Meet the Veteran Who Went Through the Bataan Death March
Key Point: Live as an Imperial Japanese POW was a terrible ordeal. Here his what one brave soldier went through and how he managed to survive it.
Staff Sergeant William Nolan dared not raise his hopes this August day in 1945, but something unusual was unfolding. Japanese guards normally escorted him and the other prisoners from their Kosaka, Japan, prison camp to the copper factory. Today, though, they were ordered to remain in their barracks. “Usually we tramped to work every day, except for the emperor’s birthday,” recalled Nolan. “Rumors of the war’s end had bounded through camp for the past week. Later that day, around noon, we heard the war was over.”
For Nolan, an excruciating three-and-a-half-year ordeal neared its end. From April 1942, when he put down his weapons in the Philippines, until August 1945, Nolan endured a seemingly endless stream of prison camps, cruel guards, and hell ships that so ravaged his body that his weight plunged from the 170s to fewer than 100 pounds. His agonizing odyssey started with a march that has entered the annals of war as one of the most infamous deeds ever recorded, a walk more commonly known by its horrifying title—the Bataan Death March.
A native of Michigan, William Nolan started his military service on March 7, 1941. He arrived in Manila the following September, where he worked in communications for the 515th Coastal Artillery out of nearby Fort Stotsenburg. Duty in the Philippines offered a luxuriant alternative to the rigid lifestyle offered by most military posts.
“We had an easy life out there, with frequent parties and dances. Talk about preparedness for war—those men in the Philippines were no more an organized Army than the man on the moon.”
The situation dramatically changed on December 8, 1941 (December 7 at Pearl Harbor), with the surprising news that Japanese aircraft had dealt a stunning blow to the U.S. Pacific Fleet in Hawaii. “I had just returned to my barracks from church when I heard on [the] radio that Pearl Harbor had been bombed,” remembered Nolan. “We were shocked. We didn’t know much about Pearl Harbor other than it was a huge Navy base.”
Devastating Accuracy From the Japanese
Around noon on December 8, Japanese fighters and bombers destroyed most of General Douglas MacArthur’s Philippine air force on the ground when they swept down on airfields near Manila. Their accuracy shocked Nolan, who recalled enemy fighter pilots strafing each road as though they “had a map of the Clark Field area in their minds.” Nolan accompanied half of his unit to Manila, where he spent the night “cleaning guns of oil and cosmoline so they would be ready to use.” The next day he headed to Nichols Field to wire the area for communications.
Nolan claimed morale remained high in the early stages. “We felt, what the hell, we have enough equipment to hold them off,” until reinforcements arrived. “The food was not so bad at this time. We had a choice of three old World War I C-rations, pork and beans, spaghetti and meatballs, and stew. It wasn’t that bad, I guess, mainly because we didn’t have anything else to eat.”
For the next two weeks Nolan remained near Manila, loading trucks with guns and ammunition for the withdrawal to the Bataan Peninsula. “Before December 25, we got hit every day by Japanese bombers, usually about the same time in the morning and afternoon. We had no desperate feeling yet, and we thought that help was coming. In fact, I once went into Manila and sent a Western Union telegram home saying everything was fine, then strolled through a huge department store looking at all the products.”
When a large enemy force rushed ashore at Lingayen Gulf to the northwest and Lamon Bay to the southeast on December 22-23, Nolan’s unit pulled back. After enjoying a Christmas feast of turkey and trimmings, his last decent meal for almost four years, Nolan drove an equipment-laden truck to prepared defensive positions near the small town of Pilar along Bataan’s east side. It was here that Nolan first realized the predicament he and his comrades were in.
“We had 1918 equipment that just wouldn’t work and old Springfield rifles with one shot, one bolt action.” An officer on the staff of General Jonathan M. Wainwright, the commander who succeeded MacArthur when the latter was ordered out of the Philippines by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, wrote in a memo at the time that only 20 percent of the mortar rounds and 10 percent of the hand grenades exploded. Inexperienced fighter pilots soared aloft with faulty ammunition that frequently jammed or failed.
