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July 3, 2022

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Japanese commander faced firing squad for his crimes

The tragedy of the Bataan Death March can be mirrored by the tragic lives of both sides' military leaders:

* U.S. Gen. Jonathan Wainwright drew the ire of Gen. Douglas MacArthur for surrendering to the Japanese on that Philippines peninsula on the west side of Manila Bay. He was later forgiven and awarded the Medal of Honor after years of suffering in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp.

* Japanese Gen. Masahura Homma admired Western ideals and disliked his country's entry into the Axis pact. He disciplined subordinates involved in the death march, but after the war he was tried and convicted as a war criminal by the United States.

Wainwright, who had served in World War I, took command of the Philippine Division in 1940. When MacArthur left for Australia in March 1942, he took command of all U.S. and Filipino forces in the area.

Outnumbered 5 to 1, Wainwright's men inflicted significant losses on the Japanese, stopping their advances and buying time for the United States to prepare for the war in the South Pacific.

Disease, malnutrition

But forced to eat less than half the normal daily supply of rations, the ill-equipped Allied forces were decimated by malnutrition, which brought on widespread disease, including beriberi and malaria.

Cut off from supplies and facing overwhelming reinforced Japanese troops, surrender at Bataan was inevitable. Still, an infuriated MacArthur refused to recommend Wainwright for the Medal of Honor.

"Gen. Wainwright had no choice but to surrender," said Harvey Hunter of Henderson, a survivor of the death march. "He was a good leader who wanted to fight to the last man, if necessary, but Washington told him to surrender and he followed orders."

MacArthur and Wainwright would meet again at the surrender of Tokyo in 1945, where MacArthur forgave Wainwright, then a broken, emaciated man, who had endured three years and three months of suffering in a POW camp in Manchuria following his capture on May 6, 1942.

President Harry Truman personally awarded Wainwright the Medal of Honor upon his return to the United States. Eight years later, at age 72, Wainwright died.

Homma would not enjoy such longevity.

Relieved of command

Despite his victory at Bataan, the 6-foot Japanese general who spoke fluent English was heavily criticized for what his country felt was lenient treatment of Filipinos. He was relieved of command in 1942 and retired.

Three years later, he was arrested by American forces. Evidence at Homma's war crimes trial showed he tried to prevent atrocities. His American defense attorneys made impassioned pleas to spare his life.

"He was the man in charge and he could have done more to stop the atrocities," said Ralph Levenberg, a Reno resident and survivor of the death march. "By being in charge at the time meant he was responsible."

Homma was found guilty and, on April 3, 1946, was executed by firing squad. He was 59.

SOURCES: Reader's Digest Illustrated History of World War II, Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia and Grolier's Multimedia Encyclopedia.