Camp O'Donnell was a Prisoner of War (POW) camp for Filipino and American soldiers captured by Japan during its successful invasion of the Philippines in World War II. About 60,000 Filipino and 10,000 Americans were housed at the camp. During the few months in 1942 that Camp O'Donnell was used as a POW camp, about 20,000 Filipinos and 1,500 Americans died there of disease, starvation, neglect, and brutality.
Located near Capas, Tarlac, Camp O'Donnell was originally a Philippine Army post and later a United States Army camp. After World War II it became a base of the United States Air Force. It is now a Philippine Army installation. It houses the Training and Doctrine Command's Officer Cadet School, NCO Academy, and Headquarters and Headquarters Service Battalion.
World War II
Camp O'Donnell was the destination of the Filipino and American soldiers who surrendered after the Battle of Bataan on April 9, 1942. The Japanese took approximately 70,000 prisoners: 60,000 Filipinos and 10,000 Americans. The prisoners were forced to undertake the Bataan Death March of approximately 145 kilometres (90 mi) to arrive at Camp O'Donnell. Many soldiers died during the march and the survivors arrived at Camp O'Donnell in extremely poor condition.
The first Filipino and American POWS arrived at Camp O'Donnell on April 11, 1942 and the last on June 4, 1942. The Filipinos and Americans were housed in separate sections of the camp. There was a constant movement in and out of the camp as the Japanese transferred prisoners to other locations on work details. In June, most of the American POWs were sent to other POW camps or to work sites scattered around the country -- and ultimately to Japan and other countries. From September until January 1943, Japan paroled the Filipino POWs. They signed an oath not to become guerillas and the mayors of their home towns were made responsible for their conduct as parolees. Japan closed Camp O'Donnell as a POW camp on January 20, 1943.
The POWs at Camp O'Donnell died in large numbers due to a number of reasons. Japanese soldiers rarely surrendered and held those who did in contempt. The Japanese soldier was the product of a brutal military system in which physical punishment was common and they treated the POWs accordingly. Moreover, the Filipino and American soldiers arriving at Camp O'Donnell were in poor physical condition, having survived on short rations for several months. Many were suffering from malaria and other diseases. The Japanese had made little provision for the treatment of prisoners and were surprised at the large number they captured. They had believed the force opposing them in Bataan was much smaller and that the prisoners would number only about 10,000 rather than the 70,000 or more they actually captured. The Japanese were unprepared to provide the POWs with adequate food, shelter, and medical treatment. Japanese military leadership was inattentive to the POWs, preoccupied with completing their conquest of the Philippines. Moreover, the Japanese declined to treat the POWs in accordance with the Geneva Convention of 1929 which Japan had signed, but had not ratified.
Conditions at Camp O'Donnell were primitive. The POWs lived in bamboo huts, sleeping on the bamboo floor often without any covering. There was no plumbing; water was scarce. Weakened by malaria, dysentery was rampant. Medicine was in short supply. Food consisted of rice and vegetable soup, occasionally with shreds of water buffalo meat. The diet provided about 1,500 calories daily and was deficient in protein and vitamins. Vitamin deficiency illnesses such as beri-beri and pelagra developed among many. The Japanese refused most offers of assistance for the POWs, including from the Philippine Red Cross.
The consequences of the hardships were hundreds of POW deaths daily. For the Americans, the deadliest day was May 29 when 50 soldiers died. Filipino deaths were much higher in numbers and percentages. About 20,000 Filipinos died. The number of Americans who died at Camp O'Donnell has been precisely calculated at 1,547, about one-sixth of the total number of American POWs.
The American POWs at Camp O'Donnell were moved to new POW camps near Cabanatuan. About 120 senior officers, including General Wainwright, commander of U.S. forces in the Philippines, were taken to a camp near Tarlac City after their surrender at Corregidor in May 1942.
Camp O'Donnell was later transferred to the US Air Force and became home to the 3rd Tactical Electronic Warfare Training Squadron, the Pacific Air Forces Electronic Warfare Range, and the Crow Valley Range Complex. Operating Location Delta (OL-D) of the 1961st Communications Group was also located at Camp O'Donnell. OL-D provided communications support to Camp O'Donnell, the Crow Valley Range Complex, worldwide high-frequency military transmitters and microwave relay support Voice of America broadcasts out of the Philippines.
The former internment camp is the location for the Capas National Shrine which was built and is maintained by the Philippine government as a memorial to the Filipino and American soldiers who died there. A huge obelisk now stands as a grave marker on the original site of the camp, which charges an entrance fee of less than Ph₱20 per head.
- The number of POWs at Camp O'Donnell is variously estimated and in the case of the Filipinos is little more than a guess. The number of Americans dying at the camp has been calculated with some precision, but the number of Filipino deaths is only an estimate.
- Beckenbaugh, Lisa and Harris, Heather, "Casualties of the Philippines POW Camps O'Donnell and Cabanatuan and the history of their burials," http://bataanmissing.com/wp-includes/files/Cabanatuan_History.pdf, accessed 4 Apr 2016
- Beckenbaugh and Harris, pp. 2-3
- "Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders in the U.S. Army," https://www.army.mil/asianpacificamericans/history, accessed 6 May 2016
- Skelton III, William Paul "American Ex-Prisoners of War", Department of Veterans Affairs, pp. 12-19
- Kerr, E. Bartlett (1985), Surrender & Survival: The Experience of American POWs in the Pacific 1941-1945, New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., pp. 61-63
- O'Donnell Provost Marshal Report
- Beckenbaugh and Harris, p. 3
- Kerr, p. 102
- Capas National Shrine page on the site of the Philippine Veterans Affairs Office