Dr. Joseph E. Ginsberg and the Bataan Death March

Dr. Joseph E. Ginsberg and the Bataan Death March

By Robert Presnar, Education Director

Within just 9 hours of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces began their attack on the Philippines, a strategically important location for Japan that held vast amounts of much needed raw materials. This rapid onslaught ensured that American naval and air support would not be available, since the country had not even established a war-time posture. Within one month, the Philippine capital of Manila, which is located on the island of Luzon, fell to the Japanese. 

The Philippines were defended by a combined American and Philippine military contingency that totaled about 75,000 soldiers under the command of General Douglas MacArthur, who had come out of retirement to head the post. These forces were forced to retreat to the Bataan Peninsula. There, they stubbornly held out, despite starvation and disease weakening the ranks until April 9, 1942, when General Edward King, Jr. was forced to surrender. 

The Japanese organized prisoners in groups of 100, which they drove from Mariveles in the southern part of the peninsula north to San Fernando, where they were boarded onto railcars to various prisoner of war camps. The trek was some 65 miles, lasting approximately 5 days. The prisoners, suffering largely from either Malaria or Dysentery, swooned under the blaring tropical heat. The Japanese guards withheld water, food, and first aid equipment as encouraged by their war ministry. They beat the prisoners along the journey and prodded them with bayonets. Often, the men who fell or who could not continue were stabbed, shot, or even beheaded. History would remember this atrocity as the Bataan Death March. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that some 650 American and 16,500 Philippine soldiers either died during or after the incident. 

Three months after the start of the Battle of Bataan, the Bataan Death March began, forcing 60,000-80,000 Filipino and American prisoners of war to march through the Philippines.

Among the prisoners was a young officer from New Castle, PA named Dr. Joseph E. Ginsberg. Despite witnessing and experiencing nightmarish conditions, he survived the ordeal. The once stout youth barely weighed 100 lbs when freedom was finally secured in August 1945.  He recounted witnessing the beheading of one of his comrades and the shooting of several others. 

During Ginsberg’s captivity, he was moved to three separate prisoner of war camps, where he was reunited with fellow officers Lt. Col. John Brettell, Captain James Blanning, Major Stanley Holmes, and Captain Fred Black, all from his hometown. Sadly, none of these men returned. Captain Black was able to escape his captives but died somewhere in the Philippine hinterland. Major Holmes’ fate was never determined, and Captain Blanning perished aboard a Japanese prisoner ship when it was torpedoed and sunk. As for Lt. Col. Brettell, according to the diary of an officer friend and fellow prisoner, he was aboard a prison ship located in the Subic Bay at Manilla that was also sunk. Brettell reportedly swam to safety only to be recaptured. He is said to have died on another prison ship as it was sailing to Japan on January 28, 1945. The Cherry Street Bridge in Mahoningtown was named in Brettell’s honor in 1983. 

With the American fleet still smoldering in Pearl Harbor, the Japanese attack the Philippines. Thousands of American GIs and their Filipino allies are surrounded on the Bataan Peninsula.

Dr. Ginsberg was asked to write a series of articles about his experience, which he did under the title of “The Bullies of Bataan.”  In one article, he explained his captors as “…a uniformed maniac filled with blood lust and utterly lacking in human qualities.”

In February 1945, combined American and Filippine forces recaptured the Bataan Peninsula. The capital was liberated early the following month. Dr. Ginsberg was released from Camp Kamioka in Japan in August 1945. After the war, General Homma Masaharu, Commander of Imperial invading forces was tried by a military tribunal and was found guilty of war crimes. He subsequently died at the hands of a firing squad on April 3, 1946.  


The Art & Objects of World War II is on display, January 2-March 21, 2024.  Guided tours are available by calling 724.652.2882. Visiting hours are Tuesdays-Thursdays, 11 am – 8 pm and Fridays & Saturdays, 11 am – 4 pm.  Daily admission is free. 

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