Bravery and heroism
On this day 72 years ago, the news dreaded by everyone crackled over short-wave radio: Bataan had fallen.
From Malinta Tunnel in the neighboring island of Corregidor, the last stronghold of the combined Filipino and US forces fighting against the Japanese, 3rd Lt. Normando Ildefonso Reyes read the broadcast message written by Capt. Salvador P. Lopez announcing Bataan’s—and the nation’s—surrender: “The Philippine-American troops on this war-ravaged and bloodstained peninsula have laid down their arms. With heads bloody but unbowed, they have yielded to the superior force and numbers of the enemy…
“The world will long remember the epic struggle that Filipino and American soldiers put up in the jungle fastness and along the rugged coast of Bataan. They have stood up uncomplaining under the constant and grueling fire of the enemy for more than three months. Besieged on land and blockaded by sea, cut off from all sources of help in the Philippines and in America, the intrepid fighters have done all that human endurance could bear…
“Bataan has fallen, but the spirit that made it stand—a beacon to all the liberty-loving peoples of the world—cannot fall!”
The ordeal of the PH-US forces didn’t end with Bataan’s surrender, or with the fall of Corregidor a month later. The Japanese, infuriated at the delay imposed on their war timetable by the unexpected resistance of these two strongholds, punished the survivors in the most gruesome way imaginable. From Mariveles, Bataan, they forced the soldiers to march day and night through heat and hunger, disease and disability, beating and bayoneting those that couldn’t take another step, letting the wounded die along the way and starving the rest until the bedraggled fallen army of some 60,000 Filipino and 15,000 American prisoners of war reached San Fernando, Pampanga. From there, they were loaded on a box train and transported to Camp O’Donnell in Capas, Tarlac.
What came to be known as the Bataan Death March claimed the lives of about 10,000 Filipino and 650 American soldiers, and entered the annals as among the most horrific episodes of World War II. It would lead to the prosecution of Lt. Gen. Homma Masaharu, commander of the Japanese invasion forces in the Philippines, for war crimes, for which he was executed by firing squad on April 3, 1946, or merely six days short of four years since the white flag of surrender was waved by the valiant defenders of Bataan.
Ricardo Hechanova, among those who survived the march to and imprisonment in Capas, wrote in Panay News last year: “If the defeat was a military defeat, it was also a triumph of the spirit. One month was the estimate of every military strategist on how long the Filipinos could hold out against the enemy. They were wrong… The feats of Filipino soldiery in Bataan, Corregidor and the theaters of war prior to Bataan soon electrified the whole civilized world. The American commanders started citing the Filipinos’ valor and bravery in combat, as well as their skills. They were amazed that Bataan was still fighting when Singapore had already fallen… Though the Filipinos ran out of medicine, ammunition and food, they held on for three months.”
But after the war, the United States, under whose command the stout-hearted Filipino soldiers had fought, refused to recognize their bravery and heroism. Tens of thousands of Filipino war veterans were denied their benefit claims for many decades after World War II, despite the US government’s promise.
Incredibly, it was only in 2009 that the US Congress finally approved a package recognizing the military service of Filipino war veterans—to the tune of a $15,000 tax-free lump sum given to those now living in the United States, and $9,000 to those living in the Philippines. By this time, out of more than 250,000 Filipinos who had served under the US command in the war, only some 18-000-20,000 remained, many of them living in poverty and poor health.
The Philippines itself has been grossly remiss in its obligation to honor its war heroes. How much is the pension doled out to veterans by law? The shocking sum of P5,000 monthly, plus a disability pension of P1,700 monthly—though that amount could go lower depending on one’s disability level.
More than the lack of financial support, however, is the loss of memory of a generation’s ultimate sacrifice to defend the nation’s freedom. Ask any schoolchild today what the “Araw ng Kagitingan” holiday means—and weep.
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