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.