrender of Bataan. General King placed his .45-caliber pistol on the table they were sitting at and turned himself over to the Japanese. He wasn’t allowed to come back to the troops, but word came back by one of the staff officers that the surrender was in effect.

But I didn’t surrender. I went with a group of other soldiers and my friend Elmer Parks further up the mountain to a place called Mount Bataan, in the hopes that we could avoid surrender. Two or three days later, we were scrounging for food or anything that was left behind, because we couldn’t find anything on the mountain. And when we came down, we ran into a Japanese patrol. They captured us, and about fifteen Japanese soldiers came out from the underbrush and began to beat the living daylights out of us. They took everything we had and walked us down the hill to where the main group was. As I passed I saw a U.S. soldier tied to a tree—he’d been bayoneted. It was Major James Ivey from San Antonio, Texas, and they’d used him for bayonet practice. He was bare from the waist up, and blood was still spurting out of the wounds.

Bataan Death March


The Japanese took us to a staging area, an assembly point for thousands of our soldiers, and threw us into this enclosure. At this time I lost contact with Elmer Parks, and didn’t find him again for forty years.

When they threw us into this stockade it was the middle of the night and pitch dark and you couldn’t see anything. And there were thousands of men all over the place, lying down out of sheer exhaustion. There was no order or discipline, just thousands of men lying in an open field. There were no latrines, and the men who were wounded or who had malaria or dysentery just relieved themselves where they lay. The place was covered with feces and was a terrible mess. I found a place and lay down, waiting for the night to pass.



Nichols Field, Philippines

6 May 1942


After the first air attacks in December, we were moved from Nichols Field to Bataan—a peninsula with Manila Bay on one side and on the other side was the South China Sea. The Harbor Defense Group and their big guns on four different islands in the mouth of the bay protected the entrance to the bay. Corregidor was the biggest and best fortified of these islands. The idea was to hold out until the Navy could escort ships over to support us. Well, it never happened.

When my unit got sent to Bataan we were positioned at about kilometer mark 133. I guess you’d call it the front line, but the Japs called it the main line of resistance. The Jap offensive started on 3 April on our left flank. They never shot where we were at all. They’d send an occasional artillery round just to let you know that they knew you were there. On the night of 6 April the medics came in and took the men who had malaria the worst back to one of the hospitals.

On the afternoon of the eighth, we were on a hill, and they weren’t too far away from us, and quite a few men got hit. For some of the men the only thing we could do was ease their pain with a shot of morphine, because there was no way you could save them.

But the sun finally came up and somebody told us that they were trying to arrange a surrender. Well, we didn’t think that was such a good idea. So we made it down to the beach and found an outrigger canoe. Then we started out for Corregidor, which was not such a smart move. The tide was going out, and there’s a current in the bay. We got out about a quarter mile or so, looked over to Corregidor, and saw nothing but smoke and dust. We looked back at Bataan and it was the same thing—a lot of fire, everything was a mess. Airplanes were all over the place. Looking out in the bay [we could see] silhouettes of the Jap navy out there. You couldn’t go to Manila, and the water was full of sharks.

I escaped, and got over to Corregidor. My hunch was right. They had more food over there and it was much better. I stayed for almost four weeks, until Corregidor surrendered.



Fort McKinley Base Hospital

9 April 1942


Three days before the surrender, the Japanese launched a big offensive with a lot of air and artillery strikes. I was on the front line, up on a lookout tower, about fifty feet up on this platform built between two trees. It was in the morning and I was supposed to give a warning with a siren if the Jap planes came over. But they came in over Mount Mariveles, in the sun, about 9:30 and they dropped a 550-pound bomb and blew up eighty-eight people in the hospital ward even though it was marked with a big red cross.

We worked for three days and nights without sleep, and the night before the surrender the nurses were ordered on a bus and aboard a barge for Corregidor.

When we got the order to surrender, the medics at Hospital Number One used a piece of white sheet and Colonel Duckworth had the folded-up flag, and on top of that he had his web belt and his .45. The officers and senior NCOs took our guns and presented them to the Japanese Tank Corps.





