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Easter events under Rising Sun

/ 12:07 AM April 06, 2015

ONE OF the happiest days of my youth, almost comparable to Christmas, was Easter Sunday. By Black Saturday excitement was at fever pitch as one could sense the preparations that were underway for the Great Easter Egg Hunt that would take place the following day. The search for Easter eggs hidden mostly in the garden area of our home, would be the high point of the family celebration. And after the quiet solemnity of the previous days, Easter Sunday was a day of fun, joy and laughter.

Part of my youth was also spent under very different circumstances. Enemy occupation is an experience that hopefully our people will never have to undergo in their lifetime.

For me, it also started in Baguio City in December 1941, when an airplane with strange insignias flew over the city at such a low altitude that one could see the pilot in his open cockpit. The markings on the plane consisted of a red ball on its wings and fuselage.

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This event was followed some weeks later with the arrival of strange-looking soldiers in dun-colored uniforms with puttees wrapped around the legs from ankle to knee. They wore canvas boots, split-toed with the big toe separated from the other toes. Their headgear consisted of a peaked cap with cloth flaps at the back hanging over the neck. Suddenly, we found our lives completely enveloped in an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty.

But on Easter Sunday, April 5, 1942, the biggest change in the life of a young boy was the absence of the Great Easter Egg Hunt. It was clear that a new order was in place.

Little did we know that several hundred kilometers southeast of Baguio City, Filipino and American forces were in a life-and-death struggle fighting a rear-guard action against well-armed and well-equipped Japanese military units. April 1942 was a desperate month for Filipino-American forces in Bataan. In March, Gen. Douglas MacArthur left Corregidor for Australia. Maj. Gen. Jonathan Wainwright assumed command of US Army forces in the Philippines, while Maj. Gen. Edward King Jr. took over as Bataan commander.

Four days after Easter Sunday, on April 9, 1942, General King met with representatives of Gen. Masaharu Homma, commander of the Japanese 14th Army, to discuss the terms of surrender. It was Col. Motoo Nakayama, a senior operations officer of Homma, who faced King and his party. For a while, there was some confusion as the Japanese 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.”

* * *

The Japanese had anticipated capturing 40,000 men. Instead they had 75,500 prisoners with the Filipinos numbering 64,000 along with 11,500 Americans.

Of the 75,500 prisoners approximately 64,000 reached Camp O’Donnell in Tarlac, the designated concentration camp. 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.

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On April 11, 1942, Filipino troops of the 91st Philippine Army Division, under Brig. Gen. 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 of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army, describes what took place:

“At about noon, a Japanese officer identified as Lt. Gen. 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 350-400 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 of 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 sabers. 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 their 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 in Bataan. It was without doubt the worst single atrocity of the war.

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After the conflict, Gen. Tomuyoki Yamashita, commander of all Japanese forces in the Philippines, Gen. Masaharu Homma, whose troops were responsible for the Death March, and Gen. Kou Shiyoku, commandant of the POW camps in the Philippines, were tried by a US military commission in Manila, and executed.

Nara, 65th’s brigade commander, was never charged. Perhaps, he died during the war. But if he is still alive, efforts should be made to bring him to justice just as Nazi war criminals continue to be hunted down by Israel.

* * *

Much has been said and written about the gallant stand of the defenders of Bataan and Corregidor. 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.

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