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Bataan Death March and POW Camps: Hell on Earth
Article first published in Vol. 25, 2006.
By Mike Chisum, Jackie Ellithorpe and Roman Sandoval
Dysentery. Malaria. Starvation. Men bayoneted, shot or decapitated. During World War II, American and Filipino soldiers died from these and other causes on what would be known as the infamous Bataan Death March on the Philippine island of Luzon in April 1942.
Image caption: Las Cruces bronze honoring Bataan soldiers shows one looking back at the past, another down at the present and a third ahead to the future. Photo by April Vise
The destruction of the Hawaiian fleet eliminated the chance of evacuation for those stationed in the Philippines. Ten hours after Pearl Harbor, the attack on the Philippines came. With no help from the air or sea, American and Philippine forces were still able to repel the Japanese. With their food dwindling, in January 1942, the American and Filipino troops were put on half rations, and then their rations were reduced twice more. Food, ammunition, medicine and other supplies were dangerously low, and replacements did not come.
Frank Hewlett, World War II correspondent in the Philippines dubbed the men “The Battling Bastards of Bataan” in this poem:
No mama, no papa, no Uncle Sam;
No aunts, no uncles, no cousins, no nieces;
No pills, no planes, no artillery pieces;
And nobody gives a damn.
The 200th and 515th Coast Artillery, Anti-Aircraft, were units of the New Mexico National Guard and were among the 70,000 troops who defended the Bataan Peninsula. They had trained at Fort Bliss. The 200th was ranked the best anti-aircraft regiment available to the United States.
Even as they were ignored by their government, the American and Filipino forces made a valiant stand for four months before Major General Edward King finally surrendered the forces on April 8, 1942. This surrender and capture of American forces is the largest in U. S. military history.
Image caption: Map of Luzon’s Bataan Peninsula shows the route of the deadly forced march of American & Filipino soldiers by the Japanese in April 1942. More Americans were taken prisoner on the island of Corregidor in May 1942. Drawing by David Jauregui, based on a map provided by Weldon Hamilton The next day, the Japanese began to march the troops 65 miles on foot from the town of Mariveles, located at the mouth of the Bataan Peninsula in the southern corner of Luzon, to Camp O'Donnell. Only about 54,000 of the 70,000 men who were forced to march arrived at the camp. About 10,000 died and some escaped. On the way, Japanese soldiers subjected these men to brutal acts of torture.
From the beginning, the captured American and Filipino soldiers experienced no compassion from the Japanese. The soldiers were already weakened by disease and lack of food. Anyone who fell to the side of the road because of dehydration or disease was either shot or bayoneted. The men received little or no food for several days. Even more important was the fact that they were deprived of water, despite its ready availability in artesian wells along the route.
While some men were finally given a small ball of rice to eat and a cup of water a day, others traveled the entire trip without food or water. Weldon Hamilton, U.S. Air Corps 34th Pursuit Squadron, also stationed on Luzon, said he was in relatively good shape when he reached Camp O'Donnell, but that was not the case with other men.
Harry Steen, from the 200th Coast Artillery, recalled barely making it to Camp O'Donnell. He said that he had not been fed or given water in five days, and he was weakened by malaria.
In a January 2006 interview with a Borderlands editor, Hamilton was asked what kept him going. He replied, “the sound of gunshots as another sick or struggling soldier was shot or the sound of a soldier gasping as he was bayoneted.” After some time at Camps O'Donnell and Cabanatuan, Hamilton was taken to Japan aboard one of its unmarked “hell ships,” enemy freighters used to transport American POWs to Japan, Korea and Manchuria. There they worked as slave labor for the Japanese war effort. In 1945, Hamilton witnessed the atomic bomb exploding over Nagasaki.
