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A story for our day

Officials and ordinary citizens who believe, or fervently hope, that the American government will abide by its “friend,” the Philippines, should the tensions over the Spratlys escalate into actual conflict, would do well to recall the events of 1941-1942.

As recounted in the book “Escape from Davao” by journalist-historian John D. Lukacs, the attack on Pearl Harbor by Japanese air forces seemed to have stunned the American military command, led by the “legendary” Gen. Douglas MacArthur, into inertia and indecision. Most fatal was his failure to order the airplane fleet in Clark Field to scramble or evacuate to other air fields. As a result they were literally “sitting ducks” for the Japanese planes. “Despite sufficient advance warning—nearly ten hours had elapsed between the attacks on Pearl Harbor and the Philippines—MacArthur’s air force had suffered a death blow,” wrote Lukacs.

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Even more devastating were decisions being made in far away Washington, D.C. where, in the face of a two-pronged attack on Allied forces in Europe from the Germans and their allies and in the Pacific from the Japanese, American officials decided to focus their efforts on the European front. Still, MacArthur and his rag-tag forces trapped in Bataan and Corregidor waited in vain for reinforcements and supplies, their hopes buoyed by misleading statements from American officials.

Explains Lukacs: “The misleading statements, which compounded in the ensuing weeks, stemmed from strategic and political necessity. The messages were designed to keep Fil-American forces fighting—fighting long enough to save Australia and to save face.”

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The lesson, of course, is that, a mutual defense treaty notwithstanding, America will act in the best interests of America. And the Philippines should craft foreign policy that promotes and protects Filipino interests. Most important, I would think, is that we lift the veil of naivete and dependency that seems to be clouding our officials’ thinking, and take a more pragmatic and realistic stance regarding Chinese claims on the contested islands without softening our stance regarding the integrity of our sovereignty.

It would be all very well if the US proves a reliable ally, one willing to commit forces, materiel and diplomatic pressure to protect our interests. But even now, we should try to stand on our own two feet and show how prepared we are to defend our own interests, even without the help of good old Uncle Sam.

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Anyway, we marked what used to be known as “Filipino-American Friendship Day” on Monday, so perhaps we should be turning our thoughts now towards the “special relationship” that has supposedly characterized our dealings with “the world’s only remaining superpower.”

To trace the evolution of that “special relationship,” which dates back to when we became an American colony around the turn of the last century, a reading of “Escape from Davao” offers both enlightenment and irony.

By the time Filipino and American soldiers were caught in the brutal, harrowing battles of Bataan and Corregidor, the troops had long resigned themselves to the fact that, as far as the American officialdom and public were concerned, they had been dismissed as necessary “collateral damage.” Still, despite the lack of firearms and air support, the half-rations which turned them into walking skeletons, the men fought on, calling themselves, with no lack of irony, the “Battling Bastards of Bataan.”

What followed the surrender of Bataan and Corregidor was the infamous “Death March” and the “death camps” of O’Donnel and Cabanatuan. But the kernel of the book is really the story of the escape of 10 American Marines and airmen, and two Filipino prisoners, from the Davao Penal Colony. Their exploits have been called the “greatest story of the war in the Pacific” by no less than the US War Department, being “the only successful American group escape from a Japanese camp.”

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With his gifts for creating memorable capsule biographies of the escapees and those who aided them in their escape, Lukacs has created not just a driven war narrative but also a lasting portrait of American fighting men and of Filipino ingenuity, of a relationship between two people marked by loyalty, courage and steadfastness.

Most touching is the story of how, after surviving the infamous swamp that at the time surrounded Dapecol (as the colony was dubbed) and made escape virtually impossible, the 12 escapees were sheltered, fed and entertained by communities they met along their route to rescue by submarine.

On foot, banca, horseback and through territory marked only as “unexplored,” the American escapees made their way from Davao del Norte to Misamis, taken under the wing of different guerrilla units, and experiencing first-hand, in poignant recollections, the vaunted “Filipino hospitality” and the generosity of simple folk.

But the biggest surprise in the book is how, even after they finally made their way to Australia and then back home to the US, the escapees had to wait for a year, and fight an acrimonious battle with military censors, before they could tell their story of Japanese atrocities to the American people and to the world.

Lukacs offers up many versions to explain why American officials suppressed the story, but he does reveal that when the story of their escape and of their inhumane treatment was published, American public opinion was galvanized and may have hastened the Pacific offense that finally led to Japan’s defeat.

Still, it is a painful tale to read. And for a Filipina —two of my paternal uncles survived the Death March—with a personal stake in the story Lukacs tells, it is one full of irony and tragedy, with a decidedly contemporary relevance.

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TAGS: American interests, Escape from Davao, Filipino-American Friendship Day, History, journalist-historian John D. Lukacs, mutual defense treaty, Pearl Harbor, spratlys
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