They Were Expendable

On Dec 8, 1941, about eight hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese bombers began attacking air bases on the Philippines. Most of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet was withdrawn from Philippine waters following the Japanese air strikes. The bombing continued over the next several days, concentrating on the remaining air fields. On Dec 11, the remaining US bombers were withdrawn to Mindanao and the few remaining aircraft were relegated to reconnaissance missions and occasional bombing raids.

With these successful strikes, the Japanese eliminated [General Douglas] MacArthur’s ability to defend the Philippines before a Japanese ship had reached the islands or a Japanese soldier had landed. Once the Japanese had established air superiority, the game was up for the United States Army Forces in the Far East.
[Air Power History 48.1 (Spring 2001): p22.]

The “game” may have been “up”, but the fighting and suffering was just beginning for the roughly 31,000 US sailors, soldiers, and airman stationed in the Philippines.

The Japanese made their initial landing at some of the smaller islands starting on Dec 8. On Dec 13, 2500 Japanese troops landed on Southern Luzon (the major island of the Philippines) and began the march toward Manila. The main invasion started on Dec 22 as over 43,000 Japanese troops supported by artillery and tanks landed at three points along the east coast of Lingayen Gulf. Poorly trained and equipped US and Filipino troops were unable to stop the invasion or to pin the Japanese on the beaches. After sustaining heavy casualties, the US troops were forced to withdraw.

On Dec 26, General MacArthur realized that the beachhead defense had failed and instituted a prewar plan to defend only the Bataan peninsula and the island fortress of Corregidor. The hope was to hold out in this small part of the Philippines until relief could come. But with the near destruction of the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, relief would never come.

Many US units suffered heavy losses holding back the Japanese and allowing US troops into the Bataan peninsula. In one such delaying action, the 194th Tank Battalion suffered 50% losses. But the Tank Battalion repeatedly stopped the Japanese attacks allowing time for the US troops to “escape”.

General MacArthur, the Philippine president, and other high ranking officials left for Corregidor In Dec 1941 to escape the bombing of Manila. Corregidor is a small island in the Bay of Manila fortified for coastal defense before WWI. An extensive set of tunnels connected the various artillery positions and gave shelter from enemy artillery and aerial bombardment.


We are the battling bastards of Bataan,
No mama, no papa, no Uncle Sam;
No aunts, no uncles, no cousins, no nieces;
No pills, no planes, no artillery pieces;
And nobody gives a damn

Journalist Frank Hewlett, 1942

Along with the US troops that escaped into Bataan, approximately 26,000 civilians and 80,000 Filipino troops fled the Japanese advance towards Manila.

There were some supplies in Bataan, but nowhere near enough for our purposes. Neither from the standpoint of food, nor from a standpoint of ammunition….

In addition to which, most of the Philippine Army troops, which was the bulk of the army that we had there, were very, very poorly equipped. Many of them had no shoes, many of them had no guns. They were very ill prepared to withstand a major attack. So, the amount of logistic supply that we had in Bataan, was very minimal. When the war began and the attack began, they tried to move as many things as they could from Manila, but by that time, they were short of transport… everything was chaotic…

Forced to feed such a large number of military and civilians, food became an immediate and critical problem to the command. Tons of precious rice were left in the warehouses upon the withdrawal into Bataan and were destroyed by the Japanese. Americans accustomed to “stateside chow” found themselves (mid-January) on half-rations along with the Filipino soldiers. A month later, these rations were cut again (1,000 calories per day) and consisted of rice and fish, or what little meat could be found. Most of the meat came from the horses and mules of the 26th Cavalry, Philippine Scouts, or the Philippine beast of burden, the carabao, or water buffalo. Occasionally monkeys, snakes, ECT, supplemented the diet. Malaria ran rampant in Bataan, one of the most heavily mosquito-infested areas in the world at that time. Medication to offset the effects of that disease began to disappear early in the campaign.

Starting on Jan 9, the Japanese began to assault the US defensive lines. Outmanned, outgunned, and under-supplied, the defenders fought, but were gradually forced back (south). The original Japanese time-table called for four weeks to capture the Philippines, but the US and Filipino troops refused to cooperate. After breaking through the first defensive line, the Japanese were momentarily halted and forced to suspend offensive actions on Feb 8.

