Cold-blooded murder in Bataan
Last week, I asked a young lady from Balanga, Bataan, what she knew about the events that took place in her home province 77 years ago. Understandably, she only had sketchy ideas about what happened during those fateful days in April 1942, and why tomorrow is a national holiday.
Let me provide some background.
In December 1941, Japanese forces attacked US military installations in the Philippines destroying much of what represented American air power in the region. After three months of heavy fighting in the Bataan Peninsula, Maj. Gen. Edward King, commander of Luzon Force defending the Peninsula, surrendered to Japan’s 14th Army led by Gen. Masaharu Homma on April 9, 1942. David McCullough in his prize-winning biography of President Harry Truman described the capitulation as “the largest surrender of an American force since Appomattox.” (Appomattox, a small village in Virginia, was the scene of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia to Gen. Ulysses Grant in 1865, signaling the end of the US Civil War. The surrender also took place on April 9. Lee surrendered an army of 28,000, while King gave up a Fil-American force of 75,000.)
Not many people are aware that King surrendered without informing his immediate superior, Lt. Gen. Jonathan Wainwright, the commander of US Forces in the Philippines who had replaced
Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Upon learning of the surrender “MacArthur was shocked and demanded of Wainwright a full explanation of King’s conduct. Wainwright replied that he had expressly forbidden such action and that King did not broach the subject of capitulation to him.” Nevertheless Wainwright refused to criticize King because “the decision which he was forced to make required unusual courage and strength of character.”
Tomorrow, we shall mark Araw ng Kagitingan with the traditional visit by the President or his representative accompanied by Japanese and American embassy officials to the Dambana ng Kagitingan on Mount Samat. We shall once again recall the heroism of men who fought fierce battles in Bataan. We shall relive the Death March and remember the concentration camp atrocities at O’Donnell in Tarlac.
In our thoughts and prayers, let us not forget what happened to some 350 to 400 Filipino officers and men of the 91st Philippine Army Division.
On April 11, 1942, just two days after the surrender, this group
was separated from their American colleagues and moved to the Pantingan River that crosses the Pilar-Bagac road. In his book “Bataan: The March of Death,” American military historian Stanley Falk describes what took place after the separation: “The captives were formed into three groups and their wrists tied securely with double-strand telephone wire… At a given signal, the execution began. Japanese officers moved down the line from one end, mercilessly beheading the luckless Filipinos with their gleaming sabers. From the other end, 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…” When the slaughter was over, only a few prisoners remained alive buried beneath their slain comrades.
The massacre of Filipino officers and non-coms of the 91st Philippine Army Division remains a mystery of the Bataan saga that has never been fully explained. It was apparently aimed only at Filipinos. And yet, in our commemoration of Araw ng Kagitingan, there is hardly any mention of the event. Much of the national attention centers on the Death March. Painful as it may be, we must confront the fact that what took place was not the usual loss of life in battle — it was a case of the cold-blooded mass murder of prisoners of war.
Have we ever identified who were these officers and men? There should be a roster somewhere of the men belonging to the division. Why were they singled out for execution? Have we dedicated a special portion of our commemorations to remember their memory? How often in world conflicts covered by the Geneva Convention have prisoners of war been treated in such an outrageous manner and then are forgotten by the nation they served? After the war, Homma was tried by an American tribunal for atrocities committed by his troops during the Bataan Death March. Apparently, the mass murder at the Pantingan River was not among the charges made against him.
Each year our national leaders celebrate Araw ng Kagitingan with speeches about the heroism and valor of those who fought in Bataan. Let us also remember those who lost their lives, victims of inhuman conduct by a savage enemy flushed with victory.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.