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The Bataan Death March
Richard A. Long
At dawn, 9 April 1942, Major General Edward P. King,
Jr., commanding Luzon Force, Bataan, Philippine Islands, surrendered more
than 75,000 starving and disease-ridden American soldiers, sailors, and
Marines, and their Filipino allies, to overwhelming Japanese forces.
He inquired of the Japanese colonel to whom he tendered his pistol in lieu of his lost sword whether the Americans and Filipinos would be well treated. The Japanese aide-de-camp indignantly replied: “We are not barbarians.” The forthcoming seven to 14 days would prove just how barbaric and uncivilized this enemy could be!
The majority of the prisoners of war were immediately subjected to robbery of their most trivial keepsakes and belongings, to personal indignities to their bodies, and subsequently to a grueling 90-mile enforced march in deep dust, over vehicle-broken macadam roads, and crammed into sub-standard rail cars to captivity in the now infamous Camp O’Donnell.
Thousands died en route from disease, starvation, thirst, heat prostration, untreated wounds, and wanton execution. Additional thousands died in this and in equally disreputable prison camps, the direct result of maltreatment on the Death March.
There were relatively few Marines on the march, when compared with other members of the American service. Marine Staff Sergeant Thomas R. Hicks, a field clerk in the 4th Marines, kept a “Record of Events” from 8 December
1941 to 2 May 1942 on Corregidor. It was apparently shipped off the island on the following day on the submarine Spearfish and arrived at Headquarters Marine Corps in Washington on 13 August 1942.
When Bataan fell to the enemy on 9 April 1942, Staff Sergeant Hicks enumerated six officers and 71 enlisted personnel (including Navy medical) as presumed prisoners of war. An additional Marine from an antiaircraft unit had contracted polio and was left at Bataan’s Hospital No.
The majority of captured Marines belonged to two organizations, the USAFFE-USFIP (finally Luzon Force) guard detachment and the Marine Air Warning Unit (an SCR-270B mobile, long-range radar unit). The first was composed of 43 enlisted Marines and two officers. The latter also had two officers and 28 communications personnel. Nearly all made the Death March.
Former Lieutenant Michiel Dobervich considers himself among the more fortunate of the prisoners. For reasons unknown to him, he was selected to drive a GMC truck loaded with sugar to Camp O’Donnell.
En route, Dobervich was witness to the initial looting, face slapping, beating, and bayoneting of American and Filipino captives. Guarded by a Japanese captain and a soldier with a bayonet at his back, he was helpless in the rage that welled in him. At Balanga, he saw an Army brigadier general and other senior staff officers run through a gauntlet of enemy privates, slapped and beaten as they were robbed of their possessions. At the same time, Dobervich lost 500 Philippines pesos, his wrist watch, two fountain pens, and $40 in U.S. currency. A friend from USAFFE’s motor pool and four others were beheaded when a Japanese found occupation money on their persons.
Although pain and time have dimmed his memory, Dobervich believes that he reached Camp O’Donnell in two days. He and his companions stood at attention in front of the Japanese commander’s quarters for 16 hours, in terrific heat, without food or water, and he was at last denigrated by that officer in a haranguing speech on his character and his likelihood of surviving. They occupied barracks built for Filipino trainees. Passing out from a recurrence of malaria, he awakened days later to find that a Czechoslovakian had saved him from the dying, or “Zero,” Ward by administering quinine to him.
Marine enlisted men of the two detachments fared much worse. The experiences of two in particular stand out. Corporal Ted R. Williams and Private First Class Irwin C. Scott, Jr., were key members of the Air Warning Unit. Both were in reasonably good health, although Williams had suffered a minor wound.
Although they and several other Marines of the two units apparently tried to remain together and to look after one another, they recalled similar occurrences but also remembered other things separately.
All recall being forced together either on the Mariveles airfield or at the Little Baguio motor pool, and being frisked for their valuables. Some lost food and canteens; others retained them. Beatings for no apparent reason were commonplace, and all witnessed varying degrees of wanton cruelty. Counted off in ranks of four and marching companies of one hundred, their ordeal began on 10 April 1942. The road from Mariveles on the tip of Bataan to Orani was unimproved, deep in dust and excrement. On nearing Hospital No. 2 west of Cabcaben barrio, whose wards and beds were in the open beneath tall tree cover, they saw both American and Filipino patients turned out into the line of march, despite the nature of their wounds. Pitifully few of these survived, falling by the wayside, bayoneted or beheaded, or ground into pulp beneath enemy tanks and trucks.
Some recalled seeing Japanese large-caliber guns hurried from the north and emplaced in proximity of the two hospitals. Groups of prisoners were halted—even marched back—and placed in front of the artillery in plain sight of Americans on Corregidor. Private First Class Earl C. Dodson, guard detachment, was one of these. Shell fragments in his ankle from a short round was removed by a Navy corpsman. At this point, the line of march began to distintegrate, and the Japs took their frustration out on the prisoners.
By this time, Williams began to regret having pleaded ignorance of his ability to drive a truck. After having gotten an artillery prime mover started for a group of Japanese, he and his companions watched with satisfaction as the victors, unable to ply its air brakes, spun it down the East Road “zig-zag” and over a cliff.
As the Americans topped a rise near Bataan Field, they were turned off into a small peninsula and stopped for the first night in a holding pen. Here they were joined by more Marines, among them a sergeant from the guard detachment. He instructed the others on the dangers of drinking stagnant water from roadside pools and carabao wallows, supplying them with iodine to sterilize their water. Corporal Willard F. Van Aist shared his iodine with Scott, but they only rinsed out their mouths with the insipid liquid. Most of the Marines escaped the shock of dysentery, which was already wreaking havoc among other marchers.