Several posthumous medals were awarded for actions taken in Bataan in early 1942

On 12 January, amid fierce fighting, 2nd Lt. Alexander R. Nininger, a platoon leader in the 57th Infantry, with uncommon valor, sacrificed his life when, armed with only a rifle and hand grenades, he forced his way into enemy foxholes during hand-to-hand fighting, permitting his unit to retake Abucay Hacienda; for his actions he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

On 3 February 1942, 1st Lt. Willibald C. Bianchi of the 45th Infantry, Philippine Scouts voluntarily led a reinforced platoon forward against two enemy machine-gun nests, silenced them with grenades, and then manned an antiaircraft machine gun until his wounds disabled him. His Medal of Honor was awarded posthumously.

One other extreme act of bravery was put forth by a Filipino named Narcisco Salbadin. He was on a heavy water-cooled machine gun when the Japanese burst out of a canebreak in a banzai attack. He shot down dozens of the Japanese with his machine gun, then pulled out his Colt .45 and shot down five more when the machine gun jammed. Then, when one Japanese soldier stabbed at him with a bayonet, he desperately tried to grab the gun, but got his thumb cut off. But he still held on, and then with a sudden burst of adrenaline he turned the gun on the enemy soldier and stabbed him in the chest. When another Japanese soldier swung a bayonet at him, he turned his rifle on the soldier and shot him dead. Narcisco received the Silver Cross.

After their initial failure to take Bataan, the Japanese reinforced their troops and brought in additional artillery. The Japanese had to bring in 25,000 troops from other planned invasions to complete their capture of the Philippines. However, the momentary lull in the Japanese attack did not improve the Americans’ situation.

But the lack of food and medical supplies got increasingly worse. Soldiers were willing to eat anything, and did. As rations thinned, they turned to carabao (water buffalo), horses, mules, monkeys, lizards, and snakes. (35) When fresh water was not available, some soldiers drank from dirty streams. Troops were down to two meals a day and less. A lack of proper nutrition, combined with contaminated food caused many severe to deadly medical conditions. Besides those wounded in the fighting, the medical units, which were running hospitals with make-shift operating rooms and various wards (surgery, orthopedic, head, abdominal, and dental, to name a few), had to treat a wide variety of illnesses, often without proper medication, especially quinine. Sometimes the nurses would sterilize used dressings and use them again on the patients. Some common diseases caused by malnutrition and impure water were malaria, dysentery, and beriberi….

…Despite the critical situation, MacArthur sent orders to Wainwright, which said: “I am utterly opposed under any circumstances or conditions to the ultimate capitulation of this command. If food fails you will prepare and execute an attack upon the enemy.” (39) President Franklin Roosevelt agreed with MacArthur and issued his own “no surrender” orders. Wainwright forwarded the orders to King on April 4. (40)

While the U.S. troops were faltering, due to poor health, the Japanese were strong due to reinforcements. On April 3 they implemented a full attack. By April 8, the Americans and Filipinos could fight no longer. “As the Japanese approached Cabcaben, Bataan’s commander, Major General Edward King, sadly concluded he had no alternative to surrender. Thus 79,500 men, the largest force in American military history to succumb to an enemy, put down their arms.” (41)

“Courage is a quality God has seen fit to dispense with utmost care. The men of Bataan were His chosen favorites.”

Major General Edward P. King, Jr., USA
Commanding General, Luzon Forces, 1942


I didn’t come down with a surrender group. They caught me actually two days after the surrender took place. First thing I did was receive a good beating. And everything I had in my wallet, in my pockets was taken from me. And as I was marched down that road, where they captured me, I passed my battalion commander, Major James Ivy, and he had been tied to a tree and he was stripped to the waist and he was just covered with bayonet holes. He was dead obviously. And he had bled profusely. He had been bayoneted by many, many bayonets. And that’s when I knew we had some troubles on our hands. We were in for deep trouble.

