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Bataan Death March

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Bataan Death March

map of bataan One of the earliest and most severe mistreatment of prisoners of war became known to the world as the DEATH MARCH.  All troops, both Filipino and American, gathered at various points on Bataan after the April 1942 surrender to the Japanese and then were forced to march 65 miles from Mariveles on the tip of Bataan to San Fernando under conditions that no one believed could happen.  All valuables were confiscated; Jack Heinzel recalls: "All prisoners were stripped of personal possessions, watches, jewelry and cigarettes by the oncoming Japanese front line troops." There was very little food, no water and no medical attention to the sick and wounded.  Ferron Edwin Cummins attests in "This Is My Story" that "we were placed in a kneeling position, searched again and left sitting in the hot tropical sun for about six hours without food or water." Abie Abraham began his account, "The men started to march in a long column on the dusty road.  For many of the bloody, frail men this was the last march. The sun beat down unmercifully on the marchers with a continuous drum by the Japanese guards to hurry.  Furthermore, the Japanese treated the POWs with savage brutality. As Albert Brown recalled, "Those who fell out of line or failed to follow orders were met with beheadings, stabbings, or shootings." In an article about ex-POW Paul Ehney, Curtis Norris writes: "Along the way, numbers of them were slaughtered by bayonet, sword, gun, truck, whatever the Japs could use to kill. Many wounded were buried alive, their moans smothered by hastily-shoveled earth. There was no rhyme or reason to the killings. They occurred as the fancy hit the individual Japanese soldier." Around 70,000 men began the trek to the north, but only 54,000 arrived at Camp O'Donnell.  No one was ever able to record the exact death toll since many were unaccounted for or just escaped.   Approximately 600 of those who perished were American, and between five to ten thousand  were Filipinos. 
Arriving at San Fernando, the troops were literally shoved and stuffed into small railroad cars with no room to sit down for last leg into Camp O'Donnell.  They received no water, no food and the heat from the tropical sun was relentless.  Thus they came to the end of the road, suffering from every disease imaginable.  They were dirty, unkempt, pale, bloated, and lifeless.  They looked aged beyond their years and had nothing to look forward to except degradation.  The United States had informed the Japanese government on December 18, 1941, that it (the US) is a party to the Geneva Convention of 1929 on Prisoners of War, and intended to apply the provisions to both captured armed forces and civilian internees which may be interned by the United States, and requested the Japanese government to apply those provisions to those captured or interned by the armed forces.  On February 4, 1942, the Japanese government cabled that "IT IS STRICTLY OBSERVING THE GENEVA CONVENTION AS A SIGNATORY STATE AND WOULD APPLY MUTIS MUTANDIS PROVISIONS OF THAT LAW TO AMERICAN PRISONERS OF WAR IN ITS POWER."
Also on February 4, 1942, Japan cabled that, "ON CONDITION OF RECIPROCITY, JAPAN WILL APPLY GENEVA CONVENTION TO POWS AND CIVILIANS INSOFAR AS APPLICABLE, AND THEY SHOULD NOT BE FORCED TO PERFORM LABOR AGAINST THEIR WILL."  These cables are very inconsistent with the manner that the Japanese military and civilians mistreated American prisoners of war in their power.

"Death March" by Soldier Poet Henry Lee

So you are dead. The easy words contain
No sense of loss, no sorrow, no despair.
Thus hunger, thirst, fatigue, combine to drain
All feeling from our hearts. The endless glare,
The brutal heat, anesthetize the mind.
I can not mourn you now. I lift my load,
The suffering column moves. I leave behind
Only another corpse, beside the road.


 Accounts of those on Death March

 Jack Brady tells some of his story on the march.  Read his whole story

We knew the night before that the surrender was coming. The surrender was on April 9. We knew at the beginning of the 8th, about midmorning, that the surrender was going to take place. We didn't know exactly when but we knew that it would be probably that night or the next night. When our first sergeant, Kulas, came back with the word that we were to get rid of our weapons we knew for a fact that was the surrender. I think everybody pretty much suspected it. There were a few people who took off with their weapons and any ammunition they could gather. That morning, before the actual surrender took place, the cooks cooked up all the rest of the food we had, not very much really, but we did have a decent breakfast, and that was the last food we had until we got to San Fernando, which was quite a while.

