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Support for the WWII Online Exhibit is provided in part through a grant from the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission and The Century Fund.

 

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WW II Horrors of War - POWs  

Perhaps one of the most infamous accounts of POWs in WWII is the story of the Bataan Death March.  On April 9, 1942, approximately 75,000 American and Filipino troops on the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines surrendered to Japanese forces.  The Japanese had prepared to transport only 25,000 prisoners of war to their prison camps about 100 miles away.  The only way for the rest of the prisoners to reach the camp was to walk about 60 miles to a railroad line.  Japanese commanders insisted that the journey should be a quick and easy one, but the American and Filipino troops had been on half-rations and were in poor health.  The Bataan Death March began April 10, 1942.  Japanese troops beat the prisoners randomly, provided little or no food and water, and executed those who could not keep up.  It is estimated that between 5,000 and 10,000 of the prisoners (most of them Filipinos) died of starvation, dehydration, disease, or execution before they could reach Camp O’Donnell.  Here, malnutrition, disease, and the after effects of the brutal Death March led to thousands of additional deaths.  The same was true in other Japanese POW camps, where the Geneva Conventions designed to protect POWs from brutality were often ignored and perhaps as many as 1/3 or more of all Allied prisoners died.

Conditions in German POW camps were somewhat better.  Although prisoners sometimes worked at hard labor and rarely received more to eat than thin soup and course bread, the Geneva Conventions were more often observed.  It is estimated that only about 17% of Allied prisoners died in German POW camps.

Wendall Phillips, a radio operator who later settled in the Lehigh Valley, had the misfortune to be a POW twice—first to the Germans and later to the Japanese.  His airplane was shot down over Belgium in September of 1944, and he was immediately captured by the Germans.  He was sent to a hospital compound where his first duty was to escape, so he and his buddies, “determined we were going to go and storm that fence, all three of us, as hard as we could hit it….. It separated…and we went through it….We heard the horns.”  Phillips escaped, and was later assigned to China.  In early December of 1944, his plane crashed and, he remembers that the Japanese were “right there….They saw us coming….They took me into the international YMCA building which is right in the heart of Shanghai….I was in a little room that you’d call a clothes closet at home, probably.  It wasn’t very big.  Ah, and a little rope bed and, a little tin can over in the corner, that was about it.  They’d bring me in a plate of rice once a day.  They’d bring a little…jug of water….They took all my clothes.  They’d come in with a …steel upright chair…then tie my hands behind me and tie my legs to the chair and beat the dickens out of you, ….The war ended all of a sudden….All of a sudden everybody left….There was no food.  There was no water…About the middle of…the third day, American MPs broke the door in.”  Phillips’ ordeal was finally over.

   


The Bataan Death March


POWs at Manila