Ghosts of Bataan Death March stretch from West Texas to Asia
BATAAN – What lingers along this road?
More than 75 years have passed and many still have no idea of the horror perpetrated in the spring of 1942. Of those who did remember, most have since become memories themselves.
For those who remain, the passage of time has little effect on the starkness of their memories. Recalling the sounds of pain and suffering still carry the same weight of hardship three-quarters of a century later.
They remember the Bataan Death March, on which about 10,000 soldiers died on a trek of more than 80 miles over a week's time.
When 'hell really broke loose'
It began in Mariveles, a coastal community on the southern-most tip of the Bataan peninsula on the island of Luzon, after the surrender of U.S. and Filipino forces on April 9, 1942.
It was where what’s now known as Kilometer Zero that William “Ed” Dyess gathered with the remainder of men under his command from the 21st Pursuit Squadron. A West Texas native, Lt. Col. Dyess survived his capture in the Philippines but died in December 1943, a hero at 27 shortly after returning home.
Abilene's Dyess Air Force Base, about 35 miles southwest of his home in Albany, was renamed in his honor eight months after opening in 1956.
But on this night, with the fate of him and his men unknown, Dyess had given the order to abandon their airfields. Essential personnel already had been sent away in the few remaining aircraft, while ground crews worked feverishly smashing radios and burning fuel before approaching Japanese troops could seize it.
Dyess ignored orders that called for him to personally evacuate. Instead, in the dark, he led his men south to Mariveles from Bataan Airfield to mobilize as a light infantry unit. Years later, he described the scene for Chicago Tribune writer Charles Leavelle.
“The Dyess Story — The Eye-Witness Account of the Death March From Bataan" is the flyer’s memoir published in 1944, after his death, and taken from interviews after Dyess returned to the United States.
“About four miles west of Cabcaben, hell really broke loose. They were blowing up the main munitions dumps, the engineers’ dynamite dumps,” Dyess said in the book. “Almost anywhere on lower Bataan you could have read a newspaper by the lurid glare.”
But late in the morning, word came down that Maj. Gen. Edward King, the leader of the defense of the Philippines after Gen. Douglas MacArthur left, had surrendered to the invading Imperial Japanese Army.
Any lingering disbelief was squashed when Dyess saw what he described as one of the most disheartening scenes of his life – U.S. Army trucks “rumbling down the dust-fogged roads, all hoisted white flags.”
Order began to break down, injured people – soldiers and civilians – wandered into the street, their hospitals bombed to rubble. The island of Corregidor, only three miles away, could have been a destination but any useful boat had long since been taken and escaping to the hills of the jungle was a sure ticket for malaria.
Dyess took his men and decided to turn around, thinking they might find the rest of the ground crew and perhaps pool their food. But then the Japanese tanks arrived.
“We stopped. We were prisoners,” Dyess recalled. “Tanks were charging up and down, firing their machine guns into treetops. Lines of marching Japs were silhouetted against the sky along all the high places. Planes still were bombing the area. Shells continued to fall. The jig certainly was up.”
Maria's family marched, too
Maria Cervantes was 13 when her family was swept up in the Death March.
Her father Arturo was a fisherman and the family of nine lived in a hut made of nipa, a palm leaf woven to form walls and the roof. It was easy to repair since the material to do so grew around the home.
But it was no protection against air raids.
“Beneath (the hut) we made a hole, so that when the Japanese airplanes came, we go, we went into the hole,” she said.
Now 90 and living in Balanga City, the images of those days still remain strong. She sat for an interview at the Bataan World War II Museum, which is located within the grounds of an elementary school there.
Abilene Reporter-News photojournalist Ronald Erdrich was in the Philippines last month for the USA TODAY Network to cover the dedication of a Visitors Center at Manila American Cemetery designed by a Texas couple.
Just yards away, life-sized statues recreate the image from a photograph of Gen. King surrendering to the Japanese at this very spot. There always has been an elementary school here, and the museum in the middle of the campus.
“You know, there was bombing all the time, so the army pitied the civilians,” Maria recalled.