Major Richard Gordon

After three months of fighting on ½ and then ¼ rations, the surviving forces of Bataan were exhausted, many were sick, and none were in any condition for a forced march. In addition to the poor condition of the captured troops, they were given little food or water for what turned out to be a six-day march to a temporary internment camp known as Camp O’Donnell. The march was punctuated by constant physical abuse, bayoneting, or beheading by swords whenever a soldier could not keep up.

Whenever they were allowed to stop for rest, they were herded into open fields, in the hot Philippine sun, with no water, helmets, or shade of any kind. Even when running streams or artesian wells were passed, the captured soldiers were not allowed to get water….and those that tried were shot. Stragglers that were not immediately killed were left to lie on the side of the road. Tanks headed south were seen to swerve so that they could run over soldiers that had collapsed.

More from Major Gordon:

After the first day of marching, without food or water, men began to drop out of column. Japanese guards would rush up, shouting commands in Japanese to get back in the group. When that approach failed, shots rang, out killing those who would not or could not rise. Many of those failing to obey the order to march were beheaded by sword wielding-Japanese guards, usually officers and non-coms.

Such actions on the part of the Japanese brought many captives to their feet and they continued the march for awhile longer. As each day and night passed without water, the marchers began to break from their group to run to anything that resembled water. Most often they would hurl themselves into a water puddle alongside of the road and lap up, similar to a cat lapping milk from a saucer, the so-called water. The puddles were used by the carabao to coat themselves with mud as a protection against the huge flies constantly about them. Upon rising from the puddle, the water would assume a “clear” state. Needless to say, the water was not potable and drinking of it soon brought on cramps, diarrhea, and eventually dysentery caused by the numerous flies found in the puddle. Such acts continued for each day of the March, lasting from five to ten days, depending upon where one joined the March, and continued until the marchers reached the town of San Fernando, Pampamga, P.I., a distance for most marchers of over 100 kilometers.

Upon reaching San Fernando, the prisoners were forced into 1918 model railroad boxcars (40X8) used in France during World War I. With over 100 men in each car, the Japanese then closed the doors on the prisoners. There was no room to sit down or fall down. Men died in the sweltering cars. Upon arriving in Capas, Tarlac, almost four hours later, the men detrained for Camp O’Donnell, another ten kilometer walk.

Official figures estimate that between 44,000 and 50,000 of the Filipinos arrived at O’Donnell after completing the March. Between 12,000 and 18,000 of their number are unaccounted for. What happened to them is unknown, but a safe guess is that between 5,000 to 10,000 of them lost their lives on the Death March. The death toll for both Filipinos and Americans, however, did not cease upon reaching O’Donnell. Instead, during the first forty days of that camp’s existence, more that 1,500 Americans were to die. At least 25,000 Filipinos died by July 1942 in the same camp. All of the deaths were the direct result of malnutrition on Bataan, disease, and the atrocities committed by the Japanese on the March.

In June, the Japanese decided to move the POWs out of Camp O’Donnell. The only ones left were too weak to move. The majority went to Cabanatuan, but others went to Manila’s Bilibid Prison and to Santo Tomas, where civilians stuck in the Philippines were held.


Starting in late December 1941, the Japanese began bombing and artillery attacks on the fortified positions. The large gun emplacements were easy targets for aerial bombardment, but the large tunnel complex under the positions provided safe haven for its defenders. While better supplied than their counterparts on Bataan, conditions still grew grim under the constant bombardment with no incoming supplies.

On March 12, 1942, General MacArthur was ordered to leave the Philippines. MacArthur, his family, and several high-ranking members of his staff were evacuated by PT boats to Mindanao and eventually by air to Australia. Following the fall of the forces on Bataan, the attacks on Corregidor were intensified. Finally on May 6 1942, Gen Wainwright surrendered the Corregidor forces.

