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Death March

July 2024
19min read

The Horrors of Bataan, Recalled by the Survivors

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.


Captain Loyd Mills:

At one stop a Japanese sergeant, who spoke beautiful Oxford-type English, came up to me. He wasn’t one of our guards but happened to be around. He said something to me that I’ve always remembered: “You are going to find a lot of bad Japanese and you are going to find a lot of good ones. Please don’t think that all the Japanese are alike as far as the treatment you are going to receive.” Then he opened up a can of sardines, and with some rice, gave them to me and the men around me. It was the first real food I’d had in days.

With the surrender of Bataan, General Homma [the Japanese commanding officer] still faced the problem of subduing the American garrison on Corregidor, a short two miles away in Manila Bay. Only when Corregidor surrendered could Japan claim her most valuable prize—the Philippines. For the Japanese 14th Army the campaign was not yet over. Before this decisive battle could begin, however, it was necessary for the Japanese to remove the enormous number of prisoners which Major General Edward P. King had just surrendered. … Anticipating this problem in late March, an evacuation plan was developed by Homma’s staff. The plan was simple; the captives would walk out of Bataan as far as San Fernando. There, they would be shipped by rail to a prison camp [Camp O’Donnell] in central Luzon. From Mariveles on Bataan’s southern tip to San Fernando is almost sixty miles. Plans to feed and care for the prisoners along the road were proposed and agreed upon. Unfortunately for the men of the Luzon Force, the Japanese plan for their evacuation was based on three assumptions, all of which proved false. The first miscalculation assumed the surrendered force to be in good physical condition. The second error was in not allowing enough time to work out all the details of a proper evacuation. Lastly, the Japanese made a faulty estimate in the number of troops they would have to move. They assumed the figure would be between forty and fifty thousand men.


Because of the chaos that followed the disintegration of the Luzon Force, it is impossible even today to give a precise number to the men who took part in the march out of Bataan. … An educated guess, however, puts sixtytwo thousand Filipinos and ten thousand Americans on the march.

Sergeant Ralph Levenberg:

Mariveles. Now that was confusion! It reminded me of what it might have been like when the Jews exited Egypt into the desert—no one knowing where they were going or what they should take or how long it would take to get where they were going. Mariveles—tanks, trucks, cars, horses, artillery—like a Philippines Times Square. … And everything buried in dust, horrendous amounts of dust being churned up by the tanks and trucks. You realized that Homma’s shock troops were coming down Bataan on their way to taking Corregidor. The Japanese were just in a rush to get us out of their way. Our officers were milling around, trying to find out what was going on. The Japanese officers also seemed confused as to what they were supposed to do with this pack of hungry, sick, bedraggled men they had captured.

Private First Class Blair Robinett:

My group came up the road from Mariveles another half mile or so when a Jap soldier stepped out, came across, and took my canfeen out of its cover. He took a drink, filled his canteen out of mine, poured the rest of my water on the ground, and dropped the canteen at my feet. I thought he was going to walk back to the line of Jap troops standing across the road, so I bent over to pick up my canteen. But he turned around and hit me on the head with his rifle butt. Put a crease in the top of my head that I still have. I fell face down on the cobblestones. I crawled back up to my knees, debating whether to pick up the canteen again. I figured the best course of action was to stand up and leave the canteen alone. Soon as the Jap troops moved off, I squatted down and nicked it un. …


We moved down the ridge a ways when we saw this GI. He was sick. I figured he had come out of the hospital that was in tents out under the trees. He was wobbling along, uneasy on his feet. There were Japanese infantry and tanks coming down the road alongside us. One of these Jap soldiers, I don’t know whether he was on our side or if he deliberately came across the road, but he grabbed this sick guy by the arm and guided him to the middle of the road. Then he just flipped him out across the road. The guy hit the cobblestone about five feet in front of a tank and the tank pulled on across him. Well, it killed him quick. There must have been ten tanks in that column, and every one of them came up there right across the body. When the last tank left there was no way you could tell there’d ever been a man there. But his uniform was embedded in the cobblestones. The man disappeared, but his uniform had been pressed until it had become part of the ground.

Now we knew, if there had been any doubts before, we were in for a bad time.

Sergeant Ralph Levenberg:

One of the tricks that the Japs used to play on us—thought it was funny, too—was when they would be riding on the back of a truck, they would have these long black snake whips, and they’d whip that thing out and get some poor bastard by the neck or torso and drag him behind their truck. ‘Course if one of our guys was quick enough he didn’t get dragged too far. But, if the Japs got a sick guy …

The thing that burned itself into my mind for days and days was the imprint of a body in the road that had been run over, I don’t know how many times. It was paper thin, but the shape was very clear. It was as if the guy was still pleading for somebody to reach down and pick him up.

