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The Siege of Bataan

To both sides in the conflict, the four months between the launch of the great Japanese Pacific offensive and the fall of Bataan must have felt like an eternity. For the Americans and Filipinos, the war started badly, with the destruction of the B-17 force at Clark Field on December 8, and only got worse. The main Japanese invasion force quickly shredded MacArthur's army two weeks later. By New Year's Day the Japanese occupied Manila.

One of our Filipino boys, injured in the fighting on Bataan, January 28, 1942, being brought back to a first aid station by his comrades. Longoskawayan Point, West Coast. Library of Congress

The successful retreat into Bataan, called for in War Plan Orange, was a great feat in itself. But by the time the last of the troops had made their way into Bataan on January 6, their fate was already sealed: with approximately 26,000 civilian refugees joining 80,000 troops, there was simply not enough food to go around. Despite fighting courageously against an enemy with superior firepower, MacArthur's forces were pushed steadily back and grew weaker by the day. 

The following four men, each of whom appears in the program, describe the struggle in their own words. Read their bio below.

Edwin Ramsey: There were some supplies in Bataan, but nowhere near enough for our purposes. Neither from the standpoint of food, nor from a standpoint of ammunition. Actually, the time table that was expected by everybody there was that the attack would not come as soon as it did. Therefore, they were not really prepared for it. And, this Bataan was part of the War Plan Orange, which most of the lower level officers, such as myself had never heard of before, because this was something which was very secret and was kept there, for the purposes of a fall back position, if they could not hold the Japanese, when they landed. So there was not enough of anything. 

In addition to which, most of the Philippine Army troops, which was the bulk of the army that we had there, were very, very poorly equipped. Many of them had no shoes, many of them had no guns. They were very ill prepared to withstand a major attack. So, the amount of logistic supply that we had in Bataan, was very minimal. When the war began and the attack began, they tried to move as many things as they could from Manila, but by that time, they were short of transport... everything was chaotic. It's easy to criticize a situation like that, but unless you've been in it, you don't realize that, first off, war is disorganized. And the beginning of war is even more so. You don't know what to expect of yourself — whether or not you're going to be afraid, whether you're going to be able to stand up to it or not. So, there's a great deal in the beginning that is simply chaotic, and as a matter of fact, war is sort of controlled chaos. 

Richard Gordon: Well, at that point in time [January, 1942], we'd already been put on half rations and morale was beginning to get a little bit tight by virtue of the fact that food was not what it should have been, as far as we were concerned. And of course, the orders to cut those rations came from General MacArthur's office. And there was a little resentment of that part, but I don't think anyone expected anything terrible to happen as a result of ...rations being cut in half. That came later. 

Interviewer: You were in Bataan and on half rations -- what was it like, as the war went on? Were people starving?

Leon Beck: Oh yes, we were losing weight right along, but I don't think we were starving. There [were] towns around there...and you'd get in these towns and barter. We'd trade our clothes to the Filipinos for fruit and bananas, papayas and shrimp, if they had them. And they were crazy for long underwear and we had absolutely no need for them, but when you went overseas, you had to carry your full allotment of clothing with you, they'd check to make sure you took it with you. So, we traded all of our long underwear to them, so in December and January when the nights turned cool and the mornings were cool, why they could use that; that was a good bartering equipment.

Interviewer: What did you eat?

Edwin Ramsey: Well, we ate anything that we could get our hands on. When we got out of Bataan, fortunately we met some Filipino farmers and they killed their last chickens for us, because we were really starved at that time and they had a little rice. So, they gave us a little rice and chickens, and helped us to get enough strength to continue on up the peninsula of Bataan. Later on, and before that, in Bataan, we were eating everything -- monkeys, dogs, cats. But, there weren't any of them left anymore. Carabaos. Anybody who had a carabao, we ate those. We ate the horses of the 26th Cavalry...General Wainwright took away the horses and sent them to the quarter-master to be slaughtered for food, because the troops were starving.

As the Japanese began to attack with greater ferocity in mid-January, MacArthur issued a statement to be read to his troops. "Thousands of troops and hundreds of planes are being dispatched," it read in part. "The exact time of arrival of reinforcements is unknown ...No further retreat is possible ...If we fight we will win; if we retreat we will be destroyed." 

Richard Gordon: Well, to the best of my recollection, the unit commander that we had, called us together as a unit and said he had a message to pass onto the troops in the field. And basically the message was from MacArthur to the effect that help was on its way. And we were to hold fast. Planes would be coming, men would be coming and what we needed would be there. Just hold tight. Do not, for one minute, think of giving up any grounds. And at that point in time, we believed him totally — that help was on its way.

Whether MacArthur really believed this or was deliberately misleading his men we'll never know. Either way, it was not true, and many felt betrayed. Those who blamed MacArthur personally felt it even more deeply when he left for Australia in March. 

