My thoughts and tribute to the men on the Bataan Death March

by Robert Hudson, son to Richard C. Hudson; WWII POW, survivor and hero

Thoughts about the Bataan Death March – December 22nd, 2009

Over the years, I have taken notes after listening to and asking questions of ex POWs with whom I have had the fortune, pleasure and honor of interviewing. After having read many books and individual stories, I wish to express some of my thoughts before I die for my sons and for public consumption. This piece is intended for those who share intense interest in my personal hero’s, the men who fought in the Philippines during World War Two.
The one thing that has always stuck in my mind was something a Bataan veteran once told me, and that was he never got over how “Death transforms a man’s face into a stone mask”. The body which clothes the spirit, that moves with grace and boldness, that knows love, that is apt for self sacrifice is gone and that which animated it has disappeared. For the first time, many of our soldiers came to see that when a man dies, an unknown world passes away. The hard bone of his skull was in a sense, a treasure chest. The thoughts, the loves, the memories, the wisdom and the man are lost for eternity. Each death was in itself, a substantial loss, a veritable world consigned to oblivion.
The mind can become disoriented when overwhelmed with the outright indescribable inhumanity and the fear that accompanies the possibility of being led to your death by an enemy who's savage morality is well known. To watch other men die for the simple need of a drink of water, to be denied rest when they are weary or sick, or to not receive a small bit of nourishment when one is starving is beyond the comprehension of a civilized man. The war against Japan changed the lives of our soldiers, their thoughts, their actions, their hopes, ambitions, regrets and remorse. Our men did the best they could amid the turmoil of their hopes and of their disappointments. They did all they could within the limits of their power. They had unknowingly become the principle characters in a drama which was far greater and more moving than anything they could have ever imagined.
Respect for the dignity of men was being trampled underfoot in this new war against the Japanese. Americans and anyone standing in the way became crushed beneath the contempt of the Japanese. We were fighting a culture that was a thousand years behind the times. There is no doubt that the Japanese disfigured the face of humanity and that the Japanese were blinded by ambition before they were enlightened by a war against us.
I do not know how to convey the experience of our POWs except by piling one adjective on top of another so that in the end I convey no impression of horror at all, but only that of an embarrassing sense of exaggeration. What can I say except that our soldiers were caught in a universe that was not theirs? They became a sacrifice to events bearing down on them.
When the kill or be killed aspect of battle ends, one expects that conditions will improve. Men learn that that once they are caught up in an event, they cease to be afraid. Only the unknown frightens men. But once a man faces the unknown, that terror then becomes the known. After the surrender, the terror of battle had transformed from the unknown to the known, now they were back to the unknown. It was a vicious circle.
When resistance ended, each man had to find in himself, the courage to alone face the coming sadism of the Japanese forces. They became separated from all that was dear and familiar to them. Our troops were soon to find out that fate contemplates with equal indifference. Each prisoner eventually came to understand that their life or death depended on the degree of will in their makeup and of course, the daily moods and decisions of their captors. The slightest mistake or misjudgment could become deadly.

Cruelty takes two forms; one is to do something to a man, the other is not to do something for a man. For the men on Bataan, the experiences of both were to be learned immediately. One cannot directly blame the Japanese for the lack of food or medical attention during the battle. Nor can we directly blame the Japanese for the indigenous diseases that took their toll on our troops. The men who began the Death March were in pretty bad shape due in part to the dreadful logistical problems which left thousands of tons of food sitting in warehouses in and around Manila. Much needed medical supplies were left behind as well as armaments. One can only imagine how much better shape our men would have been in at the beginning of the Death March had they been adequately fed and cared for medically during the campaign.

After the surrender, the entrance to a long dark tunnel engulfed the legions of tired, hungry, dirty and worried men. It was a tunnel that many would never escape and many would not see the light at the other end for years to come. Each man was fearful of the unknown which lay ahead, some ashamed of surrender and some simply stunned beyond the point of understanding their situation. They believed that they had been through hell yet they would come to discover that what they had endured was only the trip to hell. Hell is what was awaiting them.