It quickly became apparent to the prisoners on Bataan that their ordeal had not ended when the guns fell silent. The Japanese had no food, water, clothing, or medicine to spare. In fact, many of General Homma’s soldiers guarding the prisoners were in as bad or worse shape than their American and Filipino captives. Japanese troops immediately “searched for weapons”—an excuse for stripping the prisoners of anything of value, not just watches, rings, rank insignia, and cigarettes, but boots, mess gear, canteens, packs, even clothing—the very things the prisoners would need most to survive captivity.

Once the “search” was complete, the prisoners were randomly counted off into groups of one to three hundred men and led off into the jungle. As soon as one cluster departed, another was formed up and marched off—ignoring any U.S. or Filipino unit integrity that might have kept comrades together to help one another.

By 12 April, all organization for moving tens of thousands of thirsty, wounded, sick, and starving men into the interior of Luzon had completely collapsed. There were far too few Japanese guards to keep order with such a huge number of prisoners and there was no order in the ranks whatsoever. When problems arose on the muddy, blood-soaked path, the guards used their bayonets and swords—their officers had ordered them not to “waste” ammunition—in order to keep the prisoners from getting out of hand. Deadly incidents happened infrequently at first, but quickly escalated in number as the march north degenerated into a chaotic, genocidal extermination. Weak and terrified American and Filipino troops who did not instantly follow orders or who fell out of ranks from wounds, sickness, hunger, or thirst were disemboweled or beheaded.

A Japanese soldier beheads a U.S. prisoner.


For most of those at the front of the column, the “march of death” took only a few days. But for the vast majority—perhaps as many as 50,000 others—farther back in the pathetic procession, it was a matter of weeks. And although there are no official reports, because the Japanese kept no records and the Allied officers weren’t allowed to, survivors estimate that more than 2,000 Americans and as many as 10,000 Filipinos perished on the trek.

The Japanese also killed hundreds of Filipino civilians, often for merely showing basic human kindness to the prisoners. In one horrific, well-documented incident, a Japanese soldier used his bayonet to disembowel a pregnant Filipino woman and ripped the woman’s unborn baby from her abdomen for her “crime” of offering some food to an American POW. The Japanese soldier then “mercifully” killed both mother and child.

Camp O’Donnell POW compound


Several thousand prisoners were routed to the little railhead town of San Fernando, where they were loaded aboard narrow-gauge railroad cars. In stifling heat, they were packed in so tightly that when the weakest expired from suffocation, wounds, heat exhaustion, or disease, they had nowhere to fall. Many of the men had dysentery and couldn’t control their bowels, and as a result the floors were covered with diarrhea, urine, and vomit. The stench was unbearable. When the train finally arrived at Kapas, the Japanese opened the boxcar doors and the prisoners tumbled out. The bodies of those who had died during the journey were tossed outside into a pile, drenched with gasoline, and burned.

The terrible trek was a prelude to the horrors that would follow. Afterward, survivors estimated that there was a dead body every ten to fifteen feet along the entire route of the Death March. Yet there would be many times over the course of their confinement when the living would envy the dead.

By 24 April, more than 54,000 American and Filipino prisoners were crammed into an area of less than one square mile in western Luzon. The captives called this hellish place Camp O’Donnell. The Japanese called it a “prisoner processing center.”

Malnourished and weak, many prisoners were too feeble to even go inside huts and were laid out on palm-frond mats. There was scant shade; the sun beat down upon them unmercifully. As they lay in their own feces, ravaged by swarms of flies and mosquitoes, they were plagued by malaria, gangrene, dysentery, typhoid fever, and other tropical diseases the doctors had never seen before. Men began dying at the rate of fifty a day. And then things got worse. Within six weeks, one of every six Americans who had survived the Death March was dead.