Civilians were evacuated south to Mariveles for the first three months of 1942. Her father found work as a janitor for the army.
But when the Japanese took Mariveles and lined up the soldiers for the march, they told the civilians, too, to stand in line.
“So we are in one line, we walked three nights and three days,” she said. “One of my brothers died. We buried (him) only in the ditch.”
Malaria claims three of her siblings died during the march: then-7-year-old brother Ernesto, a 2-year-old sister named Nenita and an infant whose name she no longer remembers.
“Ernesto at seven years old, you know, he understands,” she recalled of her brother. “He said to me, ‘Big sister, we cannot return. I'm going to die.’”
Maria said they ate only once during the three-day march to Balanga, 30 miles away. At night, she heard stories of Japanese soldiers taking women into the forest, those around her desperate to come up with some way to deter the guards.
“One of them said, ‘Let's put charcoal on our faces,’” Maria recalled the conversation and had her own ideas about what to do. She shook her head emphatically.
“Listen, when the Japanese are coming toward you, you shake with a chill,” she pantomimed a shivering motion. “Because they are afraid of malaria!”
Inhumane treatment on the road
The weather in central Luzon in mid-April is brutal. It’s the tail end of the dry season known as Amihan. Little to no rain typically has fallen since November and the sun beats down in 95-degree heat under a clear sky.
Prisoners were herded into open fields along the way and told to remain beneath that sun without food or water as Imperial soldiers took their ease. Dyess mentions an older Army colonel after a few moments approaching a Japanese officer, gesturing to the man’s tin of meat, canteen of water and then back at the prisoners.
His answer was the officer smashing the can of salmon against the colonel’s head, splitting open the man’s face. He staggered back to the prisoners, it was their first indication that the Japanese would not respect rank nor age.
For the Imperial Japanese Army, death was preferable to surrender, which meant a complete loss of honor, a deeply personal value from which they defined their worth. In their eyes, surrendered prisoners were less than human, cowards, and harsh treatment rightly deserved. If the situation were reversed, they believed they would obligated to receive the same treatment under their Bushido code.
The fact that many Japanese officers had studied in the West and knew how surrendering Americans would expect to be treated was never a calculation for Japanese commanders in the Philippines.
Of the 75,000 or so captured soldiers marched to the train station at San Fernando – a roughly 80-mile journey from Kilometer Zero — about 65,000 were members of the Philippine Commonwealth Army. Dyess recalled their suffering in vivid detail.
“We had marched about a mile after the sun treatment when I stumbled over a man writhing in the hot dust of the road. He was a Filipino soldier who had been bayoneted through the stomach.”
A quarter-mile farther on, they passed a body that had rolled deliberately into the path of trucks.
“The huddled and smashed figures beside the road eventually became commonplace to us,” Dyess said. “The human mind has an amazing faculty of adjusting itself to shock. We remained keenly aware that these murders might well be precursors of our own, if we should falter.”
Along the road, Imperial soldiers passing in trucks would jab a rifle butt or bayonet into the line of soldiers as they rode by. Occasionally, someone would be yanked out of line and interrogated, then shoved back to the drawn-out procession shuffling northward.
What you did to survive
Maria’s family eventually stopped near Balanga, at Puerto Rivas beside the bay. Helping others came at great risk.
“I saved seven people, seven soldiers,” she recalled. “I said, as the guard is not looking, carry my brother with the swollen face. I will give you the clothes of my father.”
Maria told them to rid themselves of their shoes, otherwise they would be known for soldiers. She told them to make their way to the bay and walk along its shore, someone would surely help them.
“Seven! But my brother died, also.”
The subterfuge would never have worked with American prisoners, of course. Maria had seen them, but she had to turn her head. There was nothing she could do for them.
While marching, Dyess came to realize that stragglers who fell behind never were seen again. A “clean-up squad” of Japanese soldiers followed the main body of prisoners. If he looked back in the dark, a brief orange flash would light the night in the near distance, followed by a rifle’s report.
Those who dropped were sure to meet their end.
