On April 9, 1942, or about 71 years ago this month, an estimated 76,000 Filipino and 12,000 American prisoners of war (POWs) began their trek which came to be known later as the “Bataan Death March,” from Mariveles, Bataan to Camp O’Donnel, Tarlac, an estimated 128 kilometer distance.
On average, that “march” can last for one week, but because the soldiers were
weak, famished and sick, it took them 3 weeks to negotiate that distance. Only about 55,000 made it to the camp in Tarlac as thousands died along the way, not solely from starvation and disease, but from outright butchery of their Japanese captors.
“The narrow, winding road from Mariveles was choked with traffic and veiled in thick clouds of dust and fumes. As the Americans and Filipinos marched north to prison camp, the Japanese troops marched south to take up positions for the coming amphibious assault on Corregidor. A steady stream of artillery pieces, ammunition, and supplies pressed south, reminding the prisoners that they were, in effect, refugees left in a most infelicitous position, caught in the teeth of an ongoing war. Convoys of tanks and troop-carrving vehicles pushed through the crowds. Many of the Japanese soldiers smiled and waved at the Americans as they passed by in their trucks, while a few, taking advantage of the anonymity of the situation, would reach down and bash unsuspecting prisoners over the head with bamboo sticks, or sneak in a quick blow with their rifle butts. “We couldn’t predict what they’d do,” Abraham said. “Some of them wished us well, and some of them just wanted revenge.”
“As they marched through the barrios of Cabcaben, Lamao, and Li-may, the deepening chaos grew more combustible by the hour. Military order was deteriorating fast. The official commands and injunctions, whatever they may have been, were not effectively trickling down to the foot soldiers. Vengeance spread over the road like a fever. Coming face to face with the enemy they’d battled for nearly four months, the Japanese burned with the natural contempt of the victor. They had reason to hate the Americans for holding out so long (since Tokyo had expected Bataan to fall months earlier), and they had reason to hate the Americans for giving up so soon (since according to the Bushido Code surrender was beneath the dignity of a true soldier). With the clusters of prisoner now isolated from each other and spread out for miles, each guard realized that he could do whatever he wanted, that he was, in this temporary context, omnipotent.”
“Abraham thought this was the case with the Japanese soldier who was guarding his group as they stood at attention beside the artesian spring. The guard, he felt, was intoxicated by his new power. Abraham could not conceive of any other explanation for how a person could be so cruel. The men were dying of thirst, and water was right there. It was plentiful and free and it would not take much time for the men to get a drink. Yet the guard made the prisoners stand there and listen to the soft babble.”
“Finally, one of the men in Abraham’s group could take it no longer. He bolted from the ranks and threw himself upon the spring. With relish, he splashed the water on his face, slurping and lapping it up. Then the guard materialized, “swaggering over like a goose,” as Abraham put it. He shouted something in Japanese, and the American, coming to his senses, pulled away from the stream. Abraham watched in dull disbelief as the guard unsheathed his sword. With a “quick ugly swish,” he brought the blade down and cleanly decapitated the American. The head plunked into the spring and sank in a thin roil of blood. The body lingered for a moment, suspended in an upright position, and then it, too, toppled over into the spring, with the arms dancing in the water current. Abraham noticed that the man’s hands nervously opened and closed, like the pincers a crab.”
“The helplessness was the most dreadful part of it, the feeling of absolute impotence in the face of evil. For them, the shock of gore was not unmanageable. For four months they’d been close to death. They’d seen killing, and many themselves had killed. But the emotional texture of warfare was vastly different from that of prisonerhod. Fighting, even losing battle, was mercifully busy work. There was always something to do, and having to do could be godsend. “(ibid, p. 84-85)
“In other cases, however, the guards exploded with rage and came in with bayonets flashing. Regarding bullets as precious commodities, the Japanese were adroit with their bayonets. They practiced their skills zealously. Usually they would go for the abdomen. The guard would drive his blade in deep and give it a jagged twist twist twist in the shape of a “Z” to scramble the bowels. The victim’s legs would kick in nervous spasms. Stepping on the dying man’s sternum, the guard would remove the blade with a flourish. He would spend a few minutes wiping his blade clean with a handkerchief—Japanese soldiers were expected to keep their bayonets immaculate. The guard would then give an impatient gesture and the column would move on, leaving the dead straggler behind. After the first instance of this, the unspoken rule became clear: Those who could not keep pace were dead men. As Abraham marched, he saw scores of American and Filipino bodies that had been dispatched in this fashion and left to rot on the side of the road.”
