Death of a martyr
After Bataan surrendered on April 9, 1942, Japanese forces turned their attention toward Visayas and Mindanao. By this time, President Manuel Quezon had already left the Philippines
to join Gen. Douglas MacArthur in Australia. Before his departure, he designated Chief Justice Jose Abad Santos as his “delegate with full presidential powers” issuing a Letter of Authority to this effect. Aside from his duties as chief justice, Abad Santos was also acting secretary of finance, agriculture, and commerce. On his inspection trips, Abad Santos “as acting President of the Philippines, used the black Buick presidential car with Number 1 license plate, the Philippine and American flags decorating each side of the hood.”
While moving from Cebu to Negros, Abad Santos accompanied by his son Pepito and Col. Benito Valeriano, were captured by Japanese troops and taken to Cebu City for interrogation. They discovered that their prisoner was actually the head of the Commonwealth government. They presented him with three demands. First, that he renounce his allegiance to the United States. Second, that he serve in the new puppet government that was being organized. Third, that he contact Col. Manuel Roxas and order USAFFE units in Mindanao to surrender. His forceful answer that made the interrogators angry was, “I cannot accede to your demands, for I would be violating my oath of allegiance to the United States and to my country. To obey your commands is tantamount to
being a traitor. I would rather die than live in shame.”
From Cebu City, Abad Santos and his son Pepito were taken to Mindanao, first to Cotabato and later to Malabang in Lanao del Sur.
May 2, 1942 was a scorching hot summer day in the seaside town of Malabang. After being served lunch, Abad Santos was summoned to the headquarters of Maj. Gen. Kiyotake Kawaguchi, commander of Japanese forces in Mindanao. Here the general informed him that he was to be executed mainly for his refusal to cooperate and give in to their demands. Abad Santos asked for some time to be with his son. Kawaguchi allowed him 30 minutes. During his trial before a War Crimes Commission after the war, Kawaguchi would testify: “I have never seen a man act as greatly as he did. I have never seen a man who was that calm in the face of death. Death is a serious thing to human beings but he acted calmly as if he was just going home.”
When Abad Santos returned to the hut where father and son were being held, he told Pepito, “I am to be executed.” Bursting into tears, Pepito wept unashamedly. Holding him tight Abad Santos gently said, “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.” Then they both knelt down and prayed the Act of Contrition together.
May 2, 1942 was a Saturday. Abad Santos kissed his son on the forehead and said “God bless you, my son.” He refused to be blindfolded and declined a last cigarette offered by the enemy. He was shot under a tall coconut tree near a riverbank by a firing squad of seven soldiers. Witnesses at the scene related how Abad Santos “walked to the execution grounds with absolute tranquility.” A Japanese officer saw him “not only as a Filipino hero; he was a man every Japanese would respect…”
After the war, the search for the remains of Abad Santos proved fruitless. His son Pepito would write in his memoirs: “I like to think that it was as he would want it to be—his body commingled with the brown earth of the country he deeply loved.”
This coming Thursday, we mark the 77th anniversary of Abad Santos’ execution by the Japanese, the highest government official to be put to death during the Pacific War. President Manuel Roxas spoke of him as “probably the most enlightened and determined Filipino liberal of his time… He was one of Nature’s noblemen.” President Diosdado Macapagal paid tribute to his fellow provincemate, citing him as “the greatest martyr of the Filipino race next only to Rizal.”
Today very few Filipinos know about Jose Abad Santos, his life and the circumstances of his death. Schools and streets have been named after him, but if you ask the average citizen who he was, you may get a blank stare.
Abad Santos was executed for his refusal to renounce his
allegiance to the United States as well as to serve in the enemy-organized puppet government. Somehow I am reminded of
Gen. Artemio Ricarte, the first captain general of the Filipino Army and considered as the father of our Armed Forces. He was exiled from the Philippines and kept away for refusing to pledge allegiance to the United States. Both were men of principle, willing to suffer the consequences of their different beliefs. We must continue to honor the memory of our heroes by recalling their sacrifices in a manner that would serve as inspiration for our people.
The book “Honor: The Legacy of Jose Abad Santos” written by his grandniece-in-law, Desiree Ann Cua-Benipayo, is the source of the various events mentioned above.
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