We Did Not Surrender: The POW Experience in the Philippines

Guiding Question:

How did American prisoners of war survive the war in the Pacific?


Using primary sources from Pacific Theater veterans including memoirs, testimonies, and photographs, students will investigate the capture, camp experience, and means of survival of prisoners of war at the Cabanatuan POW Camp in the Philippines.


Historical Context

The Third Geneva Convention established international rules for the treatment of prisoners of war in 1929. However, after the Japanese attacked the Philippines in December 1941 and took control of the islands in April 1942, they forced Allied soldiers to march across the Bataan Peninsula with little water, food, or rest in the hot, tropical climate of the Philippines. Some stragglers that could not keep up on the march were executed at point blank range by the Japanese. Approximately 75,000 Americans and Filipinos were forced on the Bataan Death March. Once they arrived at Camp Cabanatuan, prisoners endured food shortages, brutal physical conditions, and life-threatening diseases. While thousands died as a result, others were able to survive the conditions until a dramatic rescue, initiated by the U.S. Army Rangers, saved hundreds in January 1945.


At the conclusion of this lesson, students will be able to

  • Describe the experience of Pacific prisoners of war in the Bataan Death March and the Cabanatuan Camp; and
  • Recognize, in writing, the survival and sacrifice of the soldiers who were held as prisoners in the Pacific.

Standards Connections

Connections to Common Core
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, attending to such features as the date and origin of the information.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.3 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of how key events or ideas develop over the course of the text.

Connections to C3 Framework
D2.His.16.9-12 Integrate evidence from multiple relevant historical sources and interpretations into a reasoned argument about the past.


Lesson Preparation


Activity One: The Geneva Convention (15 minutes)

  • Ask students to individually read the excerpt of the Convention Between the United States of America and Other Powers, Relating to Prisoners of War, Articles 10-14, and summarize each article in one sentence using the POW Organizer.
  • Using a computer and projector, have the whole class observe World War II: A Visual History. To access, click “Enter” and then select “Philippine Islands Campaign.”
    • Ask students to read the summary and watch the video clip that describes the Japanese invasion of the Philippine Islands in December 1941.
  • Ask each student to write predictions on the POW Organizer regarding the treatment of Allied soldiers during their capture and as prisoners in the camp.

Activity Two: Source Analysis (20 minutes)

  • Move students into groups of three students each.
  • Ask students to take a Primary Source Packet (either Capture, Camp, or Survival) and divide the documents amongst themselves so that each student has one document to examine or read from the first packet. There may be extra documents so that students can choose one that most appeals to them.
  • Ask each student to list three pieces of evidence from his document in the POW Organizer and complete a reflection of that document using one of the sentence starters.
  • Repeat the process for the other two Primary Source Packets until their POW Organizer is complete. At the end of this process, each student will have examined three documents, one from each Primary Source Packet, different from those selected by their partners.

Activity Three: Small Group Discussion (15 minutes)

  • Ask each group of students to participate in a small group discussion sharing their insights and reflections from the documents regarding the treatment of prisoners of war.
  • Ask students to share some of their discussion points with the entire class.

Assessment Materials

  • Ask students to write a persuasive letter advocating greater recognition of the sacrifice and survival efforts of Pacific prisoners of war after reading the ABMC biography of Private Evans Overbey. These can take the form of letters to the editor of local newspapers or letters to local government officials. Students will include evidence from their POW Organizers as support for their arguments.
  • The Assessment Rubric can be used to evaluate final letters.

Methods for Extension

  • Students can investigate the process and results of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal after World War II.
  • Students can compare and contrast the experience of American POWs in World War II with that of Axis POWs under American control.
  • Students can research the current international rules for POW treatment.


  • Teachers can create heterogeneous groups of students with varied abilities and reading levels to support deeper analysis and discussion within the group.
  • Students with reading challenges can opt to analyze visual documents.
  • Students can design a monument to honor the experiences of prisoners of war in lieu of a written assessment.


Return to Activity

Secondary Sources

Other Sources