The Causes of the Bataan Death March Revisited

By  Jim Nelson

The fall of the Philippines was the largest defeat of an American armed force in the history of the United States, and the Bataan Death March was the most brutal series of war crimes ever committed against surrendering American or Philippine soldiers.  The International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE), the Pacific War’s equivalent of the Nuremburg trials formally established the general extent and kind of atrocities committed by Japanese troops but did not fully determine all of the causes that contributed to the Death March. To some degree the IMTFE’s inability to find and understand all of the causal factors led to a situation in which some of the less culpable were executed and some of the most culpable escaped justice. 

The objective of this article is to briefly delineate the extent and nature of these atrocities and then to examine in greater detail the multiple causes of the Death March.  The article draws from older analyses of Death March causes such as Stanley L. Falk’s excellent, Bataan: The March of Death and will be drawing from previously untranslated Japanese sources which offer several significant and new perspectives on what caused the horrors of the Bataan Death March. Taken together it is hoped the reader will derive a better understanding of the whys of the Death March including the cultural, competence, conspiratorial, personality, and political factors that came together on April 9, 1942, in Bataan to create one of the most shocking crimes of World War II.

The Extent of the Atrocities

In addition to the Tribunal records, various historians have tried with varying degrees of success to determine the extent of atrocities.  I say tried because the fog of battle and other factors make determining the exact scale of the atrocities impossible. The Death March lasted for nearly three weeks starting on April 9, 1942, the day Major General
Edward King Jr. surrendered, until virtually all the POWs were relocated in Camp
O’Donnell, the final destination of the Death March, by about May 1, 1942.

We know that the bulk of American and Philippine troops on Luzon retreated to Bataan along with somewhere between 20,000 to 30,000 Filipino civilians.  The generally cited number of civilians is usually 26,000. The estimates on the number of Filipino and American troops captured also vary greatly. The number of Americans captured on Bataan ranges from a low of about 9,000 to a high of about 15,000, and the estimates of the number of Americans killed during the Death March ranges from a low of 600 to a high of 1,500.  The Philippine troops faired much worse.  There were between 60,000 and 70,000 Philippine troops on Bataan at the time of the surrender.  Of those, estimates range from as few as 5,000 to as many as 25,000 who never reached Camp O’Donnell. The generally accepted total number of defenders on Bataan at the start of the Japanese final offensive is about 78,000. The generally accepted number of POWs who arrived at Camp O’Donnell is about 55,000 leading to the generally accepted number of POWs who died during the March at about 20,000.  However, the estimates of how many troops were captured, how many arrived at Camp O’Donnell and how many died varies because:

  • An undetermined number of Philippine troops simply melted back into the general population on Bataan.
  • On Bataan, record keeping was hampered by the often ad hoc assembly of new units composed of stranded airmen and sailors fighting as infantry.
  • When comparing regimental rosters to histories and veteran commentaries, the rosters were inaccurate given the disbursement of the troops, the dense jungle on Bataan, and the lack of dependable communications.
  • No single review of all existing rosters has been made in an effort to extrapolate percentages of how many men died or were wounded prior to the surrender.
  • The organizational structure of units captured had already begun to come apart during their disorganized retreat down the Peninsula, and came further apart after the surrender when officers were separated from their men by the Japanese or by circumstance. Further, the units became so intermingled captives might not know anyone else in their column on the march north to San Fernando.
  • POWs were considered the responsibility of field commanders until they reached a POW camp. Then the POWs were transferred to the control of the Prisoner of War Management Office (Furyo Kanribu) that shared its small staff with the Prisoner of War Information Bureau (Furyo Johokyoku) whose responsibility it was to compile rosters of Prisoners.  As a result, no accurate POW numbers were available prior to and for quite some time after the March even though American officers did try to make estimates of how many men were in Camp O’Donnell.
  • The Japanese Camp Commander began trying to assemble a count of the prisoners in his charge, but prisoners arriving over the course of three weeks and a large number were dying in the camp making this task difficult.
  •  An undetermined number of American and Filipino troops refused to surrender and escaped to Corregidor Island or escaped into the mountains to become guerilla forces.

Without an exact number of those captured and an exact number of those who arrived at Camp O’Donnell the death toll of the March will forever remain the subject of debate.

The Nature of the Atrocities

Mortality during the Death March came in all forms.  First, there were “natural causes.” The men on Bataan had been on starvation rations for four months and Bataan was rife with Malaria and Dysentery.  As a result those captured by the Japanese were in terrible physical condition. Dehydration, sunstroke, disease, exhaustion or wounds, causing men to fall out of the line of march which in most cases was a death sentence since there were too few guards and many, rather than chance their prisoners escaping, bayoneted or shot them where they fell. Some groups had no water for days and died of dehydration.  Japanese trucks or tanks moving south on the same road deliberately ran some down.  Some were killed or knocked unconscious by blows to the head by Japanese troops in the passing trucks.  While Japanese enlisted men used their bayonets on prisoners, Japanese officers used their swords to behead prisoners.  Some men were killed for no reason, some were killed because they did not follow orders from the guards given in Japanese, and some were killed because they refused to give up rings or other valuables in their possession. 

Ironically, any POW caught with any Japanese battle souvenirs on him was immediately killed.  In one case a Japanese officer killed a man for his Mickey Mouse Watch.  Men were buried alive or were forced at gunpoint to kill their own comrades by guards. There was one case of mass murder where approximately 400 Philippine soldiers from the 91st Division were lined up, given cigarettes and then massacred by men from the Japanese 65th Brigade; more on that later.  Morbidity and in many cases additional deaths after the March were caused by beatings, untreated wounds, or additional wounds inflicted during the March.  Unsanitary conditions at rest points caused further spread of tropical diseases like dysentery. These were the nature of the crimes.

In the Past

Prior to World War II, Japan had a reputation for properly treating its prisoners of war.  Russian prisoners of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 and German prisoners from World War I generally remarked about the good treatment they had received from the Japanese.  During World War I, Japan captured approximately 4,500 German prisoners and held them in 15 camps on the Home Islands.  Probably the best known of those camps was Naruto’s fenceless Bando Camp where German POWs mingled with the local population exchanging ideas from animal husbandry to philosophy while drinking beer and eating sausages at picnics and attending concerts with Japanese and German music.  Granted most camps were not that idyllic.  Some POWs were poorly treated in a few camps, but there is no evidence of ill treatment even approaching that committed in World War II.

