Valor and memory
Ask my generation of Filipinos born in the first decade after World War II what April 9 commemorates, and we’re more likely to say “Bataan Day” because that was the old name of the holiday promulgated by law in 1961.
In 1987 it became “Araw ng Kagitingan,” with an English rendition of “Bataan and Corregidor Day.” With time, Bataan and Corregidor simply faded away for younger Filipinos, and April 9 was remembered simply as “Araw ng Kagitingan,” maybe even as the somewhat awkward “Day of Valor.”
“Bataan Day” was a problematic name because often, people referred to the commemoration as the “Fall of Bataan,” one of the many “falls” that seem to dot Philippine history, with World War II remembered mainly as the surrender to the Japanese invaders.
Flawed as “falls” memories were, the situation has become worse because many younger Filipinos will not even know what Bataan and Corregidor meant.
The problem is that even my generation never really quite grasped what Bataan and Corregidor meant. This is because in our history classes they would be mentioned almost in passing, almost like an embarrassing footnote in history.
I started out preparing today’s column just focused on the Bataan Death March, but that led me to more articles, including disputes and quarrels over the events, which finally made me realize that what we should be commemorating is the Battle of the Philippines—almost five months of furious fighting during which Filipinos, together with Americans, Chinese and even Czechs defended the country from the Japanese invaders.
We go back then to Dec. 8, 1941 (Dec. 7 in the United States), when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, leading to America declaring war on Japan. Shortly after, the Japanese moved on to invade the Philippines. It was crucial for them to take the Philippines because our country was then under the United States. The Philippines’ geographical position was (and even now) strategic—China to our east and, to the south, Indonesia (then the Netherlands East Indies).
The Battle of the Philippines was mostly about Luzon, because of the capital Manila and because of several US military installations. Corregidor was particularly important—one of four islands close to Manila Bay, so heavily fortified that President Manuel Quezon, Gen. Douglas MacArthur and other Filipino and American officials were evacuated there and housed in Malinta Tunnel.
By March 1942, it looked like the Japanese were going to succeed in taking the Philippines. On orders of the US president, MacArthur left the Philippines on March 11. In Australia on March 20, he said his famous words, “I came out of Bataan and I shall return,” the part of Bataan lost in history. Gen. Jonathan Wainwright IV took over from MacArthur.
What we know today as Bataan Day marked the surrender to Japan after almost four months of battles. Some 76,000 soldiers were surrendered—67,000 Filipinos, almost 12,000 Americans, 1,000 local Chinese and a few of other nationalities including, I learned only last year, Czechs. (The local Chinese, I should mention, were vehemently anti-Japanese because Japan had invaded China as early as 1931.)
The surrender on April 9 marked the beginning of the Bataan Death March, where the soldiers, already battle-weary and dogged by disease and malnutrition, were made to travel by foot from Mariveles, Bataan, to San Fernando, Pampanga—a total of 97 kilometers. From San Fernando, the prisoners were loaded into trains that took them to Capas, Tarlac. Only 54,000 of the original prisoners reached Capas; many died because of maltreatment, and outright execution, by the Japanese.
Even after the Bataan surrender, the Japanese still had to deal with Corregidor. The Japanese flew 614 missions, dropping 1,701 bombs on Corregidor during this Battle of the Philippines. The defending forces had to live on limited food rations, and dwindling armaments. The Japanese made a final push on May 5, sending in three waves of soldiers. On May 6 General Wainwright surrendered, with 11,000 prisoners of war (POWs) taken by the Japanese. Some 4,000 of them were paraded through the streets of Manila and into Fort Santiago and Bilibid Prison.
We do not hear enough about what happened in the many internment centers, where many more POWs were to die. Some of the prisoners from the Bataan Death March were sent to Puerto Princesa, Palawan, and on Dec. 14, 1944, as the Japanese realized they were losing the war, they had these prisoners thrown into a pit and burned alive. The remains were later recovered and reburied in the United States.
The POWs from the Philippines ended up in all kinds of places. Wainwright himself was imprisoned in northern Luzon, then in Taiwan, and later in Xian, China. Other prisoners were sent to Japan as slave labor in what were called “hell ships,” which had the most sordid conditions. The Japanese did not mark their ships “POW,” and on Sept. 7, 1944, the Shinjo Maru was bombed by the Americans’ USS Paddle, resulting in the killing of 668 POWs.
If we remember April 9 mainly as the fall of Bataan, then kagitingan—valor—does not make sense. But if we remember that day and May 6 as the culmination of a long defense of the Philippines, then valor becomes more real.
Valor was not confined to the battlefields. There are many stories that will remain untold—of how civilians provided refuge for the soldiers, including, it is said, peasant women hiding American soldiers under their saya (skirt). During the Death March, and even in the prisoners’ camps, Filipinos were sometimes able to escape and blend back into the population with the help of civilians.
I’ve read Internet bloggers arguing that we should just forget about World War II, let bygones be bygones, and that the Japanese had been good to us. But this is not a matter of being pro-American or anti-Japanese. Memories must include both valor and treachery, of soldiers and civilians, and of the protagonists: There were Japanese war administrators who cared for Filipinos, and there were Filipinos ready to betray fellow Filipinos.
At the same time, it does not speak well of us as a nation that many of the markers of the infamous Bataan Death March are poorly maintained, in stark contrast to the well-kept memorials put up to honor the Japanese soldiers who died in the Philippines.
It’s not surprising, too, that the “fall” hangover remains with us. Look at how we refer to the Special Action Force troopers who were killed in Mamasapano as the “Fallen 44.” The phrase sounds good, but it speaks again of defeat, rather than valor.
History repeats itself in many ways, especially in the way we want to remember, or forget, certain events.
* * *
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.