Seventy-nine years ago, thousands of Filipino soldiers walked the infamous valley of death. Here’s what it means for us today.
During the Second World War, Japan dominated Asia as one of the three major Axis powers. With the Southeast Asian peninsulas as their primary target, Japanese troops began to besiege the Philippines on December 8, 1941, resulting in a tense standoff against Filipino and American soldiers.
By historian Teodoro Agoncillo’s accounts, there were frenzied enemy bombings, defense constructions pulverized, young Philippine army recruits cowering like frightened sheep, widespread hunger, and high cases of malaria. The continued attacks of the Japanese forces brought the Bataan army on its edge.
With a war that had no end in sight, General Edward King surrendered unconditionally to the Japanese four months later on April 9, 1942, as he held on to their word that the Filipino and American soldiers would be spared from barbaric treatment. It would not be long before this word would be broken.
Around 75,000 troops were forced to march the 112 km stretch from Bataan to Capas, Tarlac, in the next six days. Many suffered torment from their Japanese captors en route, and about 10,000 died from starvation, beatings, dehydration, exhaustion, and the Japanese bayonet.
At first glance, the historic event seemingly paints a picture of utter defeat for Filipinos. The other side of the coin, however, is a story of unshakable fortitude — of how the victims of the Bataan Death March endured the consequences of the war and stood their ground, soldiering on until their final breath.
More importantly, the Bataan Death March paints the average human being at the time as a hero who struggled, wept, and shuddered in fear when faced with chaos and inhumanity. This is not a story of resilience, a blanket trait often abused and misused, but of great valor.
In an email correspondence with historian Kristoffer Pasion (KP), he tells us more about the general atmosphere leading up to the fateful day and its significance in today’s times.
COMMONER: What was the social context of the Filipinos in 1942 prior to the Bataan Death March?
KP: Upon the surprise attack of the Japanese on the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 8, 1941, at 1:55 a.m. Philippine time, Japanese aerial raids immediately commenced in the Philippines beginning at 6:30 a.m. in major cities and military bases.
The general sentiment at the time was that the Americans would win the war since they had the firepower and technology to defeat the Japanese. At the time, the Filipino perception of the Japanese was not at all pleasant. Since Japan exported cheap products, it sort of reflected on the Filipino psyche that even their firepower would fail in comparison to the Americans. Moreover, before the war, news had come in on the atrocities committed by the Imperial Japanese Army in Mainland China, most specifically the Rape of Nanjing.
Even in the latter weeks of December 1941, when the Japanese had already landed in Lingayen, Aparri, and Bicol, the scale was yet to be tipped as local governments began reporting on the conditions on the ground to the Commonwealth government, whose headquarters had already moved from Malacañang in Manila to Corregidor. But things became dire when the marching Japanese army advanced and converged in Manila.
By January 1942, the Japanese took Manila without resistance, even as the Allied troops went for their last stand in Bataan and Corregidor, basically barring the Japanese from using Manila Bay as their natural harbor. The Japanese immediately installed a Philippine Executive Commission, composed of former Cabinet members of Quezon who were left behind in the Philippines but handpicked by the Japanese to restore peace and order under the Japanese occupation.
The general feeling at the time was of total shock and disbelief for FIlipinos who had put too much faith in America, only for their hopes to be shattered when the Japanese army successfully overtook the Philippines. The uncertainty was overwhelming. There was an exodus of people from the city to the provinces.
COMMONER: What was the atmosphere like for the 80,000 Filipino and American soldiers who surrendered and were made to walk a full stretch of more than 100 kilometers during the said march?
KP: The atmosphere was one of fear and expectation of brutality. When Gen. Edward P. King decided to surrender all the Filipino and American forces in Bataan, the prospect of being treated humanely as captive prisoners of war in accordance with the 1929 Geneva Convention was very much unlikely, given the initial reports of Japanese cruelty in Mainland China and Manchuria years prior. To save up on transport and to alleviate the great logistical challenge of moving the surrendered troops from Mariveles, Bataan, to Capas, Tarlac, the POWs were forced to walk 112 km to San Fernando, Pampanga, and take the train to Camp O’Donnell in Capas, Tarlac. Some were able to escape, some languished until they died of exhaustion, malnourishment, and wounds, and some were executed. However, the Bataan Death March was not bereft of stories of heroism. Some civilians on the road who witnessed the cruelty of the death march smuggled food and water, at great risk to their lives, just to give the suffering soldiers a respite from the ordeal.
COMMONER: These days, resiliency seems to be the go-to term to describe the spirit of Filipinos, which can often be misleading. In line with this and vis-a-vis the Filipinos who sacrificed their lives in the Death March 79 years ago, how would you differentiate valor from resilience?
KP: Resilience often means the ability of the Filipino to endure hardship and bounce back to the status and conditions that were before a calamity. Given the right context, it’s meant to be an encouragement for people to keep going through difficult times. But nowadays, it’s somehow used to prop up a narrative that excuses the government from accountability when it comes to disaster preparedness and risk reduction. Perhaps the main difference of “resilience” and valor as seen in the Araw ng Kagitingan is the sense of agency or free will. In the resiliency narrative, the Filipino is made to be at the receiving end, the victim of circumstances out of one’s control, hence they are seen as resilient, making the most out of the situation. But valor, in the Araw ng Kagitingan narrative, is one wherein the Filipino (the soldiers who chose to make their last stand in Bataan for more than three grueling months) is highlighted as choosing to fight and persisting on fighting even when defeat is inevitable.
COMMONER: What is the significance of commemorating a historic event that seemingly ended in utter defeat for the Filipinos? What does it mean for us now that we’re still under the ordeal of the pandemic?
KP:Given that Metro Manila is back in ECQ, and that the number of COVID-19 cases in the Philippines have risen significantly, there is no better time than now to see the significance of a holiday commemorating the historical event that basically ended in defeat for Filipinos.
It was Leon Ma. Guerrero who said in his biography of Rizal that
we have a national fondness for tragedy, and the essence of tragedy is that the virtuous man suffers because of his very virtues. It has been observed that we commemorate our defeats rather than our victories. . . we reserve our highest homage and deepest love for the Christ-like victims whose mission is to consummate by the tragic “failure” of the redemption of our nation.
It was precisely this redemptive arc found in the Christian tradition that Captain Salvador P. Lopez drew from when he wrote the statement that would be read by 3rd Lt. Normando Ildefonso Reyes on live radio broadcasted from the Malinta Tunnel in Corregidor, “The Voice of Freedom,” announcing the Fall of Bataan on April 9, 1942. Easter Sunday was celebrated four days prior, and the similarity of suffering before resurrection gained renewed meaning in defeat.
All of us know the story of Easter Sunday. It was the triumph of light over darkness, life over death. It was the vindication of a seemingly unreasonable faith. . . . Today on the commemoration of that Resurrection, we can humbly and without presumption declare our faith and hope in our own resurrection, our own inevitable victory . . . . We, too, shall rise. After we have paid the full price of our redemption, we shall return to show the scars of sacrifices that all may touch and believe. . . . No wall of stone shall be strong enough to contain us, no human force shall suffice to hold us in subjection, we shall rise in the name of freedom, and the East shall be alight with the glory of our liberation.
Despite the clear mishandling of the pandemic situation by our government, and the thousands of deaths we’ve suffered, even as we call on the government to be accountable and remind our people to practice safety protocols at all times, the call is the same as it was on April 9, 1942 — we refuse to give up, and we stubbornly put our faith and hope on that future victory, not only against the virus but also against the tyranny and incompetence that was exposed by this calamity.
The fight is not yet over. Victory is near.