The Battle of Bataan and the Bataan Death March

For bravery and gallantry in action during the period 19 to 24 January 1942, at Mabatang, Abucay, Bataan… In utter disregard for his own safety, he personally led his men, under heavy enemy fire and shelling, to the front lines, and supervised the removal of the dead and evacuation to the rear of all wounded enabling the Battalion Surgeon to administer the necessary first aid… This action, … which was over and above his duties, done under continuous heavy enemy fire and shelling, prevented a greater loss to the lives of the wounded and prevented the demoralization of the men in the line which would otherwise have resulted.
Award of the Gold Cross Medal Citation, General Orders Number 50, 10 February 1947
Camp Murphy, Quezon City
It was the policy of the United States to defend the Philippines.
—General George C. Marshall [1]

Medal and Ribbon of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Gold Cross (Wikimedia)

The events surrounding the Bataan Death March in April 1942 are well documented as one of the most harrowing atrocities committed by Japanese forces in the Philippines.[2] The story of the Bataan Death March is part of a larger one: about the consequences of strategic miscalculation, the centrality of savagery and suffering in war, and the tension between wilful forgetting, justice, and remembering valour. The event can be seen through many lenses—up close from a personal perspective, or through the eyes of a regional neighbour like Australia. These different vantage points are connected, and offer associations and counterpoints to existing historical accounts. My grandfather was a Philippine Army Infantry Officer who was awarded the Philippine Gold Cross Medal for his actions during the battle at Bataan. His personal story is clearly nested within the Philippine national narrative of Filipinos and Americans fighting side by side to stall the Japanese advance. However, I also like to think that his sacrifice and that of thousands of others to defend the place of my birth had a direct link to the security of the place I now call home—Australia. The American and Filipino forces significantly delayed the Japanese advance in the Pacific, particularly when compared with the speed of the Japanese maneuver through Malaya and their capture of Singapore in February 1942 after only seven days of fighting. The stall of  the Japanese advance in the Philippines allowed Allied forces in the Pacific to rally, and perhaps prevented the seizure / destruction of US forces in the Pacific and the invasion of Australia.[3]

Strategic Miscalculation

The 7,100 islands of the Philippine archipelago occupy a strategic position in relation to Japan and Southeast Asia.[4] As early as 1924, the Japanese had developed an operational concept involving the occupation of Guam and the Philippines, which included amphibious operations in Luzon Island.[5] The focus was on seizing Manila and consolidating the Japanese occupation of the Philippines before the United States could project its main battle fleet.[6] Japanese–United States relations deteriorated from 1939 to 1941 due to the termination of a long standing commercial treaty and the intensification of US economic and military pressure over the issue of Japanese military operations in China.[7] This increased tension culminated in the Japanese attack on the US Pacific fleet based at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on 7th December 1941. The next day, the Japanese Forces commenced their attack on the Philippines. The capture of the Philippines was a mission entrusted to the Fourteenth Army, commanded by Lieutenant-General Masaharu Homma, veteran of the war in China.[8] The plan devised by the Japanese Imperial General Staff to attack Pearl Harbour to neutralize the US Pacific Fleet and reducing US naval opposition to the attack on the Philippines had come to fruition.

Ceremony at Camp Murphy, Rizal, on 15 August 1941, marking the induction of the Philippine Army Air Corps. Behind Lt. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, from left to right, are Lt. Col. Richard K. Sutherland, Col. Harold H. George, Lt. Col. William F. Marquat, and Maj. LeGrande A. Diller. (Wikimedia)

US military planning had envisaged this situation in War Plan ORANGE (shortened to WPO), where the US was at war with Japan. This war plan was part of a larger strategy, and one of many so-called colour plans, created at the start of the twentieth century to protect the American dominions stretching from San Francisco to the Philippines.[9] War Plan ORANGE evolved significantly in the pre-war period, as the US Army and Navy argued over offensive or defensive postures, and appropriation of funds by Congress for mobilisation was debated.[10] The plan involved abandoning Manila, and the withdrawal of US and Filipino forces to the Bataan Peninsula and Corregidor as a delaying measure to buy time until the arrival of the Pacific Fleet.[11] However, the strategic realities of war on two fronts—in Europe and the Pacific—led to War Plan ORANGE being superseded by Rainbow V, which envisaged the United States fighting with both Japan and Germany. General Douglas MacArthur, commander of the combined United States Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) opposed Rainbow V because it prioritised the defeat of Germany.[12] MacArthur convinced General George C. Marshall, Chief of Staff, that a more aggressive rather than defensive stance should be pursued.[13] Arguably, this effectively led to discarding ORANGE and the accompanying fortification and supply of forces in preparation for a robust and prolonged defence to block Japanese forces for approximately six months.[14] This approach exacerbated the challenges to preparedness within the 1938 version of ORANGE, which effectively led to the failure by US strategic planners to properly fortify and resource Guam and the Philippines.[15] The end result was that MacArthur’s forces were not postured or prepared to absorb the Japanese advance. Attempts to rally, train, and supply Filipino forces in late 1941 were not enough; as highlighted by General Jonathan Wainwright: "… the Philippine army units were doomed before they started to fight. That they lasted as long as they did is a stirring and touching tribute to their gallantry and fortitude. They never had a chance to win."[16]

