February 6, 2013: I never really cared much about World War II history in the Pacific. Canada’s role was in the European theatre of war and the Nazi’s systematic annihilation of Jews and other undesirables was shocking enough.
I did, however, make the obligatory visit to the memorial at Pearl Harbour when I was in Hawaii years back. I personally know people whose family members were sent to Japanese internment camps on Canadian soil. And who could forget the awful stories about the aftermath of the atomic bombs that the Americans dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But given the number of times I’ve been to parts of Southeast Asia that were held by the Japanese during the war (Burma, Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia…or the Dutch East Indies as it was then known), I never really gave it much thought. It all seemed so long ago and more about America’s past than Canada’s.
I’m not a big fan of war movies either, so I even missed out on Hollywood’s version of the war. I’ve never seen South Pacific, let alone Corregidor or John Wayne’s Back to Bataan.
Even here in Olongapo, despite war memorials scattered about the town and references to things like the Bataan Death March and sunken WW2 Japanese “hell ships” given new life as dive wrecks, it never really meant anything. Until, that is, the local book club listed two WW2 books for this month’s meeting.
I picked one over the other quite by chance and got the epub version for my e-Reader. It was called “Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and Its Aftermath” by Michael Norman and Elizabeth M. Norman. Bataan (pronounced bă-tă-ăn).
Suddenly the war came to life around me. How could it not? Bataan province and the Bataan Peninsula starts about one mile south of the marina where we are staying.
Not only does the book tell the tale of the worst defeat in American military history, but it tells the story in the words of some of the people who actually lived it. Some who survived, and some who didn’t. I couldn’t put it down.
I expected a one-sided tale from the American perspective, but a fair bit is told from the Japanese side as well with accounts from American, Japanese and Filipino soldiers.
The Philippines quickly turned into a living nightmare after the virtual total destruction of Clark Air Base by Japanese bombers just hours after the attacks at Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941. A tragedy that could have been curtailed if MacArthur had heeded the warnings of his staff and would have dramatically altered the events that were to follow.
With no American air support, a much larger contingent of Japanese soldiers easily landed on the west coast of Luzon and pushed back the much smaller combined American/Filipino forces. MacArthur, who before the war had portrayed his troops as better trained and better equipped than they really were, made the ill-fated decision to fall back to the Bataan Peninsula to try and hold out for as long as possible and to spare Manila, then known as the Pearl of the Orient. He knew all along that he couldn’t win a war in the Philippines.
Inside the pages of this book, MacArthur is not portrayed as the golden American military hero that Hollywood and his own PR made him out to be. Sadly, the men under his command were expendable and he didn’t even attempt to ensure that his troops had adequate provisions for an extended siege. The soldiers fought under horrendous conditions. Disease and malnutrition were rampant.
When it was obvious that there was no hope, President Roosevelt ordered MacArthur to leave the Philippines in March 1942 and that gave way to his famous “I shall return” speech which he later made from the safety of Australia. The following month, the American forces on Bataan surrendered and then began the 66-mile “death march” of more than 76,000 prisoners of war in the peak of the hot tropical summer to an ill-equipped Japanese POW camp designed for half that number.
Many American and Filipino soldiers perished along the way and the Japanese committed countless atrocities. The POW camp was a staging point for slave labour work details in the Philippines and eventual transport aboard ships to other work camps back in Japan and other parts of Asia. In these hell ships, the men were packed in like sardines for journeys that could take weeks or months with little food or water and no fresh air. And as these ships weren’t marked as having prisoners of war on board, the Americans bombed many of them relentlessly. The Oryoku Maru mentioned in the book is now a wreck dive in Subic Bay.
Although the details are hard to take in, I highly recommend this book. It’s understandable why so many veterans of World War II returned broken men and had a hard time reintegrating into society. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could even survive the war, disease, hunger, thirst and work details that they had to endure. And why it’s so important that we never forget.