Wreath-laying is a year-round affair and a deeply ingrained custom in the Philippines, but the most important and lengthiest speeches that accompany these ceremonies are reserved for April 9, the date of Bataan’s fall. On that day, the President of the Philippines is the one who usually leads a throng of ex-heroes up Mount Samat, site of the fiercest battle in 1942 before the Filipino-American forces capitulated. At the summit stands a great 300-foot cross marking a memorial shrine to the war dead, known as Dambana ng Kagitingan, the Shrine of Valor. The shrine at any time of the year is a popular tourist spot … HS
On April 5, 1980, a group of aging, gray-haired men and women gathered at the San Francisco International Airport and prepared to travel to the Philippine Islands. They were returning to Bataan. I was among them.
We represented all major service branches-army, navy, air force, marines, nurses and more-and we all shared a common experience. We had been prisoners of war, hostages of the Emperor of Japan, during World War II. Some were accompanied by their families. I was with my wife Shirley and my two daughters, Toni and Gina.
The decision to return to Bataan and relive the death march in which so many friends had died did not come easy. When I returned to the States in 1945 I decided that the only way to carry on a normal existence was to shut out my war experiences and concentrate on the present. For thirty-five years, with a few exceptions, I thought I had done so. I had forced from my mind those memories that could have haunted and disturbed me. Whether my experiences had been completely forgotten or whether they were still in my sub consciousness seemed unimportant.
It was curiosity more than anything else that drew me back to the Philippines. I had a deep affection for the Filipinos, and I wanted to visit their country once more and see what changes had taken place since the war’s end.
I also thought the experience would be good for my daughters, who at that time were teenagers. So we joined a tour organized for prisoners of war and their families.
I failed to recognize anyone in the group, but after sharing experiences we discovered that most of us had been in the same camps at about the same time. We could even recall some Japanese guards and many incidents.
The theme of our excursion was “Reunion for Peace” and it was to include a group of Japanese soldiers who had served in the Japanese army during the battle on Mt. Samat, our last battle ground in April of 1942. I had misgivings as to the success of our first meeting with the Japanese, since I feared that some men in our group still held grudges. They had seen too many American soldiers perish from starvation, disease, and brutal treatment in the prison camps.
Although we stayed at the same hotels, there was little fraternization between the Japanese and Americans. On one occasion, at a roadside restaurant, we came upon fifty of the Japanese soldiers already seated. They applauded our group for about five minutes, but some Americans would not enter the restaurant because of their presence. I think “Reunion for Peace” was a great idea, but I also think that it will take a few more years to heal the wounds inflicted by those prison-camp experiences. To some the wound will never heal.
When we arrived at Manila, we did not find the same city we had left the day our army captured Bilibid Prison and set us free. Manila that day was devastated and burning. Today it’s a modern, beautiful city with high rises, gardens and grand vistas. The city has changed, but the Filipinos have not. They were just as warm and receptive as when I knew them before and during the war. What excitement to return!
Veteran groups, women’s auxiliaries, and civic groups were on hand to welcome us. A military band played the Philippine national anthem and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” There were a few short welcoming speeches at the airport. Shaking hands with the Filipino soldiers was a very emotional experience for me.
The next morning we visited the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers. William Montgomery, a former officer who fought with the Filipinos on Bataan, placed a wreath at the site. This man’s legs were deformed and he was almost blind as a result of the malnutrition and beriberi he suffered as a prisoner of war. In spite of his condition, he climbed up and down stairs throughout our excursions with a smile on his face.
Our next stop was the Manila Cemetery, situated at Fort Bonifacio. I had been stationed there briefly in 1941 when it was Fort William McKinley. The cemetery is in a dramatic setting. The entrance is located at the far side of a large grass circle. Immediately beyond the entrance is a plaza with a circular fountain. To the right of the fountain is the visitors’ building and, stretching from the plaza to the memorial, is the central mall.
I stood before this beautiful and majestic memorial and my thoughts returned to my internment days in Camp O’Donnell, Cabanatuan, and Bilibid. I visualized the suffering in those dreadful days. I remembered how we made an effort to identify our dead by placing metal name tags in their mouths when we buried them in the common graves, hoping that someday they could have a decent burial. Now, the names of these men of Bataan are inscribed in marble. Thank God, at least here they had not been forgotten.
Tears came to my eyes as I tried to express my gratitude silently to the United States and Philippine governments and to •all those involved in creating this memorial. Thirty-five years seemed like a moment in my life as images raced with lightning speed through my mind and the memories seemed to fade away and I found myself in Manila again at the beginning of World War II.