During the Meiji restoration, Japan was trying to break out of its isolation and trying to catch up with Europe and the United States in terms of technology, military capability and was becoming more of a world citizen including active participation in the rules of warfare.  Japan signed and ratified the Hague Convention of 1907 including its provisions for Prisoners of War and was one of the Convention’s enforcement countries. Although Japan signed both the Red Cross and the Geneva POW Conventions in 1929, the Privy Council, due to opposition from the Japanese military, did not ratify the Conventions.  Nonetheless, Japan scrupulously adhered to the Hague Conventions prior to World War II and almost completely disregarded them in the attack on China and in World War II.

The Japanese Army and Navy General Staff had a series of rationales for not adhering to these agreements according to Keijiro Ohtani in his book Horyo ( POWs).  

·        Since there would be no Japanese POWs because all Japanese were expected to die before capture, they thought the agreements were one-sided.

·        They were afraid that the Red Cross representatives who were allowed to visit with POWs privately might be spies.

·        They were afraid that if they treated prisoners according to the Conventions, American pilots would be able to do one-way missions from greater ranges subjecting the home islands to bombing.

·        Finally, they felt that if they had to treat POWs according to the Conventions they would have to treat them better than they treated their own soldiers, but more on that later as well.

But, what so dramatically changed Japanese attitudes and behavior toward Prisoners of War?

 2nd Class World Citizen  

Some theorize that one of the causes for the change in the treatment of American POWs resulted from the Japanese claims that they were insulted by the Portsmouth Treaty which had been mediated by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt to end the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, or the American passage of blatantly racist land and immigration laws in the 1920’s, or the “5-5-3 Battleship ratio” in the 1922 Washington Naval Disarmament Conference, or all three. These hot buttons were propagandized by the Japanese militarists in an effort to stir up hate toward the United States, so they may have contributed to some lesser degree to the change of attitude regarding POWs.  However, there was no effort to single out Americans for harsher treatment than that received by the British and other white POWs.  In fact the treatment of Chinese POWs was worse, so it is likely that their direct effect was minimal.

The Shame of Surrender Codified

Kenjiro Ohtani argues more effectively that for a Japanese soldier being captured was literally a fate worse than death that placed a permanent stain of great shame not only on the soldier but also on his entire family.  He traced this concept back in Japanese history and found references to it that harkened back to the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1868).  But again, this tradition existed prior to both the Russo- Japanese War and World War I.  So what had changed?  Ohtani points out that during the interwar years between World War I and World War II, Japanese Army leaders saw advantage in having every soldier fight to the death and codified the shamefulness of capture in the Senjin Kun (Ethics in Battle) manual that began being issued to Japanese troops as early as January of 1941, although some troops didn’t see a copy until as late as 1943. 

The stated purpose of the manual was to attempt to prevent another Nanking Massacre where hundreds of thousands of Chinese were systematically murdered and raped when Japanese troops went on a rampage after capturing the city.  But the manual’s heavy emphasis that surrender was so shameful that killing one’s self was the preferred course of action in the event capture was imminent, provided an irrefutable logic to Japanese soldiers that any enemy troops they captured were by virtue of their capture shameful sub-humans and deserving the harshest of treatment.  This perspective was probably magnified when the POWs, instead of being deeply ashamed of being captured, showed none of the terrible shame their captors expected making them even more reprehensible from the viewpoint of the Japanese soldier.

Cruelty Breeds Cruelty

The shame of capture was only one of several “cultural” aspects of the Japanese Army that led to atrocities.  The second aspect of the Japanese Army culture was its atrocious treatment of its own soldiers, treatment so appalling that it would have been condemned in all other combatant armies of the War with the possible exception of Russian and Chinese Armies whose troops were also frequently treated as cannon fodder.  The Army had corrupted the Bushido code where Samurai were respected and treated fairly by their liege lords and used the code as an excuse to abuse its own soldiers.  The Army high command realized that American and European armies were generally better equipped and better supplied than the Japanese Army.  To counterbalance these shortcomings the Army heavily promoted this new spirit of Bushido that expected that spirit would overcome the Army’s inability to provide the level of material support expected in other armies of the period and brutality would keep dissenters in line.  As a result public corporal punishment was not only allowed it was encouraged. 

The old story was that the Japanese Lieutenant, upset by criticism from his Captain, slapped and kicked the Sergeant, the Sergeant slapped and kicked the Corporal, the Corporal slapped and kicked the Private, and the Private went to the barn and slapped and kicked the horse.   American and Filipino soldiers were not subjected to this kind of treatment from officers or even non-coms. It was against American Army policy for officers or anyone else to go around beating up on those of lesser rank as a means to maintain discipline.  For the POWs, slapping, kicking, and beatings by the Japanese were unwarranted brutality.  For the Japanese soldier, it was a way of army life, and the more frustrated he became with prisoners who could not understand him or follow his orders, the more violent he became.

The POWs also replaced the horse as the bottom of the military hierarchy.  They often became the object of the Japanese enlisted man’s frustration, anger and retribution for past grievances and inequities real or imagined within his own Army.  The Japanese Private finally had someone lower on the totem pole that he could kick, slap, beat, torture and even kill with complete impunity.  Imagine the rush of power these formerly lowest of the low must have felt when put in charge of POWs.

The Other Side of the Culture Coin

Unlike the average Japanese citizen or soldier whose life was rather insular and more prone to the effects of militarist propaganda, another part of the Army culture that carried over from the Meiji period was to have officers make extended visits to Europe and the United States to study their cultures and military methods as part of the effort to rapidly bring Japan into the modern world.  For some officers this experience only hardened their ultra-conservative views that Europeans and American were rich, soft and complacent while other more open-minded officers including Lt. General Masaharu Homma carefully studied these other cultures and acquired an understanding of and respect for them. The world view of officers like Homma extended well beyond the narrow mindedness of their superiors in the ultra  militant Tosei (Control) faction. It was these officers of a more sophisticated and liberal bent that tried to counterbalance the excess of their fanatical comrades and leaders.  Unfortunately, for them their efforts often led to being relieved of command as was Homma and many of his staff for being “too soft” on the enemy.  Equally unfortunately for the POWs, their efforts to protect the POWs in their charge was overwhelmed by the fanatics. Were it not for these officers trying to mitigate the criminal behavior of their colleagues the fate of the POWs would undoubtedly been much worse.