After two weeks of the famous Japanese “sun treatment” for prisoners, in the sun-baked areas of Corregidor, these troops were taken across Manila Bay to Manila and then by train to Prison camp Cabanatuan, Cabanatuan, P.I. The men were in that camp when the Bataan survivors arrived from Camp O’Donnell in June 1942. The extremely high death rate in that camp prompted the Japanese to make such a move, and thereby allowed the American medical personnel to treat the Filipino prisoners remaining behind until their release beginning in July 1942. The condition of the prisoners arriving in Cabanatuan was such as to shock their fellow Americans from Corregidor. In a short period of time, however, they, too, would feel the full effects of Japanese captivity.

It was not, however, until June 1942 that the men of Bataan and Corregidor began to share a common experience. During the first nine months of Cabanatuan’s existence, when the vast majority of the camp’s 3,000 American deaths occurred, most of the deaths were men of Bataan, still suffering from the effects of Bataan, the Death March, and Camp O’Donnell.

Conditions were not much better at Cabanatuan than they were at O’Donnell
, and illness continued to take a hard toll on the prisoners. Some diseases were the result of poor nutrition, such as night blindness, beriberi, pellagra, and scurvy. Other diseases flew through the camp because of poor sanitation (lice, cholera, dysentery, tuberculosis, and typhus) or were associated with the tropical climate, like dysentery and malaria affected everyone at one time or another.

Prisoners struggled for survival. Food was meager. Lugao, a watery form of cooked rice, was the morning dish. Lunch was sticky rice, made into a ball. Dinner was rice and ditch weeds (weeds from the ditches around camp). One POW described the worms and weevils in the rice as the only meat they had. They did what they could to survive, eating rats, lizards, and whatever they could catch.

The Japanese were brutal captors. Punishment for breaking rules was swift and severe, even for small crimes. Men working on the farm were beaten if they took vegetables and beaten if they didn’t work hard enough. One prisoner had his arm broken for smoking; others were killed trying “to escape,” which usually meant they were killed for no reason. The sun treatment was a brutal punishment—men were left naked in the sun or in wooden boxes until they died.


Starting in late 1942 through 1944, Allied prisoners were shipped out of the Philippines to slave labor camps in Japan Taiwan, Manchuria, or Korea. The name given to the ships by the Allied prisoners should be a clue as to what conditions were like…soldiers crammed into cargo holds with no “passenger” facilities, limited food and water, limited/no bathroom facilities, and no medicine or medical treatment for a voyage that could last several weeks.

The Japanese did not mark these tankers as POW transports, and thus were subjected to aerial and submarine attacks by the Allies. Thousands of POWs died because of these attacks by their allies. The worst example was the Junyō Maru, where 5,640 out of 6,520 POWs died after being sunk.

…our ship left Manila on the 7th of November, 1942. On a ship called the Nagato Maru. And it took us about 23 days and 13 American lives before we got to Japan. And the conditions on that ship were something beyond description.

They jammed us into the holds of the ship, no lights. [They] let us up on deck for the first couple of nights out and then, after that, wouldn’t let us because American submarines were in the area. They had given us life jackets when we first went aboard that ship. And then when the submarines came near us, they took the life jackets off us and put them on the cases of their dead that they had, [that] they were taking back to Japan. The ashes. And they protected the ashes with our life jackets. So fortunately this submarine didn’t hit us that time. But it hit enough other ships after that. But there was no toilet facilities down in those holds. Pitch black. They had one bucket that you used for urinal and defecation and what have you. And the boat would rock and spill it all over and men were lying in it. It’s unbelievable to attempt to describe that.

Major Richard Gordon


As the POWs were distributed to camps all over the shrinking Japanese empire, their conditions and treatment varied from one POW camp to the next. Here are some excerpts from a PBS interview with Major Gordon:

The very first five months of Mitsoshima was probably the worst five months of my life.

Take a moment and let that statement sink in. Here is a soldier that endured:
– Four months of hand-to-hand fighting on limited rations
– The Bataan Death March
– Internment in two different POW camps in the Philippines

And none of this was the worse than what he had to endure at the POW camp in Japan. Forgive me for the interruption; let’s continue with Major Gordon’s interview:

The very first five months of Mitsoshima was probably the worst five months of my life. Worse than anything in the Philippines. Because, number one, we had come out of the Philippines with no clothing, other than what we had on our backs. Which was trousers cut off at the knees because they wore out, shirts cut off at the elbows because they had worn out. No socks and no shoes.

