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The following is a presentation given by Ed Lavin, Colonel, USAF (RET) at Hilbig Park in Rockne Texas on Saturday, November 8, 2008 in observance of Veterans Day.

World War II in the Pacific

Bataan and Corregidor in the Philippines


By the spring of 1941, rising tensions between the United States and Japan made it clear the two countries were headed for a show-down. Japan was a relatively isolated group of islands lacking in raw mineral resources like oil and iron. After almost a decade of war with China, an aggressive Japan had ambitions of taking the entire Pacific Rim, including Australia, as part of a greater Japanese Empire.

The Philippines lay in their path. The United States had acquired the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico in the Spanish-American War with Spain in 1898. Though plans were underway to grant the Philippines their independence, the islands had become one of the United States’ most strategic locations, including extensive fortifications on the island of Corregidor in Manila Bay, and on the peninsula of Bataan northwest of Manila.

In a war against the U.S., time was Japan’s weakness; lacking in steel and fuel, it could not sustain a long war with the energy and resource rich United States. It therefore had to strike fiercely and decisively and could spare no delays. For its part, the United States had a military 10 percent the size of today’s. The isolationist policies of the 1920s and 1930s put America’s military behind and unprepared for war.

The War Begins in the Philippines

When the war began about 30,000 Americans, 25,000 Filipino regular army and roughly 100,000 Filipino raw volunteers were to face the battle-hardened Japanese 14th Army. Numbers were in the defenders favor, but supplies, food, and medicine soon dwindled due to the large size of the allied forces. The Japanese invasion of the Philippines began just hours after their planes had left Pearl Harbor in flames.

The Battle of Bataan

It took a day for the American air fleet to be destroyed and by January, those who had trained in the Air Corps became support infantry over night. The American and Filipino forces were soon ordered to head south to defend the Bataan Peninsula. With battles and skirmishes raging for four months, the mission was understood: to hold out and delay the Japanese as long as possible to allow America and Australia time to build up. Rations were cut, medicine to fight malaria was in short supply, and the aged, out-dated weaponry used by the Americans, some of it pre-World War I era, was soon wearing out.

In March, General Douglas MacArthur and his staff had been ordered by President Franklin Roosevelt to flee the Philippines by boat to Australia. It soon became clear no immediate help was coming. The men soon began to refer to themselves as the “Battling Bastards of Bataan.”

The Surrender of Bataan

U.S. and Filipino forces fought a valiant but losing battle. Fearing the inevitable and the total slaughter of thousands of American and Filipino wounded in military hospitals and knowing the fight could no longer continue, Bataan commander General Edward King was forced to surrender his troops on April 9, 1942, despite the wishes of many who wished to continue to fight.

The Battle of Corregidor

But the island fortress of Corregidor continued to hold out for now. The Battle for Corregidor was the culmination of the Japanese campaign for the conquest of the Philippines. The fall of Bataan on April 9, 1942 ended all organized opposition by U.S. forces to the invading Japanese forces in the northern Philippines.

The island bastion of Corregidor, with its network of tunnels and formidable array of defensive armament, along with the fortifications across the entrance to Manila Bay, was the remaining obstacle to the 14th Japanese Imperial Army of Lieutenant General Masaharu Homma. The Japanese had to take Corregidor, for as long as the island remained in American hands they would be denied the use of the Manila Bay, the finest natural harbor in the Far East.

Corregidor, officially named, Fort Mills, was the largest of four islands protecting the mouth of Manila Bay from attack and was fortified prior to World War I with powerful coastal artillery. American servicemen alternately dubbed it as “The Rock” or the “Gibraltar of the East.”

The Malinta Tunnel system on Corregidor became Gen. MacArthur’s headquarters as well as the headquarters of the Philippine government. It also was used for a 1,000 bed hospital and for ammunition and other storage.

On December 29, 1941, the Corregidor defenders had gotten their first taste of aerial bombardment. The Japanese quickly destroyed or damaged almost everything on the surface of the island. Periodic bombing continued for much of January 1942.

On March 12, 1942, under cover of darkness, by order of President Roosevelt, Gen. MacArthur was evacuated from Corregidor and flown to Australia. This was when he uttered his “I shall return” vow before turning over command to his deputy, Gen. Jonathan Wainwright.

From December 29, 1941 to the end of April 1942 and despite incessant Japanese aerial, naval and artillery bombardment, the garrison on Corregidor, consisting mainly of the 4th Marine Regiment and combined units from the U.S. Navy, Army and Filipino soldiers, resisted valiantly, inflicting heavy enemy losses on the Japanese. But food, water and ammunition soon ran low.

Japanese bombing and shelling continued with unrelenting ferocity. Japanese aircraft flew 614 missions dropping 1,701 bombs totaling some 365 tons of explosive. Joining the aerial bombardment were nine 240 mm howitzers, thirty-four 149 mm howitzers, and 32 other artillery pieces, which pounded Corregidor day and night. It was estimated that on May 4 alone, more than 16,000 shells hit Corregidor.

