Tribute honors Bataan Death March victims

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Mar. 27—VALDOSTA — A memorial march in Lowndes County April 6 will honor the victims of one of the worst military atrocities of World War II.

The tribute, held by the Lowndes County Sheriff's Office, will honor the thousands of American and Filipino soldiers forced to march under brutal conditions on the Bataan Death March in April 1942 — a march that cost the lives of thousands.

Proceeds from the tribute march will go to the Rotary Club's fund for aiding first responders, said Lt. Rob Picciotti of the sheriff's office.

He said about 90-100 participants are expected for this year's march, with turnout expected from Moody Air Force Base, the Valdosta Police Department, the sheriff's office, the city and county fire departments and other groups.

Many individuals are also taking part, Piccotti said.

History

The situation was looking bad for the United States in its first few months of the Pacific war. Only five months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the Empire of Japan was sweeping across the ocean, conquering territories and driving ill-prepared American and British forces back.

In the Philippines, the Japanese 14th Army swarmed ashore on Dec. 22, 1941. Combined American and Filipino forces under the ultimate command of Gen. Douglas MacArthur battled their way back along the Bataan Peninsula; whoever controlled the peninsula controlled Manila Bay.

MacArthur was ordered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to evacuate to Australia on March 12 because of fears about how the Japanese would treat a captured enemy general, said Chris Meyers, professor of history at Valdosta State University, in an interview last year.

American and Filipino forces continued to fight the Japanese invaders until, food and medicine nearly exhausted, U.S. Major Gen. Edward King Jr. was forced to surrender to the Imperial Japanese on April 9, with somewhere between 65,000-80,000 soldiers going into captivity. On the island of Corregidor at the entrance to Manlla Bay, U.S. Gen. Jonathan Wainwright surrendered about 10,000 troops to the Japanese on May 6.

This posed a problem for Japan's 14th Army. They had taken far more prisoners than they had expected and they didn't have transportation or provisions for that many men.

The result: Starting April 9, the prisoners were forced to march 60-70 miles from the area of Mariveles to Camp O'Donnell, a former U.S. Army base which the Japanese would use to house prisoners of war.

Along the way, food was scarce. Water was scarce. Soldiers were cruelly abused by their captors. Those who collapsed from starvation were reportedly run through with bayonets or run over by trucks. Other soldiers were forced to sit in the hot sun with no helmets for hours in plain view of cool water; those who begged for water were shot. Hundreds of Filipino troops were executed after surrendering. Many victims were randomly shot or stabbed by guards.

Japan had not signed a 1929 Geneva convention on the treatment prisoners of war and the country's military bushido code regarded anyone who surrendered as cowards unworthy of life.

Thousands more victims died from disease and barbaric treatment in prisoner-of-war camps until the conflict ended and the POWs were liberated by U.S. forces three and a half years later.

The aftermath

The Bataan Death March became a rallying cry for Americans after the U.S. government revealed what it knew about the situation in 1944. What information the U.S. had about the march was suppressed until then "because the government thought the public couldn't handle it," Meyers said.

There were calls in the Senate for the total destruction of Japan and the execution of the emperor, he said.

"It created a sensation," Meyers said. "The public didn't take kindly to it."

Meyers said he was unaware of any official change in U.S. war policy that could be attributed to the death march; Japan was America's No. 2 enemy during the war thanks to an official policy of defeating Germany first.

After war's end, American forces tried and executed Gen. Masaharu Homma, commander of Japan's 14th Army, and two of his top subordinates for war crimes for the death march. Homma's defense was that he didn't know about the march until after it was over.

Remembrance

The sheriff's office's tribute march starts at 7 a.m. April 6. Piccotti said he expects the march to wrap up between 4-5 p.m.

The first such march, held in 2021, saw more than 100 marchers.

Terry Richards is the senior reporter for The Valdosta Daily Times.