Presently, Dyess began to overtake a captain in the Medical Corps known to him. It didn’t appear the man would last much longer.
“Hello, Doc. Taking a walk?” he asked.
“Ed,” Doc replied slowly, “I can’t go another kilometer. A little farther and I’m finished.”
“Well, Doc, I’m about in the same fix.” Yet they continued.
After few more kilometers, the dialogue started again.
“I'm done, Ed. You fellows forget me and go on. I can’t make another kilometer.”
“I don’t think I can, either, Doc. I feel just about as you do.”
They passed the night that way, Dyess commiserating with his friend while another soldier put a hand behind Doc’s shoulder to keep him moving. They were in a loop, repeating the same conversation every hour or so as they walked.
But Doc never fell out.
Civilians were treated no better
The Japanese had been instructed to be more lenient with the civilians, though abuses still continued. Maria’s father, Arturo, had been allowed to leave in search of medicine, leaving the family in the care of his wife, Casimira.
In easier times, Maria’s mother was the one in the market selling the fish caught by her husband. But the shelling before the fall of Bataan and the subsequent march had sent Casimira into a deep state of post-traumatic shock.
“My mother cannot talk,” Maria recalled and at the time she pleaded with her, “Mother, please move, father is not around. Have pity on me!”
But no amount of begging would change the situation. The burden of responsibility fell on 13-year-old Maria.
“So, I lead my sisters and my mother,” she said. “Especially my mother.”
In Balanga, the Japanese took the elementary school as their garrison. The occupying force demanded children be taught “Nipongo,” or Japanese.
“I'm not afraid, I am brave, but I do not talk with the Japanese,” Maria recalled.
Still, the chance to attend school offered some kind of return to normalcy, even if it was under the boot of an occupying force. But language and math couldn’t drown out the larger lessons of cruelty and horror inflicted on the students.
In the Philippines, “Comfort Room” is the term for a lavatory. In a sickly twist, the Japanese took the women’s comfort room as their interrogation chamber.
Maria said she could only last in the school for two weeks before vowing never to return. No matter what was being taught, nothing could hide the sounds of military leaders – Americans, Filipinos and some civilians – as they were interviewed in the comfort room.
“I can hear the screams, the howling, so many were killed there in the torture room,” Maria said. “I hear the shouting, the crying, and suddenly I hear, ‘Oh, Lord, help me!’ Then one of my classmates said, ‘Oh, they are being killed!’”
The small building still stands, a gray, cinderblock-like form surrounded by a newer and brighter elementary school. Its door won’t open, and a frame-less square hole beside it serves as a window to the black interior.
Looking through the window at the far wall, daylight glows through a simple geometric pattern in the brick, the room’s vent. It’s easy to imagine it the last sight many ever saw.
Water nearby but not a drop to drink
Prisoners on the march were allowed to keep their canteens but could only replenish them from muddy ruts or ditches along the way. As April waned, the rains were beginning to appear, but their infrequency only washed the filth away from the prisoners’ bodies or refilled puddles.
Dyess passed numerous springs just steps from the road, but to reach for one was surely death.
It was what the guards were waiting for.
“Just across the road bubbled an artesian well. Its splashing was plainly audible and the clear water, glistening in the morning sun, was almost too much for my self-control,” Dyess recalled, thinking for this he may welcome getting shot, but then chastised himself over his thoughts.
“I have no doubt that they were expecting the thing that happened now. A Filipino soldier darted from the ranks and ran toward the well. Two others followed him. Two more followed these, then a sixth broke from the ranks.”
The guards waited until they men were past the ditch bordering the road, and then they shot them.
“Most of the Filipinos fell at the first volley. Two of them, desperately wounded, kept inching toward the water, their hands outstretched.
"The (Japanese soldiers) fired again and again, until all six lay dead.”
By now, scarecrows trying to survive
About 15 miles from San Fernando, the column of prisoners passed through Lubao. Windows along the streets were lined with sober faces, watching the Americans and Filipinos as they staggered by in a “scarecrow procession.”
