Today, April 9, is Araw Ng Kagitingan holiday on which we in Philippines solemnly commemorate to honor the shared couraged of unsung Filipino and American soldiers who endured together in battle against Japanese forces during World War II.
How and why small and distant Philippines got involved in World War II is a consequence of dark history that began with American possession of the Philippines as spoils of war under the Treaty of Paris (February 6, 1899), after the USA’s Asiatic Squadron annihilated the Kingdom of Spain’s Pacific Squadron in the Battle of Manila Bay (May 1, 1898) during the Spanish-American War. As that War ended, Filipino revolutionaries against Spain persevered in violent struggle against foreign rule and so the Philippine-American War broke out in February 1899. Active guerrilla warfare against the new American colonists prevailed from 1898 in Luzon and until 1913 in Mindanao. Pressed by religious or political debates covered by US media, the USA later declared an official and formal commitment to withdraw sovereignty from the Philippine Islands by the Philippine Autonomy Act (US Congress Act of August 29, 1916).
Much later, the USA finally initiated the process for the Philippines to become an independent country after a ten-year transition period by the Philippine Independence Act (US Congress Act of March 24, 1934) that established the 1935 Constitution of the Philippines and the Commonwealth of the Philippines. To create its own Philippine Commonwealth Army, independent of US military colonists that had assumed defense of the islands, the Philippine National Assembly enacted the National Defense Act of 1935 (Commonwealth Act No. 1 of December 21, 1935), making the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) obligatory in all Philippine colleges and universities that have over 100 enrolled students. Military training and development was painfully slow but, by the end of 1939, the Philippine Commonwealth Army had 4,800 regular officers and 104,000 men in reserves drawn from native Filipinos, Filipino-Mestizos, Spanish-Filipinos, Chinese-Filipinos and Moro-Filipinos who were either Christians or Muslims.
It was at the start of the Philippine Commonwealth’s 10-year transition to independence that Germany, sharing a common interest with Italy to destabilize existing European order, signed between them a treaty of friendship and proclaimed a Rome–Berlin Axis (October 25, 1936) as political center around which lesser countries were expected to orbit, thereby diplomatically securing their respective expansionist interests. Since Germany shared a common interest against Soviet Union communism at the time with Japan, which occupied Manchuria (Northeast China) since 1931, the two also allied themselves by the Anti-ComIntern Pact (November 25, 1936). Eventually, the Rome-Berlin Axis alliance was made into a military alliance by the Pact of Steel (May 22, 1939). This arms-fortified expansionist alliance soon led to the Tripartite Pact (September 27, 1940) whereby Nazi Germany, the Kingdom of Italy, and Imperial Japan formed a mutual defense military coalition wherein Japan recognized the leadership of Germany and Italy in the establishment of a new order in Europe and Germany and Italy respected the leadership of Japan in the establishment of a new order in Greater East Asia.
The USA tried to halt Japanese aggression in Asia by closing its market to Japan and increasing its economic support to China; but the underestimated Imperial Japan invaded northern French Indochina on September 26, 1940 and then took possession of French naval and air bases in southern Indochina to prevent China from transporting imported arms to Kunming City in Yunnan. Threat of war being imminent, a US Presidential Order (6 Fed. Reg. 3825) was issued to call all organized military forces of the Government of the Commonwealth of the Philippines into the service of the US Armed Forces, upon the creation of a new United States Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) on July 26, 1941. Thus, officers and cadets of organized ROTC units from 33 Philippine colleges and universities were summoned to army training camps, commissioned into the US Army, and mobilized. In the Visayas, ROTC cadets of Silliman University in Dumaguete City, that included my father who was a graduating student and my uncle who was newly graduated, made up 45% of the strength of the 75th Infantry Regiment of the USAFFE. The two brothers trained together for six months at an army training camp in Guihulngan but fate deferred my father's active duty as his elder brother got deployed to join the USAFFE Luzon Force.
Unexpectedly, at 7:48 AM Hawaiian time on December 7, 1941, Japan launched without a declaration of war and without explicit warning, an aerial strike on the US Naval Station Pearl Harbor in Honolulu with 353 aircraft that included fighters, level and dive bombers, and torpedo bombers launched in two waves from six aircraft carriers. Intended to keep the US Pacific Fleet from interfering with planned military actions against overseas territories of the United Kingdom, of the Netherlands, and of the United States in Southeast Asia, the surprise attack damaged 8 US Navy battleships and sank 4 others along with 3 cruisers, 3 destroyers, 1 anti-aircraft training ship, and 1 minelayer while 2,403 Americans were killed and 1,178 others were wounded. Whereas the Imperial Japanese forces lost 29 aircraft and 5 midget submarines, the US lost a total of 188 aircraft, consequently depriving the US Asiatic Fleet patrolling the Philippines of air cover.