From Manila we returned to Bataan. The whole nightmare that I thought had been over for thirty-five years was now in front of me.
I watched General Hipps, a member of our party, place a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and we then continued our journey over the very same route we had tread on the death march in 1942. Each kilometer was marked with a signpost, and each mark brought back a memory.
That afternoon we arrived at the Kamaya Point Hilltop Hotel at Mariveles. My family and I retired to our rooms and, as we drew the curtain to see the view, the island of Corregidor, scarcely five miles from the hotel, stood framed in our window. A breathtaking view, but what memories it evoked! I could almost see the sky lighted with the red glow of heavy gun fire, and I could smell the smoke. In my mind I was standing next to the truck, with the squat little Japanese soldier behind the wheel; trying to stretch his legs to reach the pedals. I hadn’t remembered him in all those years. And there were other thoughts that came to mind, and other faces from the past that appeared before me. My wife and daughters somehow knew the anguish I was going through, and my wife placed a hand on my shoulder. I could not escape the past, but I could be thankful for what I had now.
The Ninth of April is designated a national holiday in the Philippines. It’s known as Bataan Day and commemorates the anniversary of the surrender on Bataan. Our destination was Mount Samat. On our way to the mountain, we could see a huge cross on its crest. It can easily be seen for thirty kilometers. This magnificent cross is a memorial to those servicemen and women who fought to hold back the Japanese. For generations to come, it will remind others of the battle that took place on these slopes.
As we approached the area near the foot of the cross, we were greeted by people from various veterans’ organizations and quite a gathering of Filipinos. Philippine Army troops stood at attention as a plaque was unveiled honoring the Angels of Bataan, the nurses who had served on Bataan and had been interned at Santo Tomas in Manila.
As I gazed at the memorial, I was again surprised at how clearly I remembered the chaos of those days and the inhuman hardships we endured from the Japanese. And it was at this time that I began thinking about writing my experiences in a book.
The next day, we boarded two banka boats for the trip to Corregidor. They were narrow boats equipped with outriggers to balance and help keep them steady.
Forty-five minutes later we landed on the island, boarded buses and toured the historical army outpost. We visited the Malinta Tunnel and saw General MacArthur’s headquarters, the hospital area, and other areas of interest. I went topside and wandered around the gun emplacements. These huge naval guns had been originally set to fire on any attack from the sea and were unable to fire inland toward Bataan. After looking at the big guns, I had the feeling that we might have been able to defend the Philippines if only they could have given us cover on Bataan. Some men standing by my side talked about their frustrations in defending Corregidor, and they pointed to battle stations where they were involved in firing the guns during the battle of Corregidor.
That evening in Manila we attended a party hosted by General Santos at his residence, and when we returned to our hotel rooms we found our sheets turned back and floral arrangements on our pillows. The gesture deeply moved me. I couldn’t help thinking about Camp O’Donnell!
On the fourteen of April, we boarded our buses for Baguio, the summer capital of the Philippines. On our way we stopped briefly at Clark Field, the American air base, and then proceeded to Camp O’Donnell, the prisoner of war camp where over 1500American men and about 5000 Filipino soldiers had died after coming off the death march. The original buildings were gone, but we visited a death march memorial.
At the picturesque mountain city of Baguio, we were greeted at Sunshine Park by Mayor Bueno. At sixteen years of age, he had fought with guerrillas during World War II. He had also served in Korea and Vietnam and presently held the rank of brigadier general. President Marcos had appointed him mayor of Baguio.
During our three-day stay in Baguio, we visited Camp John Hay, now a rest and recreational area for American Servicemen. This was where General Tomoyuki Yamashita, the tiger of Malaya, signed the surrender papers, ending the war in the Philippines. We also visited the United States ambassador’s residence, toured the Philippine Military Academy at Fort del Pilar and on April seventeenth we left Baguio via Lingayen Gulf where, in 1945, American soldiers stormed ashore with tanks and raced to Manila to free us from Bilibid prison.
The night before we boarded our planes for San Francisco, we were guests of Mayor Ramon Bagatsing of Manila. The highlight of evening was the presentation of the Philippine Defense and Liberation Medals to veterans of Bataan and a special ceremony honoring the nurses.
The next day we were on our way back to San Francisco. My Bataan experience had come full circle, though with a difference. Before it had been necessary to forget, now it was important to remember, to think it through, to write it down.