Richard Gordon: We were told he left, but after he had left. He had left ...somewhere around the 11th of March of 1942. I think I learned about on it on the 12th or 13th, when they made that particular announcement.

Interviewer: And did this affect morale?

Gordon: Yes, it did, it did. Because so many people, including myself, felt like perhaps he's running out. And, it became to many people a very bitter pill to swallow. It wasn't only the enlisted ranks -- that feeling was shared by the commissioned ranks as well. But when we stopped to analyze, we felt that perhaps he was going to get that help that he promised us. So we tried to look at the bright side of it, of his leaving. It didn't come off too well, but we tried to.

Interviewer: When MacArthur left, what was your feeling? Did you feel abandoned? Did you feel as if you were being left there to do the fighting that he wouldn't do?

Leon Beck: No, I never thought that MacArthur left because he was afraid of fighting. I don't think the word fear was in MacArthur's vocabulary. There are two people I've known in my life that I put in that category. That's General MacArthur and [a lieutenant out of the 31st Infantry]. And, I thought possibly that he would get there in time and they could get convoys in through Australia and send relief to us, but it didn't work that way....

Capture and Death March

"A terrible silence settled over Bataan about noon on April 9," remembered General Jonathan Wainwright, the man who had assumed MacArthur's command after he left for Australia. On that day, Luzon Force commander Gen. Edward King, without informing Wainwright, surrendered to the Japanese. Numbering more than 70,000 (Filipinos and Americans), it was the largest American army in history to surrender. Some refused to become prisoners and fled, joining a significant resistance movement which grew to perhaps 180,000 guerrillas throughout the Philippines.

While the Japanese pounded Corregidor (which would surrender on May 6), they led their prisoners on a forced march out of Bataan. Before the "Death March" was over, those who survived would march more than sixty miles through intense heat with almost no water or food. Somewhere between 5,000 and 11,000 never made it to Camp O'Donnell, where fresh horrors awaited. 

Richard Gordon: I didn't come down with a surrender group. They caught me actually two days after the surrender took place. First thing I did was receive a good beating. And everything I had in my wallet, in my pockets was taken from me. And as I was marched down that road, where they captured me, I passed my battalion commander, Major James Ivy, and he had been tied to a tree and he was stripped to the waist and he was just covered with bayonet holes. He was dead obviously. And he had bled profusely. He had been bayonetted by many, many bayonets. And that's when I knew we had some troubles on our hands. We were in for deep trouble. And they brought us down into a staging area and put me in with the rest of the thousands that were assembled on the side of the road, and that's where I spent my first night.

Alfred X. Burgos: Well, when Bataan surrendered, they gathered all of us in Mariveles, Bataan, and they told us that we had to march all the way to San Fernando Pampanga because we were all going to be accounted for and taken to prison camps. Of course, the Americans that were there were made to walk on the right side of the street to distinguish them from the Filipinos, and on the left side were all the Filipino troops. Unfortunately, as you see me, I was mistaken very many times as not being a Filipino. And always I was yanked out and put in the American group, and there of course I got slapped so many times for crossing, but I knew very well, inside of me I said, "I am sure they are going to treat the Americans in a worse way than they're going to treat the Filipinos." And all along they started saying, "Well, you Filipinos, you know, you should have been on our side, why are you fighting for these Americans, anyway. There is no chance of them winning this war."

Interviewer: Did you witness cruelty on the Death March?

Alfred X. Burgos: Oh, yes. For example, if you should not want to walk anymore -- let's say you were tired -- well, I've seen them shoot walking prisoners of war -- actually be shot. Or if you tried to get food which was thrown by the civilians to the walking military, the Filipino military, that not only endangered you, but the one who was giving the food or throwing the food to you...Well, those that they could catch, they'd just shoot them there.... If you could not keep up with the group in the Death March, rather than slow the Death March, they'd get rid of you by shooting you.... Oh, they bayoneted people, they shot people, and if they think that you were delaying the Death March, you're dead.

Interviewer: Did you see anybody else die or get killed?

Richard Gordon: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. A number of times. As we were marching out of Bataan, men were very desperate for water. And they would break ranks and the Japanese wouldn't tolerate that. And they'd run to the side of the road to get some water. And along the side of the road would be caribou wallows, which were puddles of water that the caribou used to wallow in ...so they'd keep away flies and mosquitos. And the Americans and the Filipinos both would actually lap up that water like a kitten would lap up milk. And of course the water was contaminated. So many of them became very ill as a result of drinking that. Several who broke ranks ...would be shot by the Japanese who were part of that detail. I saw a beheading of a Filipino who had broke ranks and ran for that type of water. So killings, yes, we saw a number of them along that march at different places. 

