Uncovering the Causes of the Bataan Death March
On January 1942, the Japanese seized the peninsula of Bataan, cutting off American and Filipino soldiers, both under the command of the United States, from help and supplies. After ninety-nine days of fighting, more than 76,000 men surrendered and were forced to walk to Camp O’Donnell, a prison camp approximately sixty-six miles away.1 This was the first time in American history that an entire army had to surrender to an enemy.2 The Bataan Death March lasted from April 9, 1942 to May 1, 1942. The march was infamous for the 20,000 meaningless deaths that were caused by harsh conditions, malnourishment, the tropical heat, and the deliberate and merciless brutality of the Japanese Imperial Army. The propagandized behavior of most Japanese soldiers and the 14th Army’s failure to implement a workable plan to remove the prisoners from Bataan were the main contributors that turned the march into a chaos of human rights violations.
The culture of the Japanese Army was dramatically changed by Japanese Army leaders who justified cruelty by taking advantage of ancient Japanese concepts. Japanese Army leaders saw an advantage in having every soldier fight to the death and put together the Senjin Kun, or “Ethics in Battle.” The manual used ideas that could be traced back to the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1868) and emphasized the shame of surrender. According to the Senjin Kun, being captured was a fate worse than death because it not only permanently disgraced the soldier, but also his entire family. The Army leaders used the samurai’s Bushido, or “the way of the warrior,” code as an excuse to abuse its own soldiers. Ancient ideas like Seppuku and Junsbi promoted a ritual suicide when dishonor to his superiors and his family was inevitable.3 The Japanese believed that any enemy troops they captured were shameful beings and deserved the harshest treatment for the mere fact that they were captured. American and Filipino prisoners of war did not show the terrible shame that was expected, making them seem even more disgraceful to Japanese soldier.
“The old story was that the Japanese Lieutenant, upset by criticism from his Captain, slapped and kicked the Sergeant, the Sergeant slapped and kicked the Corporal, the Corporal slapped and kicked the Private, and the Private went to the barn and slapped and kicked the horse” (Nelson). Prisoners of war replaced the horse as the bottom of the military hierarchy, so Japanese Privates finally had lower people that they could kick, slap, beat, torture and even kill without being punished. The Japanese Army was unable to provide their soldiers with sufficient equipment and expected that the spirit of Bushido to compensate for their lack of supplies. that brutality would keep them in line. For the Japanese soldier, brutality was a way of army life, and the more frustrated he became with prisoners who could not understand him or follow his orders, the more violent he became. 4