From barracks to battlefields
Cadets of the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) were in parade formation, two battalions of 300-strong. It was the traditional Sunday evening parade being carried out in a pageantry of color and precision, accompanied by martial music. That particular Sunday was cloudless, with cold winds blowing across the parade ground, causing spectators to wrap their coats a bit tighter than usual.
The cadets were in full dress uniform with highly polished buttons, buckles, and breastplates. Their officers sported black feather plumes and red silk sashes with sabers at their side. It was a sight that always elicited admiration from an appreciative audience, many of whom were visitors from the lowlands.
No one among the cadets had the premonition that this would be their last performance not just for the year, but also for the next few years of Japanese occupation.
Commonwealth Act No. 1, also known as the National Defense Act, was promulgated by the National Assembly of the Philippine Commonwealth on Dec. 21, 1935. Among many other provisions, the act prescribed a four-year course of instruction for cadets at the PMA. Under the new curriculum, two batches—class 1940 and class 1941—graduated and were commissioned in the Philippine Army.
Incidentally, for reasons not clear to me, the above date Dec. 21, is observed as AFP Foundation Day. How can legislation enacted by a Commonwealth government loyal to a foreign entity be the basis for the establishment of our armed forces? But then, there are a number of issues concerning the history of our military organization that remain controversial. We live with the existing situation even as we continue to search for the truth.
In December 1941, the academy had four classes undergoing training. The first class cadets, members of class 1942, were scheduled to graduate in March 1942 just three months away.
On Monday morning following the Dec. 7 Sunday evening parade, the cadet mess hall’s radio blared out the news of an attack on Pearl Harbor: “War, the Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor.” The report was sketchy, stating only that carrier-based bombers and fighters had attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, home of the US Pacific Fleet. That same morning, Camp John Hay was bombed. We were at war with Japan.
The cadet corps was hastily assembled and in a convoy of 12 civilian buses and six army trucks, it proceeded to Manila. On the way, the convoy would be strafed by low-flying fighter planes with the red ball insignia on their wings and fuselage. The corps arrived at the campus of the University of Santo Tomas, where the chief of staff of the Philippine Army, Maj. Gen. Basilio Valdes, accompanied by the PMA superintendent, Col. Fidel Segundo, met the group. Here the adjutant read the general orders that spelled out their status in the armed forces.
The members of the two upper-most classes of 1942 and 1943 were commissioned as third lieutenants of the Philippine Army effective Dec. 13, 1941. The chief of staff then administered their oaths of office and gave a short talk of advice and encouragement. The new officers were granted a few days’ leave to bid goodbye to loved ones, but were ordered to report to their assignments not later than Dec. 21. In happier times, their thoughts were focused on graduation and, possibly, marriage to cadet sweethearts. Instead, they were being shipped out to battlefields in Bataan to fight against a deadly and experienced enemy force.
The members of the two lower classes of 1944 and 1945 were given indefinite leaves of absence. In effect, they were disbanded and sent home. Many members of these disbanded units would fight as volunteer-enlisted men in Bataan. After the surrender of Bataan and Corregidor, they would head for the hills, organizing guerrilla units to continue resistance. Among them were Eleuterio Adevoso, Juanito Ferrer, and Frisco San Juan.
In the case of classes 1942 and 1943, many would serve as platoon leaders and distinguish themselves in fierce actions that took place during the war. Assigned to the First Regular Division was a member of class 1942, Lt. Eliseo D. Rio. In his book “Rays of a Setting Sun,” Rio relates one particular encounter known as the “Battle of the Pockets.” (Pockets refer to enemy units that were trapped within sectors controlled by allied forces.)
“In the ‘Battle of the Pockets’ we had pulled off what undoubtedly was a signal and decisive victory. For the first time in the war, we had engaged the enemy in a major offensive operation and wiped out an entire battalion of about a thousand men. Moreover, we estimated the enemy must have suffered at least another thousand casualties in the waves of ‘banzai’ attacks they hurled against our frontlines in their desperate attempts to rescue their trapped countrymen.”
Rio also recalls that “leadership at the critical levels of command were provided mostly by the young Third Lieutenants who, a little over two months before, were jolly and care-free cadets of the Philippine Military Academy… somehow with their training and fortitude they were transformed overnight into highly effective leaders on the fields of battle.”
The PMA would close its doors and suspend operations on Dec. 21, 1941. It would reopen six years later, on April 1, 1947, at Camp Henry T. Allen, Baguio City.
In March 1948, formal graduation ceremonies were held for 72 members of class 1942. It was six years past the original scheduled date. At the belated graduation rites, 18 members of the class were absent. They lay in peace at their final resting places in Bataan and elsewhere around the country. While they had close relatives representing them at the ceremonies, their assigned places were left vacant so that “their spirits could be with us to partake of a ritual that for them came a bit too late.”
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