Bataan Death March WWII Philippine Campaign
By: Mrs. Virginia Moseley
El Monte, California – Several years ago a slightly built elderly man walked into the El Monte Historical Museum carrying a cardboard box containing his WWII memorabilia. His name was Eddy Laursen, a Native El Montean, and a survivor of the infamous Bataan Death March in the Philippines in the spring of 1942. He wanted to donate to the museum his WWII collection of mementos and oddities and leave his mark on what happened so many years ago. He wanted to do this as much as an attempt to honor his comrades, as to educate the future generations. Museum records revealed that at least one other El Monte Native, Elwood Wiggins, the great –grandson of one of the founders of the pioneer community of El Monte is known to have survived the march only to die at a POW Camp on October 23, 1942.
This article, is written in honor of Eddy Laursen and Elwood Wiggins as well as the thousands of American and Filipino soldiers who died defending and recapturing the Philippines against the Japanese Empire in the Pacific Theater during World War II.
Today, many young adults have never heard of the Bataan Death March that occurred in early 1942 at the end of the four month losing battle, by the United States Army and its Filipino Allies, to save the Philippines from the invasion by the Japanese Imperial Army.
To go back to the beginning; seven hours after the surprise bombing by the Japanese Imperial Naval Fleet of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Japanese bombers, executing perfect formations, swept over the mountains into Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines destroying US Army planes as they sat unarmed on the field. There had been a rumor that the Japanese might attack late in 1942, but this group of mostly untrained, young National Guard Units only recently arrived in the Philippines, were unprepared for battle. As waves of planes completed the bombardment, Japanese troops stormed Clark Air Base and like Pearl Harbor, it became an early casualty of the War in the Pacific. Thus began the first major land battle of World War II.
Americans and Filipino Soldiers fought bravely to save Luzon Island and Manila , but were gradually pushed into the thumb shaped peninsula of Bataan in Manila Bay, where the fresh, war hardened superior Japanese Army left the American and Filipinos troops cut off from all help and supplies including munitions, gasoline, food and water. There was no escape from the Peninsula except by sea. Sick, starving, and without an Air Force or Navy to support them, the 15,000 American troops and 60,000 Filipinos troops were forced to surrender April 9, 1942.
A number of men managed to escape into the jungle and mountain areas where they spent the remainder of the war as guerrilla fighters against the Japanese.
The Battle of Bataan was the single largest defeat in American military history.
The American and Filipino prisoners of war were then marched to the railroad at San Fernando where box cars were to carry them to the various POW Camps. On the sweltering, dusty road already desperate for water, the men were forced to drink from filthy buffalo wallows; they fell in their tracks from malaria, beri-beri, starvation, and suffering from amebic dysentery. With rifle butts, Japanese soldiers broke bones, smashed in their skulls, deliberately bayoneting and decapitating American and Filipino prisoners of war as they struggled along. Many prisoners , left dying on the road, were then rolled over and over by Japanese truck convoys like dead animals. This desperate march became known as the “Bataan Death March.”
As the prisoners who started the march reached the railroad, they were then stuffed into, sweltering, stench-filled box cars, with standing room only, where they died in this condition by the hundreds. Those who were unable to ride in the box cars were force marched to the camps many suffering from bloody infected feet. All told, approximately 2,500-10,000 Filipino and 300-650 American prisoners of war died before they could reach Camp O’Donnell.
Conditions in the camps were just as bad. Survivors of the march continued to die at the rate of 30-50 per day, leading to thousands more dead. Most of the dead were buried in mass graves that the Japanese dug out with bulldozers on the outside of the barbed wire fencing surrounding the compound. In other instances, prisoners had to daily dig 20-40 graves for their comrades, even dig their own shallow graves before they were beheaded for a minor infraction. Many were buried alive or beaten to death. Even worse were the diseases – nearly all had malaria and no hygienic was available or another medication. The worse condition was the bloody dysentery with which nearly all were infected. These skeleton-like men survived on a handful of rice a week and even ate grass to fill their stomachs.