We had been told by some of the people who apparently had been with other outfits that had surrendered before we did, who slipped away from their units and came back through the jungle and joined any outfit that they could, that we had to get rid of anything that had any Japanese on it or anything that was valuable, to get rid of everything. So I did. I got rid of my class ring from L.A. High. I took it off. I had a devil of a time taking it off but I am glad I got it off before the Japs got around to it. I threw it away as far away as I could in the jungle and I am hoping that nobody ever found it, because I certainly wouldn't want a Jap to have it. It wasn't very valuable but nevertheless I wouldn't want a Jap to be wearing it. It was a plain ordinary silver ring, with a black enamel top, and then set on it was the class emblem. No initials, just the class emblem in silver.

In the meantime, I had picked up one of the ordnance watches, between the time I lost mine, which was practically at the beginning of the war, and the time of the surrender. It was a very good watch but of course the Japs wanted that too. That was another of the things I took off and tossed into the bushes. First of all I stepped on it to make sure it was broken because even if they found it I didn't want them to have the use of it.

 About midmorning, when the Japs came down the trail to collect us we lined up and that was the first of the searches. They took just about everything and anything they wanted and they wanted just about everything. We weren't left with very much. The only thing that I had left that I figured I might want to keep was a couple dollar bills which I folded up very carefully and put in the waistband of my trousers, but that was about all I was able to keep. I had cut a slit in the waistband and put the bills inside the waistband. They didn't find those. I had those until we got to O'Donnell, when I used them to buy food from the Filipinos, a couple cans of corned beef and a can of stewed tomatoes.

The Japs who picked us up were in very poor shape themselves. Many of them had malaria, I guess, which was very common in the peninsula there. Next to dysentery it was the most common disease of all. Until I got to O'Donnell I did not have any of those diseases, so I was in pretty good shape.  

Up until this time, none of the men had died from diseases or malnutrition. The whole outfit was in fairly decent shape with regard to any of the diseases. There were some who had just begun to start the first symptoms of malaria. It was in general pretty mild. It was later that those things got worse. It takes a while for them to build up. Malaria was not one of the problems we had before the surrender.

The Japs apparently didn't have any canteens, at least they didn't have any water in theirs, so they were taking just about all the canteens and drinking the water and then throwing the canteens away. Later we were able to retrieve the canteens. We didn't always get the same one we had but in my case I did get my canteen back. I know it was mine because it had my initials on it.

They took just about anything they wanted. They took all the toilet articles. They took money, of course. They took anything and everything in the way of jewelry. Fountain pens. They took pencils, automatic pencils. Some of the officers were very well educated here in the States. Most of them had a pretty good education and a pretty good knowledge of English, which made it necessary to be very careful what you said around them, because they could be very nasty if they overheard you saying the wrong thing.

We were there until early to mid-afternoon, and then we went up to the highway at kilometer post 69, or maybe 169. That was where all the depots were and the hospital. Little Baguio was the name of the place. We all were garnered up just a little ways from where the trail led to our bivouac area, and the hospital entrance. There is a picture that was taken there and the picture was picked up later from the Japs, I guess, after their surrender. We walked down to Cabcaben, and that is about five, six, seven miles, I'm not sure. That's where we gathered for the night. It was a good thing we gathered there that night instead of a few nights later because a few nights later Corregidor started shelling the place. There was an airfield that had been built there by us before our part of the war ended. We gathered at the airfield while the Japs were setting up their artillery on the other side of the airfield back in the jungle, what little bit of jungle was left there. There wasn't much jungle left. There wasn't much of anything left. In fact, it was hard to recognize the place when we were going through there because things had changed so much from the shelling and destruction that what we used to see and what we used to think we knew just didn't match up anymore. It just wasn't there.

Kulas was a real hero on that hike. He kept us together as much as he could, tried to get everybody to stay together as a unit and to help each other out as much as we could. He said that it would always be better to stick with people you know, and that is true. You always have a better chance in anything if you stick with people you know, even if you don't like them. One of the things that Kulas did was to have a sort of a roll call every time we stopped, just to make sure that nobody got really separated. If they were a few feet away from the closest member of the company, they were gathered in to join up with the company again.  We had no officers left there. They were all separated and taken somewhere else.

The next day we went to another place and again Kulas was instrumental in keeping the company as much together as possible with a little bit of, not exactly coercion, but a little bit of persuasion. Some of the people were almost required to rejoin the company. It was not necessarily an easy thing to do because people were still individuals and they wanted to do what they wanted to do themselves, so I don't know how Kulas did it but he managed. He was really one of the best sergeants I've ever known.

