Araw ng Kagitingan
Seventy years ago in 1942, Maj. Gen. Edward King Jr. surrendered an army of 76,000 Filipinos and Americans to a Japanese force of 54,000 under Gen. Masaharu Homma. Of those 76,000, 12,000 were Americans. It was the single largest capitulation of a US-led military force in American history, culminating in the Bataan Death March.
Last Monday, the nation marked the 70th anniversary of the Fall of Bataan. Now known as “Araw ng Kagitingan,” so as to put emphasis on valor rather than on defeat and surrender, we remembered the courage and the bravery of our soldiers who fought a war not of their own making.
My memories of this period were those of a young boy growing up under unusual circumstances. There was not much food to go around but we were never hungry or starving. There was a sense of fear, a sense of having to minimize if not avoid contact with strange-looking soldiers who appeared from out of nowhere. They wore dun-colored uniforms and rubber-soled canvass boots, split-toed with the big toe separated from the rest of the toes. They had funny-looking headgear with cloth flaps at the back hanging over their necks. At school, we were taught new songs never before heard; we were introduced to a new alphabet made up of peculiar characters.
All throughout the Japanese occupation, I never heard of Bataan and Corregidor or what happened in those places during the early months of 1942. After the return of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, we were told of the fighting that took place in the Bataan peninsula and the valiant stand of Filipinos and Americans and their subsequent surrender. We heard stories of the brutal and inhuman treatment, by Japanese soldiers, of prisoners of war and the sufferings inflicted upon our people by the new conquerors.
Atrocities are part of the nature of any conflict. The perpetrators are the strong and the powerful, the victims are the weak and the defenseless.
In the Philippine-American War that lasted more than three years (1899-1902), an estimated 300,000 civilians were killed by American forces. Long before the term “waterboarding” became part of the CIA vocabulary, the US Army routinely carried out the “water cure” on captured Filipino rebels or suspected enemy civilians. In a pacification campaign carried out in the province of Samar in September 1901, US Army Gen. Jacob Smith gave the following orders to a Marine major: “I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn; the more you kill and burn the better you will please me.” Anyone 10 years and older were included in the kill-order. Smith’s handwritten instructions were, “the interior of Samar must be made a howling wilderness.” Perhaps one might say that after more than a century, Samar never fully recovered from the scorched-earth policy conducted by General Smith. Today it remains one of the most impoverished provinces in the country. Of course, the typhoons from the Pacific just add to the woes of the region.
Let us put things in proper perspective.
In 1940, we were a Commonwealth of the United States. We had no quarrel with Japan or the Japanese people. Unfortunately there were US Armed Forces stationed in the Philippines and when the United States and Japan were unable to resolve their differences over a number of issues, war became inevitable. Filipinos were taken in to serve in the Armed Forces of the United States and we fought alongside US soldiers with loyalty and determination.
Legally as citizens of a Commonwealth of the United States, Filipinos were American nationals entitled to all benefits afforded those serving in the United States Armed Forces.
However when the war ended, the US Congress passed a law, the “Rescission Act of 1946,” declaring that “the service of Filipinos shall not be deemed to be or to have been served in the military or national forces of the United States or any component thereof.” This effectively stripped Filipinos of their recognition as US veterans, and blew away whatever benefits they may have been entitled to.
More than 60 years later, a new law was passed granting certain payments to eligible persons who served in the US Armed Forces during World War II to include Filipino veterans. If the eligible person was not a citizen of the United States, he was granted $9,000. For a citizen of the United States, the amount was $15,000.
In February and March 1942, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, some 117,000 Japanese-Americans (Niseis) living along the West Coast of the United States were herded into internment camps where they were kept under difficult living conditions. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the “Civil Liberties Act,” providing each of the surviving 60,000 Japanese-American internists with $20,000 along with an apology for a grave injustice.
So much for our steadfast devotion to Uncle Sam and the red, white, and blue. By the way, the United States does not observe Bataan Day as a national holiday. Rightly so because it was a day of defeat. Seventy years after, very few Americans know what Bataan and Corregidor was all about, or where these places are located.
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Let us continue to honor the valor and the bravery of the Filipino soldier. But perhaps, what is needed is to refocus our attention on battlefield victories, on our achievements as a nation, rather than dwelling on the tragedies of the past.
My choice would be the Battle of Bessang Pass in Northern Luzon from February to April 1945. Dr. Cesar Pobre, a retired AFP colonel and one of our leading historians, came out with a book, “The Freedom Fighters of Northern Luzon.” The Battle of Bessang Pass forms part of his story. The after-battle report reads: “[F]ew men realize how significant and far-reaching were the results of the Battle for Bessang Pass. High above these scraggy mountains, 6,000 feet of desolate terrain, the sturdy Ilocano and Igorot were making history. Tirad Pass, looming in the northern horizon, watched the World War II version of valor and heroism. This time the great grandsons of the handful of insurrectos under Gen. Gregorio Del Pilar, were writing a new page of military history at another Pass. On that road, and on those high promontories, the day of decision and judgment was to be wrought.”
Let me close by giving credit where credit is due. One of the steady pillars of strength in the Department of National Defense, under Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, is Veterans Administrator retired Lt. Gen. Ernesto Carolina, a member of PMA class 1970, who has a reputation for getting things done. Through the years he has slowly been able to clean up the Philippine Veterans Affairs Office (PVAO), making it more responsive to the needs of our veterans and continuing the efforts to increase their meager benefits in the face of rising medical costs and expenses.
The Filipino veteran is fortunate to have General Carolina at the helm of this vital agency.
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