Philippine HiStory Today: When surrender means Courage
I felt this way during my daughter’s debut party years ago. I was sad that she was then of age to date and meet boys and was rearing to spend more time outside the house. But I was also happy because I realised that day that I was blessed with 18 wonderful years to see my daughter bloom in front of my eyes… and plenty more years afterward for her to bless me with a grandchild.
Sadly, for many people with kids, this is not always the case. The parents of the boys who served in World War 2, for example, suffered much grief during those years. Did you know that, for lack of fresh troops, teens had been recruited to defend our country against the invading Japanese Empire?
It’s the men who joined the war as teenagers who make up a great number of the surviving World War 2 veterans today. And one of their biggest and final tasks is to share to the younger generations the story of the war as they experienced it first-hand.
Our tale for today is 9 April 1942 or the Fall of Bataan.
Battle of Bataan
The lightning advance of the Japanese army throughout Luzon forced General Douglas MacArthur of the Usaffe and 80,000 of his American and Filipino troops to adopt War Plan Orange-3 or the retreat to Bataan Peninsula and Corregidor Island.
War Plan Orange-3 was a delaying tactic that gave the Americans time to build a counter-attack against the Japanese. The only problem was the navy they counted on to do this counter-attacking was at the bottom of Pearl Harbor following the 8 December bombing.
It was a desperate battle for the Usaffe and Filipino soldiers. The Japanese invaders had planes, big guns and tanks and employed the notoriously successful human assault attacks called Banzai charges (Japanese human wave attacks) that overwhelmed Usaffe troops. Fighting intensified in January to February with multiple, daily battles all around Bataan. The soldiers were tired. Aside from this, food was scarce: the troops were already eating monkeys and grass to fight off hunger.
Morale dropped to an all-time low when the general himself finally fled to Mindanao on 12 March. The remaining American troops left to defend were renamed United States Forces in the Philippines (Usfip). But this did little to improve the odds for the Philippines. The Japanese front did not stop bombarding Bataan, day and night.
By 8 April, the Usfip collapsed. There was only one move left, and Bataan US Commander Major General Edward King dealt this final blow.
9 April 1942
Acting against the wishes of his superiors General MacArthur and Usfip Commander Lieutenant General Jonathan Mayhew Wainwright IV, General King surrendered to the Japanese at around noon of 9 April 1942. From the bomb-proof bunker of the Usfip, the Malinta Tunnel in Corregidor Island, three words confirmed the surrender: ‘Bataan has fallen.’
At the peninsula, around 75,000 defence troops became Japanese prisoners of war (Pow); 60,000 of these were Filipinos.
At first, the Pows believed that the Japanese will allow Filipino soldiers to go home, finally giving them the rest they deserved. But their hopes were slowly dashed as the weakest among them were dragged out and shot or bayonetted. This was the beginning of the Death March, one of the biggest atrocities committed in Philippine soil during World War 2.
The Death March started on the same day of the surrender. The forced six-day march from Mariveles, Bataan to the train station at San Fernando, Pampanga and from the station in Capas, Tarlac to Camp O’Donnell covered a distance of 85 miles.
But the distances and number of days vary from one survivor to the next. This is understandable since exhaustion, mental strain and hunger were already eating into the strength of our soldiers. The troops did not stop walking, day and night. They pushed on and clung on every bit of hope they had.
The threat of torture followed each one of them every step of the way: those who said they were thirsty were shot in the mouth. Those who fell behind or stumbled were bayonetted or beheaded on the spot. Some were unfortunate enough to fall into the whims of bored Japanese troops and were tortured or killed indiscriminately.
The Japanese treated the Pows with brutality because they were considered a dishonoured army, worthy of no respect at all. Thousands died during this leg of the march. But it was not yet over.
Days of being exposed to the elements led to poor hygiene, untreated wounds, infection and disease. Many of the marchers actually perished not on the march but during the train ride from San Fernando to Capas. The box cars were overcrowded and hot; many passed away while standing. Around 54,000 reached the camp alive.
At the camp, another 22,000 reportedly died within the first three months because of malaria, dysentery and starvation. The Japanese did not know what to do with so many Pows, that was why nothing much was done to protect Pows except resettle some groups in other camps.
It is difficult to know exactly how many Usfip and Filipino troops died before the Japanese formally surrendered in September 1945. One source said that more than 100,000 perished due to Japanese war crimes. Some said about a million Filipinos in total (troops and civilians) died by the time the Japanese left the country.
For many of those who were there to experience the war first-hand, the numbers did not matter. 90-year-old Elias Coloma, a forward observer for the Usfip Philippine Scouts, in an interview said ‘I can’t describe it. All I had was a determination to survive, that’s all.’
It never ends for them too. Philippine Scouts Heritage Society vice president Gil Mislang observed ‘When they talk about their hardships, they stop and look down and become silent for a little bit, but they continue. It shows, what they went through.
‘They can never forget.’
World War 2 called our brave men to defend our country, perhaps against their will and beyond their expectations. But they bore that burden, they took the beating. Although they surrendered, they have also won the fight for hope and liberation. They have shown us what courage means by enduring and surviving until this day.
This is why we celebrate 9 April: we do not dwell on the bitter defeat but the will to live as demonstrated by the World War 2 veterans and all veterans who have served our country. That is why we call 9 April Araw ng Kagitingan or the Day of Valour
Araw ng Kagitingan
9 April is a National Holiday in the Philippines that celebrates many historic events at the same time: the fall of Bataan, the fall of Corregidor, the Death March. This is why Araw ng Kagitingan is also known by other names like Bataan Day and Corregidor Day. But mainly, it commemorates the bravery of those who served in Bataan during the war.
Araw ng Kagitingan also falls within a week-long celebration called Philippine Veterans Week. This celebration falls every 5 to 11 of April and seeks to extend the honour given to World War 2 heroes to all veterans, meaning every soldier who had served the country.
Philippine Veterans Week is not a holiday; rather, it celebrates the courage of all veterans through activities held in many significant locations in central Luzon. Suspension of classes and government offices only fall on 9 April to allow more people to observe the historic events of World War 2.
Remembering the heroism of Filipino soldiers during Veterans Week and Araw ng Kagitingan is significant today because it serves as a remembrance for Filipinos to help veterans live a more comfortable life and claim their rights. The events also serve as a call for more modern-day heroes among us to rise and serve our fellow Filipinos in whatever way we can.
How is it celebrated?
During Araw ng Kagitingan, a multi-sectoral gathering takes place in Mount Samat in Bataan that is led by the president. The crowd gathers at the Dambana ng Kagitingan or Shrine of Valour, a huge cross at the peak of Mount Samat, to lay wreathes and offer prayers to those who died during the war.
The gathering in Mount Samat also renews the state’s commitment to protect and care for war veterans. Since it is attended by veterans and their families, announcements on additional veteran benefits and privileges are often made.
As for Veterans Week, several wreath-laying and honours ceremonies happen in significant war memorials around the country. Medical missions and other activities exclusive to veterans, their families and volunteers who work for the veterans’ cause are also done during the week.
Some of these sites that are visited during the honours ceremonies are:
- Veterans Memorial Medical Center (VMMC), Quezon City
- Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Libingan ng mga Bayani, Taguig City
- Philippine Army Headquarters, Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon City
- Filipino Heroes Memorial, Corregidor Island
- Capas National Shrine, Capas, Tarlac
That’s it for our hiStory-telling session! What do you plan to do for our grandfathers who have served during the war? Share your Veterans Week and Araw ng Kagitingan plans by commenting below!