On May 5, Japanese forces led by Maj. Gen. Kureo Tanaguchi boarded landing craft and barges and headed for the final assault on Corregidor. Shortly before midnight, intense shelling pounded the beaches between North Point and Cavalry Point.

Despite fierce resistance from the defenders, the superior numbers and equipment of the Japanese soon took effect and the defenders were gradually forced to pull further and further back. Without additional reinforcements, the battle would quickly go against the defenders.

By 4:30 a.m. Colonel Howard committed his last reserves, some 500 Marines, sailors and soldiers of the 4th Battalion. These reserves tried to get to the battle as quickly as possible, but at about the same time additional reinforcements for the Japanese also arrived. In some places fighting was at close quarters with bayonets.

The Surrender of Corregidor

The final blow to the defenders came about 9:30 a.m. when three Japanese tanks landed and went into action. The men around Denver Battery withdrew to the ruins of a concrete trench a few yards away from the entrance to Malinta tunnel, just as Japanese artillery delivered a heavy barrage. Particularly fearful of the dire consequences should the Japanese capture the tunnel, where lay 1,000 helpless wounded men, and realizing that the defenses outside Malinta tunnel could not hold out much longer, and expecting further Japanese landings that night, General Wainwright decided to sacrifice one more day of freedom in exchange for several thousand lives.

In a radio message to President Roosevelt, Wainwright said, “There is a limit of human endurance, and that point has long been passed.” Colonel Howard burned the 4th Regiment’s and national colors to prevent their capture by the enemy. Gen. Wainwright finally surrendered the Corregidor garrison at about 1:30 p.m. on May 6, 1942, with two officers sent forward with a white flag to carry his surrender message to the Japanese.

The Bataan Death March

The Bataan Death March Monument in Capas, Tarlac, Philippines.The events following surrender were far worse than any imagined. What came to be known as the Bataan Death March began almost immediately after the surrendered Bataan defense forces were assembled in the large fields outside of Mariveles.

For the Japanese, it was a logistical nightmare. There were far more prisoners than they had anticipated and they had to move them out of the south to the north.

Lacking anywhere near enough trucks to transport the 70,000 prisoners of war, a forced march became the only way to move them. The Japanese also lacked food and medicine for their prisoners. Additionally, Japanese military doctrine considered surrender as cowardice, so the treatment of the prisoners was brutal.

About 11,700 Americans and as many as 65,000 Filipinos began the 65-mile march from the Bataan Peninsula to San Fernando. Of those, between 600 and 700 Americans and between 5,000 and 10,000 Filipinos died on the march. The causes of death were many, from malaria and dysentery to starvation and sheer exhaustion.

Other deaths were indescribably horrific and violent. Many Filipinos and some Americans were beheaded and both Americans and Filipinos were forced to endure the “sun treatment” where soldiers were forced to look for hours directly toward the sun.

Falling out of the march meant death. Prisoners were cruelly taunted by their Japanese captors, who dangled food or water within reach before knocking the men back with a bayonet thrust. One Filipino survivor recalled “In the eyes of the Japanese, we were cowards to have surrendered as they believed that taking your own life was a far better fate. We were beaten, slapped, pushed, tortured and yelled at while we marched. I was struck on the back of the head with the butt of the rifle of one of my captors. I remembered thinking of my mother and how she would suffer if I died. So I balanced as much as I could so as not to fall. Once an American soldier would fall he would be stabbed with the bayonet or shot. Several of my comrades fell from fatigue on top of illness and would not go on. They were immediately killed. All the time I thought I would be next.”

The Japanese denied water to their prisoners of war, even though springs were located all along the road. Men driven mad by thirst plunged into disease-infested mud pits, only to be shot or beaten. Those who survived soon came down with any number of diseases, from pellagra to dysentery. Some received food the first night, but it was little more than a ball of rice, at best. Many went without any food or water for the many days it took to complete the march.

By the second day, the worn and battered men, many of them marching the dusty roads in their bare feet, began to fall. The march quickly became a matter of survival of the fittest, though there are many accounts of lives being saved by selfless acts.

Some of the men were carried into San Fernando by friends and comrades from their units. Upon arrival in San Fernando, the men were packed into cramped boxcars and taken by train to Camp O’Donnell. Those too weak to go further died in the boxcars, overcome by the heat. Survivors were then forcibly marched another five miles to Camp O’Donnell.

Camp O’Donnell

Replica POW camp guard towers and hut.Those who were glad the march was over found no relief at Camp O’Donnell. A camp ground possibly designed for less than 10,000 people was now packed with 50,000 diseased and starved American and Filipino prisoners of war. The POWs were greeted by the Japanese commandant of Camp O’Donnell, who, as one survivor later recalled, gave the survivors a chilling and short speech: “We are enemies. We shall always be enemies. The only thing I am concerned of is how many of you are dead every morning.”