When they could, the POWs would bury the deceased. But it was the beginning of the rainy season and the torrential downpours constantly washed the bodies out of the shallow graves. The Japanese guarding the prison didn’t seem to care. They had built Camp O’Donnell as a place from which they could ship “healthy” POWs to Japan and Manchuria as slave laborers. Those too weak or wounded to be shipped out were simply moved a few miles farther into the jungle to other camps, like the infamous Camp Cabanatuan, to await death or release. Few dared hope of escape or rescue.



Camp O’Donnell POW Camp

Luzon, Philippines

May 1942


The day after the surrender, the Japanese got us up at the crack of dawn and started marching us north, in groups of about 300 at a time. It was every man for himself. A lieutenant colonel had been wounded and he was unable to stand. They put him on a stretcher and asked for volunteers to carry him. I was one of four who carried that man all day long. We kept asking for relief, because it was hot and getting hotter. No one came near us to relieve us. When we put that man down that night we went in four different directions, because we knew that the next day, if we were still on the detail, we would not physically be able to make that march.

I think that the Japanese made sure they didn’t let units march together. Units are much more difficult to control than a loose group of prisoners. Generally speaking, they didn’t allow that to happen, and just broke up our military units.

One loose group of 300 would lead the first day, and another group would lead the next. We wondered how the Japanese would treat us. What they had done in China had been played on newsreels almost nightly in Manila theaters. We saw what they did to Chinese women and soldiers—raping, beheading, shooting—so we knew what they were capable of. But naively, we didn’t think that we would have to suffer that inhumane treatment as Americans. But we did.

When General King had tried to arrange to use our own vehicles to transport us out of the Bataan area, the Japanese refused.

They gave us no food at all. Some may have gotten a rice bowl somewhere, but not in my case. They would not let you break ranks to go for water. They would allow stops for water, but they were few and far between. So as a result, men would break ranks and go to some stagnant pool on the side of the road and begin to drink. And the Japanese would yell, get them back in ranks—or if they wouldn’t get in ranks fast enough, they shot them.

In my case, training was the difference between my survival and perhaps not surviving, because I had been trained in how to preserve water. I had one canteen, and I would put a little of that water in my mouth, swish it around, get a little trickle down my throat, and spit the rest back into my canteen. Hardly Emily Post etiquette, but an effective way to keep what water you had.

But most of these men came overseas untrained and not acclimated to the Philippine climate. They couldn’t tolerate it. The sun in the Philippines is incredibly hot, especially at noontime. And every day at noon on that march, the Japanese would stop us. Every time they stopped they conducted a shakedown. We were all warned before the surrender, just before we were all captured, to have nothing on us that was Japanese. We were told not even to keep some of the propaganda leaflets that they dropped on Bataan, which [they felt] showed that you had ignored their offer of surrender. But many of us had money we had taken off dead Japanese soldiers during the fighting. In my case I had a diary that some Japanese writer had kept. I got rid of it real quick—even before the surrender. If they caught you with something like that, there was an immediate execution.

Each time we stopped on the march, the Japanese put us into an open field with no shade, no trees around, and made you take your hats off and sit there all through their lunch hour. That was deliberate. It made you lethargic, to the point that you were in a stupor. That way you couldn’t run away.

I saw a young American soldier who passed out from trying to walk in that heat. He just collapsed where he was, close to the road. A Japanese tank, moving south as we moved north, deliberately ran over him. And behind that tank, the other tanks swerved to run over him.

A Filipino soldier in the column ahead of us was alongside the road as our column passed. He was on his knees and I watched as a Japanese soldier beheaded him. I don’t know why.

I saw a Japanese soldier beat a woman with the butt of a rifle because she was trying to hand food to one of the prisoners.

We marched like this for—in my case—eight days. They knew we were dying for food and water, and they weren’t going to let us have it.

At the end of the eight days, we arrived at a huge metal warehouse that had held thousands of sacks of rice. But it was empty when we got there. The Japanese pushed us inside that warehouse, as many prisoners as they possibly could squeeze in. We were standing like the subway at rush hour.

