The Bataan "Hike": Premeditated or Negligent?

Yet for all its horrors, the march was not a premeditated atrocity. For the most part, the brutalities occurred in a piecemeal fashion against a backdrop of escalating confusion and seething racial hatred. Miscues, bad intelligence, cultural misunderstandings, sweltering heat, and a devolution of Imperial Army discipline all conspired to create an environment of tragic drift. The Bataan Death March, as the event later came to be called by the American media (most prisoners at the time simply called it, with characteristic understatement, “the Hike”), took place not according to plan, but rather as a result of the chaos that flourished under a plan that was fatally flawed. Once it became apparent that the original evacuation scheme was radically out of step with the circumstances on the ground, the Japanese failed to alter the plan to accommodate new facts. Their estimate of the number of prisoners was off, incredibly, by as many as 60,000 people, and their assessment of the health and stamina of the Fil-American forces was equally off base.

Realizing this, the Japanese should have instantly begun a wholesale rethinking of the logistics. Arrangements would have to be made for more vehicles, more food, more hospitals. Most obvious of all, more time would be needed to complete the move. But the Japanese Army, for all its many strengths, had rarely demonstrated a talent for reversing course in midstream once an error was recognized. Steeped in a rigid Confucian-influenced culture in which an order was considered final and any attempt to change it impugned the wisdom of the superior who conceived and issued it, the Japanese war planners were bold in action but often deficient in the improvisational skills needed for quick and supple reaction. Instead of alerting General Homma to the new exigencies on Bataan, the planners forcibly tried to make the old provisions—and timetables—work. The results were catastrophic.

For whatever reason, the Japanese elected not to honor General King’s request that American vehicles be used to transport his men to prison camp. In truth, some of the trucks had been irreparably sabotaged by Americans who mistakenly thought they were supposed to destroy everything of potential value the day before the surrender. Many of the American vehicles were confiscated for military purposes, and were later seen towing Japanese artillery pieces toward southern Bataan. The Japanese Army was not heavily motorized; it remained, to a great extent, a foot army. This was partly a matter of choice and partly a matter of necessity, for Japan suffered from a desperate shortage of oil and enjoyed access to few outside sources of petroleum. Japan’s extreme oil scarcity, exacerbated by the oil embargo that had been put in place by the United States and other Western powers before the war, had been one of the major factors that precipitated the outbreak of hostilities. Capturing the oil wells of the Dutch East Indies became Japan’s paramount goal upon initiating the war. Because every drop of gasoline was considered virtually sacred, the Japanese Army chose to invest little in troop-carrying trucks, jeeps, and other modes of ground transport. What little gasoline existed was reserved primarily for planes, ships, and tanks. Soldiers were expected to hike long distances—twenty-five or thirty miles a day—as a matter of course. Marching represented a much more significant part of theJapanese training regimen than it did for the American foot soldier. Japanese troops generally marched more often, for longer duration, and at a faster pace than did the Americans, who relied heavily on vehicles in large part due to the U.S. Army’s ready access to cheap and plentiful gas. This major difference in the two armies contributed to a gulf in the perception of what constituted a reasonable distance for a day’s march. The Japanese unrealistically expected the starved and diseased Filipino-American forces to meet the Imperial Army’s norms for marching—again, with tragic consequences.

There was another major cultural difference that influenced many encounters between the Japanese and their new captives: The two armies entertained radically different views on the matter of corporal punishment. Beating had long been an acceptable and routine method of discipline within the Japanese Army. Soldiers could strike subordinates with no questions asked and no explanation warranted. The slightest distinction between ranks was of critical importance because it meant the difference between who could inflict blows, and who could expect to receive them. This sort of institutionalized brutality had a tendency to work its way down the ranks to the lowliest private. One can imagine what would happen when an enlisted man, hardened by this psychology of top-down violence, found himself suddenly thrown into a foreign and not altogether distasteful situation in which he was the superior, in charge of a group of helpless prisoners. For some, the temptation to beat proved irresistible. For others, beating was only the beginning.

It was also true that many of the Imperial Army soldiers were themselves desperately hungry and ravaged by the same diseases that ravaged their captives. Although they hadn’t deteriorated as far as the Americans had, many Japanese soldiers were showing signs of emaciation and battle fatigue. “We were all starving,” recalled Shiro Asada, a Fourteenth Army soldier on Bataan. “We had dried fish paste and pickles to eat, that was all. Canned goods like the Americans had were a luxury to us. It seemed to us that some of the Americans were better fed than we were.” As a matter of official policy, the Imperial Army showed a remarkable reluctance to provision its own troops. Army quartermasters provided only a bare minimurn of such staples as miso and rice, but soldiers were expected to forage and steal to make up the caloric deficit. Thus, swiping rations or canteens from American prisoners wasn’t merely a matter of the strong taking advantage of the weak—it was practically an Imperial Army imperative. The Americans, already living so close to the bone, would have to make do with even less, for how could an army that barely fed its own be expected to provide adequate meals for 78,000 enemy prisoners?

SOURCE: Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II’s Greatest Rescue Mission, by Hampton Sides (Anchor Books, 2002), pp. 91-93

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Filed under Japan, Philippines, U.S., war

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