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The Bataan Death March


Thomas M. Hammel was a ranching boy who had grown up in the North Dakota Badlands. As a boy, he had worked on his father’s ranch, in the CCC and later on other ranches in North Dakota and Montana. Work was no doubt part of his life, but this work would pale in comparison to what he faced several years later.

On November 4, 1939, Hammel joined the Army Air Corps and after two years of training, he was sent to Clark Field in the Philippines. There, he had to withstand hours—sometimes days—of air raids. Things didn’t seem they could get much worse. Then, on Christmas Eve, 1941, Hammel left for Bataan.

The journey to Bataan was difficult. Hammel traveled by truck and the roads were battered from bombing. Upon reaching the front lines, Hammel was sent directly to the front to lay barbed wire. The situation there was dire as the water was bad, rations were cut in half and the men had to hunt water buffalo, only to find that the meat had a gasoline flavor.

For 100 days, Hammel patrolled the front lines and posted guard duty. Meanwhile, Japanese planes constantly flew overhead. Sometimes they traveled to the south, other times, they bombarded the lines. “One time an air raid lasted over an hour and we all took to the trenches,” said Hammel. “When the air raid was over, one big soldier didn’t come out of his trench for another half hour. When he did, he pulled off his gas mask. His face was covered with dirt. He took a look up at the sky, raised his arms, shook his fist, and cursed the day Orville Wright was born.”

The front lines were hit especially hard when the Japanese took over Singapore. For three days, the men fought and retreated on no food or water. The front lines fell and the men assembled at Mariveles airport, but the Japanese were behind them. Here, Hammel and 75,000 other Filipino and U.S. soldiers began the grueling Bataan Death March.

The March was a 90 mile trek north to Camp O’Donnell on rocky roads and ditches. The Japanese army took all their possessions and the men grew sick with dysentery and malaria. At times, the Japanese troops lined the men up on the side of the road and beat them with clubs as they walked by. This was just the first day. “The next days were the same old grind,” said Hammel. “I don’t know how many men fell out, but the Japanese killed all that did.” In the end, 18,000 of the captives died.

Some men only marched 19 miles and then got a ride to San Fernando. Hammel was not among them and had to march another 33 miles where they rode overcrowded freight trains the rest of the way to Capus, and then another eight miles to Camp O’Donnell. Hammel nearly gave up when he heard there was more marching, but was relieved to hear it was only a short distance.

The men stayed at Camp O’Donnell for a few months until on this day, June 6, 1942, he was moved to Cabanatuan, where his distress continued as a prisoner in the Japanese camp, a story to be discussed tomorrow.

By Tessa Sandstrom


Fifty Years in the Saddle Book Committee. “Thomas M. Hammel: 215 Ne Yaka Ju 90,” Fifty Years in the Saddle: Looking Back Down the Trail, Vol. 4. Bismarck and Dickinson, 1991: 137-141.