The cold that first winter in Japan was incredible. We had no clothing, as I say. They gave us British clothing they had captured in Singapore. Which they wouldn’t let the Japanese people see us in. So they put a Japanese cloth clothing over us, which they made it so thin you could see through it, but it covered up the uniforms that the Japanese had taken in Singapore…So we would sleep in our clothing and even then, we’d freeze because [of] sub-freezing temperatures. And at the bottom of the bay where we slept was a pit. They gave us charcoal to burn. And then at nine o’clock at night, we had to put it out for fear of fires. There was no heat in those barracks all night long. So men slept huddled together for body warmth. And used all sorts of blankets just to wrap each other up in. And if you became ill, as I did, and you had the chills as I did from malaria, it just was that much colder on you because you shivered yourself all night long.

That first winter the guards were a Japanese army guard. They were not civilians yet. They still were active duty soldiers. Young. Japan had– everything they touched at that point in time had turned to gold. They had won everywhere. And the Japanese felt very filled with the spirit of winning. And they were acting out. They mistreated every prisoner they ever laid their hands on. They would make– take any pretext to beat on you, to make life miserable for you. If they caught you leaving the barracks at night to go to the latrine, because you had to make a lot of trips to the latrine, to the bathroom, if they caught you not completely dressed, they’d beat you. That first winter, we lost something like 48 men, Americans and British. And mainly from the cold and the fact that we were without food and were sick when we went into that camp. Men died.

Summary POW Statistics

All together, 12,935 out of the 34,648 total American POWs died in the hands of the Japanese. Japan captured several thousand Americans throughout the Pacific; however, the vast majority of prisoners were captured in the Philippine Islands. The overwhelming majority of these prisoners came from the fall of Bataan and later, Corregidor. The fall of Bataan, alone, gave the Japanese in excess of 75,000 troops to deal with; 60,000 of these being Philippine nationals. The POWs in the Philippines experienced a mortality rate of 40% with approximately 11,107 deaths out of the 27,465 internees in the Philippines.


As I finally reached the conclusion of this entry, I was shocked when I looked down and saw how many pages this entry has taken. I was shocked because I have done such a poor job in describing the literal hell on earth that the soldiers from the Philippines went through…and yet the entry is my longest here by far. So I hope that you will forgive me for this long entry and that they will forgive me for its brevity.

Someone made a comment in a previous Memorial Day entry here that we should not focus on a single event, but recognize all of the men and women that have given their life for our country. However, I feel that comments like this miss the whole point of a Memorial Day entry.

Memorial Day was established to honor those men and women who gave “that last full measure of devotion” to their country. Recognizing and discussing a single battle, company, or soldier in no way reduces the sacrifice made by so many others. How can we claim to honor all of our fallen soldiers, sailors, and airmen if we can’t be bothered to learn the details of even one?

We honor the sacrifice of all of our servicemen by discussing only a single instance, because we know that there are so many others that have made similar sacrifices. So when we discuss POWs, we come to realize what our POWs have suffered in nearly every conflict since the Civil War. When we discuss the D-Day invasions, we recognize that they are far from the only group to charge across open ground under machine gun fire. When we discuss the sacrifice of a single soldier, we recognize all of those men and women who left their normal lives to serve and ultimately die for our country.

I heard the sound of taps one night,
When everything was still
I listened to the bugler play
And felt a sudden chill.
I wondered just how many times
That taps had meant “Amen,”
When a flag had draped a coffin
Of a brother or a friend.
I thought of all the children,
Of the mothers and the wives,
Of fathers, sons and husbands
With interrupted lives.
I thought about a graveyard
At the bottom of the sea
Of unmarked graves in Arlington.
No, freedom isn’t free.

CDR Kelly Strong, USCG (Ret).

About VaWolf82

Engineer living in Central Va. and senior curmudgeon amongst SFN authors One wife, two kids, one dog, four vehicles on insurance, and four phones on cell plan...looking forward to empty nest status. Graduated 1982


31 Responses to They Were Expendable

  1. wufpup76 05/26/2009 at 10:40 AM #

    Thanks for this entry, and for linking the other Memorial Day articles featured here.