The Propaganda of Hate

Add to this Army culture of violence the hate propaganda built into the Japanese soldier’s military education and training by ultra-conservative officers and the average Japanese soldier became a walking time bomb of brutality just waiting to explode.  Hate Europeans, hate Americans, hate other Asians who worked with or fought for their countries under white officers was a pervasive theme that poisoned the minds not only of soldiers but the Japanese population in general from children to the elderly.

During and after the war and even today, many Americans think the cruelties perpetrated on POWs were a flaw in the Japanese culture and cruel streak in the national character.  Attempts by Japanese government officials, educators and corporate leaders to disavow or minimize these atrocities continue to reinforce and harden that belief in the minds of many Americans and Europeans and among their fellow Asians. Of course, it is as ridiculous to characterize the Japanese people as cruel as it is to characterize all Americans as loud and uncouth, the French as arrogant, or the Germans as cold and uncaring.  National cultures are not cruel, loud, arrogant or cold, but individuals in those cultures are, and when cruel and heartless fanatics rise to power, take over the government of a country as the militant leaders of the Japanese Army did, they can corrupt the body politic as well as their own military institutions. 

Birds of a feather

Japan was not alone in having its long history of civilization corrupted by this wartime anomaly.  The Nazis did the same thing to Germany when they began touting Germanic racial purity and the Thousand Year Reich reigning over Europe.  They justified their invasion of other countries by creating sham attacks on their soil and citizens and justified other invasions by the supposed need for the innocent sounding lebensraum “living space.” Their hatred was directed primarily at Jews, the disabled, gypsies, Slavs and other unter-menchen (sub-humans) and anyone who did not agree with them.

In Japan, General Hideki Tojo and the Tosei faction were equally effective in promoting their ultra-conservation program after ruthlessly defeating the voices of moderation and liberalism and taking over the Japanese Government .  They touted the purity of the Yamato race and the concept of the Leading Nation (shido minozoku) fulfilling its destiny by putting “the eight corners of the world under one roof (hakko ichiu).”  They manufactured the Manchurian rail and Marco Polo Bridge incidents as excuses for the initial invasions to create the equally innocent sounding Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere (Dai Toa Kyoei-ken) in what was to be their first step to what they thought would be world domination.  Their wrath fell primarily on their conquered Asian brothers, particularly the Chinese, on their white military and civilian captives and on fellow Japanese who did not agree with them.  These right wing fanatics appealed to the basest of human instincts, and the Japanese people like the German people were manipulated into these aberrations and were brought to destruction by them.  This pervasive agenda of hate was also a major but indirect re-enforcer of the horrendous atrocities committed on POWs.  When you know your friends, your family and your society appear to totally support brutalizing prisoners, it becomes much easier to do.


In addition to the cultural effects of the militarists on the Japanese nation and Army there were also the personal characteristics and professional relationships between Japanese field grade and senior officers that played a major role in the atrocities that followed the Japanese victory over the American and Filipino troops on Bataan.  As mentioned before, General Homma, Commander of the 14th Army in the Philippines, was one of the more liberal and well traveled of the Japanese senior officers and was demonstrably opposed to the atrocities committed under his command.  Yet, after the war, it was he who was blamed for the war crimes committed by his troops in the Philippines and was executed by firing squad while the real culprits escaped justice.   Homma’s culpability was based mainly upon the fact that he was in overall command of the 14th Army.  Homma could also be accused of not paying close enough attention to both the details of the plan to remove the prisoners from Bataan and the control the subordinate officers who contravened his orders to treat the POWs kindly and encouraged their men to commit vicious atrocities.

Homma came from an affluent family on Sado Island and was known as the “Poet General.” He spoke excellent English and had a reputation for being a brilliant  tactician and organizer.   He was also described as sensitive, bookish, anti-social and an anglophile who believed that Japan should not go to war with England or the United States. The latter traits and the fact that his first wife turned to prostitution forcing him to divorce her, all worked against his career, but his intelligence and skill overshadowed his personal problems and political views and landed him the command of the 14th Army at the age of 54.  So, it is doubtful his intention was to create a series of atrocities that shocked the world.  This is especially true since he took reasonable steps to prevent the mistreatment of his prisoners and still meet his primary objective of getting the POWs out of his staging zone for his assault on Corregidor; more on that later.  

Homma’s Nemesis

Homma had several factors working against his effort to have the POW’s treated properly.  The first of these was his relationship with his superiors and some of his more fanatical subordinates who were conspiring to promote the atrocities he was seeking to avoid.

The problems began the day he was given command of the 14th Army according to  Masanori Ito’s Teikoku Rikugun no Saigo, Shinko-hen ( The Last of the Imperial Army- Advancement).  Ito describes Homma’s meeting with Army Chief of Staff Hajime Sugiyama in some detail.  In early November of 1941 Sugiyama secretly invited Lt. Generals Homma, Tomoyuki Yamashita and  Hitoshi Imamura to discuss the coming war with the United States and Britain and assign them to their new commands. Homma who felt that war with both of these powers was a mistake and had no lost love for Sugiyama.  He openly challenged him in front of the other officers saying, “Don’t you think it is too much to ask to capture Manila within fifty days of the outbreak of the war without any knowledge on the enemy strength and equipment, and that with the limited number of only two divisions? I think it is more appropriate to ask the opinion of the Army Commander after thoroughly studying the strength and preparedness on both sides.”  According to Itho, “Sugiyama became blue in the face… and his hands trembling with anger [as his] gentle look turned to a sour face.” He discharged every one of his pent-up emotions and said, “This is the conclusions based on the studies of the AGS.”

