Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Bataan Death March by Michael & Elizabeth Norman

Several factors contributed to the disaster that struck the U.S. army in the Philippines in 1941, the single largest defeat in American history. Although General MacArthur had at least 80,000 men on the islands at the time, thus outnumbering the Japanese invasion force by two-to-one, only about 8,000 were actually capable of putting up a fight. Many in the American ranks- logistical personnel- had received no more combat training than forced marches in basic training stateside months before. A large proportion of the ranks filled by Filipinos were reservists and militia, poorly equipped with little training. They faced the war-hardened troops of the 14th Japanese Imperial Army, most of whom had no expectation of returning home from the war alive.

Intelligence about Japanese intentions, capacities and preparations was inadequate and useful reports that did get through to the top brass at the Pentagon were brushed aside by a general consensus that their enemies would be a push-over. This problem was compounded by General MacArthur's self-aggrandizing and rosy reports about the progress of his own preparations and expectations about when the Japanese would invade. As it happened, immediately following the bombing of Pearl Harbor the most appropriate action would have been to bomb Japanese air bases on the Island of Formosa. This was not done and, furthermore, most of the the American air force was caught on the ground and wiped-out like sitting ducks leaving Japan with control of the air through-out their five month campaign to capture the island.

Further tactical errors were lack of logistical support for American and Filipino troops when they first confronted the Japanese landing force in Lingayen- gas for their transports and armored vehicles. Most disastrously, after MacArthur decided to take up defensive positions of the Bataan Penisula, he failed to secure sufficient food supplies to sustain resistance though it was available to him. His soldiers were thus, of necessity, placed on half rations as soon as the siege began. Shortages of clean water and medical supplies became apparent at the onset of battle. Thus, not only were the American troops prevented from counter-attacking at a point when Japanese strength was seriously depleted and attacks suspended pending reinforcement from the homeland, the strength and stamina of the Americans and their Filipino allies- their capacity to fight or even to survive captivity were dangerously undermined.

At the time General King surrendered the Japanese were expecting and had started to make preparations for the reception of approximately 40,000 P.O.W's. They got over 70,000, many of whom were already suffering the effects of combat wounds, starvation and various jungle diseases, including dysentery and malaria. But several cultural factors also contributed to the catastrophe which became known as the Bataan death march.

Maurice de Sax, Marshall general of France, believed that "the severe discipline" produced "the greatest deeds," and across the ages, East and West, men pressed into military service often learned the lesson of discipline under duress. The Germans favored the whip, the French the fist. In the Imperial Japanese Army, this "encouragement" (bentatsu, it was called) turned training camps into alembics, a closed world of violence where men were subjected to the most brutal system of army discipline in the world. Here the civilian in a man, all he had been or wanted to be, was beaten out of him. What was left were hollow, automatons living in a space, as one recruit put it, where "all breathable air seemed to be exhausted", "a zone of emptiness". Army life was ri ni kanawanai, "unreasonable." That was the word used over and over again, for the injustice was so great, the injury so painful, and the insult so severe, life in camp was beyond all reason.

When the first-year privates finally finished their pitiless apprenticeship, they were promoted to senior privates, stewards to a new cohort of conscripts. Now the bullied became bullies themselves. One group of primitives had created from itself another group of primitives, and all of the groups from all of the camps across all the home islands formed one great primal horde, 2,287,000 men who had been savaged to produce an army of savage intent.

Ambiguities in the command structure of the Japanese army compounded the problem. Orders from above- most often lacking specificity regarding actual circumstances in the field- were to be obeyed without questions or reservations. On the other hand field commanders lacked authority to discipline and control their immediate subordinates except in matters pertaining to their willingness to blindly sacrifice themselves and their men in the rigors of combat. In the Philippines, interlopers from the Imperial General staff such as in infamous Masanobu Tsuji, were dispatched to "advise" the commanding General- Fujiko Homma. An agent of Homma's political enemies Tsuji spent his time collaring divisional and regimental commanders and issuing ad hoc suggestions and orders 'to beat the westerners into submission", "mete out the severest punishments with no thought of leniency."

On the other side of the story, according to a U.S. Army report, "the average enlistee" in 1941 "was a youth of less than average education, to whom the security of pay, low as it was, and the routines of Army life appealed more than the competitive struggles of civilian life." They resented their officers, the army's remote upper class, and saw their sergeants as crude overseers promoted more for their mindless forbearance, their time in uniform, rather than their merit. They thought the training rote and stupid, drill for "nitwits": marching in formation, scrubbing barracks floors, shining shoes, standing frequent inspections. Instead of espirit de corps- a "moral force", Ardant du Picq said, that wins battles- the average soldier in the Army of the United States had espirit etroit, narrowing self-interest. "Don't stick your neck out," he would tell his buddies, then reach for another beer. The ethos of "every man for himself" did not work well in the severe trials of captivity and, as it turned out, officers were unwilling and often unable to exercise the authority that would have been necessary to protect the lives of the most vulnerable from the predatory circumstances of the sixty-mile march out of Bataan or interment in a hell hole like Camp O'Donnell.


