A Lesson in Resiliency From the Bataan Death March

At the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898, Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States. A Philippine insurrection against the United States began almost immediately and ended in 1902 with the United States controlling the territory until the Japanese invasion in December of 1941. Choosing deployment to the Philippines, Herb Hanneman, a Madison native, made perhaps the most fateful decision of his life.

Hanneman first joined the Florida National Guard on a trip he took with friends. He quickly realized that Florida was not the place for him and requested to transfer to the Regular U.S. Army.  (2:15-2:25)

During the summer of 1941, an Army recruiter gave Herb Hanneman a choice, and said, “Where would you like to go? Would you like to go to Alaska, Hawaii or the Philippines? We looked at each other and we said, ‘Gee, we’ve never been to the Philippines, let’s go over there,” (2:32-2:43).

Hanneman arrived in the Philippines in August 1941.  Although Japan had been at war in the Pacific for almost two years, the first three months of his deployment were enjoyable. He was assigned to clerical duties at MacArthur’s headquarters in downtown Manila. His afternoons were free. (3:35-4:03)  Hanneman and his friend paid local boys to do their chores at the barracks. (4:20-4:43)

“We just had a ball there,” (5:38) he said.

Asked if he or fellow American servicemembers felt any threat from Japan since it had long been at war, Hanneman said, “None whatsoever.” (5:37)

That would quickly change, since the capital city of Manila was an obvious target for the Japanese. MacArthur’s office was moved to the island of Corregidor. Later, the Japanese began to bomb Corregidor. Hanneman and the rest of his unit were sent to Bataan.  He lost his desk job and rejoined the infantry. (9:00-9:03)

Only a few days after arriving in Bataan, Hanneman and a handful of fellow soldiers decided to clean up in a stream near their camp.

“And lo and behold we were having a bath – we were in the nude, our clothes were lying there. And all of a sudden, we looked up, we were surrounded by Japanese infantry.” (9:04-9:36)

After being allowed to dress, Hanneman and the others were forced at bayonet point to start marching.  Being joined along the way with small groups of prisoners, he was now a prisoner of war. (9:53-10:19)

The 74,000 American and Filipino troops on Bataan surrendered on April 9, 1942. The Japanese herded these prisoners 66 miles on foot and by rail to Camp O’Donnell, a makeshift prison camp. Only 54,000 men who started the march made it to Camp O’Donnell, and many were in such a condition that they died just weeks afterward. This journey into prison has ever after been known as the Bataan Death March.

On the road, there were seemingly random beatings, torture and killing. Hanneman recalls some Japanese on horseback who “had a great deal of fun riding through the group of Americans” as they marched along and decapitating “quite a few.”

Understanding the Japanese beliefs about surrender helps us grasp why the Americans who surrendered to the Japanese were often treated brutally and inhumanely. The Japanese forbade their own soldiers to surrender.[1] To die for one’s emperor, one’s family and one’s nation were considered the highest honor. Choosing surrender over death was seen as cowardly and humiliating both to the Japanese soldiers themselves and also to their families.[2]  Almost 30,000 American servicemen and women were held as prisoners of war by the Japanese during World War II.[3] Of these 30,000 almost 40% would die while in captivity, which is one of the highest POW death rates in American history.[4]

The prisoners on the march were given almost no food or water for seven days, except what little the native Filipinos would occasionally sneak to them. Although “very, very sick”, fatigued and hungry, Hanneman would survive the Bataan Death March. He eventually ended up in Cabanatuan prisoner of war camp, where he would spend the next year and a half. Hanneman would eventually be sent via ship to a prison camp in mainland Japan where he would stay for another two years until the end of the war.

Although he was no longer on the death march, the prisoner of war camp was hell. Food was mainly rice and fish heads and whatever greens they grew. (13:10-13:41, 20:53-21:00) If someone thought another prisoner might die during the night, often he would stay awake all night so that he could steal the dead’s blanket. They “lived like animals” he remembers. (44:20-44:25) “It was every man for themselves.”

Hanneman can remember only a handful of days during his two-year captivity that the Japanese did not make him and his fellow prisoners work. (20:05-20:14) Like the majority of Japanese held American POWs, Hanneman worked seven days a week.3 His job was working at a Japanese steel mill unloading iron ore and magnesium, “black sand” from the docks. (18:37-19:05)

Upon liberation from the prison camp at the end of the war, Hanneman weighed half of his normal weight of 180 pounds. (41:57-42:27) MacArthur’s forces evacuated Allied POWs to the Philippines for medical attention and to regain their strength through rest and improved diet. For Hanneman and his colleagues, it was a paradise compared to what they had recently known. At a stop at a camp for returning POWs in Manila he remembers “the mess hall was open 24 hours a day!”  His strength recovered enough to travel, Hanneman was put on a ship for home.

After arriving in San Francisco, Hannemen joined other American POWs for a train ride home. On a Saturday evening, they arrived at the [5] William J. Mayo General Hospital in Galesburg, Illinois. Even though they had no money to their names, they convinced a nurse, who accompanied them on the train, to let them go downtown. (30:24-31:31) The townspeople welcomed them home, Hanneman recalls, “The taxi drivers wouldn’t take any money. We went downtown and went into a bar and couldn’t buy anything, but nobody would let us go thirsty, believe me.” (31:31-31:48)

Later that night, arriving back at their train one of the doctors came to admit the soldiers to the hospital and had quite a surprise. “Hell, they're drunk.  We can't examine them," Hanneman laughs, remembering one of the doctors saying. They would eventually be admitted the next day. After discharge from Mayo General Hospital and returning to Madison, Hanneman reconnected with his girlfriend he had had before the war. Within a short time they were married.

“She is my pride and joy. She’s kept me alive this last fifty-six years,” Hanneman said. (33:06-33:37)

On their honeymoon in Chicago like that Saturday night they pulled into Galesburg, he found that once again he could not buy a drink. And later, as a POW, he was given an all-expenses paid (with the exception of alcohol he said) trip for two weeks to a city of his choice.

“Most everybody, with my uniform on, could see that I’d been a POW. They wouldn’t let me buy drinks. Occasionally we could buy drinks.” (34:10-35:26)

Hanneman said that remarkably he doesn’t have any hard feelings towards the Japanese. Indeed one of his best golfing buddies was Japanese and until he had always wanted to go back. (46:40-47:54)

Perhaps during the pandemic, as we experience disruptions to our routines, Herb Hanneman’s story can offer us some perspective and gratitude. For many of us, a few months being confined at our homes with those we love, or being asked to wear a mask in public, feels like a minor sacrifice to his three-and-a-half years of imprisonment in squalid conditions, halfway around the world. We are grateful for the sacrifices of Herb Hanneman and other American prisoners of war.

Herb Hanneman Oral History

[1] Ronald Spector, Eagle against the Sun: The American War with Japan (New York: Free Press, 1985), 398.

[2] John Dower. War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (New York: Pantheon Books, 1986), 68.

[3]2 “Victory from Within Full Curriculum,” Curriculum Materials, Parks as Classroom, Education, Learn About the Park, Andersonville National Historic Site, 37. Accessed April 26, 2020.


[4] Ibid.

[5] L. Willard Freeman, “Mayo General Hospital,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1908-1984) 44, no. 1 (Spring 1951): 26. Accessed April 25, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/40189110.