On December 8, 1941, ten hours after attacking Pearl Harbor, Japanese aircraft bombarded Manila and landed troops on the ground. The US Asiatic Fleet withdrew to Java on December 12, 1941, leaving USAFFE soldiers in the Philippines bereft of naval support. After the initial air attacks, 43,000 men of the Imperial Japanese 14th Army went ashore on December 22 at two points on Luzon island. To maintain control of the notional East Indies Barrier running down the Malayan Peninsula through Singapore and the Dutch East Indies, Australia, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States organized on January 1, 1942 the American-British-Dutch-Australian (ABDA) Command (ABDACOM), of which the USAFFE was a part. However, the ABDACOM quickly collapsed in defeat after Japan occupied the Philippines and then coordinated attacks on the Dutch East Indies, the British Empire in Malaya, Singapore and Burma, Guam, Wake Island, and Hong Kong in rapid succession.
Within a month, the Japanese captured and occupied Manila so that the USAFFE Luzon Force was forced to retreat to the Bataan Peninsula. The US military leaders planned to hold ground on the Bataan Peninsula and Corregidor Island in the Philippines until the US Navy could bring reinforcements and supplies from the USA. Once reinforcements arrived, they would attack north from Bataan, defeat the Japanese Army, and push onward to the Japanese islands and victory. Unknown to them, the US Navy was already decimated by the attacks on Naval Base Pearl Harbor and no ships were capable of delivering reinforcements to Bataan. Also, the Japanese Imperial Navy was blockading Bataan and nearby Corregidor to prevent any food, ammunition, or medicine from reaching U.S. troops.
The Battle of Bataan (January 7 – April 9, 1942) was the most intense phase of the Japanese invasion of the Philippines. Almost immediately, the defenders were placed on half rations. For months, the troops survived on monkey or horse meat with few grains of rice in the jungle. The combined force of Filipino soldiers and American soldiers managed to hold out for 99 days despite lack of air and naval support while every other island and nation in the Pacific and Southeast Asia fell. By April, many troops had lost 30% of their body weight and, as medical supplies ran out, wounds, malaria, dengue fever, beri-beri, dysentery and other tropical diseases ravaged the troops, confining 10,000 men to 2 open-air jungle hospitals for wounds and illnesses. On April 3, the Japanese army launched its final assault on Bataan. The starving and ailing soldiers fought as best they could but were no match for the fresh Japanese troops brought in for the attack. Finally, on April 7, the troops set out to withdraw to the island fortress of Corregidor in Manila Bay. Two days later, however, Japanese forces trapped and forced the USAFFE military leader to surrender with his 76,000 soldiers (12,000 Americans and 64,000 Filipinos) rather than have his men slaughtered. Some soldiers managed to escape into the jungle. It was the largest US surrender since the American Civil War. Now the Japanese military leaders had severely underestimated the number of prisoners that they were likely to capture. Therefore they were unprepared, logistically and materially, to transport the tens of thousands taken into captivity. Once the surrender went into effect, the Japanese rounded up the troops and gathered them into guarded groups on the only paved road.
It was on April 9, 1942 that groups of 100 starving, wounded or disease-ridden captives, with four guards to each group, were forced to march over 112 kilometers north from Mariveles in the southern tip of Bataan Peninsula to San Fernando in Pampanga in sweltering tropical heat. Because soldiers of the Imperial Japanese military were instilled with the "spirit" of Bushido (the way of the warrior)'s death before surrender moral code as part of basic training, they only had contempt and no respect at all for the soldiers who surrendered to them, regardless of how courageously or honorably the battle was fought. Consequently, as the emaciated, battleworn men proceeded up the highway in the blistering heat, the Japanese guards summarily beat, bayoneted, shot, beheaded or run over by trucks anyone who fell, attempted to escape, or stopped to quench his thirst at a roadside spigot or puddle. Men unable to rise the next morning were buried alive or beaten to death with the shovels of prisoners on burial detail along the way. The men were given little food or water and were deprived of their helmet protection from direct sunlight during the march that took 5 to 10 days for each group, depending on where other surrendering soldiers joined in or were forced to join. At the San Fernando rail head, the captives were jammed 100 or more into small prewar boxcars meant for 40. With little air in the ovenlike cars that reached temperatures as high as 110 degrees Fahrenheit, many died standing up. On disembarking, the captives were forced to march another 11 kilometers to Camp O'Donnell, a former Philippine Army training ground, where they were herded into prison camps, one for Filipino soldiers and another for Americans, across the road from each other. From April to October 1942, American prisoners were divided into forced-labour gangs and trucked throughout the Philippines to build airfields and roads. Some 26,000 Filipino POWs and some 1,500 American POWs died of starvation and disease. The Japanese had no qualms subjecting POWs to atrocities since, to their minds, soldiers who surrender are men who have forfeited all rights to be treated with dignity.
Of the 22,000 American soldiers, sailors, airmen, or marines captured on the Bataan Peninsula, only about 15,000 returned to the United States, a death rate of more than 30 percent. In comparison, the Allied POWs held by the Nazis and other Axis powers during World War II suffered a death rate of only 3 percent. By a stroke of fate, my father eluded the Bataan Death March to survive and live on as a guerilla war veteran; but my uncle died a brutalized prisoner of war to be honored as a hero at the Libingan Ng Mga Bayani.