Sergeant Charles Cook:

By the second day I’d thrown my tent half away, my pistol belt away, and everything else extra. I had cut a piece out of my mosquito netting, just enough to cover my face and hands when I laid down. These little squares and my canteen are the only things I carried. Everything else weighed a ton. All I was interested in after a while was trying to take one step at a time. …

I know one time I broke ranks to fill my canteen with water, I heard this Jap holler. He was running up to me. So I ran through the back of the barrio, jumping fences and scattering chickens. I came back to the column and just mixed in with the men. The guard never found me. I don’t know which day this was, it was just on the walk.

Captain Loyd Mills:

The nights were the worst times for me. We walked all day, from early morning until dusk. Then we were put into barbed-wire enclosures in which the conditions were nearly indescribable. Filth and defecation all over the place. The smell was terrible. These same enclosures had been used every night, and when my group got to them, they were covered by the filth of five or six nights.

I had dysentery pretty bad, but I didn’t worry about it because there wasn’t anything you could do about it. You didn’t stop on the March because you were dead if you did. They didn’t mess around with you. You didn’t have time to pull out and go over and squat. You would just release wherever you were. Generally right on yourself, or somebody else if they happened to be in your way. There was nothing else to do. Without food it was water more than anything. …

Private Leon Beck:

They’d halt us at these big artesian wells. There’d be a four-inch pipe coming up out of the ground which was connected to a well, and the water would be flowing full force out of it. There were hundreds of these wells all over Bataan. They’d halt us intentionally in front of these wells so we could see the water and they wouldn’t let us have any. Anyone who would make a break for the water would be shot or bayoneted. Then they were left there. Finally it got so bad further along the road that you never got away from the stench of death. There were bodies laying all along the road in various degrees of decomposition—swollen, burst open, maggots crawling by the thousands—black, featureless corpses. And they stank!

Sometimes they’d make us stand at attention two or three hours. They’d just stop us and make us stand still. If you got caught sloughing off, shifting your weight from one foot to another, you’d get beaten. I remember very distinctly being beaten once. They hit me with a stalk of sugar cane, which is a pretty heavy instrument. Sugar cane grows anywhere from a half an inch to three inches in diameter and has a very hard skin on it. It doesn’t wear out very easy. And they beat me all about the head and shoulders.

I can only remember being fed three times, and that consisted of walking past a gasoline drum that they were boiling rice in. You’d hold your hands out and a Filipino or a Japanese, depending on who was serving, would throw a spoonful of rice in your hands, and the next one would throw some salt on it, and you kept right on walking while eating out of your hands. …

And the weather was hot, hot, hot. The sun comes up hot, and it goes down hot, and it stays hot all night. It was just plain hell hot. …

Sergeant Forrest Knox:

We were waiting in the sun. In an open rice paddy. We stayed there without water till a half dozen men had passed out from the heat. Then we were ripe. The guards put us on the road and double-timed us. Every kilometer they changed the guards because they could not stand to double-time in the sun either. After a couple of miles you could hear the shooting start at the tail of the column, as the clean-up squad went to work. The old Indian gauntlet with an Oriental twist. …

Private Leon Beck:

When it came daylight the Japanese would wake you up, make you form columns of four and stand at attention. Maybe once or twice they would allow an individual to collect a bunch of canteens so that he could go and get water. Then again maybe they wouldn’t. It depended on the individual guards you were with.

First thing we would try to do is get all the men who were in the worst shape up to the front of the columns. That way as they got tired, and the men who were helping them wore out, we could pass them slowly back through the column taking turns holding them or helping them. We knew if a man reached a point where he couldn’t walk any more, he was going to be killed. So we tried to take turns helping the sick and injured. Sometimes we would prevail upon the guards to let us regroup and we’d be able to put the sick back up front. Sometimes we couldn’t.

Staff Sergeant Harold Feiner:

I don’t know if the guards were Korean or Taiwanese. I was so miserable on that Death March that I couldn’t tell you what they were. I know one thing about them, though—they were mean, sadistic, brutal. And yet, on the March I was befriended.

I had been hit at Cabcaben and had a piece of Corregidor shrapnel in my leg. It was the size of a piece of pencil lead and was laying along my shinbone. I had wrapped an old white towel around it and had managed to walk about fifteen miles, but I was getting weaker and more feverish the further I went. I was in bad shape. Guys had to help me. They would kind of hold onto me. If you fell, you were dead. They bayoneted you right away. … If you fell, bingo, you were dead.

