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A double dose of hell: The Bataan Death March and what came next

By Brad Lendon, CNN

Balanga, Philippines (CNN) — On the grounds of an elementary school in a small Philippine town, the fuse was lit on one of the worst war crimes of the 20th century while at the same time setting in motion one of the greatest survival stories in US military history.

The main feature of the Bataan World War II Museum behind Balanga Elementary School is a life-size diorama of the surrender of the US forces in the Philippines to Japanese commanders on April 9, 1942.

The museum itself is tiny, taking up less than two floors of a building that doesn’t seem much bigger than a modern American suburban house. There are some displays of the weapons of the Bataan campaign, bits of a wreckage, a few personal items, wall art with bullet points of World War II and the fighting in the Philippines. The diorama sits outside its entrance.

It hardly seems enough to remember what it represents – the largest surrender of US military forces in history.

Hours after that surrender, tens of thousands of Filipino and American troops began the Bataan Death March, a five-day, 65-mile trek to a prison camp to the north, during which they were denied food and water amid searing heat.

Thousands would die. Others would show unimaginable resilience.

The Battle of Bataan

As Japanese planes were bombing Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, Tokyo’s forces were also making their first attacks on other US military positions in the Pacific. And the Philippines was a key target.

Then a US commonwealth, the Philippines was home to some 20,000 US troops. About 100,000 Filipinos were also attached to the US Army by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1941 and the combined force was known as the US Army in the Far East (USAFFE).

Two weeks after its first aerial attacks on December 8, 1941, Japan’s main invasion force landed on the main Philippine island of Luzon, and in just over three months pushed the US and Filipino defenders into the Bataan Peninsula, across Manila Bay from the Philippine capital.

The plan of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the US commander in the Philippines, had been for his forces to hold out on the southern part of the peninsula until the US Navy could deliver reinforcements and supplies to the besieged defenders.

But the Americans and Filipinos quickly ran out of ammunition, medicine and food, and the commander on Bataan, Gen. Edward King, went against his superior’s orders and told his troops to lay down their arms, accepting personal responsibility for the defeat.

“You men remember this. You did not surrender … you had no alternative but to obey my order,” he said.

Accounts from the time said King asked for assurances from the Japanese officer accepting the surrender, Col. Matoo Nakayama, that his troops be treated humanely.

“We are not barbarians” was the Japanese reply.

A post-war trial would find the Japanese commander in the Battle of Bataan and the man responsible for the troops that carried out the Death March, Gen. Masaharu Homma, guilty of war crimes. He was executed in 1946.

The Death March

That surrender site in Balanga doesn’t mark the beginning of the Bataan Death March. Some of the troops came from Marileves on the peninsula’s southern tip and Bagac on the west coast. But all would pass Balanga as they moved north.

The march’s route now looks like a roadway you could see many places in the world. Trucks and cars share the pavement with the ubiquitous motorized tricycles and jeepneys that provide public transport in the Philippines.

It passes McDonald’s and Jollibee restaurants, strip malls and car dealerships, farm fields and under-construction housing developments touting the latest in luxury living at affordable prices.

But in 1942, it was hell on Earth.

The American and Filipino POWs were put in groups of 100 men each, with four Japanese guards per group, according to a US Army history. They marched four abreast in “blistering” heat.

Survivor James Bollich recounted the suffering in a 2012 interview with the Air Force News Service.

“They beat us with rifle butts, sabers, clubs, anything they could get their hands on. That went on all day long. They wouldn’t let anybody have a drink of water or let us rest, and they didn’t feed us,” Bollich said.

“Once anybody collapsed, the Japanese immediately killed them,” he said. “It looked like they were really trying to kill us all.”

Today the route is marked by occasional white concrete markers by the roadside, some remembering those who were on it, like one at kilometer 24, dedicated to the memories of “J.B. McBrid (sic) and Tillman R. Rutledge, two buddies who walked the Bataan Death March.”

A marker for kilometer 100, in front of the veterans cemetery on the former US Clark Air Base, just says “Death March.”

Death in boxcar

For the thousands of US and Filipino POWs, the trek from Bataan to the detention facility at the former US military Camp O’Donnell in Capas, to the north of the peninsula, was not entirely on foot.

From a railhead in San Fernando to another about five miles from the prison camp, the POWs were jammed into boxcars for about 30 miles (48 kilometers) of their journey.

The smallest of these boxcars were about 240 square feet (22 square meters) on the interior. With wooden sides, metal roofs and only a small slit for ventilation, they became ovens for the 100 or more POWs in each.

The last of their kind sits today on the Capas National Shrine, erected on the site of the former Camp O’Donnell, but a visitor could easily miss it.

It’s displayed off the parking area of the sprawling monument to the Philippines war dead. Unlike in 1942, a roof shields the boxcar. It’s almost a sanctuary from the burning sun on a March 2024 morning.

But on a nearby plaque are the accounts of those who survived a box car – maybe this very one – in 1942, and it’s spooky to be near it, to poke your head through its open door and imagine the horror it once held.

“We were herded into crowded boxcars like cattle getting ready for slaughterhouse… Men were fighting and struggling to keep a foothold and stand upright… The platform (of the boxcar) was a sea of filth from dysentery patients.”

And more.

“We were being cooked alive in a 110-degree oven; we sweated, sizzled, urinated, defecated… I saw a few who were fainting but had not an inch to fall on… I do not know how many of my comrades died in that car, there must have been at least 10.”