The ill will between Homma and Sugiyama increased during the campaign.  Initially, Homma was charged with taking Manila, at which point Sugiyama and his staff assumed the Fil-Americans would surrender.  Homma accomplished this charge in less than two weeks with Japanese troops landing on the Philippines on December 22 entering Manila on January 2, 1942.  According to reporter Masukichi Okada’s Nihon Rikugun Eiketsu-den (The Extraordinary Characters of the Imperial Army), Lt. General Masami Maeda, Homma’s Chief of Staff, wanted to stick to the original plan that if the American and Philippine troops retreated to Bataan they no longer posed a threat and Homma had met the strategic objective of keeping the Philippine forces from interfering with the primary thrust of the centrifugal advance, the capture of resources in the Dutch East Indies.

Maeda argued that rather than waste Japanese troops, Homma should simply keep the Americans and Filipinos blockaded in Bataan and wait for them to surrender or starve since they had no access to additional supplies or reinforcement, and Homma agreed with him.  Ironically, this same strategy was used by the Americans on the Japanese later in the war when he simply left surrounded Japanese island garrisons like Rabaul to wither on the vine and saving many American lives.

Sugiyama, however, was furious about American propaganda to the effect that the entire Japanese Army was unable to crush the heroic little band of Americans and Filipino’s holding out on Bataan.  In a fit of pique at what he saw as an insult to the Army he changed the original plan to simply cordon off Bataan.  He relieved and transferred Maeda and replaced him with Major General Takaji, Wachi, one of his cronies, and then demanded that Homma attack Bataan and defeat the Filipino–American force in detail.

Interestingly, Sugiyama was not the only one angry about this kind of propaganda. The troops on Bataan and Corregidor complained bitterly about William Winter’s radio broadcasts on KGEI in San Francisco who kept goading the Japanese by saying things like, “go ahead and try to bomb Corregidor.” They resented the false bravado of someone in the States urging the Japanese to do their worst when they were on the receiving end of the bombs and shells.  

Sugiyama’s demand to have Homma continue to attack Bataan changed Homma’s objective significantly.  Instead of defeating the defenders of the Philippines in a mobile running battle on the open Luzon plain where there were no fixed defenses, he was now faced with attacking a well-entrenched foe fighting for its very survival.  To further complicate his problems his 5th Air Group, the equivalent of a U.S. Numbered Air Force, was transferred to Burma and the experienced 48th Division, his best division, was transferred to the 16th Army for its attack on Java.  The 48th Division was replaced by what had been described as a “garrison force” of the 65th Brigade.

Sugiyama was also holding him to the 50-day deadline not just to capture Manila but also to capture all of the Philippines.   As the 14th Army slammed up against the defenses in Bataan, he lacked the manpower and artillery to succeed.  Under these conditions he was forced to go, hat in hand, to seek reinforcements, which Sugiyama gave him but only after several attempts to dislodge the defenders failed.  At this point Homma had lost a great deal of face since he was now well past the 50 day deadline.

Sugiyama even tried to get him to commit suicide by authoring and sending him a missive under the Emperor’s name. Had it actually been from the Emperor Homma’s only course of action would have been to die at his own hand.  There were even rumors circulating among the Filipinos and Americans that Homma had committed seppku, ritual suicide, due to his inability to crush the Bataan defenders. To heap insult upon injury, Sugiyama and his High Command entourage decided to pay Homma a visit and flew to Manila on April 3, 1942.

Sugiyama and the General Staff arriving in Manila

Friday, April 3, was also the anniversary of the death of the first Japanese Emperor Jimmu and the date Homma, now reinforced, opened his final offensive to take Bataan, known by the Americans as the Easter Offensive. Although Homma felt the offensive would take a month, Bataan’s diseased defenders, out of food and out of ammunition only lasted six more days before General King surrendered. 

As soon as Sugiyama arrived in Manila, he immediately castigated Homma for his leniency toward the Philippine people and praised the cruel treatment meted out to the citizens of Singapore.  He thought that the Filipino’s were  “disobedient and uncooperative” according to Hisashi Oide in his biography of Col. Masanobu Tsuji titled Sakusen-sambo (Operation Staff Officer).  Sugiyama “complained bitterly” to Tsuji and Col. Takushiro Hattori, the Chief of General Staff’s Operations Department, and others that this lack of servile respect he wanted was all because “Homma is too lenient.”   To make sure that his desire for harsher treatment of both POWs and civilians would be carried out, Sugiyama ordered Col. Tsuji to the Philippines.

The God of Operations

Putting Tsuji in Manila may not have seemed significant without knowing Tsuji’s background.  Born the son of a humble charcoal maker in Ishikawa Prefecture on an uncertain date at the turn of the century, Tsuji proved to be a brilliant student at the Nagoya Yonen Gakko military school and went on the Military Academy in Tokyo, graduated from the Japanese War College and was attached to the Army General Staff in 1921.  A rabid ultra-conservative from the start, he immediately hooked up with Tojo’s Tosei  faction and proved to be an adept conspirator in the defeat of other factions and in helping bring the likes of Tojo, Sugiyama, and Lt. General Renya Mutaguchi to power.  He could easily be characterized as a fanatical genius.

How fanatical? In the 30’s he divorced his wife and left her and his children to commit his life completely to the Tosei faction’s objective of putting the militarists in charge of the Nation. He believed his enemies could not kill him. As a precursor to the POW  “Hellships,” in June of 1941 while training troops for the Malay invasion, “he packed thousands of fully equipped Japanese soldiers into the sweltering holds of ships, three to a tatami [a 3X6 foot flooring mat] and kept them there for a week with little water.”  This was done just to see how many would be able to still fight when they were let out according to a web biography of Tsuji at www.


Meirion and Susan Harries in their book Soldiers of the Sun accurately described him as an “exceptionally intelligent staff officer with a flair for operational planning--- talent vitiated by megalomaniac ambition, violent prejudices, and a ruthless disregard for human life.” They also characterize him as one of the “death and glory eccentrics” who were so popular with Tojo and the Army General Staff and the “most outstanding example” of  "gekokujo," the Japanese version of the young Turks which literally translated means the victory of inferiors over superiors. Gekokujo consisted of Army officers in their 30’s who were “too impatient, immoderate and ambitious,” and who were in the habit of taking matters into their own hands in their efforts to promote their views of what the Army and nation should be.   General  Imamura, arguably Japan’s most capable General, “ saw the genius in Tsuji---- but also the madman” according to John Tolland in his book The Rising Sun.