Labanan sa Bataan—The Battle of Bataan

Situation on Bataan, Jan to Apr 1942[20]

From 8 December 1941, Japanese forces focused on neutralizing United States’ aircraft and airfields in Luzon, with two Japanese task forces arriving in Luzon on 10 December. By 13 December, virtually all US Army Air Force and Navy planes in the Philippines are destroyed, and Major General Lewis H. Brereton (commander of the Far Eastern Air Force) withdrew his remaining B-17 heavy bombers to Darwin, Australia.[17] On 23 December 1941, MacArthur decided to withdraw his forces to Bataan. It appeared to the Japanese command that the US-Philippine forces were weakened as they executed a series of prepared delaying actions designed to allow time to complete the full withdrawal into the Bataan Peninsula.[18] The rapid seizure of Manila led the Japanese command to believe the occupation of Luzon was largely complete. As a result the Japanese divided their forces, and sent their experienced units—the 48th Division and 5th Air Group—to execute the invasion of the Dutch East Indies.[19] A smaller and less experienced Japanese force remained. Further, General Homma believed the strength, health, and morale of the remaining US and Philippine forces on Bataan was largely diminished and would be easy to defeat.

The invading Japanese controlled the Philippine media, which portrayed imperial forces as helpful liberators. In reality, the Japanese were committing brutal war crimes like the Bataan Death March. This front page claims that Japanese occupation will bring peace and tranquility to the Philippines. (U.S. Air Force Photo)

From mid January to 9 April 1942, Filipino and American forces fought on the Peninsula. My grandfather was an infantry soldier in 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry, 21st Division of the Philippine Army. This Division was originally part of General Wainwright’s North Luzon Force, and held the right flank of the Main Line of Resistance (MLR) in the Mabatang-Abucay region of the Bataan Peninsula at the start of the campaign, and continued to resist the Japanese advance. The family legend is that he ultimately withdrew to Corregidor after Bataan, but was ultimately captured after that stronghold fell in May 1942. He was lucky to have escaped the death march.

On 12 March 1942, General MacArthur, his family, and members of his staff withdrew to Mindanao, and then on to Australia. Prior to his departure, he appointed Lieutenant-General Wainwright as the commander of the remaining forces, which were called the United States Forces in the Philippines (USFIP). Less than one month later, on 9 April 1942, and 123 days after the start of the Battle of Bataan, Major General Edward P. King surrendered and approximately 64,000 Filipinos, and 12,000 Americans became prisoners of the Japanese forces.[21]

The Bataan Death March: 9th April 1942

If I had known what was ahead of us at the beginning of the Bataan Death March, I would have taken death… When a guy was bayoneted or shot, laying in the road and the convoys were coming along, I saw trucks that would just go out of their way to run over the guy in the middle of the road. And when by the time you have fifteen or twenty trucks run over you, look like a smashed tomato or something.
—Glen Frazier, US survivor of the Bataan Death March [22]

The Bataan Death March was the culmination of a long battle against an invading force, and was a bloody indicator of the brutality of the Imperial Japanese Forces that occupied the Philippines. The captured American and Filipino soldiers were in bad health, after fighting a protracted battle with little food and water. The soldiers were starving and stricken with diseases such as dysentery and malaria.[23] The Japanese forces were unprepared for the number of prisoners that surrendered, and they intended to clear the peninsula to stage their next phase of operations to seize Corregidor. The American and Filipino prisoners were forced to march to San Fernando, 60 kilometers away.[24] The prisoners who fell were killed or left to die in the heat. Hoyt explains that this was caused by the Japanese frustration at these Allied soldiers who stalled their advance, and also because the Japanese considered that they were unworthy of respect.[25] Lieutenant Colonel Masanobu Tsuji’s treatment of the prisoners set the example for those under his command—he executed prisoners and declared: "This is the way to treat bastards like this."[26]

