The Bataan Death March, which happened during the first months of WWII, has been covered in very few movies and documentaries. Considering it was the largest surrender of U.S. troops to a foreign nation in America’s history, you would think there would have been more films based on the story, and more documentaries produced.
Much confusion exists over what the March really was. One common misconception is that the men who surrendered from Corregidor were part of the Bataan Death March. They were not, they surrendered to the Japanese about a week after the Death March was over.
The History Channel has a documentary (2006), Oliver North covered the March in his Fox News Channel series “War Stories,” and there are a few other independent documentaries floating around.
As far as theatrical films on the subject, the most well-known is “The Great Raid,” (2005, Miramax) although that film really doesn’t focus on the Death March, but on the raid of Camp Cabanatuan in January 1945. This mission was to rescue 500 remaining Death March survivors from Japanese captivity.
Robert Taylor did star in “Bataan” in 1943, along with Desi Arnaz, but that film concerns the battle in defense of the Philippines prior to the U.S. surrender and subsequent Death March.
The Story of the Bataan Death March
During 1940 and 1941, in the Philippine Islands (Archipelago), thousands of newly deployed U.S. troops were enjoying an island paradise. Unbeknownst to many of them, they had been sent through to hold the Japanese in the event of war.
For this was a time of great tensions between the two nations, and the U.S. had recently begun an embargo-prohibiting the sale of U.S. oil or fuel to Japan. Also, Hedeki Tojo had recently taken over as Prime Minister, and he not seen as willing to negotiate on issues such as Japan’s long occupation and brutalization of China. He was much more inclined to go to war.
When the Japanese bombed Manila on the same day as they bombed Pearl Harbor, the battle for the Philippines began. Within weeks the Japanese invaded in earnest, and the 31st infantry, The 4th Marine Regiment, and other U.S. Army and Naval units held the Japanese back for four months, commencing an entrenched fighting defense of the Philippines from the Bataan Peninsula. Bataan is at the southernmost tip of the “Big” island of Luzon, and just south of Manila.
Also, over 30,000 U.S. Troops were holed up at the tiny Island of Corregidor, just off Bataan.
As supplies, including food, ammunition and medicine dried up, and General MacArthur himself was evacuated from the Philippines, it became evident that it was only a matter of time until the Japanese would overtake the Americans on Bataan and Corregidor (and on other islands in the Philippines).
So, on April 9th, 1942, General Edward King surrendered his tired, diseased and starving troops, about 10,000 Americans and 60,000 Filipino, to General Homma. What followed was weeks of torture and abuse, as the men were marched north to P.O.W. Camp O’Donnell, and in some cases Bilibid Prison in Manila. Many died and many had dysentery and malaria, but were not provided any care for their illnesses. Rather, the weak fell to the back of the long lines and were shot or beheaded.
Over sixty-eight years later, only a handful of Bataan Death March survivors are still alive, and they still tell their stories every chance they get.