The next night we were in a field that had been sown with onions and some of the onions had not been picked up. They were left to rot. Well, those onions were a lifesaver to me. I thought they were really kind of delicious. Even though most of an onion was pretty well rotted, there was still some part of it that was good to eat, so I ate three of those like that. Not the rotted part, but the good part, and they weren't bad. They were actually kind of a sweet onion. Some of the people thought that was just absolutely terrible, to eat something that was partially rotted, and they didn't think of throwing that part away. I guess they figured you had to eat that along with the good stuff, which is kind of stupid.

The second day we were coming down out of the mountains and there was one spot in particular that sticks in my mind. We took a rest break and all of us were lying down under a single lone tree. As the road turns around a long hill there was a sort of a very small group of trees. One tree in particular was separated from all the rest. This group of five of us who swore we were going to stick together no matter what, all gathered around that tree for a short time, mostly because two or three of the five of us had developed some cramps in our legs and we had to do something to get out of the sun and get rid of those cramps. Well, it turns out that somebody or other said that it was salt that we needed so somebody in the group had fortunately thought to bring salt along, so we mixed up some salt with our saliva and we just took it in our hands and licked it. Just a little bit of salt seemed to do it. A Jap guard started harassing us, shooting at us and using the bayonet. He hit several of us, and the rest of us picked up as many men as we could and carried them the rest of the way, but we couldn't carry everyone. We had to leave several men behind, and never saw them again.

After we got back on the road we had a devil of a time catching up with the rest of the outfit because they were a little bit further ahead, but we did manage to keep up with them. We finished up that night together.

Ferron Edward Cummins relates his version of his trek on the Death March

Read his contributed biography

Note:  Typed as submitted

Surrender was something that American troops did not do so it was a time of dejection, confusion and turmoil. We were told to take the bolts, or firing pins, out of our riffles and stack them in a designated place. We received two "C" rations of food, climbed onto trucks and headed for Marvels, a distance of about 12 kilometers. We were stopped frequently and searched as the Japanese started relieving us of our personal items. I had two watches and a penknife that I had stored in the Squadron safe and retrieved them when we were told to surrender. I lost the watches during one of the first searches - the Japanese really liked wristwatches.

The first night as a prisoner I was aboard a truck, I had to relieve myself and the Jap guard let me. It is surprising to me, considering the treatment we received later, but I talked the guard into letting me sleep on the ground the rest of the night because the truck was over crowded. The next morning , Sergeant Hardy, our Mess Sergeant, collected all the available food and made a very good stew - the last tasty food for quite a while.

Out on "Clay Hill", near Mariveles, as we were assembled for the infamous "Death March", we were placed in a kneeling position, searched again and left sitting in the hot tropical sun for about six hours without food or water.

Word passed through the ranks that the Japs were looking for knives and I had so far concealed my gold penknife. By this time my better judgment told me to get rid of it as soon as possible. I buried it in the field right where we were standing. Later, we were alerted to the fact the Japanese were looking for any items marked, "Made in Japan". They believed such items had to have been taken from some dead Japanese soldier. Most of our combs, brushes, tooth brushed, etc. at that time, were marked "Made in Japan". I got rid of my few possessions and didn't receive any undue punishment for having "Made in Japan" items like some of the others did. You could not reason with the Japanese and their erratic behavior got worse.

The Squadron personnel tried to stay together as much as possible. We formed six-man buddy teams in an effort to stay together and help each other. My buddy team members were E.J. Batson, Larry Cohen, Travis Dillon, Bud Ellsworth and Red Fipps.

Before we left Mariveles, Travis Dillon got a can of corned beef hash from a Filipino. It was good but, entirely too salty without adequate water and water was a scarce item. Later, I saw a Filipino Woman with a tin can filled with rice cakes and cakes of pony sugar. Pony sugar was small cakes of solid dark sugar usually fed to their ponies. I was able to pay her $10.00 for the can and its contents without the Jap guards seeing me. We divided the contents among the six of us in my buddy team and kept the can. It proved to be a valuable item to scoop up water from the artesian wells along the route when we could get close enough to a well and a guard wasn't too close.

I think it was the second day of the "March", we were herded off the road at Bataan airstrip. We were allowed to sit but the guards made sure we circled four 155mn artillery guns. The guns were firing across the bay at Corregidor. When the American forces on Corregidor returned the fire their first mortar went over us and the second mortar was short. The third mortar was on target and wiped out the artillery guns. It would have killed most of the prisoners and guards but, without any orders, all the prisoners and the guards had scattered to safety.