When we were all inside they shut the windows and door. The sun beat down on that place and men died in the night because of the heat and closeness, and from being ill to begin with.

The next morning when they opened the door for us to come out, there were a lot of dead men left behind. The Japanese took those people and threw them into a big open hole, poured gasoline on them, and set fire to them.

We were marched further up the road to a town called San Fernando, where they had trains with boxcars waiting for us. They shoved as many people into those boxcars as they could get inside, standing up, with no room to move. Every now and then, some would die, but we were packed in so tight, they couldn’t fall down. We finally ended that train ride, and when we got out of those cars, there were dead men in every car. Once again, the Japanese piled them off to the side and set fire to them.

When we got to our destination we started marching again. Men were dehydrated from being in that warehouse, in the boxcars, and being forced to sit in the noonday heat, and many more of them died.

If we had known it was going to be eight days of inhumane treatment and abuse, with so many dying or executed, I think there might have been an attempt at mass escape, despite the risk. But no one had any idea how long it was going to take, because the Japanese kept telling us, “Just a little way up the road we will stop for food and water.” It was a lie, of course, but they kept telling us that, like bait dangling in front of you. Those things never materialized.

The Japanese marched us to a place called Camp O’Donnell, which was to be our first prison camp. We had to stand in the hot sun and wait about an hour or so, until the camp commander came out. He gave us the full, ten-course description of what would happen if we tried to escape. We were searched, and if they found anything they didn’t like, those people were executed on the spot.

The conditions at Camp O’Donnell were indescribable. We were assigned to certain barracks, and we found ourselves with a single water pipe for 3,000 men. Men went without water even in that prison camp, many of them too weak or sick to wait in line for hours for a drink.

We thought that when we got to O’Donnell that our lot in life had improved, only to find ourselves in the Black Hole of Calcutta. I was ordered to burial duty, and after a while you couldn’t even recognize the corpse you were taking out. So I could very easily have buried my friends and never known it.



Camp O’Donnell POW Camp

Luzon, Philippines

May 1942


Before the surrender I packed my medic’s bag with a couple of bottles of paregoric and a good-sized bottle of iodine. And those are the two things that I used throughout the Death March. I put iodine in the water and the paregoric to give out because it numbs pain a little and helps if you have diarrhea. It also has alcohol in it, and it builds you up a little bit.

I barely got through the areas where they stood you one against the other. I guess from lack of air or something, I passed out. A lot of the men hadn’t eaten for at least two, three days or more. You can’t march very far in a hundred degrees, much less half-starved. On the first night, there were some people ahead of us—the airfield was full of people. During the evening, late, we started coming across men who were sitting down or couldn’t move, or were lying down sick, asking for help. Right away the medics started to try to help them out, but as soon as you start helping them, here come the Japs with their bayonets.

The Japanese struck the butt of the rifle in one man’s face, broke all his teeth and nose and everything. I saw the Japanese pursue one who got behind a fruit stand and he shot him, and then he came up cleaning his bayonet.

One time they made us run—maybe because they were just mean. God was with us, for after making us run, they stopped us about two, three o’clock in the morning. We lay down alongside the road. I couldn’t find any comfortable spot to lie down, because it looked like a bunch of rocks. But the “rocks” happened to be turnips. And we all ate turnips. I ate my share of them after cleaning the dust off a little bit.



Camp O’Donnell POW Camp

Luzon, Philippines

June 1942


After the surrender of Corregidor they put us on ships and took us across Manila Bay to a town called Maclarin, right outside the base where I started the war, at Nichols Field.

Then they marched us the full length of Dewey Boulevard to Bilibid Prison, the equivalent of Atlanta or Leavenworth. They herded us all in there. After a couple of days they started to take us out, 1,500 at a time, put us on trains, and took us to a town where we would stay overnight. The first four groups of 1,500 ended up at Cabanatuan Three, and there were 6,000 men there.

The first four days of June 1942, the majority of the men from Camp O’Donnell were moved. That place was a mess. A lot of men died there.