The sergeant observed that the front of the column was seldom selected to rest and thus escaped some of the atrocities that befell stragglers. Gradually, they worked their way forward into that position. Nevertheless, these Marines were among one group herded into a field just south of Pilar and forced to strip and to sit under a blazing sun within sight of a freely flowing artesian well for several hours, apparently a favored Japanese torture.
Williams observed that “unlikely as it seems, especially amidst the reigning chaos, we did not feel defeated, only betrayed. This led to a dogged determination and fueled the desire to survive. Adrenalin pumped and bolstered courage. Acts of heroism were as common as the multitude of flies, mosquitoes, and the dying.”
Scott recalled that after several days the prisoners appeared to be in total shock. Enroute he saw macabre examples of man’s cruelty to fellow man. Short communications poles lined Filipino roads. On these, he had seen at least three prisoners crucified, discarded American bayonets impaling their hands or throats, feet and stomachs. Near the end of the march, he had a recurring dream, while both awake and in fitful slumber, of lying in a white bathtub with a clear blue waterfall cascading into his open mouth.
When at last halted, the Marines were driven into an area replete with feces of those preceding them, among dead bodies already crawling with maggots. In a trance later that night, they were jerked into reality by a driving rain. They prostrated themselves on their backs out of sight of their captors to catch raindrops on their faces and in their mouths.
On reaching Lubao, an advanced Japanese supply depot, they marched through towering mounds of collected American canned goods and rations, a sight that elicited only their wrath, for they had been starving before the surrender.
Williams had recently lost his canteen to a Japanese guard. While passing another American stockpile south of San Fernando, an incident occurred that he still considers a miracle. A Japanese non-commissioned officer beside the road saw among them a Marine with whom he had been acquainted in Shanghai. Tugged from the line, the Marine took with him Williams and the other enlisted Marines alongside him. A short distance away, the Japanese instructed a cook to serve these selected prisoners rice and vegetables simmering together in a cauldron. All their canteens were filled, and one was given to Williams. This had been their first food and fresh water for four days. Williams still agonizes over the fate of the American who may have forfeited the canteen!
San Fernando was the end of only the first phase of the Death March. Here they were again penned in filthy enclosures. Scott told of a rifle shot in the night that stampeded him and his fellow prisoners within a steel wire enclosure. The following morning they were horrified to discover several men who had been trampled to death.
Here, the 11 Marines who had clung together were separated. Williams, Willard Van Aist, and Corporal Paul W. Koziol were crammed into a diminuitive boxcar with 97 others, standing room only. The morning sun beat mercilessly on the steel sides, as a “blowtorch on a tin can.” Men fainted standing up; others died in the same position, the air fouled with the smell of urine and feces. The interminable ride ended at a small rail yard at Capas.
Again, they straggled into a semblance of military order, to march the
remaining six kilometers to Camp O’Donnell. Williams was full of
unadulterated praise for a Filipina matron and a group of young women who
entered the school grounds laden with baskets of bread, rice cakes, fresh
fruit and other foods and began distributing them to the starving men. The
Japanese captain in charge brutalized the older woman in their presence,
knocking her down and kicking her. Maintaining her composure, she rose and
continued to dispense her food stuff. The process was twice repeated, until
the officer gave in to her courage.
The capture and subsequent loss in 1942 of the
original 4th Marines’ records prove at first daunting to any researcher of
the period. The search for source material must begin with part IV of LtCol
Frank 0. Hough, Maj Verle E. Ludwig, and Henry I. Shaw, Jr.’s History of
U.S. Marine Corps Operations in World War II, vol 1, Pearl Harbor to
Guadalcanal (Washington: HistBr, G-3 Div, HQMC, 1958). This work proved to
be the single best account of the regiment in the fall of the Philippines.
Other works of value include Hanson W. Baldwin’s “The Fourth Marines on Corregidor,” Marine Corps Gazette, Nov46-Feb47; Louis Morton, The Fall of the Philippines, The War in the Pacific: United States Army in World War II (Washington: Office of the Chief of Military History, 1953). Also useful were James H. and William M. Belote, Corregidor: The Saga of a Fortress (NY: Harper and Row, 1967); Reports of General MacArthur, vols I and II (Washington: GPO, 1966); Carl M. Holloway, Happy, the POW, (Brandon, Mississippi: Quail Ridge Press, 1981); Donald Versaw, The Last China Band (Lakewood, California: Peppertree Publications, 1990); and William R. Evans, Soochow and the 4th Marines (Rogue River, Oregon: Atwood Publications, 1987).
The 4th Marines records which were brought out from Corregidor by submarine or retrieved from the prison camps after the war are found in the geographical and subject files in the Archives Section, Marine Corps Historical Center. The Personal Papers Collection proved to contain valuable items, including the Thomas R. Hicks journals, which contain a daily record of events of the regiment. Also of use were the Reginald H. Ridgely papers, Curtis T. Beecher memoir, Floyd 0. Schilling papers, Cecil J. Peart papers, James B. Shimel papers, Carter B. Simpson memoir, Wilbur Marrs memoir, and the Charles R. Jackson manuscript.
Many other articles written by Marine participants or about the 4th Marines in the defense of the Philippines were consulted for this work.
The best sources, by far, for the 4th Marines experience in the fall of the Philippines are the survivors themselves. Capt Elmer E. Long, Jr., USMC (Ret) and CWO Gerald A. Turner, USMC (Ret), provided assistance in locating the surviving members of the “Old” 4th. More than 100 Marines have been interviewed as well as men from other services.
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