The healthiest who survived were sent by “hell ships” to labor in Japanese mines, work in factories, load ships and other industries for the Japanese war effort. Other Japanese POW Camps were located in Indonesia, northern China (Manchuria), and Japan.
In November 1942 Eddy Laursen born in El Monte June 30, 1917, left Camp Cabanatuan to travel by “hell ship” to Manchuria. Eddy had joined the Army Air Force in 1940, was sent to New Mexico for training and then onto Clark Air Force Base in 1941. He was a member of the 19th Bombardment Squadron. Held captive for 3 ½ years at Camp O’ Donnell, Camp Cabanatuan and then Hoten Camp Mukden, Manchuria’s POW Camp he finally was liberated in late August 1945.
The trip to Manchuria in November, 1942 was a shock to those emaciated gaunt men used to the tropics. They were put in the holes of cargo freighters crowded with 1,500 prisoners only large enough for 400 to sit making it hard to breathe. Numb with fatigue, burning with fever, pneumonia, dysentery, malaria, they died daily standing up and were then tossed overboard.
American submarines had no way of knowing that these cargo freighters had American prisoners aboard and some ships were torpedoed accidently killing Americans prisoners. With the hatches locked, American soldiers were drowned where they stood.
When the surviving POW ‘s arrived in this bitterly cold climate of Manchuria poorly clad, suffering from diphtheria, tuberculosis, pneumonia plus malnutrition, the slave labor work took its toll on these remaining few. Eddy survived the sub-zero temperature weather loading ships at the dock until his back was broken (later an American POW doctor fashioned a make – shift wooden brace). Eddy recovered enough to go back to work. Finally, after 3 ½ years of hard labor and sickness he returned to El Monte at Christmas 1945. Eddy died September 12, 2011 at the age of 93 and is buried at Rose Hills in Whittier.
Elwood Wiggins, the other El Montean was born in El Monte July 9, 1919 and died Oct 23, 1942 of a kidney infection, malaria and malnutrition at Camp Cabanatuan at the age of 23. At El Monte High School he had gained all-league honors in football graduating in 1937. He was also an outstanding varsity player in Junior College. Standing over 6 feet tall and 206 pounds handsome, curly haired, he was well – known and well liked. In 1940 he joined the Air Force, trained in New Mexico and sailed for the Philippines in 1941. He came from a pioneer El Monte family and his sister Janice Wiggins White still resides in El Monte where she is active in the Historical Society and in the Pioneer Cemetery Assoc.
After the war more men died aboard the American ships bringing them home and were buried at sea to weak to survive from the years of mistreatment. Many survivors never recuperated and died years later of tuberculosis, colitis, and untreatable diseases. Of the 1,800 New Mexico National Guard Soldiers from the 200th/515 Coast Artillery of the National Guard deployed in the Philippines and captured in April, 1942 only 900 survived V-J Day in 1945 and within several years after that another 450 died from the treatment they received as prisoners of war.
As horrible, sadistic, and unforgiving this treatment of American troops was, it seemed logical to the Japanese Army. The Imperial Japanese Army, and Japanese culture in general, indoctrinated the Japanese soldier into believing that prisoners of war were less than human because if a soldier surrendered in war he was a traitor to his country as suicide or death in battle were the only honorable paths from defeat.
The American Public did not learn of the horrors of the Death March or the inhuman treatment of our POW’s until two years later in 1944 when word leaked out of these horrible atrocities. Many have forgotten, but to this day, the young children in the Philippines are told never to forget the bravery of the American and the Filipino soldiers on this horrible forced death march from Bataan in 1942.
On May 9, 2009, the Japanese Government formally apologized through its ambassador in the United States to former American prisoners of war who suffered in the Bataan Death March. We do not know if this apology, or any apology was extended by the Japanese government, to the Filipino soldiers of the Bataan Death March.
If anyone has information on residents or former residents of the San Gabriel Valley who were participants of this painful chapter of World War II please contact us at Editor@MidValleyNews.com