  2. PackerInRussia 05/26/2009 at 11:05 AM #

    Great article. Thanks for taking the time to write it. The St. Petersburg Blockade is a great and terrible story. Where I live, you can travel around the countryside and stop off at any podunk village and they may not have running water, but they have a WWII memorial erected somewhere with the names of the people from that village who died in “The Great Patriotic War”.

  3. anti-smurf 05/27/2009 at 1:31 PM #

    Outstanding post! Thank you for putting that together. What many of us associate WWII with is what we see on TV and movies. My grandfather served about submarines in the Phillipines, and I had the honor and privalege of organizing a trip with the rest of the family to bring him to the WWII Memorial in DC a couple years ago. He finally started talking about his experiences. Makes me proud!

    I have also had several friends serve in our latest struggles (Iraq and Afghanistan). Luckily all have made it back home safe and sound. How they mustered up the courage to do what they had to do is beyond me. It saddens me to think they most likely had to take someone else’s life, and it has caused me to question if I could do that – and honestly, I don’t think I could. I hope I never have to find out.

    Because of all those that have fought for us, we are able to take a few minutews to pull up websites such as this, or listen to a radio, attend a school, just go for a walk. All things we take for granted.

    To all those that have served – I simply say: “Thank you”.

  4. WV Wolf 05/27/2009 at 2:35 PM #

    Thanks VaWolf82 for this great entry.

    My grandfather served in WWII from 1942 to 1946 and was in the Philippines. It seems like a lot of the WWII stuff out there focuses on D-day and what there is about the Pacific is about Pearl Harbor. So I definitely appreciate you giving some attention to some of the other stories. I wish I knew more about my grandfather’s experiences, he passed away when I was in the 8th grade, now that I’m old enough to know what questions to ask he’s no longer here to answer them.

  5. JP1974 05/28/2009 at 10:33 AM #

    I mostly read here…but this subject is dear to my heart. Having 2 Grandfathers that fought in WWII and one great uncle I have full appreciation of what they and their brothers’ did for this country. One of my Grandfathers, specifically, has many vivid details that I really should get on tape. He was in the Pacific campaign as well and was wounded, nearly fatal, by mortar in Okinowa. His dogtags were blown off and presumed dead. He still has the regret to inform you letter, for insurance purposes, given to his father. He has a picture of my Grandmother that he carried with him at all times, with the blood stains permanently ingrained in the picture. He spent 9 months in a coma at a hospital in Hawaii…this was 1945. He has some amazing stories. My great uncle received a Navy Cross for his actions in the battle of the bulge…he never divulged why he received it and attempts to find out failed by the family due to a fire at the Army post that information was stored in.

    Thanks VaWolf for this entry…if any of you want a GREAT read, please read the book “Ghost Soldiers”. It’s a book about the entire Bataan Death March and the valient rescue that “finally” took place to free the men that survived that hell.

  6. FredandDwight82 05/28/2009 at 3:11 PM #

    I second the recommendation of “Ghost Soldiers” – a great telling of a little known mission. (I think there was even a movie within the last few years which was based on this rescue mission.)

    I would also suggest “Flyboys: A True Story of Courage” by James Bradley (author of “Flags of Our Fathers”) which details treatment of captured downed US naval aviators on Chichi Jima. Although it strays from the title into the background of events which brought Japan and the US to that point, I think it is a good read. (Although I confess, it made me angry at myself for ever buying a Japanese car. Some of the descriptions of the treatment of prisoners are graphic.) It may also help shed some light on how a society can get to the point of accepting, condoning, and even encouraging the treatment of prisoners described in this excellent post by VaWolf.

    Not really related to this entry (other than being about World War II), but I HIGHLY recommend “The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors” by James Hornfischer. This books reads like an adventure novel, but is true. The story of a Destroyer Task Force that stops a Japanese fleet that outnumbers them 10 to 1, it illustrates how courage, determination, and tactics helped win the war. Very readable even if you are not a history buff.

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