We finally stopped for the night near a small stream and I laid down. About an hour later this guy comes crawling along. He looked like an Italian, swarthy, kind of muscular. “Hey, fellows, any of you guys need any help?” he was whispering. “I’m a doctor.” Didn t give us his name. When he got to me, he stopped and I told him about my leg. Just then a young guard saw us and came over. The first thing they did was hit you with their rifle butts. He spoke atrocious English and he yelled for us to separate. The doctor kept talking, and asked him would it be all right if he took the shrapnel out of my leg. “Wait, wait, wait,” and he ran out into the road to see if anyone was coming. Then he came back and said, “Hurry, hurry. ” I remember the doctor saying, “Soldier, this is going to hurt. If you can take it, I’ll get it out.” He never had to worry about me hurting. As soon as he touched it, bam, I passed out. He took it out and wrapped a hand towel around my shin. When he left he said, “Yeah, well, I hope to God you make it. God bless you.” He disappeared and I never got to know his name.


The Jap guard came up to me during the night and gave me a cup of sweetened chocolate, tasted like milk. I hadn’t had any food and no water for days. I didn’t speak one single word of Japanese then, but he could speak a little English, but with a really horrible accent. “Someday me go Hollywood, me going to be movie star.” That’s the way he talked. He made me laugh. All through the night he gave me something, because he knew I needed strength. In the morning he was gone. His squad had been replaced by another. The orders were given, “Everybody up, up, up. ” We got in line and I found I couldn’t walk. My leg hurt so much. Some guys held me up and I was carried about a hundred feet to the road. There we were told to stop and sit down. Then we were told to get up. We waited about a half an hour before we were permitted to sit down again. Then we were turned around and marched back to where we started. Wait… rest … wait … turn around … go back. We did this the whole day. I never had to walk, and by the time we started out the next day I had enough strength to limp along on my own. I’m not a religious man, but God said keep those men there, we want to save that man. I don’t know what it was. I know I wouldn’t have made it, if I had to march that day.

Maybe a day or so later we came to a river. I was still in fairly bad shape. There were a lot of little rivers, and because it was the dry season, they were shallow. The bridge had been knocked out and the Japanese had reconstructed an engineering bridge. Since their troops were crossing it when we arrived, we were made to march down the bank, cross the river, and march up the other side. Sounds simple. We were told not to touch the water. Some of the guys managed to drag their towels in the water and got some water that way. One man, however, reached over and tried to cup his hands and drink some. He was twelve feet from me. They shot him. Some guards on the bridge just popped him off. Going up the other side was hard for me with my leg. I kept sliding on the slimy clay. Finally some guys helped me up.

When we got to the top of the bank, there was a little bend in the road before it crossed the bridge. At that point some Jap sentries were stationed and they were laughing at our struggles. When I got to the top—mind you, I was still crippled—for some reason, maybe because I needed help, one of the sentries took his rifle by the barrel and swung it at me and broke the ribs on my right side. Then I walked with broken ribs and a wounded leg. But I got to San Fernando. Had lots of help. But, hell, guys got there with less than me.

Private First Class Blair Robinett:

There was something I couldn’t figure out. Looking down, I saw one footprint in the dust. It was dark and it was a perfect footprint shape. Only one, though. Now, I couldn’t imagine how a one-legged man could be walking. Finally, I saw a man in front of me limping badly and his leg had blood running down it. Then I figured out how I could see one print. It was being left by the blood. A mile or so later his limp was so bad that he dropped out of the line.

Corporal Robert Wolfersberger:

I could see some artillery pieces by the side of the road and some Japs taking a break in the shade. Some of them had tied a big pole onto a tree so that it could swing back and forth. With this they were taking turns raking it through the column of men. It was a big game to them, seeing how many of us they could knock down with one swoosh of this pile driver across the road. Some guys would duck or fall down, and the guy behind would stumble. It created a lot of confusion.

Of course we had a grapevine that worked like a telephone. Word traveled pretty fast. If there was trouble up ahead the word would come back down the column, and those who could, would walk more lightly. When we saw the trucks carrying infantry, we learned to get as far off the road as we could. The Jap troops would carry bamboo sticks—rifle butts were heavy—and they’d lean out and swat you as they went by. If they didn’t have sticks, they had stones or knotted ropes. They’d just swing whatever they had and see if they could hit you.

Second Lieutenant Kermit Lay:

There was a big tin warehouse or granary somewhere along the March that they packed us into one night. You could sit or lay down, but there was no water and it was very hot. And it stank! The next morning across the road the Japs had dug a hole and had some Filipino soldiers burying some dead men, except not everyone was dead. One poor soul kept trying to claw his way out of the hole. The Jap guards really started giving these Filipinos a hard time, trying to get them to cover this man up faster. Finally a Jap came over, took a shovel and beat him on the head with it. Then he had the Filipinos cover him up.