Tsuji was an instigator in Maj. Gen. Ryukichi Tanaka’s 1932 Shanghai incident contrived to inflame Japanese hatred for the Chinese according Sogo Takagi, the biographer of Japanese Zen Master Gempo who was the spiritual leader of the militarists in Manchuria.  It was also Tsuji’s habit to turn on former superiors, and it wasn’t long before he turned against Tanaka.  When Tanaka published an article in a Tokyo officers club magazine arguing that Japan would lose a war with the United States, “Tsuji publicly called him a coward” according to Oide’s reading of Tanaka’s Rivalry History of the Japanese Military Clique.


According to Oide, Tsuji’s also called pre-war Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoye “Japan’s number one coward” for entertaining efforts to peacefully resolve Japanese American differences.  David Bergamini in his Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy, claims that Tsuji went even further, wanting Konoye killed and became one of the planners of the “railroad bomb” plot. The plotters intended to kill Konoye by setting off a bomb on a scheduled trip from Toyko to Yokosuka, but Konoye resigned and Tojo took over as Prime Minister making the assassination unnecessary.


On a more personal level he, like many of the Nazi leaders, was an ascetic.  He derided other officers for their interests in comfortable quarters, night clubs, prostitutes or anything else that might distract them from what he thought should be their only purpose in life, making war. He was reputed to have once set fire to a giesha house full of officers to correct their thinking.  On another occasion he turned in one of his colleagues for corruption to the military police, and that officer committed suicide.  When another officer was looking for Tsuji, he was told, “Oh, that crazy man lives in a filthy little room behind the stables.”


Tsuji was a “war lover,” and as war approached, he re-dedicated his life starting it and waging it without mercy on those he saw as enemies, both foreign and domestic.  War for war’s sake suited him perfectly and he constantly pressed for war first against the Russians, and then after the Japanese were defeated by Zhukov in the Nomonhan Incident, he turned his sights on starting a war with the Americans and British. He believed that anyone who wanted peace should be immediately sent to the front lines as punishment.


Just before the start of the war Tsuji was responsible for planning the Malay portion of  “Strike South.”   He even did some of his own reconnaissance by air and spying on the ground.  He was then attached to General Yamashita’s 25th Army as deputy chief operations officer where he earned the nickname “god of operations,” and took total credit for the campaign even though he was only the Deputy planner.  Some of his fellow officers claimed it was less his planning skill and more his connections that allowed him to strip the Japanese Army of its best units for the attack on Singapore.


Once Singapore fell, Tsuji quickly demonstrated his willingness to commit war crimes as the officer responsible for ordering the Sook Ching or Operation Clean Up incident.  Under the guise of preemptory attack against possible Chinese Communist guerillas, he drafted the orders to kill somewhere between 3,000 and 10,000 Chinese residents of Singapore.  This fact clearly demonstrates he was both predisposed to and fully capable of initiating the most unspeakable of atrocities when he felt they suited his purposes.  Even though the killing went on for nearly a month, Yamashita and his staff only learned of Tsuji’s actions well after the fact since the 25th army had been moved to Sumatra leaving only an occupation force in Singapore.



With Malice of Forethought


By the time Tsuji was ordered to the Philippines, his star was rapidly on the rise.   His planning of the Malaya campaign had won him the gift of a sword from the Emperor, the highest of honor a Japanese soldier could receive.  In the meantime, Homma’s star was rapidly waning, Sugiyama wanted to relieve Homma before the end of the Philippine Campaign and and in August 1942 he did, and Homma was never given another command.


Almost as soon as the “god of operations” arrived in Homma’s headquarters, a rumor campaign attributed to Tsuji and the true believers who followed him began according to numerous sources both Japanese and American.   It intimated to Homma’s other officers and men that Sugiyama thought that all Bataan POWs should be killed, the Americans because they were colonialists who exploited Asians and the Filipinos because they had betrayed their fellow Asians by supporting the Americans.   Examples needed to be made of those who resisted the will of Japan. Tsuji further rationalized that dead prisoners required less time, energy and resources to be drawn away from the real objective of driving the defenders of Corregidor into the sea. 


As soon as Bataan fell, Tsuji began using one of the tricks he had gotten away with in the past.  He and his followers began calling officers in the field and ordering them to kill all the prisoners under their control, attributing these orders to Sugiyama and the Army General Staff.  Most senior officers disregarded these “orders.” Col.Takeo Imai of the 141st Infantry received a call from Lt. Col. Umeichi Matsunaga saying orders from the Army General Staff via Tsuji were to shoot any prisoners he had under his control.  Imai demanded written orders and just in case written orders did arrive, he had the Filipino and American forces under his control disarmed and released them sending them up the main road to Balanga under their own recognizance.  In that way he had no prisoners to shoot.  Another Tsuji follower, Major Masayoshi Towatari, phoned Captain Sokoichi Fujita that his unit, the 142nd Infantry, was to annihilate the POWs.  Fjita refused outright and demanded a Court Marshal for refusing to obey the order.  About an hour later Towatari, called him back and rescinded the order fearing a Court Marshal might expose Tsuji’s entire plot to have the prisoners murdered.


Unfortunately, Tsuji’s fake orders did not always fall on deaf ears.  Both the 141st and 142nd infantry regiments were from the 65th Brigade as was the 122nd.  It was troops from the 65th Brigade, probably from the 122nd, that did follow the false orders and proceeded to tie and line up about 400 Filipino soldiers from the 91st Division. The officers started decapitating them with their swords on one end of the line, and the enlisted men started bayoneting them to death starting on the other end.


Tsuji also urged the assassination of Filipino political leaders including Jose Santos, a justice of the Philippine Supreme Court, who was hung, and Manual Roxas who escaped Tsuji’s clutches and became the President of the Philippines immediately after the war.