A burial detail of Filipino and American prisoners of war uses improvised litters to carry fallen comrades at Camp O'Donnell, Capas, Tarlac, 1942, following the Bataan Death March. (Wikimedia)

From San Fernando, they traveled to Capas, and then onto the prisoner of war facility at Camp O’Donnell. Approximately 7,000 prisoners died during the March.[27] The struggle of these prisoners did not end at O’Donnell—most of those captured at Bataan, and at Corregidor were sent to Japan as labourers on cramped vessels called Hellships.[28] Many more prisoners died from disease on the Hellships. More prisoners died after some of these ships, which were unmarked, were sunk by US submarines.[29]

Justice and Willful Forgetting

To Americans and Filipinos, the Bataan Death March is one of the worst atrocities of the Pacific War.

Perceptions about the credibility and standing of post-war military tribunals will inevitably be shaped by an individual’s personal experience of the war in question. To Americans and Filipinos, the Bataan Death March is one of the worst atrocities of the Pacific War. President Truman’s address after dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki reflect the American outrage:

We have used it against those who attacked us without warning at Pearl Harbor, against those who have starved and beaten and executed American prisoners of war, against those who have abandoned all pretense of obeying international laws of warfare.[30]

Understandably, the Japanese view is that the bombing of Japanese cities—the firebombing of Tokyo and the use of atomic weapons—are the worst atrocities of the Pacific War.[31] General Homma, in his last letters to his family, referred to these attacks and declared, "[T]here is no such thing as justice in international relations in this universe."[32] Arguably, the victor in a given conflict has the advantage of shaping the writing of history and narrative about the brutality of war.

Masaharu Homma (本間 雅晴) commander of the the Japanese 14th Army which perpetrated the Bataan Death March, on trial after the war. (

The Tokyo Trials were the most significant post-war tribunals to deal with war crimes in the Pacific War. However, they have been criticised as being subjected to political capriciousness in the selection of representative leaders who would be held accountable for their command responsibility.[33] Further, the credibility of the court was undermined as some judges were either not experienced in international law or had direct conflicts of interest—the Filipino judge was a survivor of the Bataan Death March.[34] Arguably, the trial was for show as the representative who was held accountable for command responsibility for the Bataan Death March—General Masaharu Homma—was tried, found guilty, and executed. However, Colonel Masanobu Tsuji—who incited the killing and terrible treatment of the prisoners from Bataan—was not tried despite bearing responsibility for massacres during the Bataan Death March and also in Singapore.[35] Due to his extreme anti-communist stance, Tsuji was protected by both China (under Chiang Kai-shek) and the United States. He continued to live secretly in Japan in the late 1940s, with the full knowledge of American military authorities; and eventually coming out of hiding in the 1950s.[36] Downer explains the treatment of Tsuji and others as willful forgetting of what occurred during the war; perhaps in favour of rallying and consolidating new allies against the communist threat and the looming Cold War.[37]

Araw ng Kagitingan—Day of Valour

Bataan Death March Memorial featuring Filipino and American soldiers, Las Cruces NM (Kris Punke/Wikimedia)

My grandfather survived the war and, according to family accounts, continued to remember those he fought with on Bataan until he died. The Philippines has a strong national memory of the Japanese occupation, and of those fought and suffered during that period. The 9th of April is a national holiday called Araw ng Kagitingan or Day of Valour, which marks the fall of Bataan and the subsequent Death March. This day is attended by the Filipino President or Vice-President, members of the Philippine armed forces, and ambassadors from the United States and Japan. The ceremony is held at the Shrine of Valour at the base of Mount Samat on the Bataan Peninsula.[38] The Day of Valour was first celebrated soon after the end of the Pacific War and is considered as central to re-building the Philippines. It is considered a celebration of Filipino resilience in the face of extreme adversity, and of victory through struggle. Despite the misuse of this day of remembrance by politicians such as Ferdinand Marcos, recent Filipino Presidents such as Gloria Arroyo refer to the holiday to instill citizenship and self-sacrifice in the population.[39]

The Battle of Bataan and the Bataan Death March are some of the more grueling stories from the Pacific War. While justice after war remains a contentious issue, it is important to note that remembrance is central to nation-building and recovery, and instilling a sense of pride in those who served and sacrificed during this part of the Pacific War.

