Pacific Odyssey: Along the Route of the Bataan Death March

This article is Part IV of a series that describes a journey from the Philippines to Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. For Part I, please click here.

Near Balanga, Bataan, which is west from Manila, across the bay. Photograph by Matthew Stevenson.

According to a book that I had in my Corregidor hotel, there was supposed to be a sound-and-light show that evening inside Malinta Tunnel, the command center that was carved into the base of a hillside. General Douglas MacArthur and the Philippine president, Manuel Quezon, had directed the war effort from this tunnel headquarters, at least when Corregidor was under attack from the air. The guide reads: “The Light and Sound Show features simulated explosions, life-size models re-creating scenes inside the besieged tunnel, audio tracks of actors making decisions as the Japanese close in. MacArthur sounds reedy; the tubercular Quezon coughs through most of his lines.” Unfortunately, as I was the only tourist on the island, the show was cancelled.

I didn’t mind missing the animated tunnel tour. Instead I ate dinner in the hotel dining room (yes, they opened it just for me) and read from my Kindle during those moments when the waiter did not feel obliged to stand at attention next to my table and ask the kind of questions usually reserved for a tax audit.

I went to bed with the air conditioner off and the screened windows open, so that I could fall asleep to the symphony of noises from the nearby jungle. As Kipling writes in The Jungle Book: “The air was full of all the night noises that, taken together, make one big silence…”

The next morning I wanted to cross on a boat to the Bataan mainland. On arriving I had asked about returning boats, and the touts had said, dismissively, “Oh, they leave all the time.” But when it came time to booking my outbound passage, there were no boats in the small harbor around the South Dock.

The indifference of the American government—to preserving the legacy of Corregidor—reminded me of a quote from William Tecumseh Sherman, who said: “I think I understand what military fame is; to be killed on the field of battle and have your name misspelled in the newspapers.”

In the end I petitioned the friendly desk clerk at the hotel, and she called a boat captain in nearby Cabcaben, a coastal town opposite Corregidor. I had no choice but to pay the $60 fare, as if I were a party of eight and chartering a fishing boat for the day.

I doubt it took thirty minutes to deliver me to the town dock in Cabcaben. From there, I walked up to the main road and caught a local bus on the Death March highway to Balanga, where online I had tried to reserve a hotel for the night. But nothing came back confirmed.

In my readings about the fighting on Bataan, I had decided that Balanga was close to many of the monuments and battle sites that I wanted to see, and in the main square there was an elegant hotel from which I could wander. It was a plan that made sense in my day dreams. On the ground, it was less successful.

First, the bus from Cabcaben to Balanga stopped at every crossroad and convenience store along the way. I did have a window seat, and I appreciated reviewing once again the Death March markers and the landscape of Bataan, which has qualities of a volcanic Pacific island.

Dominating the center of the peninsula is Mount Mariveles, an infected tooth of an old volcano, and around it are undulating hills and jungle streams, all of which turned the peninsula battle into a series of small-unit encounters, fought as if in the dark.

Once I arrived at the bus station in Balanga and transferred to a tuk-tuk, the driver had no idea how to find the Plaza Hotel, despite it being on the town’s main square. I am sure my Spanish did not help the cause.

Then when I asked at the hotel if I could book a room for the night, the clerk said it was “full” even though, at lunch time, the large dining room and lobby were empty. (It sounded like the Corregidor hotel shuffle.) At least she agreed to watch my backpack that afternoon while I went abroad in search of Bataan and its monsters.

* * *

Most of the shrines for the battle of Bataan are located around Mt. Samat, which is a twenty-five minute ride in a tuk-tuk from Balanga.

On that high ground, which dominates the center of the peninsula, the Philippine government has built a memorial and an observation tower, in which it is possible to ride an elevator to the top and survey the peninsula from one coast to the other.

On weekends, the shrine and tower are popular for local outings, and I followed many couples and families on the twisting stone path that ascends from the memorial to the observation tower.

From a tabletop model in the museum, however, it was easier to follow the course of the battle than it was from the top of the observation tower, which felt as cramped as the coning tower of a submarine. On top of the tower, as if in a doll’s house, I had to lean down to peer out the narrow windows, which were opaque from weather scratches. Think of Being John Malkovich on Floor 7 1/2.

In the museum, what became clear is the extent to which the attacking Japanese forces enveloped Allied forces by pushing inland on the peninsula and cutting through the American lines that had tried to make the best use of the undulating high ground around Mt. Samat.

