Saturday, April 07, 2007

The Real Tragedy of Bataan

This April 9, 2007, the country will mark the 65th year since the Fall of Bataan and Corregidor.

On December 8, 1941, mere hours after Pearl Harbor was devastated & laid to waste, the Japanese Imperial Army invaded the Philippine Islands. After realizing that the Philippine coastline was too large to defend, Gen. Douglas McArthur’s plan was for the USAFFE (United States Armed Forces of the Far East) to retreat and defend the Bataan Peninsula until the arrival of US reinforcements under “War Plan Orange.”

Of course, the awaited US reinforcements never came after it suffered a major setback at Pearl Harbor. It was then that Gen. Douglas McArthur gave his now famous line “I shall return” before leaving the Philippines. He boarded a PT Boat for Mindanao and eventually Australia at the height of the Japanese invasion, leaving Lt. Gen. Jonathan Wainright in command.

The poorly armed Filipino newbies fought with their American counterparts. They didn’t have any food, were sick and most just had 10 bullets each in their World War I vintage rifles that usually jammed. Nevertheless, they held out for 4 &1/2 months until April 9, 1942 against all odds, against the never-ending waves of Japanese troops, most were already battle-trained veterans from Japan’s invasion of China. After heavy aerial bombardment, Corregidor’s guns soon fell silent and the remaining Filipino and American troops were forced to surrender.

According to Dr. Ricardo Trota-Jose of the U.P. Department of History, this major setback was a blackeye in the Japanese campaign in Southeast Asia. It was a slap in the face for General Homma’s troops who figured that the Philippine Islands would be fully occupied by January or February 1942, messing up the Japanese’s invasion timetable and plan.

In retaliation, this was why the Japanese rounded up some 75,000 Filipino & American soldiers and forced them to march 100 kilometers in the scorching heat of the Philippine summer. Now called the “Death March,” many were randomly beaten and denied food and water for days. Those who fell behind were executed and thousands died along the way. Only a fraction reached their final destination: Camp O’Donnell, which was converted into a prison camp.

Several years ago, some groups were questioning why Filipinos love to celebrate “defeats.” One of them was the “Fall of Bataan” and the Death March.

I’d like to think it’s because of historical amnesia. They forgot how a generation of Filipinos fought back against the invaders of the motherland. I wonder if these people would do the same if such an invasion happened in their lifetime.

The Philippine Islands was the last to fall against an enemy with seemingly limitless ammunition, air & naval support. They held their ground for three months, with malfunctioning vintage rifles and despite the dysentery, malaria and the hunger. They faced an enemy that was well-armed, well-trained and well-fed.

I just found out recently from the US Veterans Advantage website ( that in the United States, the New Mexico State University and the Army ROTC started an annual “Bataan Memorial Death March” in 1989. It’s a 26.2-mile memorial march through hilly & dusty terrain, via a small mountain & desert trails. The memorial march has grown from around 100 to some 4,000 marchers from across the US and several foreign countries. They do this every year to honor these American & Filipino heroes.

And here in the Philippines, our kababayans are questioning why we commemorate this “defeat?”

I think Max Soliven said it aptly almost 20 years ago:

“There is a modern tendency to sweep the three-month ordeal under a rug…somehow we have swallowed the decades-old argument that it is demeaning for a nation to celebrate its “defeats.”

“True enough, we won the military triumph in Bataan. April 9, 1942 was the day our colors were unfurled in surrender and “a defeated army” began its cruel death march into captivity. In the jungles and foxholes of Bataan, we lost many of the best and brightest (and surely the bravest) of an entire generation…and we are suffering the sad aftershocks of that still.

“But was Bataan a disgrace and a defeat? Our boys fought on beyond the limits of human endurance…sick and starving, disappointed by the betrayal of American promises of a “seven-mile relief convoy,” deserted by their leader, General MacArthur (who fled on orders from Washington to organize the defense of Australia)… Filipinos fired off their last bullets, tightened their ragged belts, determined to die in defense (not of the American flag but their homeland). The real tragedy of Bataan is that we have repaid their sacrifice with ridicule, making it appear as though our fighting men were simply a force of “colonial mercenaries” resisting the Japanese for their American masters.” (Soliven, Max. “Must the Glory fade at Sunset?” Philippine Star, page 14. April 9, 1988.)

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