Civilians in Bataan and the Death March

Ricardo T. Jose

On the subject of Bataan and Corregidor, quite a lot has been written on the soldiers, on the fighting men, both regular or guerrilla (irregular). There are many memorials to the different battles and units in Bataan and Corregidor.

 But what about the civilians? The civilians were also there in the battles of Bataan and Corregidor, and the aftermath – the Death March and prisoner of war experience at Camp O’Donnell in Capas, Tarlac. The civilians and their contributions fell into several categories, some of which will be discussed in this essay. In the first place, most of the Philippine Army soldiers – the bulk of the defenders of Bataan - were in fact civilians, army reservists called to active duty. Many other civilians volunteered for and were accepted into the US Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) as officers or enlisted men.

But as to the civilians per se: first, we must mention the residents of Bataan, whose homes suddenly became battlegrounds. There are no memorials to them and their experiences in the campaign. They evacuated to the southern part of Bataan where refugee camps were set up for them, and where food and other basic commodities were rationed. Two camps were set up, one near Little Baguio and the other in Cabcaben. But some – many? – tried to help the Bataan defenders in their own ways – food, first aid, whatever they could do. Bankeros helped obtain fish; they also transported intelligence agents behind Japanese lines and even to Manila. The Bataan resident suffered the same hardships as the soldiers – shortages of food, and of medicine, of basic necessities. They got sick, they were wounded by shrapnel and a number died in the campaign – unsung and unknown. When Bataan surrendered, they were forced by the Japanese to march to the north, since the southern part of Bataan was to be used as a staging point by the Japanese in their assault against Corregidor. This “civilian death march” was similar to the Death March of the soldiers, though they were treated more leniently by the Japanese and were fed. They were freed upon reaching the northern part of Bataan. But they had to march by day and suffered the same ravages under the hot April sun. Many of them allowed Bataan defenders to join them – giving them civilian clothes to change into, and posing as wives or family to prevent the Japanese from suspecting that they were escaping. After Corregidor fell, these civilians were allowed to return to their home towns where they rebuilt their shattered homes.

In Corregidor too, there were civilians – in the different barrios, the largest of which was San Jose in Bottomside. Many were families of Philippine Scout soldiers on the island, but others were long-time residents of the island fortress. Before the war started, the majority were evacuated to Manila or elsewhere; in the end they lost their own home town and were never able to return to their pre-war abodes. Some of the civilians, however – technical men particularly, such as engineers – stayed on with the Harbor Defenses of Manila and Subic Bay, part of the USAFFE. At least one helped the POWs after the surrender by locating sources of water in the 92nd Garage encampment.

Another category of civilians in Bataan were those who evacuated into Bataan from Manila and provinces neighboring Bataan, such as Pampanga and Bulacan. Many of them saw Bataan as a safe refuge while waiting for the American reinforcements to arrive. Many were ordinary civilians seeking safety and escaping the clutches of the Japanese. Others were families of USAFFE officers and men, believing that it would be safer to stay with the USAFFE rather in Japanese occupied towns. As with the local residents, many tried to help in whatever way they could – by giving first aid, driving vehicles or doing whatever work they could do.

There were those whose professions brought them to Bataan – particularly drivers, whose buses and trucks were commandeered by the USAFFE. It was they who transported USAFFE troops from place to place before Bataan, and wound up in Bataan. Many were not processed, had no papers or appropriate military contracts, much less dog tags or other identification. They were not carried on rosters of soldiers. A number of them were killed in the fighting; their families received no compensation because they were not recognized as veterans.

Among those civilians who came to Bataan from Manila was a mixed group of foreign nationals – expatriates working in Manila. Among them were24 Americans, two Australians, sixteen British, fourteen Czechoslovaks, one Russian, six Poles, and one Swiss.  They volunteered for service with USAFFE in a civilian capacity, and were assigned to the Quartermaster Service where they served gallantly – some even going behind enemy lines to take food. In one instance some of them went into Japanese territory to dismantle a rice mill and bring it back to USAFFE lines, where it was put into operation. A number of them died in Bataan or the subsequent POW captivity.

Another group of civilians were the Filipino nurses in Bataan. At that time there was no Army Nurse Corps in the Philippine Army, and Filipinas who wanted to serve as nurses with the USAFFE worked in a civilian capacity. There were around 25 of them, who had volunteered for duty in US Army hospitals in Fort Stotsenberg and Fort McKinley. They witnessed the air raids on the camps and tended the wounded who came flowing in afterwards. When War Plan Orange was put into effect, they joined the hospital staff in the two general hospitals in Bataan, where they served courageously. Some were wounded when Hospital No. 1 was bombed by the Japanese. While the American nurses have been given accolades in books and through memorials, the Filipina nurses have not been given much recognition.