Tsuji’s campaign to murder the prisoners may have been rejected by some senior and middle grade officers, but the rumors that Tsuji was in charge of the POW operation and that he was acting on orders directly from the Sugiyama permeated the ranks.  The junior officers, guards and other Japanese troops moving south for the attack on Corregidor who were already predisposed to killing prisoners thought the rumors gave them license to commit atrocities with impunity.  Those Japanese troops and junior officers who had not swallowed the fanatic views of Tsuji and his fellow conspirators paid little attention to this  “belly talk,” and treated POWs decently in at least one case allowing them to ride in trucks to the rail head at San Fernando and providing them with or allowing them to seek food and water. Therefore, it would be unfair and inaccurate to characterize all Japanese troops who were in contact with the POWs as murderous brutes.  The majority, who were brutes, committed atrocities on such a large and horrible scale during the Bataan Death March that their actions have completely overshadowed any acts of Japanese kindness and civility toward their captives.


Some closing notes on Tsuji


Tsuji had a well-earned reputation for fearlessness in battle, but after Japan surrendered, this advocate of having others die or commit atrocities for their country, donned the robes of a Buddhist monk to hide from British and American War Crimes Prosecutors.  His fellow conspirator in the Bataan Death March atrocities, Sugiyama, shot himself in the head and his wife took a dagger to her throat because they could not bare the shame of surrender.  Tsuji, still a hard-core rightist, went to work for a new master, Chang Kaishek, where he applied his planning skills to the killing of Chinese Communists before returning to Japan.


In Japan in 1952 Tsuji came out of hiding and published his escape memoir Underground Escape: 7500 Leagues in Disguise which was a best seller, and he rode his new found popularity to a seat in the lower then upper house of the Japanese Diet in the oddly named far right Liberal Democratic Party which to this day promotes neither liberalism nor democracy.  In 1959 he was tossed out of the LDP for being too far right and for turning on the party leader and fellow war criminal Nobusuke Kishi.  He then was back to spying again and made a trip to Indochina supposedly on behalf of Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda.  He was last seen leaving Vientiane Laos for Hanoi on April 20, 1961, and was never seen or heard from again leading to all kinds of speculation as to his fate and a further of the far right’s mythologizing of the “god of operations.” 



Deja Vu


One of the two Divisions initially assigned to form Homma’s 14th Army was the notorious 16th Division that had participated in the Rape of Nanking where an estimated 40,000 Chinese POWs and as many as 240,000 civilians were murdered.  It was the first case where mid to lower ranking Japanese officers allowed their troops to run amok on both civilians and prisoners of war and caused an avalanche of protest from governments around the world including even Hitler’s Germany. Although the Commanding General Iwane Matsui wanted the perpetrators punished to show that soldiers of the Japanese Army were not barbarians, no punishment was meted out until after the war. As was the case with Homma, it was Matsui who paid the butcher’s bill and not the lower ranked officers who were actually responsible for controlling their troops.  Having troops accustomed to committing atrocities on a massive scale with complete immunity for their crimes on Bataan certainly did not contribute to any reduction in atrocities.



Crimes of Passion


No army is immune from atrocities resulting from the heat of battle.  Soldiers having fought for hard won ground where many of their friends and comrades were killed have a natural tendency to seek retribution on opponents trying to surrender when their position is about to be overrun.  Killings of this kind are often overlooked and only very rarely in modern war become wholesale slaughter of men already in captivity.  Nonetheless, this in addition to Tsuji’s urging was a possible reason for the slaughter of the 400 men in the Philippine 91st Division by men from the Japanese 65th Brigade. The 65th had probably suffered more than any other Japanese unit in the campaign.  According to Chiyomi Toyota, his platoon of the 141st Infantry of the 65th received it’s first re-supply of food in six days on April 9, the day Bataan surrendered, and  70 % of his Company were killed leaving him as the only surviving platoon leader.  


During the Easter Offensive, losses by the 65th were dramatically increased when an attempted counter attack by the Philippine 41st Division caught some units of the 65th Brigade napping and reeked havoc on them before being forced back.  So it is possible the Japanese survivors of that attack mistakenly took out their anger on the 91st  Division, which was operating in the same area.  However, the calm premeditated manner in which this mass execution took place is more indicative of an ordered execution than one committed out of the rage of the moment.  In addition to the massacre, there were also reports of the shooting of individuals and small groups of men as they tried to surrender, and those seem to fit better into the crime of passion rubric.


Incompetence and Bad Luck


According to American Historian Stan Falk in his Bataan: The March of Death, Homma formed a planning group consisting of Maj. Gen. Yoshikata Kawane, his Transportation Officer; Col. Toshimitsu Takatsu, his Logistics Officer; Major Moriya Wada, Takatsu’s Deputy for Supply; Major Hisashi Sekiguchi, from the Medical Corps; and a Lt. who was responsible for well digging to assure there would be sufficient water for the POW march out of Homma’s zone of operations.  They presented Homma with what appeared at first blush to be a workable plan to provide POWs with food, water, medical care and transport for the wounded on their 65-mile journey out of Bataan. Per Homma’s directive, the plan basically conformed to the POW section of the Geneva Convention.  However, due to a combination of bad luck, neglect, and incompetence on the part of a number of Homma’s officers, the plan failed miserably.

The Major Objective

First, Sugiyama’s changes to Homma’s objective while holding him to the 50-day deadline put both Homma and his staff under tremendous pressure to end the campaign quickly.  When Bataan fell, he was already on day 122 and he still had to take Corregidor.  It was taking him more than twice as long as Sugiyama wanted, and Homma had only accomplished part of his objective. In addition to being way behind Sugiyama’s schedule Homma also had to ask for additional troops and resources and that meant that they had to be taken from other units, further slowing the overall “Centrifugal Advance” in other parts of Asia.  Therefore, his primary objective was crushing Corregidor as quickly as possible, and even with reinforcements and his best effort, it still took him a month more to get Lt. General Jonathan Wainwright to surrender the Philippine command.  The planning to remove the POWs by Homma’s officers was done in addition to normal duties and as a result took an understandably lower priority to Homma’s primary objective taking Corregidor.  The plan looked good on paper but contained several serious flaws.