The problem for the American and Philippine troops wasn’t that they chose bad positions to defend, but that they lacked air cover, ammunition, artillery, armor, food, medicine, and reinforcements to hold off the oncoming Japanese. Essentially they were ordered to die in the trenches.

In choosing to make his last stand on Bataan, MacArthur thought that he could anchor his lines around Mt. Samat and hold out indefinitely in the dense jungle, using rivers and undulating ground to defend his men. On the tables of sand back on Corregidor, the plan made sense.

What failed was that few supplies were ever sent forward to reinforce the American and Philippine armies. It’s too bad, as Bataan offered natural defensive lines. Manchester describes its contours:

Bataan, shaped like a miniature Florida, with the southern end pointing toward Corregidor, is twenty-five miles long and twenty miles wide at the neck—roughly the size of greater Los Angeles. Along its spine extinct jungle-clad volcanoes rise to nearly five thousand feet. There are just two roads, one cobblestoned and the other dirt. Rivers are treacherous. Cliffs are unscalable. Between huge mahogany trees, ipils, eucalyptus trees, and tortured banyans, almost impenetrable screens are formed by tropical vines, creepers, and bamboo. Beneath these lie sharp coral out-croppings, fibrous undergrowth, and alang-alang grass inhabited by serpents, including pythons. In the early months of the year rain pours down almost steadily. Lacking mosquito nets or shelter halves, the troops suffered from malaria, dengue fever, beriberi, hookworm, and pellagra. The water was contaminated. Men ate roots, leaves, papaya, breadfruit, monkey meat, wild chickens, and wild pigs. Always slender, the Filipino troops, wearing helmets fashioned from coconuts, grew gaunter and gaunter. At night the Japanese murdered sleep with firecrackers, shellfire, and obscene taunts shouted through megaphones.

MacArthur also, shamefully, played the public relations card, by repeatedly telling the men under his command that they only needed to hold out until vast reinforcements and thousands of planes arrived from the United States when, in fact, he knew early that no help was on the way and that Roosevelt and Marshall had written off the Philippines as a lost cause. (Secretary of War Henry Stimson had said starkly: “There are times when men have to die.”) Manchester quotes the war correspondent John Hersey, who understood that “‘truth’ was coming to the men in the Philippines in ‘mean little doses.’”

The case has been made that Bataan, despite the loss of an American and Filipino army, had aspects of a pyrrhic victory in that the “Battling Bastards of Bataan” slowed down the Japanese long enough (until April 1942) to allow the U.S. to rush reinforcements to Australia and to plan the counterattacks. By the same reasoning, Pearl Harbor can be described as an American victory as it forced the Japanese to “waste” many of their precious bombs sinking old American battleships.

Had Bataan fallen as rapidly as Singapore did, the Japanese army might well have used Mindanao (further to the south) as a springboard into northern Australia and swept across that country (as the Australian armies were fighting in North Africa).

But to any of the men holding the lines around Mt. Samat, I am sure the argument that a “moral victory” was won on Bataan would have prompted cynical laughter, especially given the suffering that followed the Allied surrender in April 1942.

* * *

To see the outline of Bataan’s battle lines, all I could do was roam around the countryside in my tuk-tuk and refer to maps that I had copied from histories and carried with me to the Philippines. Truth be told, there are very few memorials (aside from the Death March markers) to see on Bataan.

A lot of street intersections have sculptures to recall the fighting, and there are plaques with the names of generals and military units. But (aside from Mt. Samat) Bataan is not like Gettysburg or Verdun, vast military parks now given over to reflection or mourning. It’s an agricultural suburb of Manila, where few locals think about the war on Bataan any more than do the residents of Atlanta spend their days brooding about Sherman’s March to the Sea.

With me I had a number of books about Bataan, and I had read two of them before setting off from the Plaza Hotel: Hampton Sides’s Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of the World’s Greatest Rescue Mission, and Lester I. Tenney’s My Hitch in Hell: The Bataan Death March.

The Sides book struck me as pitched toward the deep pockets and clichés of the “greatest generation,” in that it tries to splice into the disaster on Bataan an uplifting, feel-good story about a rescue mission launched at the end of the war, to liberate American prisoners from a Japanese prison camp near Cabanatuan.