Another American survivor recalled: “The camp was beyond description. There was no water, and the dead and dying were everywhere. We dug straddle trenches for latrines, which soon turned foul. The rice we were given was watery and worm-infested. All night long, dying soldiers screamed as their temperatures rose from dysentery and malaria.”

Several weeks after Corregidor fell on May 6, the new American and Filipino prisoners of war from Corregidor entered Camp O’Donnell to join their Bataan comrades. Americans and Filipinos fought malnutrition and exhaustion to help organize burial details for the hundreds of men dying from malaria, dysentery, and malnutrition.

“They were dropping like flies,” one survivor recalled. “Starvation, dehydration, and malaria were prevalent there.” This survivor said his detail buried 76 men in one day. One of the men he would later bury in the hard volcanic ground of the Philippines would be his brother, who was briefly reunited with him in O’Donnell until he succumbed to the effects of dysentery and malnutrition.

In a little more than a month, more than 1,500 Americans and 20,000 Filipinos died in Camp O’Donnell. Disease, exhaustion and torture, combined with the cramped conditions and the complete lack of even the most basic and humane conditions, led to one of the highest rates of POW death in World War II.

After Camp O’Donnell, 3 1/2 years of imprisonment in forced labor camps throughout the Japanese empire followed for the American prisoners. Some were sent to the even more horrific Camp Cabanatuan, the home of the infamous Zero Ward, where thousands died mind-numbingly painful deaths from beriberi, dysentery, and starvation. Others were sent to as many as 70 Japanese prisoner of war camps around the Philippines, Japan, and China, where they endured 3 1/2 years of forced labor in rice fields, sugar cane processing factories, coal mines, or smelters.

By the end of 1943, and into late 1944, thousands of American prisoners of war were being packed into the dark hulls of cargo ships and sent to forced labor camps in Japan or China. The conditions on these “Hell Ships” as they were called defy description; weeks were spent in the crowded damp hulls of the ships.

There was no room to sit and most of the prisoners had diarrhea or dysentery. Little to no water or food was given to the men during the ordeal, and some were driven mad, forced to drink urine or slash their comrades throats to drink blood. Hundreds suffocated to death or were killed by their captors. Those who made it to Japan and China continued to toil in forced labor camps or in factories owned by companies still in existence today, such as Mitsubishi.

The War Comes to an End

Liberation for most American prisoners of war came by August 1945, though some were freed earlier in the year by advancing U.S. Marines, Army, Air Force and Navy forces.

Food and medicine was air dropped into the prison camps after surrender August 14, 1945. It was then months in hastily developed local military hospitals before many of the prisoners were sufficiently healthy to make the long journey home.

An estimated one third of the prisoners who were liberated later died within a year, their bodies and minds ravaged by their experiences. Fortunately most of the rest others recovered, persevered and stoically went on with their lives, raising families and pursuing careers after the war.

Thanks to Our Vets

Camp O'Donnell Memorial MonumentWe owe a huge debt of the gratitude to the “Battling Bastards of Bataan” and the courageous defenders of Corregidor, as well as to all of America’s Greatest Generation who fought and won World War II both in the Pacific and in Europe. You should know that one of the “Battling Bastards of Bataan” was one of your own, Walter Hilbig, who is descended from Anton and Carolina Hilbig and was from Rockne and whose cousin, Mary Ann Hilbig Lavin, is here with us today.

Walter HilbigWalter was a member of the 24th Pursuit Group of the Army Air Force on Bataan prior to the Japanese attack. He is one of the airmen who became infantry when their planes were quickly destroyed by Japanese air attacks.

PFC Walter J. Hilbig at rest at the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial.Walter was in the Bataan Death March. He survived the grueling march and was imprisoned at Camp O’Donnell, where on June 1, 1942 he died. He is memorialized at Camp O’Donnell and his remains lie at rest in the American Military Cemetery in Manila.

Along with honoring Walter we should also honor other local World War II heroes who gave their life for their country:

  • PFC Ernest Bartsch who died July 9, 1944 on the island of Saipan and who is buried in the national cemetery in Hawaii.
  • Private Joe J. Barton who died December 2, 1944 in France and who is buried in Lorraine, France.
  • Private Alvin Goertz who died on July 13, 1944 in France and who is buried on Normandy Beach.
And we honor those who survived but came home wounded, such as Ernest Frerich of the Rockne area, who was severely wounded in the neck in Sicily.

Let us also honor the local veterans of other wars who gave their lives for freedom, including Lieutenant Donald Matocha who was shot down and killed in Vietnam and who is buried near here in Smithville.

Let us also honor all the living and departed members of America’s Greatest Generation, the men and women who stood tall to defend America in the dark hours after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and saw America through to victory over the Japanese and over Nazi Germany.

And finally let us honor all American veterans who have served their country, including Colonel Charlie Nelson, and all of you here today who have worn the uniform.

I honor you.
And I salute you.
Thank you.