As The Bamboos Sway: The mythical legend of Bataan Death March


It is often said that when the legend is better than history, the legend is presented and accepted as truth. That is assuming history, as presented, by itself, holds the truth.

The siege of Bataan and the Death March are commemorated every April 9 as a heroic comradely defense of the Philippines by Americans and Filipinos fighting side by side – that despite all odds, outnumbered, they stood their grounds until they had to surrender to suffer the monstrosity of the Japanese during the infamous Bataan Death March.

While, however, we should really venerate the sacrifices of those who suffered, especially those who have died; and truly condemn the monstrosity of the Japanese, extenuating circumstances should not be glossed over to relegate truths under blankets of illusions and legends.

In recent years, Filipino World War II (WWII) veterans had been fighting for the promise of General Douglas MacArthur that they would receive their just compensations for having fought side by side with the Americans in the trenches of Bataan and Corregidor; and eventual guerilla warfare against the Japanese. When most of the Filipino veterans have already died of old age, those few remaining who have gone feeble received a measly $15,000 for their profusely legend shrouded heroic efforts during the war.

At the end of the day, the Filipino Veterans’ issue was used merely as fodder by most American politicians to get Filipino American votes.

Furthermore, a central theme of the Bataan legend is the illusion that the American and Filipino defenders fought “against overwhelming odds” or “in the face of overwhelming numerical superiority.”

Renato and Letizia R. Constantino, in their Philippines – A Continuing Past, wrote that “Such phrases were the staple of communiqués emanating from MacArthur’s headquarters… Often inaccurate, they even reported victories in battles that were never fought… such reports were eagerly picked up by the American press and greatly boosted MacArthur’s prestige. The chief of the USAFFE public relations office, Col Le Grande A. Diller, later revealed that many of the communiqués were written by MacArthur himself and many others were carefully edited by him.”

At the trial of General Homma, the Japanese General exposed the numerical myths. The Japanese testified that there were only around 54,000 Japanese troops against 70,000 USAFFE (United States Army Force in the Par East) in Bataan. When Corregidor surrendered, there were only 2,000 Japanese on the Island against 10,000 Filipinos and Americans.

This numerical disparity would be one factor that led to the harsh treatment of the Japanese towards their captives.

When the Bataan forces surrendered on April 9, 1942, the Japanese were jubilant but quite surprised that the surrender was made early and quite easily than the Japanese expected. The Japanese were then overwhelmed and were unprepared for so many prisoners. Assuming there could have been a few of them with kindred hearts, the Japanese could not help but be harsh given the number of prisoners they must take care of, much less to feed. There was also the language barrier where the Japanese barked orders were not understood. Moreover, the Japanese foot soldiers were in a foreign country which they correctly presumed to be hostile towards them. The tension of marching a horde with so less Japanese guards in a hostile environment added to the tension of a Japanese to quickly club, bayonet, or behead a Bataan prisoner of war who, even slightly, got out of line.

Official estimates state that between 50,000 of the Filipinos and 9,000 Americans arrived at Camp O’Donnell in Tarlac after completing the March. Between 12,000 and 18,000 of their number are unaccounted for. What happened to them is unknown but it is assumed that between 5,000 to 10,000 died during the March. Half of the Filipinos interned or 25,000 and 1/6 of the Americans or 1,900 were to die during their internment at Camp O’Donnell. The inability of the Japanese forces to feed the prisoners and give them medicines for malaria, beriberi, diarrhea and other illnesses contributed largely to the death of the prisoners. Again, this was because the Japanese were unprepared to accommodate such a huge number of prisoners, much less feed and medicate them.

The fact is, even before the Death March, the USAFFE troops were already about to perish not from the hail of bullets from the Japanese but from hunger, thirst, and lack of medicine from illnesses borne from jungle menaces.

It should be reiterated that with the MacArthur’s abandonment of Plan Orange and subsequent late reversion to it, food, medical, ammunition and other supplies for Bataan and Corregidor were left, wasted, in depots along the beaches from the Northern Luzon down to Bataan.

Renato and Letizia Constantino state “…normal ration, rice stocks would have lasted only twenty days, flour and canned vegetables thirty days, canned milk forty days and canned meat and fish fifty days. Salt, lard, and sugar were in very short supply and there were practically no onions and potatoes. To make matters worse, around 26, 000 Filipino refugees had followed the 80,000 troops into Bataan and disgracefully meager supplies had to be shared with them. As early as January 5, MacArthur put all USAFFE force on half ration, only to reduce this several more times in the following weeks. The soldiers, especially those at the front, became so hungry that foraging for anything at all to eat became more urgent than looking out for the enemy… The supply of such an elementary drug as quinine was inadequate from the very beginning.”

Moreover, Corregidor was more stocked up than Bataan so that Corregidor had a supply for 10,000 men for six months at the time that MacArthur had ordered Bataan forces to be on half rations and getting the brunt of enemies’ attacks. The Constantinos surmise “Perhaps because it was to be MacArthur’s headquarters as well as that of President Quezon, Corregidor had been given priority over Bataan…”

From the above, it could be deduced that, perhaps by no conscious intentions from any quarters, the forces in Bataan had to be surrendered by Major General Edward P. King, commander of the Bataan forces, when there were only two days ration left for the troops. Meaning they were already going to die from hunger and illnesses. In effect, to prevent the slaughter of his troops meant, so they would not starve, King passed on the responsibility of feeding the Bataan fighters to the enemy. Unprepared for this task where, even in the absence yet of the Geneva Convention, conquerors are supposed to take care of their captives, the Japanese failed immensely to feed and medically care for the Bataan forces for the sheer magnitude of the captive troops. For this, the Japanese, solely, were harshly condemned, branded as the monsters of the Bataan Death March; where the errors made by MacArthur at the outset of the Japanese invasion which led to the inadequacy of the USAFFE troops and their supplies were largely ignored.

Moreover, to this day, Bataan day is celebrated as a shrine of Filipino American unity where Filipino and American blood were equally shed for the defense of freedom against monstrous Japan. According to Renato Constantino, however, “the shedding of blood between the two was never equal as the Filipino soldier was not treated as equal to the American soldier. The United States Armed Forces of the Far East (USAFFE) was a single command but had two distinct armies – the Filipino Army and the US Army. The two armies had distinctly different food by virtue of their unequal allowances. For the Filipino soldier, his meal allowance was forty centavos per day. His American counterpart was one dollar or (at that time) two pesos. Moreover, the Filipino private received only 18 pesos for his month’s pay while his counterpart, received 100 pesos.”

Moreover, the Filipino units were mostly in the front lines and the 10,000 Americans were mostly held in reserve.

All the inequities, however, would all be glossed over and almost forgotten, blanketed by the perpetuated monstrous so called handling of the Japanese of the Bataan Death March. Constantino stated that “By promoting Bataan as the symbol of Fil-American unity and common sacrifice, this propaganda made Filipinos forget the empty promises of aid and ignore the errors of their military idol, Douglas MacArthur. It also strengthened their faith in the United States.”

So much for Filipino-American friendship. #


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