Valor: Death March

July 1, 1995

Some influential Japanese have called the American use of nuclear weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki a war crime of historic proportions for which this country should apologize. They ignore or deny Japan’s disregard of international law and custom as it applied to both the military and conquered civilians during World War II. That aberration is epitomized by the Bataan Death March, described in Return to Freedom by retired Col. Samuel Grashio, a survivor of the march, and Bernard Norling.

Second Lieutenant Grashio arrived in the Philippines on Nov. 20, 1941, assigned to the 24th Pursuit Group’s 21st Pursuit Squadron, commanded by Lt. Ed Dyess. Like flying school classmates who accompanied him, Sam Grashio had little time in first-line fighters and no gunnery training. Less than three weeks later when the Japanese struck on Dec. 8, the group’s 72 P-40s and 18 obsolete P-35s would face an estimated 450 enemy aircraft flown by seasoned pilots. The outcome was predictable. By the end of December, the Americans were down to 12 P-40s and six P-35s. The remnants of the 24th Group moved to the Bataan Peninsula for a last-ditch defense of Luzon.

Vastly outnumbered and short of food and medical supplies, the Bataan defenders held out for three months. As the number of aircraft fell to four by April, most airmen fought alongside the infantry. Rations were cut to 1,000 calories a day. Malaria, dysentery, and tropical diseases were rampant. Grashio flew the last fighter mission from Bataan on April 8. The next day, the ill and exhausted defenders were forced to surrender, and there began one of the most disgraceful episodes in modern warfare–the Bataan Death March.

Estimates of the number of American and Filipino prisoners who started the march vary widely. There probably were about 75,000 US and Filipino service members and many displaced Filipino civilians. Colonel Grashio believes that some 10,000 died of disease and starvation or were killed by Japanese guards. No mercy was shown to those who had been hospital patients, even amputees. They were shot when they no longer could keep up, as were all stragglers. Enemy tank and truck drivers frequently swerved to crush prisoners who had fallen from exhaustion.

In the 95-degree heat and clouds of dust, thirst became maddening. Any prisoner who attempted to drink from one of the artesian wells along the road was shot in the back or clubbed back into line. The prisoners were allowed to drink only from filthy carabao (water buffalo) wallows. Those who did not already have dysentery soon contracted it. The men were given no food during the first three days of the march–and then only a small ball of rice on the fourth.

Near the end of the march, about 1,500 prisoners were jammed into a sheet-metal warehouse where the temperature was far above 100 degrees. There was only one water tap in the building, where the men were locked up for two days. Some went mad. Many died.

Survivors of the ordeal finally reached Camp O’Donnell, a former Filipino Army cantonment north of Manila. There, living conditions and treatment by the Japanese were only marginally better than on the road. In two months, some 1,600 Americans and 16,000 Filipinos died of starvation, disease, and maltreatment by the guards. After two months at O’Donnell, Grashio and others were moved to a prison camp at Cabanatuan, where many more succumbed. These were only two of many Japanese prisons in which conditions rivaled those of Nazi extermination camps.

Four months later, in October 1942, 1,000 prisoners, including Sam Grashio, who were judged able to work, were sent to Davao on the southern island of Mindanao. There, in a former penal colony for long-term convicts, the prisoners were put to work farming, logging, and doing other manual labor. Their living conditions and general treatment were somewhat better than in the two previous prisons. Only 15 Americans died in the five months Grashio was at Davao, but by April 1943, no more than half the prisoners were able to work regularly.

Allowed some freedom to move about the camp, a group of 10 Americans–Grashio and Ed Dyess among them–and two Filipino convicts made a daring escape into the jungle, the only mass escape from a Japanese prison. After three months of careful planning, the men slipped out of the camp on a Sunday morning, guided through the jungle by one of the Filipino prisoners. They soon became lost and ended up slogging their way through the swamp for three days until they contacted a group of Filipino guerrillas. This group and others were coordinated by Wendell Fertig, an American who had lived in the Philippines since the 1930s. After several months with the guerrillas, gathering intelligence that they radioed to Australia, the former POWs were picked up, a few at a time, by submarines and carried to Australia.

Sam Grashio was among the first repatriated POWs of the Japanese to speak publicly about Japanese atrocities and to meet with families of POWs. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Silver Star with cluster for heroism during the war. Colonel Grashio remained on active duty until 1965, when he became assistant to the president of Gonzaga University in Washington. Now retired, he lives in Spokane, Wash.

Published July 1995. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.