How Many? How Long?

The first and most significant of these can be attributed to Lt. Col. Hikaru Haba Homma’s intelligence officer.  Based on enemy troop strength and fitness estimates provided by Haba, Homma expected it would take a month to finish off the defenders on Bataan.  It actually took only six days for his reinforced 14th Army to shatter General King’s line.  Based on the one-month timeline, the planners thought they would have plenty of time to put the plan in place and would be ready to implement it by the third week of April, two weeks too late.  As a result, they attempted to implement the plan with only a fraction of the resources they needed in place. 

Second, Haba estimated that there were as few as 25,000 and certainly not more than 40,000 defenders when in fact the number was approximately 78,000, nearly double Haba’s estimate, and the plan was based on his 40,000 prisoner estimate.

Third, according to Homma, Haba had also either failed to accurately assess the fitness of the defenders or neglected to notify him about their fitness, so neither he nor the planners knew the enemy was on its last legs.  The defenders had been on less than quarter rations for more than a month and were riddled by tropical diseases for which southern Bataan was so notorious.  As a result, the plan was based in part on how far a healthy well-fed Japanese soldier could be expected to march in one day, 25 miles, and in part on Homma’s desire to meet the Geneva Convention standard which specified no more than 12 miles. Food and water supplies were supposed to be placed at approximately those intervals on the March.

Side Show

Since Homma’s action in the Philippines was considered by Sugiyama and the Army General Staff as a sideshow for the real objective East Indies oil and rubber and possibly because  the feud between them, he had short shrift for supplies and medicines.  Therefore, his troops often went hungry and without adequate medical care. Because of the food shortage, rations for Homma’s troops were reduced to as little as 35 ounces per day, only a third higher than the Americans who were barely staying alive after a month on only 21 ounces.  Therefore, giving food to POWs was widely resented by the Japanese soldiers. In fact, the 14th Army’s shortage of food was at least a partial cause for Japanese troops to taking as much of the meager Fil-American supply food they could find in depots and on individual prisoners.   According to the plan the POWs would have enough of their own rations left for them to march to reach Balanga.  It didn’t take into account that the POWs were being systematically looted of nearly all of their possessions by Japanese troops before and during the March, so virtually none had food and few had water.  The POWs considered themselves lucky if they were able to retain their canteen, mess kit, shoes and a hat to stave off the 110 degree heat. It was also not long before the Japanese relieved many captured doctors of their medical supplies and equipment.  This had  an immediate effect on the care they could provide. Later the lack of medical supplies and equipment increased the death toll among POWs during the March and  later in the camps where 1,600 Americans and about 20,000 more Filipinos died during their three to five weeks at Camp O’Donnell.    

The command and control of the POW evacuations also collapsed almost as soon as the March started.  The responsibility for command of the POW exodus was split between two officers.  Col. Toshimitsu Takatsu was in charge of organizing the prisoners and guards and moving the POWs to Balanga. POWs traveling from the southern tip of Bataan in Mariveles would be walking nearly 30 miles to reach Balanga whereas others could be walking as few as 10 miles with no food and in some cases no water.  At Balanga, Maj. Gen. Kawane then assumed responsibility for moving the POWs to San Fernando, 31 miles away. He was supposed to set up facilities to feed, water and see to the medical needs of the POWs on the trip up Route 7 at Orani, eight miles north of Balanga, and then at Lubao 15 miles north of Orani.  They would march another eight miles to the San Fernando railhead.   There were to be two hospital accommodating 1,000 POWs at Blanga and at San Fernando. 


From San Fernando the POWs would be packed into narrow gage freight cars, 100 to a car that was designed to hold 40, and shipped by rail to a siding near Camp O’Donnell. But communications between the two responsible officers were poor to nonexistent, and neither knew what the other was or was not doing with the POWs.  In the meantime, Homma, who was busy with his preparations to attack Corregidor, left the POW problems to his subordinates after issuing an order to the entire command that Japanese soldiers must treat the POWs with a “friendly spirit.” When a group of war artists and photographers saw what was actually happening during the March and reported it to Homma he immediately sent Major General Takaji Wachi, his Chief of Staff orders to do what he could to help the POWs according to  Ito.    But by then it was too late, the plan collapsed, and chaos had already taken over.



In Conclusion


Like all disasters, the Bataan Death March was ultimately the result of many contributory factors coming together to create a catastrophic event.   Most Americans who are only passingly familiar with the Death March seem to assume that it was the result of some planned extermination of  POWs, but beyond Col. Tsuji’s efforts to have all of the POWs killed, there is no evidence that supports the contention that Homma had a plan to systematically  torture and murder the POWs. The propagandized attitudes of most Japanese soldiers and failure of the 14th Army’s high command to implement a workable plan to remove the prisoners from Bataan were the main contributors that caused the March to become a nightmarish chaos of atrocities.


A few Japanese officers loaded their captives into trucks, and they rode all the way to San Fernando without any problems.  Others marched the POWs north toward Balanga and then turned around and marched back to Mariveles and then turned around again and marched back north with almost no food or water.  Some guards allowed their captives to stop regularly for water. Other guards refused POWs water and shot or bayoneted anyone who tried to get water at the artesian wells and springs along the road.  Some left those too weak or sick to march to rest and rejoin the next group of prisoners moving north or placed them in trucks.  Many others killed anyone who could not keep up.   Some officers used prisoners for sword practice while others gave captured officers cigarettes and casually talked about how much they enjoyed their time in the U.S. before the war.  As was mentioned before, some officers simply disarmed their prisoners and left them to their own devices to get to Balanga. Others lined prisoners up and murdered them.


An excellent example of this schizophrenic behavior was what happened at the two Fil –American hospitals on Bataan.  Once Col. Motoo Nakayama saw that wounded Japanese had been well treated, the doctors at Hospital One were allowed to continue on with their business for two and a half months after the surrender virtually unmolested.   Hospital Two’s experience was almost the complete opposite. Interestingly, it was  Sekiguchi, the medical corps officer who Homma had delegated to plan the removal of prisoners, who was in charge of Hospital Two.  Japanese troops who were supposed to be guarding the hospital were allowed to take the patients’ food and looted medicines, medical equipment, doctors and patients’ personal belongings and destroyed medical records. A female patient was raped, and the patients were used as human shields when the Japanese surrounded the hospital with their artillery to keep the batteries on Corregidor from firing back for fear of hitting the hospital.  And so it went on like this for three weeks.