As the March began, for many it seemed that for the first time since they were born, their lives were in their own hands and that they were responsible for it. A quiet aftermath often follows great disasters when destiny has spent its force. This is how the March began. Each man had to plow his own lonely furrow. In columns of one to three hundred, men began to trudge north to an unknown destination. The rules of the March still unknown to the vanquished and to the victors. Each man, now a prisoner of war, no longer free, had to take measure of what strength he had left to him, to contain his fears and find some way to survive what lay ahead. It was hot, humid and dusty. They were all hungry but they had been hungry for months now and hunger was familiar to them.
The cruelty began prior to the March when men, who were discovered to have items apparently taken off dead Japanese soldiers, were taken off and shot, bayoneted or decapitated. The weakest or sickest POWs were to become examples to the rest soon after the March commenced. April being one of the hottest months in the Philippines, the heat was difficult to tolerate even with an adequate water supply. Holding off the Japanese for 99 days was beneficial to America’s preparedness and eventually in defending Australia and arming itself to go on the offensive, however, that delay was proven to be catastrophic to many on the March because of the time of year.
Men soon began to become captive to the curt dictatorship of thirst, sending some close to touching the very bottom of despair. When thirst becomes excessive, the body begins first by reducing the saliva in the mouth. After a day or two, men were saying that their tongues were so dry that their tongues were becoming a nuisance. With time, men were suffering less from thirst than from the effects of thirst. The loss of salts shed during sweating causes cramps. When water loss is excessive, sweating ceases and the body conserves fluids for the organs and bloodstream. The temperature within the body rises causing the brains thought processes to go awry. Men become delusional, confused and some say bordering on insanity at its worst.
There is no sense in retelling what happened to men who fell out of line, succumbed to their demented condition and received the ultimate punishment for a simple taste of water. There were many who still in a lucid state of mind, chose to risk death because of the basic instinctual craving for water. Better to be killed outright than die of thirst when water is everywhere and plentiful. It is one thing to suffer from extreme thirst in a dry environment when water is unavailable but the temptation to drink becomes overwhelming when water is readily available and visible. The March became something which prompted our men to an effort beyond their capacity. It was necessary to control their instincts. It was the only way to survive.

What is there in life beyond trying? Can any man who made the March say that he did not revolve around doubt and certainty when it came to his survival? What does a man think about in this situation? First and foremost was how am I going to survive what lies ahead? Do I have the capacity to withstand the poor condition I am in and the barbarically callous treatment I am receiving from my captors? The needs of the body are at the top of the list. Food, water and when will we rest? The mind is troubled by thoughts of home and family. Concern for what your family is going through with the news of the surrender. Ultimately thoughts return to the moment by moment action needed to keep moving. What saves a man is to take a step, then another step. It is always the same step but you have to take it. You are conscious of each foot hitting the ground but the feeling in your feet is gone. Your legs become appendages below your body that somehow move by themselves. You know from the example of others that to stop is to die and you must keep putting one foot in front of the other. More than anything, survival is movement. Each man kept moving quietly, lost in his own thoughts.

Men lived through that inordinate expectancy which like a fatal malady grows from minute to minute, harder to bear. A human is a construction of mind and body. If either fails they both die. Seeing hundreds of dead bodies along the road and witnessing the murder of many others was a visual motivation to keep moving. Most men began to shorten their goals as the March progressed. Initially each soldier speculated on his chances to make it to wherever they were being marched to. When the fatigue, thirst and whatever Petri dish variety of organism was decimating their health, each man began to shorten his goals. Just making it to the end of the day was typical. Then making it to the next rise, the next village or crossroad and finally counting steps. Some reported that they were just trying to go another thousand steps and eventually a hundred steps at a time. This seemed to be a more manageable goal.

Horror causes men to clench their fists and in horror men join together. This was something universal among the Marchers. Fear began to be replaced with a hatred so strong that it was difficult to contain. Hatred seemed to tap into a reserve of strength in many men. It focused their attention outwardly from their inner concerns. The horrors they were witnessing along the March were outrageous. What they were experiencing was collapsing the scaffolding of their traditions and their reality. It was a living nightmare. Tired, hungry, thirsty, sick, helpless, hopeless, fearful, enraged and confused. How does a human endure the physical deterioration and the psychological trauma of this tortuous journey?

In the midst of this misery men were aiding and assisting those who were too weak to continue. Friends, acquaintances, and just plain fellow soldiers were asking or pleading for help. Those on the March could tell when one of their numbers was nearing the end of his rope. The eyes said everything. When hope is exhausted and willpower is depleted, it shows in a mans eyes. That spark in a mans eyes and the look on his face that tell you someone is home, disappears and one knows that this man is spent and his flesh moves without purpose or thought. At this point each of these souls would give up his morsel of eternity and fall out of line and wait for the ultimate disciplinary action from their foes. Men did what they could for others until they felt they were dangerously close to losing their own lives. What a heart breaking decision it was to let go of a comrade when your strength was giving out. The guilt of that decision was a lifelong burden. Men were still tearful decades later when speaking about it. To survive is an instinct almost impossible to overcome. The grief felt in the ten to twelve days of the Death March was immeasurable.

