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The names Normandy, Dunkirk, Bastogne, Iwo Jima, Bataan and Corregidor are hallowed names of places where epic battles of World War II were fought.
Those fought in Bataan and Corregidor became the watershed of the war of attrition in the Philippines where the Filipinos, trained during the Commonwealth period, had proved their mettle in combat alongside their GI comrades-in-arms.
The remaining forces of the United States Armed Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) composed of Filipinos and Americans then commanded by Gen. Douglas MacArthur were withdrawn to the Bataan Peninsula where they made their last stand against the Japanese banzai attack.
Gen. MacArthur then retreated to Australia, upon order of President Roosevelt, to plan the liberation of the Philippines which started in October 1944 in the Leyte landing when he announced his return. Before that he made his famous “I Shall Return” vow that resounded around the world.
Due to the relentless assaults by land and by sea by the Japanese, and because of dwindling supplies of food, medicines and munitions, the resistance forces hold up in Bataan and Corregidor capitulated on April 9, 1942, a day of infamy.
That was the fall of Bataan and the infamous Death March began. The fall of Bataan meant the surrender to the Japanese of more than 75,000 soldiers, 67,000 of them where remnants of the Philippine Scouts and those who served in the Commonwealth Army. This was the single, largest surrender of a military force in the annals of war.
The Bataan Death March was accounted as a Japanese war crime and the accountability fell into the lap of Gen. Masharu Homma, then the over-all commander of the Japanese Imperial Forces in the Philippines. He was convicted to die by an Allied Commission on April 3, 1946 outside Manila.
The March invovled the transfer of the 75,000 war prisoners from Mariveles, Bataan to Camp O’Donnell internment camp in Capas, Tarlac -- a 60 mile (97 kms) walk lasting nearly a week -- a litmus test of endurance, agony and pain. Under searing summer heat, some walking with blistered feet on hot dusty roads, the march was characterized as a gory spectacle of brutality and insensate evil.
Thousands died en route from disease, starvation, dehydration, decapitation. Thousands more perished in the concentration camps in Capas and Cabanatuan. Fortunate were those who were able to escape under cover of darkness when they came upon sugarcane fields on both sides of the route.
I had a brief phone interview with a survivor, the 95-year-old uncle of my deceased wife, now bedridden in the Philippines. He said he was beaten by a rifle butt when he tried to assist a fallen comrade due to exhaustion. He couldn’t imagine how he had pulled through under such atrocious circumstances. He couldn’t contain his emotion and I felt his anguish as he broke down during the interview.
Most of them have faded away, like old soldiers, a sorry lot they haven’t seen the light of day. Those still living are now in their twilight years and suffering a host of health issues and maladies. After decades of painful waiting they have finally received the benefits promised them by Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt when the war broke out.
If it is any solace this paltry sum is better than nothing, though late, or never. It was a relief and gratitude that the US government had finally addressed an inequality and injustice that had festered these aging and sick veterans for over six decades.
But the story goes that when one veteran received his check, in his exhultation, he collapsed and died in glee, the check still clasped over his heart. Which is tantamount to saying “Aanhin pa ang damo kung patay na ang kabayo!” (What is the grass for if the horse had already died!)
Every year in April 9 the Philippines commemorates Araw ng Kagitingan (Day of Valor) a public holiday, in tribute to our veterans. In many cities in the U.S. where still live Bataan and Corregidor war veterans, or had lived, there are similar tributes, ie. a highway, a bridge, a school building, an edifice, a trail, or an annual Bataan Day March.
But the most enduring shrines of all that keep the memories alive for all eternity are those in the Philippines. There is Capas National Shrine in Camp O’Donnell in Tarlac along MacArthyr Highway to commemorate the Death March. There is the Dambana ng Kagitingan (Altar of Valor) on Mt. Samat in Mariveles, Bataan with a colonnade that houses an altar, esplanade, a museum. It also features a gleaming cross towering 92 meters in the sky as if it’s still sounding “Taps” that reverberate all over a vast expanse of reverent silence of what was once a scorched land where was fought the Battle of Bataan.
All these are fitting tributes to the fortitude, valor and courage of our veterans who fought in Bataan and Corregidor, suffered or died in the Death March that followed, a war time event never before witnessed anywhere in the history of mankind.