Many of the veterans who were participants in the Bataan Death March on both sides are gone and past caring about its causes, but the people of Japan and of the United States need to understand what happened and why it happened if we are to help keep these kinds of crimes from happening again in our societies or in the societies of others.  Perhaps then, the advocates of hate will be curbed before they go on more rampages of death against the helpless and innocent.  Those who disregard their history are bound to repeat it.




A Personal Note About this Article

Two years ago I began writing a book about my father’s experiences on Corregidor and as a prisoner of war of the Japanese.   As I dug deeper into the causes of Japan’s brutal treatment of Allied POWs, I came across Kinue Tokudome’s website at: After a steady diet of articles about how the Japanese Government and Japanese Corporations refused to recognize the atrocities my father had experienced, I was surprised to see a website where Japanese were actually trying to understand what had really happened to the POWs during Japan’s Centrifugal Advance.  My faith in fellow humans was restored knowing there were people in Japan who accepted the fact that atrocities had occurred and who were making a concerted effort to better understand the unvarnished truth about what really happened to Allied Prisoners of War in Japanese hands.  I soon began corresponding with Kinue trying to better understand the Japanese perspective on what had happened to my dad.

As my questions became more esoteric, she referred me to Kan Sugahara, a veritable man for all seasons, who attended the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy during World War II, is an excellent translator and editor, and a student of Japanese Naval History.  Although my questions were mainly about the Japanese Army and outside his expertise, Kan graciously offered to find and translate portions of untranslated Japanese books and documents that related to the causes of the Death March.  Each translation seemed to lead to more questions and more translations until I realized that a number of the facts Kan was unearthing from these previously untranslated Japanese documents were providing me with new and very different perspectives than those in the generally accepted history about the Philippine Campaign of 1941/42 and its aftermath.   I believed that unless I shared the perspectives that Kan was unearthing I would be depriving other American historians and the veterans who were on the receiving end of those atrocities a better understanding of the dynamics that caused horrors like the Bataan Death March. Without Kan’s and Kinue’s help this article would never have been written and these new perspectives would continue to remain hidden from anyone not fluent in Japanese.


My father, John Tillman Nelson (1923-2005)

Posted on August 21. 2005.        

Pleaser read also  Mr. Nelson's Japan Trip




Japanese Sources

Japanese Book and Document sources translated by Kan Sugahara

Ohtani, Keijiro , Horyo (Prisoners of War), Tosho Shuppan Company Ltd. 1978

Sugimori, Hisao, Tsuji Masanobu, Bungei-shunju, 1963

Oide, Hisashi, Sakusen-sambo (Operation Staff Officer),  Kojin-sha, March 2003

Okada,  Masukichi  Nihon Rikgun Eiketsu-den  (The Extraordinary Characters of the Imperial Army)
Ito, Masanori, Teikoku Rikugun no Saigo, Shinko-hen (The last of the Imperial Army Advancement), Kojin-sha, February 1998

Information provided by Yuka Ibuki

Yuka Ibuki Interview with: Chiyomi Toyota

Takeo Imai, kayu-kai Senshi, Former 65th Brigade 141st Infantry Regiment, Kaiko-Bunko, 1977  

American and British Print Sources

Bergamini, David, Japan's Imperial Conspiracy How Emperor Hirohito led Japan into war against the West,  William Morrow & Co., 1971.

Daws, Gavan, Prisoners of the Japanese: POWs of World War II in the Pacific, William Morrow and Company, 1994

Falk, Stanley L., Bataan: the March of Death, Norton, 1962.

Glusman, John A. , Conduct Under Fire, Viking, 2005

Harries, Meirion and Susie, Soldiers of the Sun: Random House, 1991

Kerr, E. Bartlett, Surrender & Survival, William Morrow and Company, 1985.

Knox, Donald, Death March: The Survivors of Bataan, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers, 1981.

Lawton, Manny, Some Survived, Warner, 1984

Martin, Adrian, Brothers from Bataan: POWs, 1942-1945 , Sunflower University Press Manhattan Kansas - 1992

Morton, Louis, The War in the Pacific: The Fall of the Philippines, Center for Military History, Washington, DC, 1953

Taylor, Lawrence, A Trial of Generals, Icarus Press, 1981

Toland, John, But Not in Shame, Random House, 1961

Toland, John, The Rising Sun, Bantam, 1970

Tsuji, Masanobu, Japan’s Greatest Victory, Britains Worst Defeat: Capture and Fall of Singapore, 1942, Spellmount Publishers Ltd. 1997

Tsuji, Masanobu, Underground Escape, Asian Publication, 1952

Victoria, Brian, Zen War Stories, Taylor & Francis, 2003

Ward, Ian, The Killer They Called A God,  Media Masters, 1992

Annotated Internet Bibliography

American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor
The largest of the American POW organizations related to the Philippine Campaign


American Ex- Prisoners of War
This site has general information on POW’s from several wars plus POW personal Statements

Bataan Death March


Bataan Remembered


Bataan Museum, Santa Fe,  NM


Battle for Bataan 1942
Online historical article giving a synopsis of the fall of the Philippines with several well selected photographs.


Battling Bastards OF Bataan


Center for Research: Allied POWS Under the Japanese




Fall of the Philippines
A site providing a complete web version of the official U.S. Army history of the Fall of the Philippine written by Louis Morton


Geneva Convention of 1927

Hague Convention of 1907

Japan War Crimes
A site primarily listing books for sale on Japanese atrocities and war crimes during the WWII and the war with China.  Includes the Rape of Nanking, comfort woman, slave labor, treatment of POW’s and Japanese death factories like unit 731



POW Research Network Japan
A fairly comprehensive site containing a Japanese produced listing of all POW camps in Japan and detailing those who died in those camps.


Tsuji, Masanobu

 Brief online biographies of Tsuji in English