This remarkable book was sent to me by K.D., a GoodReads friend from the Philippines, because I had expressed an interest in learning more about his country. As K.D. had explained, it’s an American book, focussed primarily on their experiences as POWs under Nippon, but because the notorious Bataan Death March took place in the Philippines, the victims also included Filipino soldiers. The numbers are appalling: of 75,000 captives, 67,000 were Filipinos, 1,000 were Chinese Filipinos, and 11,796 were Americans. Approximately 5,000–10,000 Filipino and 600–650 American prisoners of war died en route to their destination, Camp O’Donnell, from where they were eventually shipped as slave labour.
I didn’t need to read this book to know that whenever countries hastily raise a force to cope with the exigencies of war – whether they be conscripts or volunteers, that force will be untrained and short of equipment. Military historians and national myth-makers like to claim that the difference between one poorly trained force and another comes down the ‘national character’. Australians like to claim that larrikinism, self-sufficiency and resilience born of battling a hostile environment made our boys heroic at Gallipoli, Tobruk and Kokoda. The British like to believe in the tenacity and common sense of the British Bulldog that ‘will never surrender’. In this book, the Filipinos are characterised thus:
‘Generally a passive people, they followed the custom of pakikisama, Tagalog for ‘just go along with it’, whatever the ‘it’ was – the rule of government, the will of the family, the preferences of friends. And if going along put trouble in his path, well, then, the weary magsasaka (farmer) would just bahala na, ‘leave it to God, come what may’. But wrong him, insult him. slander his family, question his honour, and the average Filipino would likely turn his bolo [sic] from cutting sugar cane to harvesting someone’s head. (p40)
Their hastily-assembled defence force also included a small force of well-trained veterans, but the Commonwealth Army was only five years old, had had no experience in battle, had poor leadership and tragically inadequate arms. Of course they were no match for the Japanese.
The American draftees were in general, poorly educated, hastily trained and inadequately briefed. General Douglas MacArthur, their commander, was bombastic, arrogant and incompetent. Their national character is personified in this book by the figure of Ben Steele, a country lad raised by an uncompromising father to be resilient and uncomplaining. Brave and dependable he may have been but he had no idea how to fight, having been trained as support crew for the air force. No wonder he and his ilk were no match for the Japanese.
Could any force have defended the Philippines? Myriad islands and an inhospitable landscape and climate suggest that only a massive ground force would have done that, and the strategists knew it. The Normans say that the unadvertised US plan was always to retreat to Bataan, a wedge-shaped peninsula, and hang on there until a relief force could arrive. Like the Brisbane Line in Australia, the existence of which is denied, the plan surrenders territory without a Pyrrhic battle.
For what the defending forces were up against was a tightly disciplined, massive force of Japanese soldiery. Like many others who’ve tried to make sense of Japanese barbarity in World War II, the Normans have investigated the training and authority structures of the Japanese Imperial Army. Brutal training, they say, brutalised the young conscripts and they explain that the method used to inculcate instant, unquestioning obedience was routine violence. Attempt to explain and a recruit was slapped. Stay silent and receive a slap, and this constant, unremitting violence for even trivial breaches of discipline was imposed by a strictly hierarchical chain of command, first year recruits demurring to second years without question or complaint, and so on, up to the Emperor. Add to this the Japanese belief in themselves as unique and morally superior to everyone else and therein lie the seeds of their unspeakable cruelty to the POWs they would eventually capture.
Not only that, but in the case of the notorious Death Marches (Bataan, Sandakan) there was also the Japanese’ own experience of marching under duress to influence their brutal treatment of their prisoners. Short of transport, the Japanese landing force marched to where they were going, long distances every day and part of the night, carrying all their gear. The 141st Infantry walked 137 miles from the Lingayan Gulf to Pampanga Province (gateway to the Bataan Peninsula) during the Dry Season. 7000+ men and officers, most of them conscripts who’d been ‘clerks, cops and sentries’ were hurried along the burning track in the heat so that they could reach the defeated force on Bataan and enjoy the prestige of battle before the Allies surrendered.
The Japanese held ‘soft’ Americans in contempt. They were sustained by the myth of the legendary Samurai whose ideals had been reconstituted to be more noble than they had ever really been, tweaked to inculcate loyalty, self-sacrifice and a willingness to face death, ‘free of fear or hesitation’ (p81). Duty and loyalty was a Japanese trait, as ‘the sentiment of freedom and self-reliance was in America’. (p82) Surrender, the Japanese thought, was beyond contempt.
The brutality of the Death March in the second part of this book is graphic, and hard to read. To those of us Australians familiar with the atrocities on the Thai-Burma Railway and the Sandakan story it is sadly familiar, but what I did not know about was the massacre of 400 Filipino officers and NCOs at the Pantingan River – where they were tied together with telephone wire, insulted with a phony apology for their courage in fighting against the mighty Japanese, and then bayoneted over a ravine. Incredibly a man called Pedro Felix, bleeding profusely from multiple wounds, survived to reach Manila to report what had happened.
As with so many war crimes committed by the Japanese during World War II, an apology for the Bataan Death March was a long time in coming. It was not until 2009, when the survivors were very old men anyway, that the Japanese ambassador finally made a long overdue statement of regret in America. (The book doesn’t say if they ever apologised to the Filipinos.) Yet despite this shameful denial of culpability for so many years as to make an apology worthless, the Normans felt compelled to retell the heroic efforts of counsel to get a fair trial for Masaharu Homma, the Japanese general who was held responsible for the death march and executed by American forces in 1946, and to include the stories of some Japanese foot-soldiers and their point-of-view. It is even more astonishing that a man like Ben Steele who suffered so much could survive with his sense of integrity and decency still intact.
There is not much about this atrocity online and even less about the sufferings of the Filipinos but I did find this poignant site which shows the memorials which have been placed along the road where the POWs marched and died.
Authors: Michael Norman and Elizabeth M. Norman
Title: Tears in the Darkness
Publishers: Farrer, Strauss and Giroux, New York 2009
ISBN: 9780374272609 (hbk)
Source: Gift of KD, my friend from GoodReads.