The Davao Dozen: How Americans First Learned About the Bataan Death March

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The Bataan Death March. (Painting by Mukai Junkichi)

On April 9, 1942, 75,000 American and Filipino soldiers who surrendered to the Imperial Japanese Army in the Philippines were forced to march more than 60 miles in the extreme heat of the Philippines. Hundreds of Americans and thousands of Filipinos died in the journey.

The reward for the survivors was brutal treatment in a Japanese prisoner of war camp for the next three years -- if they were lucky to live that long.

Americans back home might never have known about the harsh conditions for POWs in the Philippines if it weren’t for 12 men who escaped from the enemy prison camp and made an arduous cross-country expedition to tell the world.

Japan invaded the Philippines just a few hours after it struck the Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor. With Japan in control of the Pacific, the American War Department focused on the Atlantic and the loss of U.S. aircraft in the Philippines, the island nation had little hope of repelling the invaders.

American and Filipino defenders did everything they could, but an estimated 75,000 defenders surrendered on April 9, 1942. The sheer number of prisoners overwhelmed the Japanese, who needed to move the POWs north but had no transport to do it. The Japanese Army forced those prisoners to walk 55 miles to San Fernando, hop on a train to Capas, then walk the remaining eight miles to Camp O’Donnell.

Not only did the Japanese have no transportation for the POWs, they also had no food, supplies or medicine. As they walked through the intense heat of the Philippines, the Japanese also prevented their prisoners from drinking water from nearby wells, killing anyone who tried to drink from them. Sometimes, they made the prisoners sit in the sun for hours.

If anyone dropped out of line during the march because of heat exhaustion, malnutrition or thirst, they were shot or bayoneted. Sometimes, they tortured, stabbed or outright killed prisoners for no reason.

Only 54,000 prisoners made it to Camp O’Donnell, which could be just as brutal as the walk there. There was one spigot of water for all 7,000 Americans at the camp, and the Japanese often turned it off to torture the prisoners. They were given one cup of rice gruel per day to sustain them, American doctors with no supplies and often had to sleep outdoors.

Some were transferred to other camps for use as slave labor, like the 969 POWs sent to Davao on the island Mindanao to work at a maximum security plantation called Dapecol. Ten of these men, representing the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Army Air Forces, were determined to escape the “escape-proof” prison by any means necessary.

They wanted to tell the world what happened to the prisoners who surrendered in the Philippines.

A photo layout of the Davao Prison Camp. (U.S. Army)

The POWs first recruited fellow prisoners who were natives of the islands. Since the camp was a prison before the war, there were plenty to choose from. The Americans selected two Filipinos who were serving life sentences for murder, Benigno de la Cruz and Victor Jumarong. They would help as guides and translators.

What made the prison escape proof in the eyes of their captors was that no one ever had done it. Getting outside the barbed-wire fence was just the beginning. The camp was surrounded by a deep, crocodile-infested swamp, then a thick, dark jungle allegedly filled with cannibalistic native tribes.

Along the way, escapees would have to contend with the insects, animals and deadly plants that come with the island’s geography.

They began by surveilling the movements and habits of their Japanese guards, then they gathered supplies provided by the Filipino civilians who worked the camps. They bolted on a Sunday -- their day off work -- so they wouldn’t be noticed as missing until Monday.

On Sunday, April 4, 1943, after the prisoners were sent to work in a rice paddy, the 12 men picked up their hoarded supplies and headed out into the swamps. After three days of moving through the chest-deep swamp and dense jungle, evading Japanese patrols and search parties the whole way, they were free.

It was the only time a large group of POWs escaped a Japanese prison camp in World War II.

Davao escapees from left to right, Maj. Steve Mellnik, Lt. Cmdr. “Chick” Parsons, Lt. Cmdr. Melvyn McCoy, Capt. Ed Dyess and Capt. Charley Smith pose for a photo before commencing their trek to rendezvous with the USS Trout. (National Archives and Records Administration)

But not only did they escape the prison, they linked up with Filipino guerrillas and made contact with the U.S. Army headquarters in Australia via radio.

Radio contact allowed three of them to connect with the submarine USS Trout and make their way back to Brisbane, where the Army first learned of the Bataan Death March, the conditions at Camp O’Donnell and the forced labor camps in the islands.

Only one of the men, Army Air Forces Lt. Leo A. Boelens, was killed by the Japanese. The other 11 men eventually were returned to the United States. The U.S. government kept the information quiet until January 1944, in time to arouse public outrage before the invasion of the Gilbert and Marshall Islands.

The story of the “Davao Dozen” stunned Americans at a time when they were beginning to get weary of the war without much good news on either front. War bond sales were boosted, as were new enlistments.

The invasion of the Gilbert and Marshall Islands became the first effort at a two-pronged, island-hopping campaign that wrecked Japan’s ability to defend or resupply islands and put American B-29 bombers ever closer to the mainland.

Gen. Masaharu Homma, the Japanese commander who ordered the Bataan Death March, was arrested after the war and extradited to the Philippines. There, the U.S. Army gave him the most inexperienced lawyers it could find. He was convicted of 48 counts “violating the international rules of war” and executed by firing squad.

The Davao Prison surgical ward in 1945. (U.S. Army)

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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