...But one of the problems we had on that march was the lack of discipline among the troops, the American and Filipino troops. Nobody knew anybody. And because of that, that caused many problems. As an example, I volunteered for a detail to carry an injured officer who had broken a leg. And we had four people carrying that litter. We went so far and we couldn't get a soul to replace us and give us a break and let someone else take over. We carried that gentleman all day long in some of the hottest weather I've ever been in. And when it came night time, everyone went their own different way. Nobody would, would relieve us. So that man was left lying alongside the road. I never knew what happened to him either. The lack of discipline on the part of the troops led to much of this.

Interviewer: What was the Death March like?

Leon Beck: It depends on the guards you had over you. Some of the guards were not too abusive and some were very abusive. They would harass you, they would make you line up at daylight, get in a column of fours, usually 100 to 125 men, in a column of fours and keep you standing at attention until the sun came up and got real hot.... They would start you double-timing until the line got stretched out. The sick, lame and lazy, we called them, fell back. Then, they'd close you up again and they might keep you standing another hour in that hot sun.... There are ways you can rest one leg and shift your weight, it's not too noticeable and you can slough off and rest a bit. But, if they caught you at it, it meant a butt stroke with a rifle or a beating over the head, and the people that fell down and didn't get up, you'd hear a shot fired and you'd look back and there lays a body behind you. But they wouldn't let you go back and take care of him, even at the artesian wells, when the prisoners would break and run for the water. They'd shoot indiscriminately into the crowd and some got shot and laid there. You couldn't go take care of them ...At night, they put us in barbed wire enclosures, just a single string of barbed wire around the trees and they'd herd you in there. There was no latrine facilities, you defecated right where you were and it got pretty bad and stinky come morning and you couldn't walk around. You had to stay there. Because of the mess, everybody was sick with malaria and dysentery....

Some, seeing that the Japanese were not going to abide by the Geneva Convention in treating their prisoners, escaped into the jungles of Bataan. Most joined the guerrilla movement.

Leon Beck: I don't think there's any glory in being a prisoner of war, and I'd made up my mind, when it looked desperate ...I told everybody: "I'm not going to march in the prison camp. If I have to die, I'm going to die in the attempt or I'll die free. But, I'm not going to go in prison camp, no glory in being a prisoner." We were taught [that] you had a moral, legal, and ethical responsibility if you were ever captured, that you should make an attempt to escape and if that attempt was successful, you had to continue to resist to your enemy, until such time as you could re-join friendly forces. That's the way it was taught to us, every time they read the Articles of War to us. So, I've tried to fulfill that. I enlisted voluntarily and I felt I had a responsibility and I tried to fulfill it.

Interviewer: How did you escape?

Beck: The road that we were marching on was the main road from Manila all the way into Bataan, to Baguio, which was the summer capital. And, as we came in to the town of Guagua, there was a tide river, that paralleled the road. And nobody would go with me, I'd been begging for many days for people to attempt an escape with me. And, they just flat refused.... [Finally] I said "hit it." I just rolled off of the road and got into the edge of the river and there's a lot of palmetto brush and weeds and one thing or another growing and as soon as the group marched on past me, and got a ways down the road, and out of sight and there wasn't anything in sight, coming up the road, I went up swam and waded across that river and got out into a cut rice field and I could see a shack over there...[Beck was aided by some Filipinos here, then later joined other American guerrillas.]


Leon Beck: Mr. Beck served as a Private in the 31st Infantry Batallion, U.S. Army. He was a POW for fourteen days until he escaped from the Death March. He then fought against the Japanese with several different guerrilla outfits until American forces returned to Luzon in January, 1945.

Alfred X. Burgos:  Along with his fellow ROTC students at university in Manila, Mr. Burgos mustered into the Philippine Army when the war broke out. He survived the Death March and was held at Camp O'Donnell until September, 1942, when the Japanese released most of their Filipino prisoners. Mr. Burgos then participated in the resistance movement until the Americans returned. He rose to the rank of Colonel after the war.

Richard M. Gordon: Mr. Gordon enlisted as a Corporal in the 31st Infantry in 1940. Taken prisoner with the fall of Bataan, he, too, survived the Death March, then was held at Camp O'Donnell before being moved to Cabanatuan. In November of 1942, he was sent to Japan, where he worked in a labor camp in Nagano Prefecture until the war was over. Now a retired Major, Mr. Gordon organizes a group called The Battling of Bataan.

Edwin P. Ramsey: As an officer in the 26th Cavalry, Lieutenant Ramsey participated in the last mounted cavalry charge in U.S. military history, in January of 1942. After Bataan fell, Mr. Ramsey made his way into central Luzon, where he helped organize the Luzon Guerrilla Force under Colonel Claude Thorpe, and fought the Japanese until liberation nearly three years later. Mr. Ramsey left the army in 1946 with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. His book "Lieutenant Ramsey's War" chronicles his experience in the Philippines.

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