But for those POWs who lived, there would be unthinkable ordeals yet to come.

The Capas Concentration Camp

Standing on the grounds of the former Camp O’Donnell today, it’s impossible to imagine what it once was, a prisoner of war detention facility with conditions so bad Filipinos refer to it today as the Capas Concentration Camp.

More than 31,000 trees – each numbered in white numerals – have been planted on the 133-acre site to honor each of the fallen during the Death March. A 230-foot-high (70-meter) obelisk towers over stone walls with the names of the dead engraved on them.

It’s peaceful on this March morning, a lone visitor outnumbered by the two-person snack and souvenir stand staff.

In the late spring and early summer of 1942, more than 60,000 survivors of the death march were jammed onto the same real estate, according to a US Army history.

“There was little running water, sparse food, no medical care and only slit trenches along the sides of the camp for sanitation. The heat was intolerable, flies rose out of the latrines and covered the prisoners’ food,” the Army history says.

Around 400 POWs – Filipinos and Americans – would die each day, it says.
According to the US Navy’s History and Heritage Command, about 9,000 Americans made it to O’Donnell, and 17% of those died there.

The toll was far worse for the Filipinos. Some 26,000 died at Camp O’Donnell during its 73 days of operations, according to the US Defense Department’s POW/MIA Accounting Agency.

Off to the left of the main Filipino memorial at Capas, across the parking lot and tucked up against the site’s perimeter, is a memorial bearing names of the American victims of O’Donnell. Hundreds of them are etched in stone, now weathered by the heat and humidity of this part of Luzon island.

Like the museum back at the surrender site in Balanga, it hardly seems enough to the memories of those who had suffered so much.

By midsummer 1942, the Japanese decided to close O’Donnell.

Over the next six months, Filipino POWs were gradually released back into the local population, after signing pledges not to take up arms against Japanese occupiers.

The Americans at O’Donnell were moved to another camp, Cabanatuan, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) to the west, where conditions were marginally better.

But by 1944, the resolve of American POWs would be tested again.

Thousands more of them would die. But a few would pull off one of the greatest but largely unheralded survival stories of World War II.

America’s worst maritime tragedy

There’s no memorial in the Philippines to the single biggest loss of life at sea in US history. But the grounds of the Capas monument are a good place to think about it because its roots run through there and back down to that surrender site in Balanga.

By 1944, Japan needed laborers to sustain its war effort in factories and mines and POWs were an easy source of manpower. And US forces island-hopping across the Pacific were closing in on the Philippines, looking to make good on Gen. MacArthur’s pledge of “I shall return.”

So the American POWs at Cabanatuan and other camps were loaded into the holds of cargo ships to be taken to Japan or its occupied territories.

Conditions for prisoners on the ships were much like those boxcars on the death march, men packed so tightly there was no room to sit in darkened holds with no ventilation and temperatures well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius).

The Americans called them “hell ships.”

On October 24, 1944, one of those hell ships, the Arisan Maru, was steaming in the Bashi Strait between the Philippines and Taiwan with more than 1,700 American POWs in its holds when a US Navy submarine, mistaking the unmarked ship for a Japanese cargo or troop transport, struck it with a torpedo.

The old freighter broke apart and the POWs spilled into the South China Sea, according to accounts from some of the nine Americans who survived.

Four were picked up and taken back into custody by Japanese forces.

But five US soldiers, Lt. Robert Overbeck, Sgt. Calvin Graef, Pvt. Avery Wilber, Cpl. Donald Meyer and Pvt. Anton Cichy,  would escape to freedom.

All but Meyer also survived the Bataan Death March.

According to their accounts, they were led by Overbeck, who like almost all of the POWs, was forced away from Japanese naval ships that could have rescued them.

But the lieutenant was lucky enough to find an Arisan Maru lifeboat left to float away after the Japanese crew that used it boarded a rescue ship. They’d also left a small amount of food and fresh water aboard.

Overbeck’s luck continued when the lifeboat bumped into a wooden crate that contained a sail.

Eventually, four other POWs would join Overbeck aboard that lifeboat. And as the Army lieutenant, a civilian mining engineer in the Philippines when war broke out, had a bit of sailing experience, he was able to pilot the lifeboat about 250 miles toward the Chinese coast, on at least one occasion avoiding a Japanese warship in the South China Sea.

According to Overbeck’s account, posted online by his son Charles, they were taken aboard a local junk boat near the Chinese coast and from there were escorted inland, avoiding the Japanese occupiers.

“For 12 days the five survivors were transported about 600 miles by foot, truck, bicycle and plane to Kunming airfield, base of the 14th Air Force and the former Flying Tigers,” according to a 2019 synopsis of the Arisan Maru sinking from the nonprofit research project Asia Policy Point.

The five survivors would fly west from Kunming aboard a US C-47 on November 28, 1944.

“We arrived in Washington, D. C. on December 1, 1944, via North Africa and the Atlantic,” Overbeck wrote.

“But it was mid-February before word was received from the Japanese through the Red Cross in Geneva that our ship had been sunk with no POW survivors. I saw the list with our names along with the rest – close friends, acquaintances, enemies and strangers.”

According to a US Naval History and Heritage Command webpage, 1,781 POWs, almost all American, were aboard Arisan Maru when it left the Philippines.

“This was the greatest US loss of life at sea,” it says.

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