T.S. Eliot opened ‘The Burial’ of his very influential poetic work ‘The Wasteland’ with “April is the cruellest month.” He wrote that line 20 years before the Fall of Bataan on April 9, 1942 when the Bataan peninsula was reduced almost to a wasteland by Japanese bombs, and there was no burial for the lost defenders of freedom there.
I have been reading the unpublished memoirs of two Filipino veterans of the Second World War: one was able to escape when Bataan fell, and the other became a prisoner of war (POW), one of those who marched day and night from Mariveles or Bagac to Camp O’Donnell in Capas, Tarlac.
Defender A recalled the first week of that cruel month when Japanese planes relentlessly bombarded their positions. Army trucks were either loaded with the dead and wounded soldiers, or carried reinforcements to the front line. He could even remember that there was a strong earthquake on the night of April 5. Four days later, his unit in Mariveles was ordered to dismantle, destroy and dispose their guns and ammunition: the US military forces have surrendered.
His officer gave them a choice: proceed to the concentration camp or escape. He and several comrades decided to flee since their province Zambales is near, just north of the peninsula. On the night of the 9th, they took advantage of the dark, changed into the civilian clothes and shoes they were able to keep since their enlistment in December 1941. The next day, they joined fleeing civilians, and as camouflage, they helped carry loads and exchanged what they have such as the anti-malaria yellow pills for food and other basic needs. They too were harassed by Japanese soldiers who took away watches, jewelries and other valuables from civilians.
They passed by prisoners of war being formed into columns of 4 or 6 individuals, and saw the atrocities being inflicted on the weak and the sick: slow marchers were bayoneted or shot, and left behind.
They reached their hometown safely even if Japanese sentries accosted them on the road several times. Their alibi that they were college students going home even elicited kindness once: they were given ten bags of sugar.
Sometime in September 1942, he recalled, all the escapees were asked to register so that they can be issued a safe conduct pass or identification card. POWs were also being released from the concentration camp in Capas, and the survivors started to arrive in their town.
Defender B was with the 75,000 Filipino and 10,000 American soldiers that arrived in Balanga from Mariveles on April 11. He would survive the ordeal of the death march on the 128-kilometer road to Capas.
He remembered that early in the morning of April 3, Good Friday, the Japanese launched a massive military offensive with infantry assaults, artillery shelling, and air bombings. The soldiers were constantly on the move without transport, hungry with their kitchen gone and drinking water when they came upon a river or stream. At noon of April 9, he saw three civilian trucks with soldiers waving white Ilocano blankets, the flags of surrender.
His unit proceeded to Mariveles where they were lined up as POWs. The Japanese were enticing the Filipinos soldiers still hiding to come out and go home. As the prisoners grew in number, so did the Japanese guards who confiscated their valuables. The caricature of the enemy soldier displaying two watches in his forearms was true.
There was scarcely food and water during the death march. Sometines they would be given a ball of rice. Kind civilians offered them food on the road sides, which caused commotion and disorder in the ranks. The Japanese guards kicked away food and drinks left by the people on the road for POWs to pick up.
He remembered a stockpile of unthreshed rice, which quickly vanished with marchers grabbing handfuls as they passed by. He pounded what he got with a stone, carried them in a sock to cook hurriedly during a pause in the long march. He experienced chewing cane pulled from a sugar cane field, and taking three chicken eggs from under an abandoned house by the road.
The POWs would dash to an artesian well or to running faucets, and go back to their lines with their water canteens sometimes barely full. But thirsty POWs would drink from canals even if there were floating corpses upstream.
There was always the bayonet of the enemy to get rid of the tired and sick caught resting under trees. Those who were still of good mind escaped death by resting under road culverts where the guards could not see them.
Before they reached San Fernando, Pampanga, where they were loaded on box cargo trains for Capas, Tarlac, he saw how some civilians took advantage of them especially those who still had money to buy food. He described how the POWs were cheated of their money. But there was one occasion he fondly remembered: the people of Bacolor gave them cooked rice and a piece of fried chicken or milkfish.
Defender B stayed at Camp O’Donnell until he was released in October 1942. At one time he served in the water detail, which afforded him opportunity to take a bath in the river before they brought back the water containers to the camp. He also got assigned to the burial detail, which required them to carry stinking cadavers to the burial grounds.
My father was already working as a federal employee at the US naval station in Cavite when war broke out. His best friend Pantaleon Cawagas was in the Philippine Army, one of POWs that marched to Capas. This war survivor became a well-liked public school teacher.
He was honoured by his son-in-law Sonny Busa, chairman of the board of the Philippine-American Foundation for Charities, Inc. (PAFC), and granddaughter Maera at the25th Annual Bataan Memorial Death March at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico on March 23. Maera carried her grandfather’s name during the marathon event.
If Cawagas lived longer, he could have joined the 13 Bataan survivors present and witness the start and completion of the two marathon events: the full route of 26.2 miles and the shorter one of 14 miles. The longer route enabled the participants to experience what the soldiers of 1942 endured, while the shorter one was for those who wished only to memorialize Bataan.
Busa considers the memorial march as “the most meaningful manifestation of the special American-Philippine relationship.” This year, there were “ 6,500 Americans and Filipinos [who] braved the sands and heat of the New Mexican desert to march all or part of 26 miles to honor the heroes of the Bataan Death March where thousands of Americans and Filipino soldiers died in the defense of freedom on April 1942.”
The Philippines has been paying tribute to the heroes of Bataan and Corregidor since 1980 when April 9 became a national day of observance, and reaffirmed as “Araw ng Kagitingan” (Day of Valor) in 1987.
The Philippine President usually leads the national commemoration with ceremonies at the Dambana ng Kagitingan (Shrine of Valour) on Mount Samat, Pilar, Bataan, which was completed and inaugurated in 1970. The shrine consists of a colonnade with an altar, an esplanade and a museum; and a Memorial Cross towering 92 meters from its base.
Travellers are reminded of the extreme sacrifices of the war heroes by markers denoting each kilometer that the marchers hiked on their way to Camp O’Donnell in Capas, Tarlac. At the Layac junction in Dinalupihan stands a monument commemorating the first line of defense of the Philippine USAFFE forces against the Japanese invaders.
In our town, the war veterans organized the provincial chapter of the Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor, and erected a memorial to honor those who perished. To keep alive historical memory among the post-war generation, they inscribed: “As units of the USAFFE (United States Armed Forces in the Far East), we engaged and held at bay for more than four months the invading Japanese Imperial Forces in the battlefields in Bataan and Corregidor during World War II, thus delaying the enemy’s timetable for the conquest of South East Asia and giving the American forces time to regroup in Australia.”