While the American soldiers who were captured on Luzon made the journey to O'Donnell, the soldiers on Corregidor, the small Philippine island directly across from the Bataan Peninsula, kept fighting until May 10, 1942. In a February 2006 interview, Ward Redshaw, a survivor from the 31st Infantry, told Borderlands editors the story about leaving the island of Luzon for Corregidor. A towering six feet seven inches, he was provided with a custom set of size 15 boots. He lost the only other pair of size 15 boots when he was ordered to rid himself of his pack while fighting the Japanese.
Redshaw resorted to wearing size 12 boots with the toes cut out. The commander on Luzon could not accept his footwear and gave the order for his transfer to Corregidor. Redshaw's transfer may well have helped save his life. Soldiers on Corregidor were in better shape when they were taken prisoner because they had food and other supplies during their resistance. Redshaw was not on the death march itself but did end up in one of the POW camps in Cabanatuan, approximately 118 miles north of Manila.
In order to escape Cabanatuan, Redshaw volunteered to go to Japan where he would work in a Mitsui coal mine for another three years. There his height caused him to shatter the helmet light that miners wore. After three smashed lights and a beating that almost crippled him, he found a way to get topside, stoking the boiler that heated water for the miners. He witnessed the atomic bomb exploding over Hiroshima that finally led to the end of the war and his freedom. go to top
At Camp O'Donnell, without food and medicine the men easily contracted malaria in the mosquito-infested jungle. Most men on the march had dysentery from drinking out of stagnant pools of water where the water buffalo coated themselves with mud to prevent the flies from swarming on them. Given only a bit of rice to eat, Redshaw and Hamilton remember scavenging the camps for something to eat. Not until much later when the Japanese allowed the men to receive American Red Cross boxes with food did the men's health begin to improve.In July 1942, the Japanese released the remainder of the Filipino soldiers. The American men who were left behind at the POW camps continued to be ravaged by disease with little medical care available, and the death rates soared. The “zero wards” in the makeshift hospitals in Cabanatuan earned their name from the fact that once a soldier entered one of these wards, the chance of survival was almost zero. Survivors such as Redshaw and Hamilton all speak of the horror of their days at Cabanatuan.
After more than three years as prisoners, many of the men resembled Holocaust victims in Nazi concentration camps. Redshaw had lost 54 pounds from his pre-service days. Harry Steen weighed 88 pounds when rescued by marines in 1945. He remembered he was so skinny that he could wrap his two middle fingers around his thigh and his fingers overlapped!
All the survivors faced numerous scrapes with death. They prevailed over disease, neglect and physical and mental abuse. They came back different men: witnesses to hell on earth.
Weldon C. Hamilton has served as the State Commander, Department of New Mexico, American Ex-Prisoners of War and is the author of a book entitled Late Summer of 1941 and My War with Japan. Originally from Kansas, he has lived in Las Cruces with his wife Audrey since 1971.
Ward F. Redshaw also lives in Las Cruces. He lost a leg as a result of the beatings he received as a POW. He is in the process of writing a book about his time in the Philippines and Japan. He enjoys building model trains and attends POW/MIA functions regularly. Harry Steen recounts more of his story on page 11 of this issue.
A commemorative Death March is held every year at White Sands Missile Range, and Hamilton and other Bataan survivors try to attend. Begun in 1989 by the Army ROTC Department at NMSU, this arduous hike of 26.2 miles across desert sands and hills in the Tularosa Basin is not for the weekend enthusiast but for well trained military and civilian athletes.
The Albuquerque Bataan Memorial Park features twelve granite columns containing the story and 1,818 names of the members of the 200th and 515th Coast Artillery units. In Santa Fe, a museum and library are located in the original armory where the 200th was processed for entry into the war. The New Mexico legislature also passed a resolution to require its schools to teach the story of the Bataan Death March. In 1950, El Paso dedicated the Bataan Memorial Trainway downtown to area soldiers who died on the march.
On June 1, 2006, Bataan veterans reunited at the state convention of the American Ex-Prisoners of War at the Las Cruces Hilton and at the Bataan Memorial Park in Las Cruces. These and other remembrances assure that the men who lost their lives and the survivors alike will never be forgotten.