“Japanese Planes Flew at 20,000 Feet, but Our 3-inch Guns Only Fired up to 18,000 Feet.”
“Pilots couldn’t fly some of the fighters that came out to the Philippines because someone in the States decided that since the planes were headed for the tropics, they didn’t need antifreeze!” exclaimed Nolan, still incredulous after five decades. “Japanese planes flew at 20,000 feet, but our 3-inch guns only fired up to 18,000 feet. We could see the shells exploding short of the targets. Anyway, half the time the shells wouldn’t explode. That was demoralizing. We were firing back but doing nothing.”
Dwindling food and medical supplies plagued the weary troops. Known as a breeding ground for malaria, Bataan sapped the strength of the American units, especially as quinine to combat the illness ran low. At any one time, Nolan claimed that half his outfit of 250 men suffered from either malaria or dysentery. “Guys were running into bushes to defecate, or either freezing or sweating to death from malaria. You couldn’t get much sleep, but you did your job because you had to.”
As conditions worsened, soldiers gradually pinned their hopes on the anticipated reinforcement convoy which, rumor stated, was already steaming across the Pacific toward Bataan. While one soldier explained that everyone held on to rumors because they “gave us something to believe in. When morale is so bad and there’s nothing more to do, rumors help,” Nolan remained dubious. American strategy called for holding Bataan as long as possible until reinforcements arrived, but Nolan surmised that “with our supplies getting lower and with all the civilian refugees flooding in, we had no hope of that.”
Insufficient supplies and deteriorating health increasingly weakened the beleaguered troops as they struggled through January and into February 1942. A scant 27.7 ounces of food per day, less than half the normal peacetime ration, was available for each defender. By early March that amount dipped to under 15 ounces.
Destroy Your Weapons and Wait for the Enemy…
“We were down to some rice and salmon, plus anything you could shoot and skin,” recalled Nolan. “It was right about this time I began thinking our situation was hopeless, although a lot of the guys wouldn’t admit it and kept hoping for the convoy. I couldn’t buy it. We were thousands of miles from the States, on a peninsula being attacked on land by Japanese units and surrounded at sea by the Japanese Navy. Morale started to get lower and lower as soldiers got weaker and weaker. We had no cover from mosquitoes at night because we slept at our positions, and guys were so sick they couldn’t do a hell of a lot.”
The end came on April 9, when 12,000 Americans and 63,000 Filipino soldiers lay down their arms on orders from Maj. Gen. Edward P. King, Jr. An officer from King’s command drove up to Nolan’s 37mm gun at Cabcaben and told the men to destroy their weapons, then sit and wait for the enemy to arrive.
“By now the Japanese, many with branches tied to them so they looked like bushes, had advanced to within 500 yards of us. They had pushed us back far, and we didn’t have much left, either in ammunition or strength. Some of the men blamed MacArthur for our predicament and bitched that he left for Australia, but most of us knew he’d been ordered out. I thought he did a hell of a job holding up the Japanese as long as he did.
“Actually, the surrender came as kind of a relief. We’d no longer have to fight, and we thought we’d be treated halfway decent, maybe even swapped for Japanese diplomats. There was a feeling of, ‘Oh boy, this is over!’ Little did we know how much worse it was going to get.”
Hastily drawn Japanese plans for prisoner evacuation and even speedier implementation led to chaos and brutality for Nolan and the other men about to surrender. Since Imperial Japanese Headquarters wanted the nearby island of Corregidor seized immediately after Bataan fell, Japanese commander Lt. Gen. Masaharu Homma ordered the prisoners quickly removed from Bataan to make room for Japanese soldiers. His transportation officer, Maj. Gen. Yoshikata Kawane, organized a two-phase withdrawal. First gathered at Balanga after a march of up to 19 miles, the prisoners would be transported 36 miles by truck and train to Camp O’Donnell. Food would be distributed at four stops along the way, and every mile rest stations containing water and sanitary facilities would supplement two hospitals situated along the route.