The Bataan Battle: US’ Largest Surrender


One of the worst war crimes of the 20th century began on the grounds of an elementary school in a small town in the Philippines. At the same time, one of the best military survival stories in history began. The most important part of the Bataan World War II Museum, which is behind Balanga Elementary School, is a life-size model of the day that US troops in the Philippines gave up to Japanese leaders on April 9, 1942.

The museum itself is very small. It only takes up two floors of a building that looks about as big as a modern American neighborhood home these days. There is wall art with bullet holes from World War II and the fighting in the Philippines, as well as pieces of wreckage and weapons from the Bataan battle. The model is in front of the door.

It doesn’t seem like enough to remember that it was the biggest defeat of US troops in history. Tens of thousands of Filipino and American soldiers started the Bataan Death March hours after the Japanese gave up. It was a five-day, 65-mile walk to a jail camp in the north, during which they were not given food or water and it was very hot. A lot of people would die. Others would be unbelievably strong.

Bataan’s Battle

On December 7, 1941, Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. At the same time, Tokyo’s forces launched their first strikes on other US military bases in the Pacific. The Philippines was one of the main goals. The Philippines was home to about 20,000 US troops when they were a US colony. In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt added about 100,000 Filipinos to the US Army. Together, they were called the US Army in the Far East (USAFFE).

Japan’s first air attacks happened on December 8, 1941. Two weeks later, on December 15, 1941, the main invasion force landed on Luzon, the main island of the Philippines. In just over three months, they pushed the US and Filipino defenders into the Bataan Peninsula, which is across Manila Bay from the Philippine city. The plan of the US leader in the Philippines, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, was for his troops to hold out on the southern part of the peninsula until the US Navy could send more troops and supplies to help the defenders who were under attack.

However, the Americans and Filipinos quickly ran out of food, medicine, and ammunition. Gen. Edward King, who was in charge of Bataan, disobeyed his boss and told his men to lay down their weapons, taking full responsibility for the loss.

“Men, remember this.” You didn’t give up… “You had no choice but to do what I said,” he said. Accounts from the time say that King asked Col. Matoo Nakayama, the Japanese officer who accepted the surrender, to promise that his men would be treated with respect.

The Japanese said, “We are not barbarians.” According to a trial that would happen after the war, Gen. Masaharu Homma, who led the Japanese troops in the Battle of Bataan and was in charge of the men who did the Death March, committed war crimes. It happened in 1946.

The March to Death

That place where people gave up in Balanga is not where the Bataan Death March began. Some of the soldiers came from Bagac on the west coast and Marileves on the southern tip of the peninsula. But as they went north, they would all pass Balanga.

The march’s path now looks like a road you could find anywhere in the world. In the Philippines, trucks, cars, and the ubiquitous motorized tricycles and jeepneys that serve as public transportation all share the road. It goes by McDonald’s and Jollibee restaurants, strip malls and car lots, farmlands, and housing projects that are still being built but promise the newest in high-end living at prices that most people can afford. But it was hell on Earth in 1942.

An American and Filipino POW history book says that they were put into groups of 100 men each, with four Japanese guards in each group. Their steps were four wide as it was “blistering” hot outside. In an interview with the Air Force News Service in 2012, survivor James Bollich talked about how painful it was. “They beat us with clubs, rifle butts, sabers, and anything else they could find.” It went on all day. Bolich said, “They wouldn’t let anyone drink water or rest, and they didn’t feed us.”

“As soon as someone fell down, the Japanese killed them,” he said. “It looked like they were setting us all on fire.”Today, there are white concrete markers along the road that remember people who walked the path. For example, at kilometer 24, there is one that says “J.B. McBride and Tillman R. Rutledge, two friends who walked the Bataan Death March.” At kilometer 100, in front of the soldiers’ cemetery on what used to be US Clark Air Base, there is a sign that only says “Death March.”

Death in a Boxcar

For the thousands of US and Filipino prisoners of war, the journey from Bataan to the prison at the old US military Camp O’Donnell in Capas, which is to the north of the peninsula, was not all on foot. The prisoners of war were crammed into boxcars for about 30 miles (48 kilometers) of their trip, from a railhead in San Fernando to another one about 5 miles from the jail camp.

Inside the smallest of these boxcars, there were about 240 square feet (22 square meters) of space. The wooden sides, metal tops, and small openings for air flow turned them into ovens for the 100 or more prisoners of war who lived inside each one.

The last one of its kind is on the Capas National Shrine, which was built on the site of Camp O’Donnell, but it would be easy for a tourist to miss it. Beyond the parking lot of the huge memorial to the Philippines war dead, it is on show. The boxcar has a roof now, not in 1942. It’s almost a safe place to get away from the hot sun in March 2024.

But on a nearby plaque are the stories of people who lived through a box car, maybe this one, in 1942. It’s creepy to be close to it, to poke your head through the open door and think about how horrible it must have been inside.

“We were pushed into crowded boxcars like animals getting ready to be killed… Men were fighting and trying to stay on their feet and stand up straight… “The platform of the boxcar was a sea of filth from people who had dysentery.” Plus more.

“We were melting alive in a 110-degree oven; we shivered, spit, peed, and pooped.” I saw some people pass out but had nothing to land on… I don’t know how many of my friends died in that car, but at least 10 must have died. But for the POWs who were still alive, worse things were yet to come.

Capas Was A Concentration Camp

On the grounds of what used to be Camp O’Donnell, it’s hard to imagine what it was like when it was a prisoner of war camp with conditions so bad that Filipinos call it the Capas Concentration Camp today.

The 133-acre spot has more than 31,000 trees, each with a white number on it to remember the people who died in the Death March. A pillar that is 230 feet (70 meters) tall stands over stone walls that have the names of the dead carved into them. It’s quiet this March morning, and I’m the only person who has come to the snack and gift stand.