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Our greatest martyr next only to Rizal

About two weeks ago, after a board meeting of the Philippine Veterans Affairs Office at Camp Aguinaldo, we were gifted with copies of the book, “Honor: The Legacy of Jose Abad Santos,” written by his grandniece-in-law, Desiree Ann Cua-Benipayo.

Benipayo writes that Chief Justice Jose Abad Santos was the highest government official executed by the Japanese during the Pacific War. At the time of his death by firing squad, Abad Santos was in fact the head of the Philippine government by virtue of a letter of authority signed by President Manuel L. Quezon prior to his departure for Australia, designating him as his “delegate” with full presidential powers.

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When I was in high school after the war and even as a cadet at
the Philippine Military Academy, I don’t recall hearing much about Jose Abad Santos. There were vague references to a high-ranking official who was executed by the Japanese in Lanao del Sur but there was no widespread dissemination about the nobility of his death that would have left a deeper impression about the man who suffered martyrdom for his country. Benipayo’s book provides a lot of detail that reveals much about Abad Santos and how he died, a death even his executioners described as “heroic and glorious.”

Who was Chief Justice Jose Abad Santos?

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Jose Abad Santos was the seventh of 10 children born to Don Vicente Abad Santos and Doña Toribia Basco, both natives of Pampanga. According to the author, Don Vicente wanted to distinguish himself from the many “Santoses” in the country. So he added “Abad” to his surname. Today, anyone bearing the compound surname “Abad Santos” is likely to be a descendant of Don Vicente and Doña Toribia.

Jose Abad Santos went by the nickname “Sengseng” and was considered his parents’ favorite, “the kind that every parent would wish for.” The eldest of the siblings was Pedro who founded the Socialist Party of the Philippines, leading the fight for the rights of peasants, first in the province and later, nationwide. At certain points in the lives of the two brothers, they would find themselves in opposite camps.

In 1904, Abad Santos was sent to the United States to study under the Pensionado Act of 1903. The Pensionado program was part of an attempt to remake Filipinos in the image of Americans by opening their eyes to American culture and civilization. From 1904 to 1909, Abad Santos picked up a Bachelor of Laws degree from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and a Master of Laws from George Washington University in the US capital.

Upon his return, he worked as a clerk at the archives division of the executive bureau. Here he took the Philippine Bar exams and flunked. He retook it the following year after a review of the local legal system that followed Spanish civil and penal codes. From the executive bureau, he was transferred to the Bureau of Justice as an assistant attorney. In his new assignment he met and courted Amanda Teopaco, daughter of family friend Pedro Teopaco. They were married in September 1918 with Pedro Abad Santos and Mrs. Aurea Escaler as principal sponsors.
Fast forward.

Shortly after the outbreak of the Pacific War in December 1941, President Manuel Quezon appointed Secretary of Justice Jose Abad Santos as Chief Justice upon the retirement of Ramon Avanceña. When Quezon moved to Corregidor he brought with him only three Cabinet officials: Vice President Sergio Osmeña, Chief Justice Jose Abad Santos, and General Basilio Valdes. Other people accompanying Quezon aside from family members were senior aide Col. Manuel Nieto, Private Secretary Serapio Canceran, and junior aide 3rd Lt. Jose “Pepito” Abad Santos Jr.

When Quezon followed Douglas MacArthur to Australia, he asked Abad Santos to join him. Abad Santos asked for permission to remain saying, “I believe my place is in the Philippines.” In April 1942 while in Cebu, in the company of Col. Benito Valeriano and Pepito, Abad Santos was captured by Japanese troops and brought to Cebu City. After learning that their prized catch was actually the head of government, senior Japanese officers demanded that he renounce his allegiance to the United States and serve in the new puppet regime that was being organized. They also called on him to contact Col. Manuel Roxas and tell US Armed Forces in the Far East units in Mindanao to surrender. Abad Santos replied: “To obey your commands is tantamount to being a traitor. I would rather die than live in shame.”

From Cebu, father and son were taken by boat to Mindanao. When they reached Malabang in Lanao del Sur, he was told of the orders for his execution. Upon learning of his death sentence, Pepito wept like a child. The father held him tightly saying: “Do not cry, Pepito. Show these people that you are brave. It is a rare opportunity for me to die for our country. Not everyone is given that chance.”

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On May 2, 1942, as Abad Santos walked toward the firing squad of seven soldiers, he kissed his son on the forehead and said, “God bless you, my son.” Pepito recounts, “I can still picture his soiled white, sharkskin coat flopping in the breeze. There was pride in his steps and with head held high, he marched off and never looked back.” Abad Santos refused to be blindfolded and declined a last cigarette offered by the enemy. Japanese officers at the scene related that Abad Santos “walked to the execution grounds with absolute tranquility.” After the war, the search for his remains proved fruitless.

In a tribute honoring his fellow Kapampangan, former President Diosdado Macapagal called Abad Santos “the greatest martyr of the Filipino race, next only to Rizal.”

These days, we commemorate the Fall of Bataan and Corregidor. We honor the valor and the sacrifices of our soldiers. We remember the Death March and the horrors of concentration camps. We have forgotten Jose Abad Santos.

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TAGS: Japanese Occupation, jose abad santos, Jose Rizal, Manuel L. Quezon, Ramon J. Farolan, Reveille, World War II
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