Death March

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The battle for the Philippines produced one of the most ghastly episodes of World War II when thousands of sick, hungry, exhausted American and Filipino troops surrendered to the Japanese 14th Army on Bataan and were hastily evacuated from the area in a forced march up the peninsula. By the Japanese military code, a soldier who surrendered was a traitor, worthy of the utmost contempt; the prisoners were treated accordingly. In a new book, Death March: The Survivors of Bataan, Donald Knox has interviewed in depth eighty of the survivors and set down the devastating experience they lived through entirely in their own words. The book will be published soon by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, and the following excerpt begins with the surrender on April 9, 1942.

Chicago Herald American, April 10:

Announcement of the fall of Bataan was made in a brief communiqué … followed later by a statement from Secretary of War Stimson that the fate of the encircled defenders is not known, although they apparently face death or surrender.

Captain Mark Wohlfeld:

We dropped all our guns and stuff on the ground. No fear. Relief. Standing in a file. There was a heavy concentration of Jap planes hitting the Filipinos off to the West. Here’s the damned cease-fire and they’re still plastering the poor Filipinos on the other side of the ridge.… We were lined up on a dirt road. The day was beginning like all the others—hot!

Soon we heard a lot of hubbub at the forward end of the line, way ahead of us around the bend in the road, and we saw our first Japanese. The first ones were artillerymen carrying a mountain howitzer. They were cheerful-looking little fellows and they smiled as they walked by. They were all covered in sweat, and we were amazed at the weight they carried. One carried a wheel, another the tube, another the trail, another the packs of the fellows carrying the piece. They all had flies around their heads. Having been in the jungle for a while, they were filthy.

After them came the infantry and they were a lot more vicious. They started to go through our pockets. Some knew a little English and hollered, “Go you to hell! Go you to hell!” One of the Japs went over to Colonel Sewell and showed that he wanted the colonel to take off his wedding ring. Sewell kept refusing. About then a Jap came up to me and cleaned me out. Then he reached in my back pocket. Suddenly he jumped back and the bayonet came up real fast between my eyes. I reached into my pocket and found a rifle clip I’d forgotten about. Quickly I dropped it on the ground. The Jap took his rifle and cracked me across the head. I fell. My head was covered in blood. When I looked up I saw Sewell couldn’t get his wedding ring off, and the Jap was about to take his bayonet and cut it off along with the finger. Sewell saw me and he reached over to get some of my blood which he used to wiggle the ring off. Then he was slapped and kicked.

Captain Loyd Mills:

After relieving me of my weapons and taking my wristwatch and rings, this big Jap lieutenant asked, “Do you like Roosevelt?” And I thought, “Oh, Christ, what am I going to say now?” If I say the wrong thing I’ve had it. I told him that Roosevelt was my commander and that I did what he told me to do. He slapped me on the back. “You O.K.,” he said. “You army, me army, too. Are you hungry?” We stayed with them all that day and night. They were front-line troops, so we got better treatment from them than we did from the service troops later who were our guards. …

Private First Class John Falconer:

When the order to surrender came, it was a great relief to me. I should have been very wary, very fearful, but I wasn’t. I thought it was a beautiful day. We found some abandoned trucks and some food. I had, right then, one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten in my life. I had creamed peas on toast. While we waited for the Japanese we sang songs.

The first Japs we saw were bone tired. They marched right past us. One Jap infantry private was so exhausted that he stumbled and fell in front of us Americans. A Jap officer gave some command, two riflemen came up, picked up the fallen soldier, took him off the road where we couldn’t see him. Then we heard a shot and the two Japs returned alone.

Sergeant Ralph Levenberg:

I had a pair of especially made tinted rimless glasses. I got pulled out of the line by this Jap guard who wanted my glasses. When he pulled them off I tried to motion to him that he wouldn’t be able to see out of them, but he kept grunting and making it very clear that he was bound and determined to have a pair of American sunglasses. About then came along the tallest Jap I’d ever seen in my life. A lieutenant. He yelled, and this little guard froze at attention. The lieutenant came over and returned the glasses to me and indicated I should put them away. Then he turned on this private who was still at complete attention. The officer removed a small sword sheath from his belt and began beating this guard in the face with it, murmuring Japanese comments to him the whole time. That guard never wavered until he dropped completely unconscious. His face was just absolutely like he’d been run over with a tractor. I got back in line and kept my glasses in my pocket.