Alaska e-Post online

From the pages of history...

Wainwright remembered 65 years after Bataan Death March

The 40 sets of footprints leading to and away from the statue were made from plaster casts of the feet of Death March survivors.

PAO staff report

 PHILIPPINE ISLANDS — Nearly 70,000 American and Filipino Soldiers became prisoners of war in 1942, when Bataan fell to the Japanese. 

The Soldiers serving on this South Pacific peninsula had been cut off from supplies, food and ammunition and were near starvation. 

When Gen. Douglas MacArthur left Bataan for service in Australia, Lt. Gen. Jonathan M. Wainwright became the senior field commander of U.S. and Filipino forces in the Philippine Islands.

Holding off a major Japanese assault in January earned the American-Filipino forces the nickname “Battling Bastards of Bataan.” The Japanese attacks resumed in earnest in April.

After fierce fighting, Bataan fell April 9, 1942.

Thus began the Bataan Death March — a 65-mile forced march to a prison camp — through the unbearable heat and humidity of the South Pacific island.

The Japanese randomly beat the POWs, often denying them food and water. They executed those who fell behind, and tortured them with the “sun treatment” — forcing the captives to silently sit in the humid April sun without water, shade or their helmets.

Some of the POWs had to dig their own graves, then were buried alive. The Japanese used others for target practice.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized Wainwright to continue the fight from the island of Corregidor, or agree to whatever terms he thought best. Wainwright chose to continue fighting with his men, despite advice that he leave.

A statue in Veterans’ Memorial Park in Las Cruces, N.M., shows two Americans and one Filipino supporting each other during the Bataan Death March. More than 1,400 New Mexicans fought defending the Philippines and Bataan Peninsula.Wainwright fought alongside his men, making frequent visits to the front lines. His Medal of Honor citation reads:

“Distinguished himself by intrepid and determined leadership against greatly superior enemy forces. At the repeated risk of life above and beyond the call of duty in his position, he frequented the firing line of his troops where his presence provided the example and incentive that helped make the gallant efforts of these men possible. The final stand on beleaguered Corregidor, for which he was in an important measure personally responsible, commanded the admiration of the Nation’s allies. It reflected the high morale of American arms in the face of overwhelming odds. His courage and resolution were a vitally needed inspiration to the then sorely oppressed freedom-loving peoples of the world.”

Wainwright and 11,000 survivors held on in tunnels on the island for another month after the defeat. Without food or sleep, their hopes of survival were slim.

On May 5, Wainwright sent MacArthur a letter informing him that air and artillery bombardment from the Japanese were strong, and he expected the Americans and Filipinos would not be able to hold out much longer.

When the Japanese landed on the island, Wainwright called for terms.

More than 1,000 American Soldiers and nearly 15,000 Filipinos did not survive the Bataan Death March. Many more died in the POW camps.

Wainwright and his troops joined the Death March survivors at prison camps in the Philippines, Formosa and Manchuria. Released from the POW camp after more than two years, he witnessed the Japanese surrender aboard the USS Missouri in September 1945, then returned to the Philippines to receive the surrender of the local Japanese commander.

He was awarded a fourth star and the Medal of Honor after the Japanese surrender.

Gen. Jonathan Wainwright died in 1953 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Ladd Air Force Base was turned over to the Army and renamed Fort Jonathan M. Wainwright Jan. 1, 1961.