That raid did save a number of American lives and, moreover, was a psychological blow to the Japanese occupying the Philippines, indicating that their days in power were numbered. But the success of the rescue mission (which was made into a Hollywood motion picture with an upbeat sound track) should not paper over the fact that Bataan was the worst military defeat ever suffered by the American army.

My Hitch in Hell is a memoir of an American soldier who survived both the Death March and his subsequent incarceration in various prison camps, including, at the end of the war, one back in Japan, where Tenney was forced to work underground in a mine.

Tenney has left a compelling record of what it was like to fight against long odds on Bataan, and then to be marched more than one hundred miles into captivity (which for him began in Capas, in a dusty field that was near to what was Camp O’Donnell).

That I tired of his narrative voice in the book—much of it feels like the dialogue in a 1940s war movie, with wisecracking GIs and gung ho sergeants—may have more to do with the passage of time than his failings as a writer.

Tenney writes of the end-game: “After four months of fighting the enemy, of being on short rations, and of surviving everything from malaria to gunshot wounds with little or no medical treatment, we heard the news: the Japanese had finally cracked our last defense. We were now only about two miles from the water’s edge with no place to go and without the means to fight. We were going to surrender.”

And more than Ghost Stories, which is pitched to the John Rambo – Ken Burns audiences, My Hitch in Hell makes it clear that MacArthur was out of touch with his armies on the ground in Bataan, which explains why he kept issuing upbeat press releases about a battlefront that was otherwise collapsing.

* * *

From Mt. Samat I had the tuk-tuk take me to what is called the “Final Battle Site,” which is where the Japanese broke through the American and Filipino lines, leading to General Wainwright’s surrender at Kilometer 12. But all I could find off the east-west road (across the peninsula) was one marker, on which was engraved:

Astride this point, which was located in the vital North-South Trail 4, was positioned the 23rd Infantry Regiment which held the center of the 21st Division (PA). Subjected to artillery and aerial bombardment on the morning of Good Friday, 3 April [1942], its outpost line of resistance north of Tiawir River collapsed. At 1500 hours the Japanese 61st Infantry Regiment, 4th Division, broke through the main line of resistance at this point and swerving eastward forced the 22nd Infantry to abandon its position.

Almost immediately, the Death March began.

Had I been able to rent a car in Balanga, I might have been able to detour slowly up the coastal road and to inspect the various crossroads and markers that outline the route from San Fernando (near Clark Airfield) to Capas and Camp O’Donnell. But no one at the hotel knew where there was a car rental office, and, besides, I was not keen to drive on my own in Philippines.

Instead, to continue north I threw myself on the mercy of the local bus network. At the station in Balanga, I connected with a local bus heading to Angeles, a nondescript city of 500,000 people.

In this way, I could retrace the route of the Death March and, on the following day, visit the killing fields near Capas. Then from nearby Clark Airfield, I could catch an express bus to Ninoy Aquino International Airportin Manila, where at midnight I was booked on an overnight flight to Papua New Guinea.

I took the front seat, behind the driver, and slid over to an open window. The bus had the look of a budget line item from a 1974 transport appropriation bill, and it made the drive with its side doors open.

The driver never went more than 300 yards without stopping to drop someone off or pick someone up. My guess is that some four hundred persons, during the course of the afternoon, boarded or got off the rickety bus. Most rode less than four or five kilometers, and usually were carrying large shopping bags from the shops that lined the route.

I figured that if each passenger paid an average fare of about $0.50, the driver’s take, and that of his collection agents on board, would have been $200, which explained all the stops and why it took four hours to go forty-five miles. We were milking a cash cow.

* * *

The 1942 Death March operated according to the whims of the Japanese officers and guards who prodded their prisoners along at the tips of their bayonets and clubs. Anyone who collapsed on the side of the road was shot or left for dead. Anyone taking food or water from a villager along the route (and many did) could likewise be beaten or killed.

Tenney writes: “Each day on the march we trudged along like zombies. We walked from 6:30 in the morning till 8:00 or 9:00 at night. Most of the days we would get a few minutes’ rest when the Japanese changed guards; otherwise it was hit and miss regarding a rest period…. No sympathy, no concern for us as humans, no burials—the Japanese were treating us like animals. We had no doubt as to how we would be treated as prisoners of war.”

Squeezed into my window seat, I tried to imagine the cruelty of the Death March, but the images did not come easily, as we were driving along what could have been any boulevard in Asia—one lined with kiosks, convenience stores, and gas stations.

