Sunday, May 11, 2014

What caused the Bataan Death March?

War always has its horrors, but in 1942 on the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines, the Japanese Army treated American and Filipino prisoners with a cruelty rarely matched in human history. Over 10 days, an estimated 7,000 to 10,000 allied soldiers died from disease, mistreatment, exhaustion and, in some cases, cold-blooded execution.

The Bataan Death March took place immediately after some 76,000 American and Filipino soldiers surrendered to the Japanese on April 9, 1942.  The prisoners were then forced to make an 80-mile march, with little food or water, to reach a prison camp. Eventually, the path of the march was littered with bodies.

Why did things go so terribly awry? In "Whisper in the Darkness," an excellent account of the events in Bataan, authors Michael and Elizabeth Norman detail the factors that created the Death March.

First, the Normans note, the shear number of prisoners took the Japanese by surprise. The Japanese had anticipated no more than 40,000.

Second, the surrender took place earlier than the Japanese expected. They were not prepared to handle prisoners yet.

Third, the American and Filipino soldiers were already weakened by hunger and disease. The two sides had been fighting for four months, and after the Allied forces withdrew to the Bataan Peninsula they were cut off from resupply. Food and medical supplies dwindled. Men lived on half-rations of rice and not much more. Sick soldiers, absent proper medicine, couldn't get well.

Fourth, the march occurred, by chance, during the hottest and driest part of the year. Under the relentless sun, with little water available, throats became parched and men became dizzy and faint. Some men drank polluted water from fetid ditches and became sick.

All that said, there is no question what the biggest factor was: The Japanese were ready and willing to treat the prisoners cruelly.

The fighting on Bataan, the Normans note, was bitter. Early on, the Japanese had suffered severe losses. They hated their enemy and, given the chance at payback, they didn't hesitate.

The culture of the Japanese Army was a factor. In training, soldiers were abused and beaten to toughen them up. They were taught to fight to the death and they learned to have no respect for any solider that would surrender.

Lastly, as the Normans' book makes clear, there was little reason for the Japanese to try to keep their prisoners alive. The more that died, the fewer prisoners they would have to deal with. This was part of the reason many of the marchers went without food day after day, the Normans note.

"The Japanese, chronically undersupplied, habitually unprepared, and stoically indifferent to the distress of men who were their sworn enemies, simply could not, or would not, feed them."

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