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Saturday, September 05, 2015

The Battling Bastards of Bataan

In the spring of 1942, the Philippines were a lost cause. FDR ordered General Douglas MacArthur to retreat to Australia, which he did, vowing to return. Command of the American and Filipino troops fell on Major General Jonathan Mayhew Wainwright, a tall thin man whose paternal grandfather died fighting rebels in the Civil War, and whose father died fighting rebels in the Philippines. But General Wainwright and his second in command, Brigadier General Edward Postell King Jr., led a valiant effort to throw back the Japanese who arrived in far greater forces with control of the air and land. History would call these men the Battling Bastards of Bataan.

But Wainwright and King thought they were cowards for doing the unthinkable. They surrendered. King in Bataan on April 9, 1942, and Wainwright a month later in Corregidor. They wanted to minimize the casualties and misery for their men. Unbeknown at the time, the torture under the Japanese had just begun.

Born on August 23, 1883, in Walla Walla, Washington, Wainwright's heritage was strictly military. He was at West Point when his father died in battle in 1902. Wainwright graduated as First Captain of the Corps of Cadets in 1906. Given his choice of corps, he chose the cavalry.

King was born on July 4, 1884, in Atlanta and became a lawyer. But at 24, he applied for and received a commission in the Army in 1908. A decade later, he received the Distinguished Service Medal for his efforts in World War I. He was expert in field artillery.

Both men hung in there during the period between wars, when the nation starved its military. Both men were in the Philippines when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. MacArthur's departure left the men in charge. They soldiered on.

King and his men held the Japanese off until they ran out of food, medicine and other supplies. Defying orders not to surrender, he did so, taking sole responsibility. The Japanese rounded up the 70,000 soldiers and stripped them of their weapons and valuables, and then marched them to Balanga, the capital of Bataan. Japanese guards beat and mistreated the POWs. At the Pantingan river, Masanobu Tsuji, a Japanese officer, had 400 Filipino officers and NCOs executed.

Tsuji was a particularly cruel man who escaped prosecution for war crimes by hiding out in Thailand. In 1961, he returned to Japan and was elected to the national legislature. Fortunately, he disappeared on a trip to Laos shortly after his election.

But the atrocities had just begun. Almost a third of the men died along the way, as they were given little water or food. Those who fell behind were bayoneted. Some POWs were used for target practice. Others were forced to dig their own graves, where the Japanese buried them alive. Dysentery took its toll.

The Japanese used the men as slaves. Wainwright and his soldiers arrived a month later. In a communique to FDR before surrendering, Wainwright explained his situation: "There is a limit of human endurance and that limit has long since been passed. With out prospect of relief, I feel it is my duty to my Country, and to my gallant troops, to end this useless effusion of blood and human sacrifice. With profound regret and continued pride in my gallant troops, I go to meet the Japanese commander. Goodbye, Mr. President."

There was a feeling that the United States felt the troops were expendable. The truth was there was little anyone could do. The nation was not prepared to fight a war. In peacetime, the United States trimmed its military spending and diverted the money to social spending. The Bataan Death March was the price paid for the frugality of Washington.

For more than three years, they remained in captivity. Because of their rank, the generals received special mistreatment. The Japanese sent Wainwright elsewhere. In fact, it was the Soviet Army that liberated Wainwright from a prison camp in Manchuria.

Washington was concerned about Wainwright, whose words to FDR elicited guilt and sympathy. General George Marshall, the head of the American military, submitted Wainwright's name for a Medal of Honor on June 30, 1942.

MacArthur stunned everyone by objecting. He wrote, "The citation proposed does not represent the truth. As a relative matter award of the Medal of Honor to General Wainwright would be a grave injustice to a number of general officers of practically equally responsible positions who not only distinguished themselves by fully as great personal gallantry thereby earning the DSC but exhibited powers of leadership and inspiration to a degree greatly superior to that of General Wainwright thereby contributing much more to the stability of the command and to the successful conduct of the campaign. It would be a grave mistake which later on might well lead to embarrassing repercussions to make this award."

He had a point. Just what, I am not sure. Wainwright celebrated his 60th birthday in captivity (as General King would later) for this was a war in which no prisoners were exchanged.

MacArthur waded ashore to the cameras and returned as promised to the Philippines on October 25, 1944. The worst of the war was yet to come, particularly Iwo Jima. Finally, America nuked Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and ended the war. On August 19, 1945, Red Army soldiers liberated Wainwright, who flew to Yokohama, where MacArthur greeted him and hailed him as a hero. The reception surprised Wainwright.

Americans and Filipinos were not the only people to suffer abuse as Japanese POWs. British Lieutenant General Arthur Ernest Percival had surrendered Malaya and Singapore. At the formal surrender of the Japanese aboard the USS Missouri, MacArthur paused and told the audience, "Will General Wainwright and General Percival step forward and accompany me while I sign."

Gaunt and weak, Wainwright stood tall next to Percival as they witnessed the end of Imperial Japan.

Wainwright received the Medal of Honor. King received his second Distinguished Service Medal. Percival received the scorn of his colleagues. Perhaps he should have whistled the "Colonel Bogey March."

Wainwright died on September 2, 1953, the eighth anniversary of the formal surrender. They buried him in Section 1 in Arlington next to his father. Later his wife joined him. It is a place of rare honor and includes General Pershing. The Army in 1961 named a post in Alaska Fort Wainwright.

King left the military shortly after the war and returned to Georgia, where he became a Red Cross volunteer. He died on August 31, 1958, and is buried at the Cemetery of St. John in the Wilderness Episcopal Church, in Flat Rock, North Carolina.

Percival stayed in the military but because of his surrender, he was denied a knighthood that is usually commensurate to his rank. But he fought for just compensation for his men, who received £5 million from the frozen Japanese assets thanks to his efforts.

He also led the protest against the film "The Bridge on the River Kwai" in 1957, forcing producers to clearly label it a work of fiction. The idea of tortured POWs whistling while they worked is positively Disney, except Walt Disney was too smart to make light of such suffering.

Percival died on January 31, 1966, and was eulogized by Leonard Wilson, formerly the Bishop of Singapore.

In Las Cruces, New Mexico, they erected a memorial to the men who marched in the Bataan Death March. It features a statue of three soldiers, and 40 footprints in each direction, the footprints of men who marched. Freedom isn't free, and when you go cheap in defending it, good men suffer.


I am publishing collections of the best in this series of Exceptional Americans, with the second volume published on September 1.

Which is better? "Exceptional Americans 1" or the new book, "Exceptional Americans 2"?

Buy both and tell me.


  1. If you want to keep the peace, prepare for war. We never seem to learn that lesson. Reagan knew it and the Dimocrats derided him for it. After all, what did he do? He only won the Cold War that the Dimocrats, led by "the lion of the Senate", Ted "the Floater" Kennedy, wanted to lose. Are Dimocrats naive, traitorous, or just stupid?

    1. To your last question, the answer is "Yes".

    2. All three, plus duplicitous.

  2. A most excellent vignette, Don. Most excellent.

  3. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.