Private First Class Blair Robinett:

One morning they moved us out into what I imagine was a camote , or sweet potato field. We were crowded up against one another, column after column moved in. Side by side we sat with our arms folded, heads bowed with the sun beating down on the back of our necks. I sat there three or four hours. The heat tore into the middle of the field. … What I remember next is a guard poking me with his bayonet trying to get me on my feet. I looked up at him and said, “Go ahead, you sonovabitch, do it. ” An American Air Force sergeant was standing alongside me, I don’t know who he was, but he reached down and grabbed me and pulled me to my feet and into the line. He and somebody else held me between them when we began to walk. I couldn’t manage to stand up. I told them they should leave me. “Oh, no,” he said, “couldn’t do that. You need something inside you.” He had his blouse tucked into his pants and there was a bulge around his waist. He reached into his shirt and came out with a raw sweet potato. After I’d eaten one or two of them, I was back in business again.

Corporal Hubert Cater:

Late in the day my group had been herded into a field surrounded by three strands of barbed wire. It could have been the town square or close to it. There were a number of Filipino and American soldiers already there. We were so tired, hungry, thirsty, and many so sick or wounded, that we didn’t at first notice the condition of those that were there. We would never forget it by the time we left the next day. Fortunately, it was close to dark and we didn’t have to sit under the tropical sun. It had been another long, hot day without food and very little water. …

Sometime after dark the Japs brought some cans of rice to the enclosure gate. A five-gallon can for each hundred men. These cans were not full. Who cared? Those close to the gate were fed. There was not enough to go around. There was no crowding or pushing. A friend helped a friend. Many didn’t care. Besides being tired, many were at the last stage of malaria. Just to be left alone in the grass or dirt to rest, sleep, or die. To have at least one close friend, a buddy to hold you in his arms and comfort you as you died, was enough. The few that still had faith and courage would have lost it if they could have foreseen the future. …

Later I talked to men at Camp O’Donnell who were behind us and arrived at San Fernando a day or two later. The dead had not been buried. The same terrible odor had doubled, and the sick and dying almost filled the area.

Sergeant Charles Cook:

The last night outside of San Fernando I walked all night. They changed guards from flatbed trucks. They wouldn’t let us stop. All night long. … Around dawn I began to feel that my shoes were full of sand. Somewhere we got a short break and I took my shoes off. They weren’t full of sand, my feet were just burned up. I had about ten thousand teeny blisters, no bigger than a pin, on the bottom of my feet.

I must have been in one of the first groups that got into the boxcars, because I don’t remember hearing a rumor about them. To know that we were there at the railroad station meant riding instead of walking. That was a good feeling, but it turned out worse than the March.

Corporal Hubert Cater:

Shortly after noon all that could walk were lined up outside the barbed wire and marched a few blocks to the railroad.

In the months ahead we would realize that each time we left the sick, they would never be seen again.

There was a train and a few boxcars. The Filipino trains are smaller than ours and the boxcars about two-thirds the size we used. Our spirits rose. We were going to ride instead of more marching. In a few minutes we all wished we had continued to march. The boxcars had sat in the tropical sun with the doors closed.

The Japs divided us into groups of one hundred men for each car. One Jap guard was assigned to a car. He pulled the door back and motioned inside. The heat from inside hit us in the face. We stalled for time, but the Jap guard with his bayonet motioned us to climb in and he meant business. We all knew by now to openly resist them would be fatal.

We jammed in—standing room only. Into the oven we went and, protest be damned, the doors were closed. The three hours that followed are almost indescribable. Men fainting with no place to fall. Those with dysentery had no control of themselves. As the car swayed, the urine, and the sweat, and the vomit rolled three inches deep back and forth around and in our shoes. Very little complaining.

Private First Class Jack Brady:

It seems to me that once in a while our train would stop, and the Jap guards would open the doors so we could get some fresh air. Then is when we’d get the dead ones out. If we could, we’d lift the corpses and pass them over to the door. There was no way we could have passed them through. …

Corporal Hubert Gater:

We arrived at the small town of Capas. The boxcar doors were opened and we were ordered out. Sit down and be counted. Who could have escaped from that oven? While the Japs were making sure of the count, it gave us the opportunity to take off our shoes and pour the filth on the ground.

After a brief rest, we were told to get up and line up in a column of twos. Then we started marching down a dirt road the last five or six miles to Camp O’Donnell.

Some had marched all the way. A few had come by truck. Those that marched all the way suffered more. … It wasn’t the miles, it was the continuous delays along the March. The change of Jap command and guards. Standing in place for two or three hours, waiting for the order to start marching again. The lack of food and water, the rundown condition of the men before the start. A combination of all these things would make O’Donnell just one big graveyard.

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