Jo Brick is an officer in the Royal Australian Air Force, a member of the Military Writers Guild, and an Associate Editor for The Strategy Bridge. She holds a Master of Laws, and a Master of Military and Defence Studies from the Australian National University. Her primary interests are strategy and civil-military relations, the ethical aspects of the laws of war, command decision making, and the role of air power and armor in modern warfare. Follow Jo on Twitter @clausewitzrocks. The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the Australian Defence Force.

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Header Image: Illustration of what it was like to travel the 60 arduous miles between Mariveles and Camp O'Donnell, on the Bataan Death March. (Ben Steele/Flikr)


[1] Louis Morton. The Fall of the Philippines (Washington DC: Center of Military History, 1993) 31.

[2] First hand accounts of the Battle of Bataan and the Death March include: Carlos P. Romulo, Last Man Off Bataan (Glasgow: Sphere Books) 1981; Hampton Sides, Ghost Soldiers (London: Time Warner) 2002; Richard C. Mallonee, Battle for Bataan - An Eyewitness Account (Novato: Presidio Press) 1997.

[3] William L. O’Neill. Democracy at War – America’s Fight at Home and Abroad in World War II (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995, 116-117.

[4] Morton, The Fall of the Philippines, 4.

[5] Edward J. Drea. In the Service of the Emperor: Essays on the Imperial Japanese Army (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003) 28-29.

[6] Drea, In the Service of the Emperor, 29.

[7] Drea, In the Service of the Emperor, 31.

[8] Ward Rutherford. Fall of the Philippines (London: Ballatine Books, 1972) 27.

[9] Louis Morton, ‘War Plan Orange: Evolution of a Strategy’ World Politics Vol. 11, No. 2 (1959) 221, 221-222. This article provides an excellent overview of the geopolitical considerations that led to the evolution of various war plans from the end of the First World War to the start of the Pacific War in 1941.

[10] Morton, ‘War Plan Orange: Evolution of a Strategy’.

[11] Rutherford, Fall of the Philippines, 15.

[12] Rutherford, Fall of the Philippines, 15. See also John G. Doll. The Battling Bastards of Bataan (8th ed) (New York: Merriam Press, 2017) 11.

[13] Rutherford, Fall of the Philippines, 15, 18.

[14] Donald J. Young. The Battle of Bataan (2nd ed) (Jefferson: McFarland & Co, 2009) 5.

[15] Morton, ‘War Plan Orange: Evolution of a Strategy’, 250.

[16] Quoted by Young, The Battle of Bataan, 8.

[17] Doll, The Battling Bastards of Bataan, 14.

[18] Young, The Battle of Bataan, 16.

[19] Young, The Battle of Bataan, 16.

[20] Map source: Corregidor Historic Society website: ‘How the Battle Went in Bataan’ (accessed 25 February 2018)

[21] Charles Bateson. The War with Japan – A Concise History (North Sydney: Ure Smith Pty Ltd, 1968) 78.

[22] Quoted by Kinue Tokudome. ‘The Bataan Death March and the 66-Year Struggle for Justice’, The Asia-Pacific Journal 6, Issue 1 (April 2008) 2.

[23] Tokudome. ‘The Bataan Death March and the 66-Year Struggle for Justice’,1.

[24] Edwin P. Hoyt. Japan’s War – The Great Pacific Conflict (London: Guild Publishing, 1986), 269-270.

[25] Hoyt, Japan’s War, 269-270. See also Tokudome, ‘The Bataan Death March and the 66-Year Struggle for Justice’.

[26] Hoyt, Japan’s War, 269.

[27] Bateson, The War with Japan, 78.

[28] Tokudome. ‘The Bataan Death March and the 66-Year Struggle for Justice’, 3.

[29] Tokudome. ‘The Bataan Death March and the 66-Year Struggle for Justice’ 4.

[30] Quoted by Tokudome. ‘The Bataan Death March and the 66-Year Struggle for Justice’ 5.

[31] Hoyt, Japan’s War, 388.

[32] John W. Downer. Embracing Defeat – Japan in the Wake of World War II (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1999) 516.

[33] Downer. Embracing Defeat, 464.

[34] Downer, Embracing Defeat, 465.

[35] Downer, Embracing Defeat, 512.

[36] Downer, Embracing Defeat, 512.

[37] Downer, Embracing Defeat, 513.

[38] Kevin Blackburn, ‘War memory and nation-building in South East Asia’, South East Asia Research; 18, Issue 1, 10.

[39] Blackburn, ‘War memory and nation-building in South East Asia’, 13-14.