“Abraham took Houghtby’s right arm and draped it over his shoulders, and the two walked together. This worked for an hour or so, but Houghtby was growing steadily weaker.”
“Let me lie down,” Houghtby said. “My legs are heavy.”
“They’ll kill you,” Abraham said. “You want that?”
“Another American stepped up and took Houghtbv’s left arm and they began to walk as a wobbling triumvirate, with Houghtbv’s legs miming the stride but not actually contributing to the forward progress. The guard did not seem to mind that 1 loughtby was being helped so long as the pace was not affected. For Abraham, it was a strange and dreadful feeling to know that he literally held Houghtbv’s life in his arms.”
“Death was with us every step,” Abraham said, “watching us like a buzzard.”
“What Houghtby most desperately needed, of course, was a drink of water, but his canteen was empty, and the schedule-obsessed guard had no intention of stopping. Later in the afternoon, however, there was a changing of the guards. Almost immediately Abraham could sense that the new soldier responsible for his group was kinder and more sympathetic. He did not raise his voice. He slowed the pace a little. To Abraham’s amazement, he gave one obviously struggling prisoner a bar of candy and a commiserating pat on the shoulder. After a while they came to a rivulet that was almost dried up. In the center of the stream was a deep pool brimming with dark, stagnant water—an old carabao wallow. A layer of green toam floated on the surface, and bluebottle flies swarmed in thick clouds.” “Even so,” said Abraham, “it was water.” Abraham consulted the guard for approval. Although obviously skeptical about the hygiene, he understood the men’s predicament and readily oodded his consent. Abraham helped Houghtby over to the wallow. They knelt down and raked the scum back with their hands. Then they immersed their faces in the tannin-dark liquid and drank like wild animals at a watering hole. “The water tasted as if it were sent from heaven,” Abraham recalled. “When we started down the road again, somehow we felt better, even though we knew that those of us who didn’t have dysentery already were sure to get it now.”
“For the average soldier, the trek north to Camp O’Donnell took about a week. Yet because there were so many tens of thousands of prisoners in such varying states of health and mobility who began marching at different times from many starting places, the Japanese needed more than three weeks to accomplish the ungainly evacuation. The staggering logistics were surpassed only by the staggering carnage. Estimates vary wildly, but a median guess is that 750 Americans and as many as 5,000 Filipinos died from exhaustion, disease, gross neglect, or outright murder. Although most of the killings were committed in ones and twos, there was one notable mass execution in which 350 members of the Philippine 91st Army Division were herded up, tied with telephone wire, and systematically beheaded by sword.” (ibid, p. 89-90).
x x x
“Captain Robert Bank witnessed some of the worst of the horrors. One day he was nearly decapitated by a soldier who wildly swung his sword from a passing truck. He saw the corpse of a man whose penis had been cut off and stuffed in his mouth. He watched in terror as an American lieutenant colonel, whom Bank had been holding up for hours, suddenly slipped from his grasp and dropped from exhaustion, only to be run through with a bayonet. He was forced at gunpoint to bury several Filipinos who had been severely wounded but who were still alive—he saw their bodies twitch as he spread on the dirt. When a guard assaulted Bank with a metal club, fellow Americans carried him, semiconscious and with a deep gash in his head, for six hours.”
“It was a chaplain on the battlefields of Bataan, Father Cummings, who had coined the famous phrase There are no atheists in foxholes. Certainly the aphorism resonated with Bert Bank. He was not a particularly religious person, but he found himself praying a great deal during the five days and five nights it took him to reach Camp O’Donnell. Although he was the son of Russian Jews who had somehow landed in the hard red hills of Alabama, he prayed not as a practitioner of Judaism but as a supplicant to any deity or spirit who would listen.” (ibid, p. 96-97).
x x x
“One afternoon Captain Bank came face to face with this latter sentiment. He was marching through a barrio when a pregnant Filipino woman appeared on the road and handed out cassava cakes for the prisoners to eat. The barefoot woman was young and sad-faced. Tears of sympathy pooled in her eyes. Having spotted this act of generosity, a Japanese guard grabbed the woman by the arm and forced her behind a tree. ” “I heard her plead for mercy,” Bank said. “I couldn’t believe what 1 was seeing. She was on the ground. He took his bayonet and gouged out her fetus right in front of her. We could hear her, screaming and screaming.”
“Bank resumed the march, his lips quivering in prayer.” (ibid, p. 102).