Can one imagine the efforts that were made and the disappointments they encountered when they sought some way to relieve their suffering? I offer no exaggerated praise of simple virtues. It is incomprehensible to me how many POWs on the March actually survived. These men who came from rural and urban areas across America were typically post teenage boys looking for excitement and adventure. They had been brought up in a culture that respected human life and family values. A lot of them had a relatively soft life compared to the lives of those whose country they were in and the enemy they had been fighting. They had become battle hardened in a short span of time. In their wildest dreams, they could not have dreamt of the agonizing ordeal they were in the midst of. Yet of the twelve thousand Americans who began the March, some eleven thousand four hundred made it to Camp O’Donnell. That cannot be said of the Filipinos. The Japanese showed an insatiable ferocity toward the Filipinos and rained hell upon their numbers. Of the sixty two to sixty three thousand Filipino soldiers who began the March, some ten to eleven thousand died at the hands of the Japanese or from disease, malnutrition or thirst. Life is an incomparable privilege. A lesson learned by most if not all surviving POWs. Hope remains the one constant among POWs. Hope can only be extinguished with our lives. It is the one single thing that makes life bearable and the reason we exist today as survivors and descendants.

The POW’s lost many of their friends and eventually they understand that they shall never again hear the laughter of their friend and at that moment begins their true mourning, which, though it may not be rending, is yet a little bitter. Nothing, in truth, can replace that companion. Old friends cannot be created out of hand. Nothing can match the treasure of common memories, of trials endured together, of quarrels and reconciliations and living emotions. It is idle to think that having planted an acorn in the morning, to expect that afternoon to sit in the shade of the oak. So life goes on. For years we plant the seed, we feel ourselves rich; and then comes the enemy who does his work and makes our plantation sparse and thin. One by one our companions slip away and deprive us of their shade. A companion to whom one is bound to forever by ordeals suffered in common. We must not forget that there is no hope of joy except in human relations.
It is here that they learn that men who possess nothing in the world but their memories, share invisible riches. Men travel side by side for years locked up in their own silence or exchanging words which carry no freight—till danger comes. Then they stand shoulder to shoulder. They discover that they belong to the same family. They wax and bloom in the recognition of fellow beings.
They look at one another and smile. Happiness, it is useless to seek it elsewhere than in this warmth of human relations. Our sordid interests imprison us within their sordid walls. Only a friend can grasp us by the hand and haul us free. These human relations must be created. One must go through an apprenticeship to learn the job. When we exchange manly handshakes, compete in races, join together to save one of us who is in trouble, cry aloud for help in an hour of danger—only then do we learn that we are not alone on Earth. Each man must look to himself to teach him the meaning of life. It is not something discovered; it is something molded.

Death is the last leap of human sensation and carries us beyond the bounds of our destiny. We give thanks to those who beyond all odds survived the first step into hell and we mourn those who despite their best efforts, succumbed to the elements of the base behavior of their enemy. These men had withstood the many buffetings of life as a POW. Too well we know man’s failings, his cowardice and lapses, and our writers of today are only too proficient in exposing these; but we stand in need of one to tell us how a man may be lifted above himself by his sheer force of will. This is the real story of Bataan. All of these men who survived were the authors of their own miracles. Those who perished, perished not from any deficiency in their makeup but from the ravages of war that kill the strongest with the weakest, the brave and the cowardly alike. These men said little of their trials when they came home. Heroes are like that. They were rough men of few words. When they were questioned, they just shrugged their shoulders. They just didn’t think we could understand what they had endured. It was in their silence that one discovers the true meaning of courage. They had nothing to say because that is not where courage lies. Courage lies in their choice. Any survivor of this tragic story will tell you that the ones who did not return to their home and families are the true heroes. To us there is no difference. There is only pride and tears.
In the last seven days prior to the surrender on Bataan, there were 150 non combat related deaths a day. In the first month at Cabanatuan there were 1300 Bataan deaths compared to 37 deaths of Corregidor men which goes to show how bad a shape Bataan men were in from 99 days of fighting in the open jungle at half rations, then quarter, one eighth and finally one sixteenth rations. Six months after the surrender of Bataan, over 50% of Bataan combatants were dead. Of the 25,600 American POWs captured by the Japanese, 5,135 died in captivity in the Philippines, 3,840 died on Hellships, 1,200 died in Japanese prison camps, 175 died in Manchuria, 130 in Burma, 100 on Wake Island and 70 in Korea, for a total of 10,560. A 41.6% death rate. Did the hostilities end with the surrender on Bataan? The carnage of our men ended on August 15th 1945 after two bright flashes of light had suddenly awakened the Empire of Japan from their dream of conquest. The thread of hope remaining in our men was at its thinnest point at war’s end. Sadly, many of them died after news of the surrender but in their last moments, they were graced with the gift of being free men again, a goal they had set for themselves so many months before.

The time for recriminations and requests for apologies has long since past. What was done was done and efforts should be directed toward remembering the heroics and suffering of these unusual men. It is our duty to etch in the mind of history the true and unalterable feats that these men demonstrated to the world. We must be ever vigilant of those revisionists who lie in wait for us to drop our guard so that they may incrementally and beneath our notice, alter the facts of history.
We owe our men no less than our total devotion to safeguard history in their names and their memories.

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