In the town of Orani, I did see the “Death March Sculpture,” which was the familiar image of soldiers helping a fallen comrade, and there was another statue that the bus passed in Dinalupihan, which showed bronze machine gunners in action. When the sun set over the fields to the west of the road, I was left to contemplate the Death March in darkness.

It turned out my bus wasn’t going to Angeles, but only to San Fernando, where prisoners on the Death March were loaded onto trains for the last part of the journey. One Death Marcher, Mariano Villarim, recalled: “We marched to the San Fernando Staton where we were herded into crowded boxcars like cattle getting ready for slaughterhouse.”

I had read that the station in San Fernando (at kilometer 102) had been preserved as a museum. It wasn’t far from where my bus had dropped me, but since it was 8:00 p.m. I decided not to wade through the atomic traffic particles to see it.

I did, however, come across a passage in Tenney’s memoirs that described the train journey north. He writes:

We were herded onto small railway boxcars. Cars that would normally hold ten animals, or perhaps twenty-five or thirty people, were jammed with eighty to one hundred men. We had to take turns just to sit down because there was not enough room for all of us to sit at the same time. Even sticking our feet out of the car did not leave enough room for the rest of the men. Some of the men were unable to breathe and were so tightly packed in the middle of the car that they suffocated while trying to get a breath of fresh air. The lucky ones were those who were able to get to the outside door and breathe some of the air that seeped in. We all stood shoulder to shoulder for most of the five-hour ride to Capas, the town near our final destination, a POW camp.

The thought of death trains in San Fernando, swaying on the tracks toward Capas, reminded me of other Japanese internment camps and cruelties that I had come across in my Asia travels.

In Manchuria, I went to some of the places where Japanese soldiers had used Chinese prisoners of war for bayonet practice. On Penang, in Malaysia, at the ruins of the old British fortress, I saw where the Japanese turned some of the bunkers into tiger cages for their prisoners. And in Thailand, I had walked along some of the tracks to Kanchanaburi, the so-called Burma Railway, where it is said that for every railroad tie, there was a dead prisoner.

Part of the reason for these cruelties was that these men had surrendered, and nothing was more dishonorable in Japanese culture than a soldier who had given up.

In the movie version of Eric Lomax’s The Railway Man, Lomax (a British prisoner of war from Singapore) confronts one of his torturers whom he has tracked down. The dialogue goes like this:

Eric: What do you tell people about what you did to us?

Nagase: We do not talk about it. No one will talk about it.

Eric: Nor do we. And you know why? Because no one would believe it. No one would believe what you did to us. You treated us like animals because we surrendered.

* * *

My hotel in Angeles had the name 999. (I think I picked it to remember the 2012 Republican candidate Herman Cain’s tax plan: 9-9-9…) From where the bus dropped me in the chaotic downtown, I followed several versions of confused directions to other hotels that also had numbers for names, until finally I hired a tuk-tuk to drive me the last four hundred yards to the hotel.

I had picked the hotel because it had a swimming pool and air conditioning (both of which turned out to be murky), and advertised an airport shuttle service (which was non-existent). But it was well after 10 p.m. when I checked in, and I didn’t mind the inconveniences.

I can say truthfully that I ate my breakfast next morning “poolside,” but that could mislead readers into thinking that I was at a Regent Hotel and that breakfast wasn’t something I spilled onto the pavement for the stray cats to finish. Nor did I rush back to my room for my swim suit, as the pool, even at sunrise, resembled a crocodile holding pen at a roadside Reptile Land.

I did drink the instant coffee and plot out my course for the day, which was to catch a mini-van on the main road to Capas and there hire a taxi to take me to the Capas National Shrine, about four miles outside the town, on the site where the prisoners from the Death March were dumped from their cattle cars.

Tenney writes about Capas in these words:

Unfortunately for us, the camp was never completed and it looked as bad as we felt. It had several nipa-thatched [huts] that [were] built on stilts, the custom in the Philippines, except these huts were on rickety stilts and looked like they were ready to collapse at any moment. Many of the buildings did not have roofs, and although it was in the middle of a lush jungle, this camp was treeless. It looked as if no one would be able to live there for long….

Insects buzzed and climbed all over the stinking mess, but we had to live that way because the Japanese refused to help us improve our sanitary conditions or to provide us with any medication to control either the dysentery or the malaria. Death was running a merry-go-round and we men were the riders, going around and around and never knowing when it would stop to take us off….

