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Bataan, Churchill and National Former Prisoner of War Recognition Day

9 April and the snow (hopefully) continues to recede. The ground is soft and muddy, and we all look forward to spring…sooner or later.

Early April is the beginning of the traditional campaign season in the Northern hemisphere, but this early, until the 20th century anyway, the horses still had limited long forage for at least another two weeks. So, there would be a few battles. But one event that didn’t require forage or timing was the death of the first Emperor of Japan to sit on the Yamato throne. Traditionally the Emperor Jimmu died on this day in 585 BC, and though solid sources for this singular event are non-existent, it is still observed in some places in Japan. A monarch we have better evidence for is Edward IV, the first Yorkist king of England, who died on 9 April 1483 in Westminster; of what we don’t know, but some sources, including Shakespeare, suspect it was his ambitious brother, who would rule England as Richard III as soon as he walked past another few coffins. Also on this day in 1731, a British merchant captain named Robert Jenkins lost an ear during a scuffle with Spanish authorities somewhere in the Caribbean; the resulting diplomatic dustup resulted in a conflict that, years after the conflict was over, got the funniest name on record–the War of Jenkin’s Ear. Also on this day in 1940, a far less amusingly-titled conflict expanded into traditionally neutral territory when Germany invaded Scandinavia, overwhelming Denmark in half a day and starting a two-month-long campaign that would see a third of Germany’s tiny navy destroyed. And on 9 April 2009, Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles were wed in the Windsory Guildhall; rumors about premarital affairs and the like have never been put to rest, but does it really matter? Today is National Cherish an Antique Day, National Chinese Almond Cookie Day, and National Name Yourself Day (I can’t make these up). But today, we’re going to talk about the Philippine campaign of 1941-42, Winston Churchill, and prisoners of war.

Exactly why the Bataan strategy was still in place in 1941 is something of a mystery because it had been decades since the US had planned to relieve the Philippines once the war with Japan started. But it was the plan that was implemented.

The outline of Japan’s invasion of the Philippine archipelago will be familiar to many readers. On 8 December 1941, Japanese forces began to seize outlying islands of the big island of Luzon, landing troops there starting 10 December. By 14 December, the Japanese Fourteenth Army under Homma Masaharu of about 120,000 men began the offensive work of pushing Jonathan Wainwright’s Northern Luzon Force of no more than 25,000 mostly Philippine reservists stiffened by a handful of American Army regulars. The plan for the defense of the Philippines had been worked out years before by the commander of all Philippine and American ground forces in the archipelago, Douglas MacArthur. It was simply to deny the principal assets of Luzon, namely Subic Bay and Cavite, to any invader for as long as possible by holing up on the Bataan Peninsula. Exactly why the Bataan strategy was still in place in 1941 is something of a mystery because it had been decades since the US had planned to relieve the Philippines once the war with Japan started. But it was the plan that was implemented.

If Wainwright’s people hadn’t been starving, exhausted and short on ammunition, they might have broken the siege themselves.

By the first week in January 1942 the American withdrawal to Bataan was complete, and Japanese forces began to probe and scout the formidable American lines. Then, the Japanese high command, strapped for resources as always, began to strip both land and air forces from the Philippines, believing that the battle was all but won. Initial Japanese attacks were severely repulsed, and the Japanese timetable was set back first by days, then weeks. By the end of January Japanese forces in the siege lines of Bataan consisted of a single infantry brigade (three regiments, about 15,000 men) and three artillery battalions facing as many as 70,000 American and Filipino troops. If Wainwright’s people hadn’t been starving, exhausted and short on ammunition, they might have broken the siege themselves.

But now the Japanese had two significant problems: the prisoners outnumbered the Japanese forces still in Bataan, and there were four times as many of them as the Japanese had planned for. 

By late March the Japanese had built up to a bare parity with their foes on Bataan. The Americans, undaunted, patrolled aggressively and constantly, deceiving the Japanese as to how strong they were. In the first week in April, Japanese mobile units managed to outmaneuver and dislodge several strong points. By 9 April 1942, resistance on Bataan was at an end. Though hard numbers are hard to come by–and the Japanese didn’t bother to count–as many as 80,000 American and Filipino troops fell into Japanese hands. But now the Japanese had two significant problems: the prisoners outnumbered the Japanese forces still in Bataan, and there were four times as many of them as the Japanese had planned for.

Bushido has no defining text–no Bible or Koran–so it could be whatever someone says it is and had been since it was first rendered (never formalized) in the 15th century. Further, no one in Japan invoked Bushido as a justification for anything during the war.

While these issues do not excuse the brutality of the Bataan Death March of between 60 and 70 miles to the railhead and the train ride to Camp O’Donnell, the Japanese nonetheless had a series of problems that they lacked the resources to resolve. Again, disease and malnutrition saved Homma’s captors from being overwhelmed by their captives. Wartime and postwar accounts attribute most of the prisoner’s suffering to Japan’s Bushido code, but evidence for this simply does not exist. Bushido has no defining text–no Bible or Koran–so it could be whatever someone says it is and had been since it was first rendered (never formalized) in the 15th century. Further, no one in Japan invoked Bushido as a justification for anything during the war.

The IJA, for their part, lost so many China veterans in the Bataan battle that training suffered for the rest of the war.

The fall of Bataan on 9 April 1942, tragic as it was, was still a full three months behind the Japanese timetable. Homma, for his failure to stick to the timetable, was sidelined, then compelled to retire. After the war, he was tried in Manila for his failure to control his troops and was executed by firing squad 3 April 1946, nearly four years to the day after the fall of Bataan. The IJA, for their part, lost so many China veterans in the Bataan battle that training suffered for the rest of the war.

For more on Japan’s war in the Pacific, follow us at JDB Communications, LLC for the publication of Why the Samurai Lost: Japan at War late in 2018.


Wiki Commons
Classic portrait of the Bulldog

Today is also Winston Churchill Day in the United States, and it is manifest upon me to explain why. Most Right Honorable Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill, KG, OM, and EIEIO was made an honorary citizen on this day in 1963, the first of only eight honorary citizens of the US. It is also fitting that we recall that in October 1899 Churchill was captured by the Boers and put in a prison camp in Pretoria. Churchill and two others escaped in December, and Churchill was subsequently lionized in the press.

But today, too, is National Former Prisoner of War Recognition Day, proclaimed by President Ronald Reagan in 1987. As we recognize the Bataan survivors (maybe half survived the war) and Churchill and others, notably Senator and former presidential candidate John McCain who spent five years in Vietnamese captivity, we need to recall that prisoners of war are simultaneously helpless victims of their captors and additional burdens on them. While the definitions for “prisoner of war” are only recently formulated, PWs throughout history have always been subject to the fortunes and whims of their captors. In WWII, American flyers were sometimes executed by the Japanese; Germans captured by the Soviets were treated with benign neglect and died in droves; Soviets captured by the Germans were frequently worked to death. While Allied prisoners in German hands were never given the kind of treatment depicted in Hogan’s Heros, they didn’t have the kind of escape network that typified Allied wartime entertainments. In all they were just, as Churchill quoted above, just people caught by circumstances into situations beyond their control.

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