  1. In the fall of 1945 Tomoyuki Yamashita and Masaharu Homma found themselves preparing to stand trial before two military commissions in the Philippines, commissions whose procedures- particularly the all important rules of evidence- were so "bare bones" that the trials took on the appearance of kangaroo courts. In a military commission, for example, none of the documents, reports, statements, letters, affidavits or depositions submitted as evidence had to be verified or supported by direct testimony, which gave that evidence the quality of hearsay, accusations that were impossible for the defense to challenge or disprove.

    The Allies also wanted to rush this justice along "Proceed without delay," Truman ordered MacArthur who, in turn, told his legal section, "speed is of the essence".

    Commanders have always had to account for the behavior of their men, but that responsibility had always been fiduciary rather than criminal. If his men went astray for want of oversight, the custom was to revoke a commander's trusteeship and retire or cashier him. Only if his actions had been wanton- if, say, he'd explicitly ordered his men to sack a city or slaughter innocents, clear violations of the traditional conventions of war- was a general hauled before a tribunal. Now, after four years of total war, in which belligerents killed innocents in far greater numbers than they had killed one another, the victors were determined to expand the idea of "command responsibility", at least as it applied to the men they had defeated, men, by the by, who had once defeated them.

    In post war- crime cases in the Pacific theater of war General MacArthur had the authority to decide which defendants would be tried before military commissions and which would enjoy the more protective legalities of an international tribunal and run by experienced civilian judges. He was empowered to pick the judges, prosecutors , defense attorneys.He set the rules of evidence, the court procedures, the timetables for the trials. And it was MacArthur who would certify the verdicts, which made his office alone the place of last appeal. He could set aside a sentence, save a man's life , or establish the time, place, and manner of his execution

    It was a new law under which the defendants were tried applied retroactively, ex post facto law, the kind of law prohibited by the U.S. Constitution. Each man was charged with failing "to discharge his duty as commander to control the operations of the members of his command, permitting them to commit brutal atrocities and other high crimes". "Permitting them..." What did that mean? The victors had take a doctrine of English common law, respondeat superior (the principle must answer for the actions of his agents), and applied it to war, this against all precedent and tradition.

    The prosecution in the case of Masaharu Homma was unable to link the defendant directly to the death march, the centerpiece horror of the government's case. It could produce no evidence whatsoever- no documents, no testimony- that Homma had ordered the bloody atrocities on the Old National Road or that he had been told about the slaughter and failed to stop it. Instead, the prosecutors had relied on circumstantial evidence and the power of inference.

  2. Appeals to the U.S, Supreme Court failed. In his dissenting opinion on the case of Tomoyuki Yamashita , Judge Rutledge wrote that the "safeguards" of the Fifth Amendment had been denied, the trial was filled with "broad departures from the fundamentals of fair play". Justice Murphy wrote that Yamashita had been "rushed to trial under an improper charge, given insufficient time to prepare an adequate defense, deprived of the benefits of some of the most elementary rules of evidence and summarily sentenced to hang."
    The trial had thus undermined the very values so many Americans had given their lives to defend. At its heart was "an uncurbed spirit of revenge and retribution, masked in formal legal procedure for the purposes of dealing with a fallen enemy commander' a spirit "unworthy of the tradition of our people" and "to conclude otherwise is to admit that the enemy has lost the battle but has destroyed our ideals"

  3. Tears in The Darkness; The Story of the Bataan Death March and its Aftermath" by Michael Norman and Elizabeth M. Norman, professors of journalism and the humanities at New York University; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009

    " a bomb blast is lethal science. First, a shock wave, a surge of air that hits a man like a wall of wind, hits him so hard his cerebrum starts to shake concussively in his skull, swelling at first, them hemorrhaging, rivulets of blood running from his nose and ears, vomit from his mouth. An instant after the shock wave passes, the atmosphere turns hot and dense, high pressure sucking the low pressure from every recess around it, from a man's lungs and ears and eye sockets, leaving him gasping for breath and fighting the feeling his pupil;s are being pulled from their sockets. Finally, fluid mechanics turns to terminal ballistics as the blast blows apart the bomb's casing, sending hundreds of jagged fragments- pieces of white-hot shrapnel, some no bigger than a pebble, others as big as a brick- slicing into anything in their path."

  4. Now, Pauli is a serious fellow, very busy and thinking all the time. His usual comment on the day is that this is a sick world. This refers to the general situation with America at large as well as to what goes on at Shelburne Supermarket, though often less plainly so. Of course we know that the place has the normal compliment of blimpy bosses, goldbricks and retail scams, all of which has to be handled in a discrete way.

    Anyway, yesterday, as he was signing out my bread returns and getting ready to unlock the security door he just wanted to leave me ( and the others who happened to be within the range of his voice) with one little piece of advise or word of warning. That was:

    'It's all very well to have goals in life but without a serious plan to put them forward and in place they are just a dream, a fantasy."

    Pauli's a kind of philosopher. He often pontificates in this fashion. Like I said, his favorite greeting is 'this is a sick world". He likes people to know that he is not without consciousness about the way things really are.

    "Yea", I replied, "without a plan its just a dream, a fantasy BUT, you know, dreams and fantasies kept a lot of guy's going on the Bataan Death March".

    Pauli instantly recognized the truth of what I said, with his usual demonic laugh. I didn't have to launch myself into an extended explanation of exactly that to which I was referring. Serious people in America know the Bataan Death March.