American servicemen were dying at the rate of fifty or more a day. There were five times more Filipinos than Americans, but they were dying at a slower rate of 150 a day.

Just getting water involved sending men to a nearby stream (when I saw it, it looked like an industrial sewage canal), and there was little if any medicine to treat sick prisoners.

In all, according to a sign at the memorial, about 31,000 Filipinos and about 1,500 Americans were to die at Capas. Most died as did earlier compatriots on the Death March: they starved to death, were beaten, or died of disease.

* * *

Tenney survived because he taught himself rudimentary Japanese and because he vowed to himself that each day, no matter how awful he felt, he would keep busy with chores or helping others. For him, engagement—with his captors and his fellow soldiers—would be the ticket home. He writes:

This little speech that I made to myself helped me figure out how I was going to deal with each day’s activities and problems. First, I decided that I would have to keep busy. Even if I was tired, I would have to do something each day to stimulate my mind and to make me want to face tomorrow. Second, I would not just sit back and let the Japanese do whatever they wanted to me. Instead, I vowed to have a voice, even if only a small voice, in any decision that affected me personally. Third, I would use my knowledge of the language to communicate on a regular basis with the Japanese I encountered. And last, I would never forget my main objective: to survive and return home. Therefore, everything I did from that day on was weighed against “the probability of my going home, if I do such and such.” Like the days on the Bataan march when I looked down the road to fix my eyes on a goal, a place to aim for, I would search for anything that would help me reach my objective.

Some internet posts speak of the Capas National Shrine as principally a Filipino memorial, with the American monuments and plaques shunted off to the side (which is the case). But I am glad that I went, if only to realize that the Death March involved many more Filipinos (our allies) than it did Americans, and that the experience in the camps (Capas was just one of several) was as bad as anything endured on the coastal road.

Tenney writes: “Of the seventy-two thousand Filipinos and Americans on the Bataan Death March [not all were held at Capas] only about seventy-five hundred survived—one in ten. Of the twelve thousand Americans, only about fifteen hundred came home. I viewed my survival as being given a little extra time to see if I could make the most of it. I learned that life has great value. No single day can be wasted or thrown away.”

In the defeat, no American officer was ever charged with dereliction of duty. If anything, General MacArthur was rewarded with theater command in Asia, which indicates how the army deals with its disasters. But it was also the Roosevelt administration that wrote off its men in the Philippines.

* * *

I had time to explore around the Capas Shrine. I walked in the thick woods where a tree has been planted for each prisoner who died. On the many plaques around the American memorial courtyard (over the common graves), I read inscriptions about what the prisoners had endured. Testifying to the confusion over exactly how many prisoners died on the Death March, one reads:

Wrapped in tattered blankets and slung on bamboo poles… their living comrades carried them to their graves in a “procession of the dead” from dawn until dusk. Available historical records indicate that out of approximately 54,000 prisoners of war incarcerated within the Capas POW Camp a total of 25,000 Filipino and 2,500 American servicemen were buried in these common graves.

As I had learned from reading Tenney and Sides, many of the prisoners at the camps in the Philippines were transferred to other labor details in the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, and their deaths are much harder to document, which is why Tenney’s point is the most telling: only one in ten of the prisoners came home.

At the end of his book, Tenney gives a positive spin on the contribution that Bataan made to the Allied victory in the Pacific, and he quotes Douglas MacArthur at length on the historical importance of the two battles. MacArthur said:

Bataan, along with Corregidor, the citadel of its external defense, made possible all that has happened here today. History, I am sure, will record it as one of the decisive battles of the world. Its long, protracted struggle enabled the United Nations to gather strength to resist in the Pacific. Had it not held out, Australia would have fallen with incalculable results. Our triumphs of today belong equally to that dead army. Its heroism and sacrifice have been fully acclaimed but the great strategic results of that mighty defense are only now becoming fully apparent. The Bataan garrison was destroyed due to its dreadful handicaps, but no army in history more thoroughly accomplished its mission. Let no man henceforth speak of it other than as a magnificent victory.

What else could the general say, but who would remember MacArthur (any more than they do General Wainwright) if, instead of heading off to Australia on those PT boats, he had marched with his men into captivity and perished in the sweltering heat at Capas? 

Next up: To Papua New Guinea, Milne Bay, and Goodenough Island.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.