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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: ‘Battling Bastards of Bataan’

Nearly forgotten by history: the ‘Battling Bastards of Bataan’

by Tom Morrow

One of the best examples of America at its most unprepared and inept was the retreat of the untrained, ill-equipped with obsolete weapons, and poorly led U.S. Army units on the main Philippine island of Luzon. The 75,000-plus army of both American and Filipino soldiers battled in futility against the Japanese onslaught that engulfed the Philippines shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

From Dec. 8, 1941 to April 9, 1942, the American and Filipino soldiers fought fiercely and bravely, but ended up being trapped and forced to surrender. As the Japanese advanced, hundreds of Filipino soldiers began tossing their weapons and blowing up ammunition dumps as they retreated southward on the Bataan peninsula, trying to escape. In the meantime, the Japanese air and naval forces pounded the fortress island of Corregidor at the mouth of Manila Bay where Gen. Douglas McArthur, commander of all Philippine forces, had retreated to from Manila.

The escape of McArthur from Corregidor was nothing short of a miracle. The U.S. Navy whisked McArthur and his family from Corregidor, weaving through the various islands, dodging Japanese warships and evidentially south to Australia.

While much has been written about McArthur’s valiant escape, less has been documented about what he left behind: an army in disarray, disillusioned, and demoralized. In the eyes of many soldiers who were there, McArthur abandoned his command, even though he acted on the order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Despite McArthur’s explanation that he “reluctantly” left the Philippines, the general quickly became known among the troops as “Dugout Doug.” As unfair as that moniker might have been, to those who survived the march of death to prison camps that was to come, had quite another opinion.

McArthur overestimated the ability of his command, and underestimated the Japanese. When defenders failed to turn back the Japanese on the eastern beaches of Luzon, McArthur retreated his troops across Manila Bay to Bataan, leaving most of their ammunition and food supplies on the beaches that had been overrun by the enemy.
One little-known fact: of the 75,000 man army, three-quarters were Filipinos, with the remainder American. Other than the highly-skilled Philippine Scouts, most of the troops, both U.S. and Filipino, were poorly trained and ill-equipped for meeting the battle-hardened Japanese army. To give some idea of the disorganization, the main body of Filipino soldiers spoke the Bicolanian dialect, whereas most of the officers spoke only Tagalog; American soldiers spoke neither.

Regardless of the disarray of the American and Filipino forces, a tremendous four-month battle was fought with Filipino and American troops inflicting heavy Japanese losses.

Toward the end, lack of food became critical. Food rations were cut in half. Of the 250 horses and 48 pack mules, most ended up being what became known as “cavalry steak.”

By March 1942, the only U.S. war correspondent left in the Philippines, summed the situation up thusly in a poem, which went back to the American public:

“We’re the battling bastards of Bataan,
No mama, no pap, no Uncle Sam,
No aunts, no uncles, no cousins, no nieces,
No pills, no planes, no artillery pieces,
And nobody gives a damn.”

On April 9, Lt. Gen. Jonathan Wainwright reluctantly surrendered his beleaguered troops to the Japanese. It was the end of the fighting, but the beginning of the torturous march to the POW camps. It became known as a “march of death.”

As one general wrote years later about the Battle of Bataan … “In full truth, it was an unsavory mess.”


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