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April in Bataan

/ 12:41 AM April 24, 2017

The month of April has always been dedicated to the memory of our veterans who fought and died during World War II. This is because the Fall of Bataan and the Death March that followed are some of the major events that took place in April 1942.

Unfortunately when we commemorate Araw ng Kagitingan much of the attention is focused on the “March of Death,” a grueling and brutal trek by Filipino and American captives that resulted in the death of anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 Filipinos and approximately 650 Americans.

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But there is a little known incident that took place just two days after the surrender.

Every Filipino should be aware of this episode, perhaps even more than the Death March.

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This column is to honor the memory of our soldiers who were murdered by their captors in what is known in some historical accounts as the “Pantingan River Massacre.”

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 that crosses the Pilar-Bagac Road.

In his book “Bataan: The March of Death,” Stanley L. Falk, a historian with the Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army, describes what took place after the separation: “At about noon a Japanese officer identified as Brig. 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 many of our soldiers died fighting against you.’

“At a given signal, the execution began. Japanese officers moved down the line from one end, mercilessly beheading the luckless Filipinos with their gleaming sabres. From the other end, the Japanese enlisted men worked toward them, methodically plunging their bayonets into the backs of the prisoners. For two hours the grisly slaughter continued, the Japanese sweating at their work in the hot sun, pausing to wipe away the perspiration and then returning to their grim task. The agonized cries of the Filipinos were punctuated by the grunts of the Japanese as they thrust their bayonets home or swung their heavy swords through the air. If a single bayonet thrust or sword slash did not kill a man, he would be struck again and again until dead.”

When the slaughter was over, only a few prisoners remained alive, buried beneath their slain comrades. One of them was Maj. Pedro Felix. He received four bayonet wounds after which his executioner, assuming Felix was dead, moved on to the next man. Felix was able to escape as darkness fell, making his way out of Bataan and returning home near Manila. Another survivor was Lt. Manuel Yan, who later became AFP chief of staff and Philippine ambassador to Thailand and later to Indonesia. Capt. Ricardo Papa, G-3 of the Division, and later chief of the Manila Police Department, also survived the killings. The massacre of the Filipino officers and noncoms of the 91st Division was apparently the only mass execution to take place in Bataan.

After the conflict, Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, commander of all Japanese forces in the Philippines, and Gen. Masaharu
Homma, whose troops were responsible for the Death March, were tried by a US Military Commission in Manila and executed. Brig. Gen. Akira Nara, commander of the brigade that carried out the Pantingan River executions, was a graduate of the US Army Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia, and was a student at Amherst College in the United States. He seemed the least likely type of Japanese to order such a massacre. But since the executions started after he left the area, he must have known it
was about to happen. He was never charged and his whereabouts remain unknown.

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What is surprising is that in our commemorations of Araw ng Kagitingan, there is rarely any specific mention of the more than 300 Filipino officers and noncoms who were executed at the Pantingan River. Our selective memory appears to set aside any thought of these soldiers as though the event that took place was some ordinary action that is expected in any conflict. What took place was not the usual loss of life in war; it was a case of mass murder of captives.

The events at the Pantingan River remind me of an incident that took place in April 1940. Some 22,000 members of the Polish officer corps captured by the Russians were executed by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, at the Katyn Forest in Russia where the prisoners were being held.

In 1991 the Russian Federation, after several investigations, confirmed that the Soviets were responsible for the massacre, blaming Stalin and other officials for the executions.

On April 10, 2010, an aircraft carrying Polish President Lech Kaczynski, with his wife and 87 other Polish officials, crashed at Smolensk in Russia, killing all on board. They were on their way to attend the 70th anniversary of the Katyn Forest massacre.

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TAGS: Death March, Fall of Bataan, Veterans, World War II
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