Though World War II and the Bataan Death March are notable historical events that happened about 70 years ago, detailed memories of struggle and pain remain prevalent among those who endured and fought in either. Three veterans shared their experiences of both historical events during the Bataan Legacy discussion last week Wednesday, as part of celebrating October, Filipino Heritage Month.
The event was hosted by the Yuchengo Philippine Studies department and moderated by Cecilia Gaerlan, a Bay Area playwright and author of “In Her Mother’s Image,” a novel about a mother and daughter set in the World War II era. The daughter of a Philippine World War II veteran, Gaerlan shed light on the facades placed upon the war and the death march. When she was a child, Gaerlan’s father often shared his experiences fighting in war, which she usually imagined as a light-hearted cowboy movie. “He always added sound effects and ended with some kind humorous story,” she said. As she got older, Gaerlan learned more about the truth Bataan Death March, and aspired to teach others about the realities of this aspect Filipino history.
“We are here to celebrate the legacy of Bataan. Filipinos held on for three months [in battle] and stopped the Japanese from occupying the Pacific,” she said.
The Bataan Death March was the transfer of 75,000 captured Filipino and American troops to Camp O’Donnell, a prison site, following the surrender of the main Philippine island Luzon to the Japanese in April 1942. These troops were forced to march 85 miles in six days, living off rationed portions of rice and trickles of water for the entire voyage. Many Filipinos and Americans died from hunger, being beaten to death for stopping to rest, or after getting raped by Japanese soldiers.
“Until now, 60 years later, it still hurts me to think about seeing pregnant women getting stabbed in the stomach with a bayonet by the Japanese,” said David Tejada, 89, who was part of the 12th Signal Corps of the Philippine Scouts.
At Camp O’Donnell, Tejada was assigned to throw the dead bodies of Filipinos and Americans in five feet-deep dirt ditches. He said he once found a survivor among a pile of 20 corpses. “He said, ‘Hey, what are you doing? I’m alive! Help me,’ and I couldn’t believe it,” Tejada said, laughing. His smile quickly faded, however, when explaining that same man ended up dying from starvation just a few days later.
Veteran Proculo Bualat, 94, also recounted terrifying memories of seeing the Japanese soldiers rape women in the march. According to Bualat, while marching with his father, he watched a group of Japanese soldiers grab a few women, throw them to the ground, and rape them on the roadside. Bualat ran to stop the soldiers, but his dad grabbed his arm and said to him, “Do you want to live?” Bualat went back in line.
Bualat, a veteran of the 92nd Coast Artillery of the Philippine Scouts, said he thought the prison camp would be able to accommodate and refuel the marchers, but he was disappointed with the ground’s lack of medicine, food, and water. “Filipinos and Americans — we all died by the hundreds,” he said. “I did lots of prayer and remember the saying at the camp, ‘No papa, no mama, no counsel, no girlfriend.’” Bualat got sick while at Camp O’Donnell and was released by the Japanese soldiers, but only after signing an oath that in which he vowed would not do anything to harm the Japanese.
“70 years after the death march, Filipino families were still affected because Japanese soldiers would bother them at home. Some Filipinos are wrongly blamed for the fall of Bataan,” Bualat said.
Another veteran, Ramon Regalado, a member of the 57th Infantry Regiment of the Philippine Scouts, recalled suffering from malaria while on the death march. His friend also contracted the disease and died, and Regalado had no choice but to bury him in a nearby fish pond to avoid being caught by the Japanese troops who were watching over him. Though Regalado deeply missed his friends who were placed in a prison camp 40 miles away and sometimes contemplated escaping Camp O’Donnell, he was reunited with them three days later.
“I’m 95 years old, and I’d still fight for my country,” he said slowly, taking a few breaths between each word.
According to Gaerlan, many textbooks tend to spotlight World War II, and fail to acknowledge the Bataan Death March, an error she hopes to correct through hosting these kinds of events. “These men and the whole Philippine nation fought for our freedom. We must put the Bataan Death March in history books — the new ones don’t even recognize the sacrifice of these people,” she said.
“Filipinos should be proud of their heritage. If the Bataan Death March hadn’t happened, we’d be experiencing a completely different political situation.”
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