The sun was inescapable. It blistered their skin, baked their shoulders and backs, beat on their heads. Some men had managed to keep their helmets, some wore hats or caps or took rags and handkerchiefs and knotted the ends to fashion a sort of cap, but many men had no cover at all and walked bare-headed under the blazing sun.
The sweat soaked their clothes and streamed down their faces. It mixed with the thick dust and created a kind of gray sludge that ran into their eyes, stuck in their beards, caked on their clothing. They looked like ghosts of themselves mantled in gray, tramping along in a pall.
As each ragged group of men reached Cabcaben, the southernmost town on the peninsula’s east shore and the place where the Old National Road turned north up the coast, they were halted and put in a holding area—a dry rice paddy, field, or section of runway at Cabcaben’s jungle airstrip. From what the men could tell, there were a number of these marshaling yards in Cabcaben, places where the disorderly processions of prisoners from Mariveles were reorganized.
In the holding areas, the men were made to sit feet to back for hours at a time before moving on (the “sun treatment,” they came to call it). At last, when they were ready, the guards rushed in among them, screaming, kicking, and flogging the men to their feet, then herded them onto the road where they were arranged into regular marching columns, three or four ranks across, a hundred to four hundred men in each column, with a handful of guards assigned to walk the flanks and bring up the rear.
By now the prisoners’ hunger was starting to gnaw at them. They had been half starved before surrender and most had not had a scrap of food since. Even more pressing was their thirst. In the chaos at Cabcaben, only occasionally did the Japanese allow the prisoners to fill their canteens from a nearby stream. Most went without water and they rapidly dehydrated and began to suffer heat exhaustion: their temples pounded with pain, their heads felt afire, they became disoriented and wobbly with vertigo.
Back on the road, the guards yelled at them to pick up the pace.
“Speedo,” they shouted, walking or riding bicycles beside the formations. “Speedo! Speedo!”
Some guards, laughing, started their columns running.
Ben Steele was watching for socks.
Men were starting to blister. Big blisters, the size of a half-dollar, blisters in clusters, breaking and bleeding with every step. Some men used sharp rocks to make slits in their shoes and boots, makeshift sandals, but their feet were so swollen the skin just bulged painfully through the openings. Others removed their footwear and walked barefoot, wincing with every step.
He had to find dry socks or soon he too would be hobbled. Ben Steele pawed through packs and bags abandoned along the road. Finally, somewhere north of Cabcaben, he saw what he’d been looking for.
A corpse lay on the shoulder just ahead. The dead man was wearing garrison shoes, low quarters instead of work boots, and the laces were untied and loose.
Ben Steele removed one of the shoes, stripped off the sock, and was reaching for the other foot when, out of the corner of his eye, he spotted a guard headed his way and dashed back to his place in the column.
“What the hell were you doing back there with that dead guy?” said one of his fellow marchers.
“You gotta take care of your feet,” Ben Steele said, “or you’re not going to get very far.”
Men had been falling by the wayside since the zigzag, but the guards had been so busy collecting all the captives and getting them on the road that they had paid the dropouts little attention. After the prisoners were put in columns at Cabcaben, however, the guards in charge of each formation started watching their prisoners more closely, and now when a man went down, a Japanese was soon standing over him.
The order was unintelligible but the meaning of the kick that followed, the hard toe of a hobnail boot, was clear. Get up! Get up immediately or . . .
The fallen tried to raise themselves, tried to pull their knees under them, push up on all fours, but their heads, thick from fever, pulled them down, and their muscles, wasted by months of malnutrition, collapsed under them.
The Japanese type 30 bayonet was twenty inches long, overall, with a fifteen-inch blade. The weapon looked more like a Roman sword than a knife-bayonet, and when it was fixed to the end of a fifty-inch Arisaka rifle, it gave the hohei a kind of a pike, a five-and-a-half-foot spear.
The average Japanese foot soldier prized his bayonet. It was a symbol of his office, a twentieth-century warrior nodding to his samurai forebears. He would wear his bayonet home on leave in a scabbard. No other modern force spent so much time practicing with cold steel or developing in its men the stone heart to use it.
If a prisoner was straggling, lagging behind the formation or slowing it down, most guards would just jab him in the lower back or buttocks, a quick poke deep enough to hustle him along and make him rejoin the formation. (After a guard stabbed Sergeant Ed Thomas of Knox, Indiana, in the right buttock, he told himself he could run “all the way to Manila” if he had to.) If a man failed to raise himself, however, he usually got the blade to the hilt.
A young American in Sergeant Tony Aquino’s group had fallen facefirst to the gravel roadbed, and a guard at the rear of the column ordered the marchers to halt. He kicked the young American in the ribs and shouted at him to stand up, but the soldier got only as far as his knees before he collapsed again. The guard kicked him harder. (Come on compadre, Aquino thought, get up, get up!) The young American raised his head (Aquino could see blood spilling from the man’s mouth) and reached out, as if to ask the guard for help.
The guard put his bayonet to the man’s neck, shouted, and drove the blade home. The American rocked back on his heels and rose up on his haunches, then the guard jerked the blade free, and the boy toppled over in the dirt.
So it was going to be a death march, Aquino told himself, “death on the road to nowhere.” Falter and fall, he thought, and “there you will stay.”
When a sergeant in Joe Smith’s column fell to the road, two of his comrades broke ranks to help. A guard from the rear of the column came running and shouting, and he beat the Samaritans back into line, then wheeled about and bayonetted the man on the ground. As Smith came abreast of the scene, the guard was struggling to free his weapon. He had driven the blade so deep that he had to put his foot in the small of the man’s back and pull the rifle with both hands to wrest it free.
Thirst is a warning, the brain reminding the body that its essence is being spent. On an average day, an average man requires two to three quarts of water. The body is liquid, 60 percent of the chemical equation of life, and the brain is always metering the balance. If the level drops just 2 percent, the hypothalamus sends out an alarm—the urgency for water, the craving to drink.
The men on the death march were drying up. As their bodies tried to conserve fluids, they stopped sweating and urinating. Their saliva turned adhesive and their tongues stuck to their palates and teeth. Their throats started to swell, and their sinus cavities, dry and raw from the dust and heat, pounded with a headache that blurred their vision. Some men got earaches and lost their hearing. A guard could shout “Hey!” (Kora!) all he liked, but a man down from dehydration, dazed and deaf with heat fever, would never hear the warning or sense the watchman’s fatal approach.
Excerpted from Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and Its Aftermath by Michael Norman and Elizabeth M. Norman.
Copyright © 2009 by Michael Norman and Elizabeth M. Norman
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.