The "Death March", for me, started on 10 April 1942 at Mariveles and ended at Camp O'Donnell on 21 April 1942. We marched from Mariveles to San Fernando, a distance of about 120 kilometers, were placed in narrow gauge boxcars for a ride from San Fernando to Capus and then walked approximately nine more miles to Camp O'Donnell.

When I enlisted in the Army Air Corps I was strong, healthy and weighed approximately 140 pounds. During high school I had been very athletic and remained active and in excellent physical condition. I was one of the healthier individuals, weighing approximately 130 pounds when the "Death March" began. I was strong enough to help some of my buddies and friends who were weaker. I received one deep bayonet wound on my right leg during the "March" when a Jap guard discovered I was helping a friend. I had two close friends removed by arms and shot immediately. Another close friend went insane and dived head first from a bridge to a dry rock bed below. During the "March" I passed blood from my kidneys for about a week. Approximately thirteen thousand Americans started the "Death March" and about eight thousand survived the ordeal and reached San Fernando.

A typical day on the "March" was endless marching, a few hours toward San Fernando and then turning around and marching back a few hours. Monotonous, one foot in front of the other. Always hungry and thirsty, dejected and depressed. Trying to stay alert for the irate behavior of the guards and trying to help ailing and weary comrades. On the entire "March" I recall receiving only one rice ball and that was at San Fernando. After the first day or two we were unable to get food from the Filipinos even though they constantly wanted to give us food. The Japanese were determined that we would receive very little food and water. At Orani some of the men were fed a small ration but the supply was inadequate and was gone before I got there. I didn't see any rice much less anything else.

All Japanese guards were not mean and inhumane in their treatment but the humane guards were definitely in the minority. Some humane guards showed their compassion by letting a group of us cleans ourselves and cool off in a river. I think it was near Orani, I took advantage of the opportunity and removed my shoes and went into the water clothes and all. It was a good refreshing cleansing of body, clothes and soul, as well as an opportunity to fill our canteens.

About ten kilometers out of San Fernando we had a start marching double time. That was pretty rough since we were hungry, thirsty, tired and sick. About this time E. J. (Shorty) Batson got clobbered by a drunk Jap. The Jap came out of a bar and hit Shorty on the head, probably because he was the shortest person around and more nearly the Japs size. Shorty was knocked out but we were able to carry him the rest of the way into the enclosure (fenced in yard) at San Fernando. I don't like to tell what we did to that Jap - he didn't fair very well - and thankfully we didn't get caught, disposing of the Jap or carrying Shorty.

In San Fernando I lost my Schaeffer pen and pencil set. I was trying to buy some boiled eggs from a Filipino and got caught. Fortunately the guard was interested in the pen and pencil and I bribed him with the set but, of course, I didn't get the boiled eggs. That pen and pencil had my name engraved in gold.

We were in the fenced enclosure at San Fernando about two day and nights then, herded into narrow gauge boxcars. About sixty men would have been too many in each car and they forced, like prodding cattle, about 125 men into each car. They closed the door and locked it from the outside. With the tropical heat, no ventilation, standing room only and tropical diseases rampant, the journey was unbelievable. When the boxcar doors were opened at Capus (Capas) there were a number in my car that had not survived the trip but so many had already died it wasn't surprising.

After we were released from the boxcars the additional nine-mile walk from Capus (Capas) to our first prison camp, Camp O'Donnell, was just an extension of the inhumane treatment of the "Death March" on Bataan. I think I arrived at Camp O'Donnell on, 21 April, my sister's birthday. I had lost weight due to the food shortage prior to the "Surrender" and the lack of food furnished on the "Death March". But, I had escaped the malaria, dysentery and other devastating ailment that had plagued so many and caused many to die on the "March". However, before I left Camp O'Donnell, the ravages of these ailments caught up with me.

At Camp O'Donnell we were bothered very little except when some Japanese guard took a notion he wanted to be a big shot. He would work over several of us and we could show no resistance because, if we harmed a guard in any way, ten men were punished and usually killed. Our days were occupied burying our dead and attempting to patch up our wounds and recover from our illnesses. One of the first things we learned was to conceal all of our emotions.

The Japanese reasoned that slow starvation would make us too weak to attempt to escape or resist authority. To further insure our lack of resistance, the Japanese divided us into groups of ten men with the ranking NCO in charge. Our duty was to assure each man was familiar with the camp rules. The main rule being, "If one prisoner escapes, the remaining nine will be shot". Recaptured escapees were paraded around the camp for some twenty-four hours and then used for bayonet practice.