LAST SATURDAY, April 9, marked the 69th anniversary of the fall of Bataan. In 1987 President Corazon Aquino issued Executive Order No. 23 declaring April 9 a regular holiday nationwide in memory of the valor and heroism of the men and women who fought and died on the battlefields of Bataan and Corregidor during World War II. Her son, President Benigno Aquino III, has continued the practice of commemorating the event with a wreath-laying ceremony at the Dambana ng Kagitingan in Pilar, Bataan, accompanied by the US and Japanese ambassadors.
Much has been said and written about the gallant stand of the defenders of Bataan and Corregidor. But it does not alter the fact that April 9 was a day of surrender and defeat. The fall of Bataan was the single greatest military debacle suffered by the United States and involved the surrender of the largest American-led military force in US history. It is not and has never been celebrated as a national holiday in the United States.
* * *
April 1942 was a desperate month for Filipino-American forces in Bataan. In March, General Douglas MacArthur left Corregidor for Australia. Major General Jonathan Wainwright assumed command of US Army Forces in the Philippines (USAFIP) while Major General Edward King Jr. took over as Bataan commander.
The plight of the Bataan men and their sense of abandonment were best captured by the following chant said to have been penned by an American newsman:
“We’re the battling bastards of Bataan,
No mama, no papa, no Uncle Sam,
No aunts, no uncles, no nephews, no nieces,
No pills, no planes, no artillery pieces,
… and nobody gives a damn.”
Shortly after 9 o’clock on the morning of April 9, 1942 General King, against the orders of Generals MacArthur and Wainwright, met with representatives of General Masaharu Homma, commander of the Japanese 14th Army, to discuss the terms of surrender. Homma himself refused to appear, believing that King was merely a representative of Wainwright. It was Colonel Motoo Nakayama, a senior operations officer of Homma, who faced King and his party.
In his book “Ghost Soldiers,” Hampton Sides describes the surrender scene:
“From the start Nakayama was greatly confused about the nature of King’s relationship to Wainwright and just what it was that King was offering to surrender.” As far as the Japanese were concerned, Bataan and Corregidor were one and the same, and insisted on the presence of Wainwright. When King brought up the Geneva Convention and expressed concern about the safety of his men, he was brusquely cut off with Nakayama saying, “The Imperial Japanese Army are not barbarians.”
In the end King realized he had no choice but unconditional surrender. Instead of a sword, he rested his .45 caliber pistol upon the table.
Bataan had fallen.
* * *
The Japanese had anticipated capturing 40,000 men. Instead they had 75,500 prisoners, with Filipinos numbering some 64,000 along with 11,500 Americans. Earlier plans had been made to evacuate the surrenderees from the frontlines. Those plans involved marching them to San Fernando, Pampanga, from different points in Bataan and then, using railroad boxcars, transfer them to Capas, Tarlac, located beside Camp O’Donnell, the designated concentration camp.
Of the 75,500 prisoners, approximately 64,000 reached Camp O’Donnell. The rest died en route from disease, starvation and outright execution.
The Death March has always been identified with the fall of Bataan. But there is a little-known incident that took place two days after the surrender. Every Filipino should be aware of this episode even more than the Death March.
On April 11, 1942, Filipino troops of the 91st Philippine Army Division under Brigadier General Luther Stevens, were separated from their American officers and moved to the Pantingan River near Mariveles.
In his book “Bataan: The March of Death,” Stanley Falk, a historian with the office, chief of Military History, Department of the Army, describes what took place:
“At about noon, a Japanese officer identified as Lt. General Akira Nara, 65th Brigade Commander, arrived by automobile … There is no record of what Nara said during a quick conference with his officers but no sooner had he left, when all Filipino officers and non-commissioned officers in the group, about 350 to 400 men, were lined up along the trail. The Filipino privates were ordered to move on but the rest of the captives were formed into three groups and their wrists tied securely with double-strand telephone wire.
“As the unfortunate men stood with their backs to their captors, a Japanese civilian interpreter began to address them in Tagalog, saying ’My friends, don’t take it so hard. Had you surrendered earlier, you would not have met this tragedy. We are doing this because many of our soldiers died fighting against you.’
“At a given signal, the execution began. Japanese officers moved down the line mercilessly beheading the Filipinos with their sabres. From the other end the Japanese enlisted men methodically plunged their bayonets into the backs of the prisoners. For two hours, the grisly slaughter continued with the Japanese pausing to wipe away the perspiration and then returning to their grim task.”
When the slaughter was over, only half a dozen prisoners remained alive, buried beneath their slain comrades.
“The massacre of the Filipino officers and non-coms of the 91st Division was apparently the only mass execution to take place on Bataan.” Whoever was responsible for the slaughter, it was without doubt the worst single atrocity of the war.
* * *
After the conflict, General Tomoyuki Yamashita, commander of all Japanese forces in the Philippines, General Masaharu Homma, whose troops were responsible for the Death March and General Kou Shiyoku, commandant of the POW camps in the Philippines, were tried by a US Military Commission in Manila, and executed.
Lieutenant General Akira Nara, 65th Brigade commander, was never charged. If he is still alive, efforts must be made to bring him to justice just as Nazi war criminals continue to be prosecuted by governments.