World War II: February 2001 From the Editor

8/19/2001 • Battle of Manila, World War II Archives

Bataan Death March survivors seek Japanese corporate compensation.

During the early days of the war in the Pacific, small victories such as those of the intrepid American destroyers at Balikpapan, Borneo and the repulse of the initial Japanese landings on Wake Island were few and far between.

On the whole, the first five months of the war with Japan were among the bleakest in American history. The Japanese seemed unstoppable.

In the Philippines, 80,000 American and Filipino soldiers under General Douglas MacArthur resisted the coordinated attacks of two converging Japanese forces. Squeezed into the Bataan Peninsula on the west side of the Philippine island of Luzon, the defenders were doomed. Promises of reinforcements were hollow. MacArthur was ordered to Australia, and his successor, Lt. Gen. Jonathan M. Wainwright, withdrew with 15,000 men to the island fortress of Corregidor at the entrance to Manila Bay.

On April 9, 1942, approximately 70,000 American soldiers surrendered to the Japanese after a heroic stand against overwhelmingly superior forces. The remaining Americans on Corregidor held out until May 6. Bataan remains the largest surrender of American fighting forces in the nation’s history. Little did the defenders of Bataan know the worst was yet to come.

The infamous Bataan Death March began on April 10, 1942, when the prisoners were forced to walk from Mariveles to O’Donnell Prison Camp at San Fernando, a distance of some 60 miles. From there, some were to be transferred to freight trains destined for other POW camps. Although reports vary, more than 14,000 captives died during the torturous march. Japanese atrocities were commonplace. Stragglers were routinely shot, bayoneted or beheaded.

Lieutenant Colonel William Dyess, an officer in the U.S. Army Air Corps’ 21st Pursuit Squadron, remembers a brutal beating he witnessed: “Whether by accident or design, we had been put just across the road from a pile of canned and boxed food. It seemed worse than useless to ask the Japanese for anything. An elderly American Colonel did, however. He crossed the road, pointed to the food and then to the drooping prisoners. A squat Japanese officer grinned at him and picked up a can of salmon. He smashed it against the Colonel’s head, opening the American’s cheek from eye to jawbone.”

After the war, General Masaharu Homma, commander of Japanese forces in the Philippines during the march, was tried as a war criminal, convicted and executed. But most of those responsible escaped justice.

Many of those who survived the Death March were forced to work for years as slaves in Japanese labor camps. Recently, survivors of these camps, some of whom are almost 90 years old, have asked the federal government for permission to take legal action against the Japanese corporations that profited from their labor during the war.

The U.S. government has compensated Japanese Americans whom it interned and assisted victims of Nazi slave labor camps in bringing multi-million dollar suits against major German corporations such as Siemens and Bayer. However, the State Department is firm in its assertion that the 1951 treaty and payment by the Japanese government of $90 million closes the book on further Japanese liability for damages to individuals.

Death March survivor Maurice Mazer spent four years laboring in Japanese captivity. When the war ended, he was in Japan working in a copper mine owned by the corporate giant Mitsubishi. At age 86, time is running out for Mazer. “The only thing I want out of this is justice,” he said.

Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, asserts that the Japanese government, the signatory to the 1951 treaty, is not being asked to pay reparations. It is the corporations that are being asked to take responsibility. According to Hatch, American slave labor helped build these Japanese corporations into the immensely profitably conglomerates they are today.

Regardless of State Department rhetoric, it seems only fair and reasonable that Americans held against their will and forced to labor for the profit of an enemy of their country should have their day in court. Let the judiciary decide if the claims have merit. Surely these accused Japanese corporations will ably defend themselves. Whether, in the end, judgment is for or against them, the veterans of the Bataan Death March, like all other victims of atrocity who still have voices, have earned the right to make their case.

Michael E. Haskew, Editor, World War II