From the windows of a large house, food flew through the air to land among the prisoners. It sent the guards into a frenzy, beating passersby, lunging with bayonets and stomping on the food until they turned their rage on the prisoners. Dyess noted the food stopped coming once the townspeople saw how it added to their misery.
The column arrived in San Fernando, having marched five days and more than 80 miles with barely a single bowl of rice eaten during that time. As they entered the city, any open fenced area was commandeered for use as holding pens for the prisoners.
Like other holding pens along the route, this one was overfilled with sick, dying and dead men.
“They were sprawled amid the filth and maggots that covered the ground. Practically all had dysentery,” Dyess recalled. “Malaria and dengue fever appeared to be running unchecked. There were symptoms of other tropical diseases I didn’t even recognize.”
The worst cases were shoved under the flooring of a dilapidated building, most of the people there had died and the rest didn’t look like they’d last to morning. But as the sun fell, it appeared they finally would be fed, cooks brought cans of rice and started ladling them to the men.
But just as soon as they began, they stopped with no explanation.
Too disheartened to even swear about it, the men sat down and tried to rest, but the guards were not done yet. With a loud cry, they poured into the compound, bayonets fixed and lunged at the men inside.
“Those of us who were able rose to our feet in alarm. Evidently, we did not appear sufficiently frightened,” Dyess said. “The (Japanese soldiers) outside the compound jeered the jokesters within. One (Japanese soldier) then made a running lunge and drove his bayonet through an American soldier’s thigh.”
It resulted in a stampede with several of the sick and dying men on the ground being trampled as their comrades fell over them. Those in turn were trampled, the guards laughing at the scene the entire time.
On April 15, the group was brought out of the compound and formed into companies of 115 men each. No food or water was given, Dyess said their canteens had been empty for hours, and the men were marched several blocks to the waiting train station.
The Japanese stuffed each company of 115 men into its own cattle car – a capacity easily double or more what it should have held – and then locked the car from the outside. There was no room to turn around, no way to sit, and as the air stifled amid the waste accumulating on the floor, men began dropping face-down into it.
“A jolting, rocking ride began. Many of the prisoners in the boxcar in which I stood were seized by nausea, adding to the vile state of our rolling cell,” Dyess said. “The ride lasted more than three hours. Later I heard that a number of men had died in each of the five cars. I don’t know. I was too far gone to notice much at the journey’s end.”
The arena of death
Like many places along the Bataan Death March route, the train station at San Fernando is now a museum. Within stand framed pictures of prisoners led to the station while at one end, the floor is dominated by a life-sized set of statues depicting American and Filipino prisoners under guard by Imperial Army soldiers.
Behind the building where the platform used to stand, a mare and her foal cropped a verdant swath of grass. Northward, a road picks up alongside the path where tracks on the railroad’s right of way used to run.
Tricycles and jeepneys (jeeps left over from World War II modified as mini buses) travel down it now, though the museum’s caretaker Jonathan Quiambao said there’s talk afoot about reestablishing the railroad for commuting to Manila.
Speaking Tagalog, through my guide Yasmin Coles, the caretaker tells us of another memorial across the street from the station. It sits in a courtyard of stone and native trees, a large boulder covered in red paint except near the bottom where it appears to fade.
A rope barrier surrounds it and bricks make a short path to the monument. Mounted into the boulder is a plaque written in Tagalog and English, dated 1967, remembering the prisoners and the misery they endured here.
Through the translator, Quiambao said a cockfighting arena preceded the current apartment building now behind the memorial. The Japanese thought the arena perfect for holding prisoners.
Quimbao’s father-in-law then was 7. The stone and garden marked the place where prisoners’ bodies were piled if they died waiting in the arena. As the Japanese took the prisoners away, it fell to the people of San Fernando to bury the dead left behind.
Capas is about 25 miles from San Fernando and after the train ride, it was still another seven-mile hike to Camp O’Donnell. As they started, Dyess was sure a quarter of their number would never make it.
