Revisiting The Bataan Battle – The Worst Surrender In US History


At the grounds of an elementary school in a small Philippine town, one of the biggest war crimes of the 20th century got underway. Simultaneously, one of the greatest military survival tales in history got underway. A life-size replica of the day US troops in the Philippines surrendered to Japanese authorities on April 9, 1942, is the centerpiece of the Bataan World War II Museum, which is located behind Balanga Elementary School.

The actual museum is quite tiny. It occupies just two stories of a structure that resembles a contemporary American neighborhood house. There are weaponry and wreckage from the Battle of Bataan, as well as wall art featuring bullet holes from World War II and the combat in the Philippines. In front of the door is the model.

It seems insufficient to recall that it was the largest US troop defeat in history. After the Japanese surrendered, tens of thousands of American and Filipino soldiers began the Bataan Death March. They had to walk 65 miles over the course of five days to reach a detention camp in the north. It was a hot and muggy trek without food or drink. Many would lose their lives. Some would have incredible strength.

The Battle of Bataan

Japanese aircraft attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. Tokyo’s forces began attacking additional US military installations in the Pacific at the same time. One of the primary objectives was the Philippines. When the Philippines was a US colony, roughly 20,000 US troops lived there. Franklin D. Roosevelt recruited over 100,000 Filipinos into the US Army in 1941. They collectively went by the name US Army in the Far East (USAFFE).

The first air strikes against Japan took place on December 8, 1941. The main invasion force touched down on Luzon, the major island of the Philippines, two weeks later, on December 15, 1941. They drove the American and Filipino defenders into the Bataan Peninsula, which is located across Manila Bay from the Philippine metropolis, in less than three months. General Douglas MacArthur, the United States commander in the Philippines, intended for his forces to occupy the southern portion of the peninsula while he arranged for the US Navy to transport reinforcements and supplies to support the beleaguered defenders.

But food, medicine, and ammunition soon ran out for the Americans and Filipinos. Bataan’s commander, Gen. Edward King, defied orders and ordered his men to lay down their arms, accepting full responsibility for the loss. “Men, remember this.” You persevered… “You had no choice but to do what I said,” he stated. According to historical accounts, King requested a pledge of respect for his men from Col. Matoo Nakayama, the Japanese officer who accepted the surrender.

Declared the Japanese, “We are not barbarians.” Gen. Masaharu Homma, who commanded the Japanese forces during the Battle of Bataan and oversaw the men who carried out the Death March, was accused of war crimes in a trial that would take place following the war. That was in 1946.

The Death March

The Bataan Death March did not start in Balanga, where thousands gave up. A portion of the soldiers was from the southernmost tip of the peninsula, Marileves, and the west coast town of Bagac. However, they would all pass Balanga as they headed north. Now the route of the march appears to be one you could find anywhere in the world. In the Philippines, motorized tricycles and jeepneys, which are common forms of public transit, coexist with vehicles and trucks on the road.

It passes by McDonald’s and Jollibee eateries, parking lots and strip malls, farmlands, and still-under-construction home projects that offer the newest in upscale living at costs that are beyond the reach of most people. But 1942 was an awful year to live on Earth.

Each group of 100 soldiers had four Japanese guards, according to a history book on American and Filipino prisoners of war. It was “blistering” hot outside, so their steps were four wide. Survivor James Bollich described the agony in a 2012 interview with the Air Force News Service. “They beat us with clubs, rifle butts, sabers, and anything else they could find.” It continued all day. According to Bolich, “They wouldn’t let anyone drink water or rest, and they didn’t feed us.”

“As soon as someone fell down, the Japanese killed them,” he stated. “It looked like they were setting us all on fire.”Along the road today are white concrete markers honoring those who have traversed this way. At kilometer 24, for instance, there is a sign that reads, “J.B. McBride and Tillman R. Rutledge, two friends who walked the Bataan Death March.” There is a sign that simply reads “Death March” at kilometer 100, in front of the soldiers’ cemetery on the site of the former US Clark Air Base.

Demise in a Boxcar

The trek from Bataan to the prison in the former US military Camp O’Donnell in Capas, which is located to the north of the peninsula, was not entirely on foot for the thousands of US and Filipino prisoners of war. From a railhead in San Fernando to another approximately 5 miles from the detention camp, the prisoners of war traveled approximately 30 miles (48 kilometers) in cramped boxcars.

The smallest of these boxcars had a volume of roughly 240 square feet, or 22 square meters. Each of the 100 or more prisoners of war that lived inside transformed them into ovens thanks to the wooden sides, metal roofs, and tiny air-flow apertures.

It’s easy for a tourist to overlook the last one of its sort, located on the grounds of Camp O’Donnell, at the Capas National Shrine. It is on display behind the parking lot of the massive memorial to the war dead of the Philippines. It’s not 1942; the boxcar has a roof now. In March 2024, it’s practically a safe spot to escape the scorching sun.

On a neighboring memorial, however, are the accounts of those who survived a box car—possibly this one—in 1942. Being near it and peering through the open door to imagine how awful the interior must have been makes you feel uneasy.

We were packed into cramped boxcars like prey headed for slaughter. Men were fighting while attempting to stand up straight and remain upright. People with dysentery had left a sea of filth on the boxcar platform.” plus more.

“We were melting alive in a 110-degree oven; we shivered, spit, peed, and pooped.” I witnessed a few individuals faint, but they had nothing to land on. At least ten of my pals must have perished in that car; I’m not sure how many. However, the worst was not over for the prisoners of war who were still alive.

A Concentration Camp Was Capas

It’s difficult to picture what life was like as a prisoner of war on the grounds of what was previously Camp O’Donnell, with conditions so horrible that the Filipino people now refer to it as the Capas Concentration Camp.

Over 31,000 trees dot the 133-acre area, each bearing a white number in remembrance of those who lost their lives during the Death March. Overlooking stone walls bearing the engraved names of the deceased is a 230-foot (70-meter) tall pillar. This March morning is calm, and I’m the only one here at the gift and snack shop.