Camp O’Donnell POW Camp

Luzon, Philippines

May 1942


When we got to Camp O’Donnell there were around 200, 250 deaths a day. Filipinos and Americans were dying. They would put two bodies that were so scrawny on one of the straight pole field stretchers, and they would carry it to the burial ground. They would dump them in the open pit.

When I got to Camp O’Donnell most of us had malaria and beriberi. I didn’t know that we had diphtheria, dysentery, typhoid fever, and stuff like that. The sickest people had yellow jaundice, typhoid fever, or dysentery. They were so skinny it was pathetic and you thought they were about ready for their graves.

One morning I had mess duty and was stirring the lugow pot—like a rice pot—with this fellow Clark. We were working on the Zero Ward. Zero Ward meant that you were there because you were expected to die soon. At that time there were about twelve of these scrawny guys on Zero Ward. It was just getting daylight and the poor fellows were standing there with their beat-up mess kits waiting for rations. Then I said, “Clark, come here.” And I pointed to a rat in the cooking pot, in the lugow for breakfast. “Clark, we can’t eat this stuff. What are we gonna do?”

Clark said, “I’m gonna go back behind the stove and push down the window. And you just flip it out there and they’ll never see it.”

I flipped that darn rat out there and there were ten or twelve guys who saw it and soon there wasn’t one scrap of that rat. They ate it, bones and all.



Within weeks of the fall of Corregidor, Filipino civilians—many with relatives inside the complex of Japanese POW camps—began to get word to the outside world about what had happened on the Death March and about conditions inside the camps. U.S. and Filipino guerrillas, operating in the jungle-covered volcanic mountains, passed information about the camps and the POWs to allied intelligence officers. And while conditions inside the camps remained deplorable, the Philippine underground was eventually able to smuggle small amounts of medicine and some supplies into the camps.

Claire Phillips was the American bride of Sergeant John Phillips, fighting with the 31st Infantry when Bataan surrendered. He was sent to Cabanatuan, where he died of malaria, dysentery, and malnutrition. Claire, alone and living in Japanese-occupied Manila, was determined to avenge her husband’s death. She made contact with a Philippine resistance organization, which provided her with false Italian identity documents. Since Rome and Tokyo were allies, this would keep the Japanese from becoming suspicious of the attractive young American.

Claire, now known as “Dorothy Fuentes,” started a nightclub for Japanese officers.

She called it Club Tsubaki and opened its doors in October 1942. “Tsubaki” meant “camellia” in Japanese and also meant “hard to get.” The beautiful Filipino women who worked with “Dorothy” in Club Tsubaki were amazingly effective in eliciting information and military intelligence from the officers who frequented the club. The Japanese nicknamed Claire “High Pockets,” because she had a habit of hiding her tips in her bra. Unbeknownst to her generous customers, Claire used the money to buy quinine and other medicines that the Philippine resistance organizations smuggled into the POW camps. POW camps.

Claire Phillips


Robert Taylor


A key member of Claire’s spy and smuggling web was a highly respected and devout Army chaplain, Major Robert Taylor. Ironically, it was the gift of a signed Bible from “High Pockets” to Chaplain Taylor that almost got them both killed.

Shortly before the United States liberated the Philippines, a prison guard conducting a routine search of the chaplain’s belongings found the Bible. Within days, Japanese military intelligence arrested Claire. Though they tortured her and the chaplain, neither of them divulged what they knew of the other. Both survived the experience, and after the war, both the U.S. and Philippine governments recognized Claire for her heroism.

The courage of Claire Phillips, Chaplain Robert Taylor, and hundreds of others—mostly Filipinos—helped to ease the desperate plight faced by tens of thousands of prisoners seized in the most ignominious defeat ever suffered by the U.S. Armed Forces. Unfortunately, the good news of their bravery would remain unknown to all but a few Americans for several more years. And in the months after Pearl Harbor, good news was something the American people desperately needed.

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