'You had no choice but to be strong'
Nestor Ceniza is 97 years-now, but he was 19 when he joined the Philippine Army’s 71st Infantry Division in 1941, a Private First Class. When the order to surrender came, it was one he disobeyed, hiding instead in the mountains.
“We escaped; but unluckily, we met a Japanese patrol and we were brought to their station,” he said. “We were brought to Camp O'Donnell. There I was confined from May 24, 1942 to January 20, 1943.”
We spoke at his home in Balanga, sitting at a patio table outside. Ceniza spent 50 years after the war as a member of the Philippine Constabulary, a national police force.
Dyess and Ceniza were at Camp O’Donnell, a commandeered Philippine army training camp, but neither was aware of the other. In that first week, Dyess estimated Americans were dying at 20 men a day and Filipinos at 150. Those numbers doubled over the next week.
“How can I describe that? It’s indescribable,” Ceniza said.
As it was along the march, medical care was practically non-existent. If you found yourself in the camp’s hospital, it likely meant you’d never leave.
“I suffered malaria, dysentery and beriberi in the concentration camp,” Ceniza said. “Of course, you had no choice but to be strong, to get through it.”
He had no recollection of the food they ate, much of the experience is shrouded in recollections difficult to access now, for reasons of time, pain or both. What he has committed to memory is the speech given by Normando Reyes from Corregidor’s Malinta Tunnel on April 9, 1942.
"The Fall of Bataan" was written by Salvador Lopez in Corregidor as the province was lost to the Japanese and broadcast from the radio shop inside the Rock, known as the Voice of Freedom. The island would hold out another month before surrendering, too.
It is a deeply personal message for Ceniza and it overcomes him when he begins. It stops him a few times; the words sparking memories, the memories in turn fanning embers deeply held.
“For what sustained them through all these months of incessant battle was a force that was more than merely physical,” he continued. “It was the force of an unconquerable faith—something in the heart and soul that physical hardship and adversity could not destroy.”
Photo Gallery: Images from the 2019 Bataan Memorial Death March
Dyess died a hero, but back home
The Americans eventually were moved to Cabanatuan, about 30 miles east of O’Donnell. Mercifully, or more likely because it was efficient, the prisoners were taken by truck. Treatment improved somewhat, but cruelty and abuse did not wane.
Eventually, Dyess was transferred to a prison in Davao, 650 miles south on Mindanao. From there, he led the escape of nine other American and Filipino POWs, the largest such escape in the Pacific Theater during World War II. For months he evaded captured, finally returned to safety in July 1943.
When Dyess returned to the United States, his story was kept secret. No one wanted to risk offending the Japanese, the calculation being they would treat American prisoners even worse.
It was only after Dyess was killed that his story was released. On Dec. 22, 1943, the P-38 he was flying over Burbank, Calif. lost power to an engine. While he could have abandoned his aircraft and parachuted to safety, it would have meant the airplane crashing into a home, possibly killing those on the ground.
Instead, he flew the plane into a vacant lot where he died on impact.
'Love your enemies'
After a time during the occupation, Maria Cervantes and her family left the Bataan for the far side of Manila Bay. When they returned two years later, the Japanese had been driven out but everything in Balanga City except the church had been burned to the ground.
“I didn't ask, ‘Why did you tolerate this, God?’ No!” Maria said. “I do not ask questions to God. God permitted it; I said, ‘It is up to you, God.’ That’s all.”
In the years since, the Japanese have done much to repair what their countrymen inflicted.
“The Japanese asked me, ‘Are you still angry with us?’” she said. “’No, I'm not angry, you helped us.’ Love your enemies, pray for them. Love your enemies, and God will reward you.
“I am no longer angry with anybody.”
The ghosts remain
There are ghosts at San Fernando, but mostly they exist in the memories of families returning here, looking for evidence or closure of someone lost during the march. Despite so much death, no one thinks of the memorial or the train station as a place where the dead rest uneasily.
Quiambao told my guide that many have made their peace with what happened here, and perhaps the dead have too.
Does anyone fear the ghosts of Bataan?
“Well, people have accepted that they're here already,” Quiambao replied. “So, they just let them be.”