Personalities: How to Survive A Death March

Feb 27, 2017

Americans surrendering in Bataan
Credit Fairchild AFB

When you're drafted into the military, you have a chance of being on the front lines. When you're on the front lines, there's a greater chance you're going to die. If you cheat death, you're lucky.

Retired Brigadier General Ted Spaulding met these odds in the Philippines during World War II. He, unlike the thousands who perished there, made it back home. Chuck Anderson got to speak with him about his survival of the Bataan Death March.

It all started when a young Ted Spaulding became a Private First Class. The U.S. draft law was still in effect, but expected to expire later in the year due to America's general disinterest in joining World War II. Ted joined a battalion of National Guardsmen, which was short 15 lieutenants. He was chosen as a candidate for 2nd lieutenant and within ten days had the rank of a commissioned officer.

In less than a year, Ted Spaulding had gone from being a low-ranking draftee to an officer leading a tank battalion across the Pacific - ready to defend the Philippines against Japanese control. His team of soldiers was supplied with no ammunition and gasoline, yet their intent was to forge inland and battle. Ted said their tanks were built with aircraft engines, and the only proper fuel they could find was protected by the Army Air Force.

Location of Clark Field Military Base
Credit Bayanihan Foundation Worldwide

While stationed in Clark Field in December 1941, news came to Ted and crew about Pearl Harbor. No one was surprised, as they had been waiting on their own Japanese attack at Clark Field. War had begun and Ted, being one of the more experienced military men at just 27 years old, had to remind his troops that it would not be quick. 

He saw when the first Japanese bomb hit ground.

Clark Field after Japanese attack
Credit elviscadillac.com

Japan was trying to capture the Philippines, and Luzon is the biggest island. Japanese forces pushed troops to retreat south to the peninsula of Bataan. In Luzon, U.S. troops were holding ground alongside local help: Filipino military and policemen. Their strategy, as they were backed into a corner, was not to fight Japan but frustrate them. Once Japan was prepared to attack, the U.S. would retreat to another defensive position. Unfortunately, people were getting sick and battle was inevitable.

Surrender followed. 

Plaque honoring Filipino and American soldiers in Bataan
Credit Source: Wikiwand

Ted guessed between 40,000 and 50,000 Filipino troops remained after the Battle of Bataan, and maybe half that many Americans survived. Many of them were not even involved in the Bataan skirmish. The troops were left where they were until a Japanese commander decided he wanted to make use of them. This was the beginning of the infamous Bataan Death March. Ted and his comrades were now prisoners of war, heading to concentration camps at imperial Japan's mercy.

Death march map
Credit Brooke County Public Library, Wellsburg, WV

Ted's group was forced to march about 24 hours north to Camp O'Donnell, a POW camp. Of the roughly 60,000 Filipinos there, 33% perished, and of the 9,000 Americans, only 17%. Ted was lucky.

Newspaper headline on Japanese Torture of POWs
Credit Los Angeles Examiner

When Ted's group was transported to Japan in 1944, he likely came his closest to death. Of over 1600 men, only around 200 made it to the mainland.

Toward the end of the war, Ted began to experience nicer accommodations. He explains why.

Ted finally saw American ground in September 1945 when he reached San Francisco. He received another swift promotion, this time to Captain. As the years passed, he worked his way to Brigadier General.

While Ted attributes much of his survival to self-care and general luck, he may have had the stamina all along.

To learn more about Ted's war experiences, read his biography here.