During the Death March, Filipino civilians showed their gratitude to the defenders of Bataan by giving them food and water – particularly in the towns of Samal, Lubao, Bacolor, San Fernando and others. They sympathized with their countrymen and the Americans, and came out of their homes with prepared food. The Japanese tried to drive them away and kicked the containers of water and while seizing some of the cooked food. Some of the food was even thrown into the dusty road. The civilians wrapped food in banana leaves and threw these to the prisoners of war since the Japanese kept them away. Some of the civilians were rudely pushed about, and some may even have been bayoneted and killed. It was a unique show of solidarity between the civilians and the defenders, American, Filipino or whoever. Some looked for relatives or people they knew, but all unselfishly gave whatever they could even though risking life and limb.

Others civilians along the way helped the prisoners of war (POWs) escape. Some gave them civilian clothes to change into; others mingled with them if the occasion permitted, and snuck out one or two POWs. Some brave elderly women wearing long skirts approached columns of soldiers, or when they were at rest, and encouraged one – or even two – to hide under her skirt. When one defender managed to sneak under her skirt, she very carefully moved away from the POW group, the hidden POW crawling under her. A number of POWs were able to gain their freedom in this way. The women’s names have not been recorded.

Towns along the railroad also aided in the Death March. The residents prepared food and water and threw them to the POWs. Not all the POWs were loaded into boxcars; others were in open cattle cars; some of the boxcar doors were opened by Japanese guards – and it was into these cars that the people from Angeles and other towns by the railroad threw their contributions. A small package containing cooked rice and other food fell into the lap of one Bataan defender (Sgt. Marfori). The sender enclosed a short note stating that he had stolen the rice from the Japanese, and had personally cooked it as a contribution to the brave defenders of Bataan. He signed his name and added that he was willing to help in any other way. It moved Marfori to tears.

Again bankeros in Bataan aided the defenders get away by taking them to Hagonoy by sea (although some
of them charged for it).

The townspeople of Hagonoy showed much valor in sheltering these escaped POWs and not reporting them to the Japanese and keeping them out of the eyes of Japanese spies. They fed and sheltered them as best as they could until they were well enough to go to their homes.

The people of Capas opened their doors to the families of POWs looking for their loved ones. Some of the residents opened their houses and provided what they could, even though Capas at that time was a very small and poor town. Local officials provided what they assistance they could to the thousands of outsiders looking for their loved ones, outsides who put up tents and patchwork shelters.

Civic groups from Manila, specifically the Red Cross, and the Volunteer Social Aid Committee (VSAC) specifically organized by socialites to aid the prisoners – ordinary people and also members of Manila’s elite,
beauty queens and upper class families – went to Capas railroad station with food, water and medicine. The Japanese guards shouted at them, kicked their wares and threatened them with bayonet jabs, but the women – among them Josefa Llanes Escoda (and her husband, Antonio), Helena Benitez (who later became Senator), Conchita Sunico
(a pre-war Manila Carnival Queen) and others, members of Manila’s high society – gave up their comfortable homes to provide comfort for the dirty, sick defenders, despite Japanese threats and punishment. Some of the food and assistance got through (not all the Japanese guards were brutal). Lt. Rafael Estrada and his group received carefully prepared sandwiches, nicely wrapped, and almost wept. He noted that those who had prepared the sandwiches had cut off the borders- obviously upper class – and he wept because the POWs could have eaten more had those borders not been cut. The VSAC later even organized a benefit concert in Manila to raise funds for the POWs. This was courage of another type, unfortunately unsung and unremembered by most Filipinos. But the former POWs remember and are grateful.

Beginning late in June 1942, the Filipino POWs were released gradually. Another form of courage
manifested itself at this time. In order to be released, the Filipinos needed guarantors to sign their release papers. Most of the guarantors were mayors and governors of the towns and provinces where these POWs came from.
But other mayors and governors signed release papers even for POWs who did not come from their own administrative areas, just so they could be released. If they were caught doing this by the Japanese, they would have been punished and perhaps worse. But these local officials voluntarily offered to sign for the release of some POWs.

For those POWs who could not return home – either because they came from towns or provinces that were not “pacified”, or because there was no transportation for them to go home, or because there was no one to meet them at the release station – concerned organizations like the YMCA in Manila cared for the released POWs by setting up convalescent homes for them, so that the POWs could get well and regain their strength before moving on. Ads were put in the local papers urging people to employ released soldiers, as many of them had no jobs since the war had also cost them their employment.

As they were released, the municipal government of Capas further provided assistance to the POWs. Lt. Felix Pestana and a friend, on being released, realized that what valuables they had might be tempting targets for thieves. Lt. Pestana and his friend went to the municipal hall to ask if they could leave these valuables – a wallet,
a watch – for safekeeping, until such time that they could return to claim them. The person at the desk said they certainly could. In the wallet was Lt. Pestana’s pay which he had received regularly during the Bataan campaign. Years passed before Pestana could return to Capas, and he was sure the wallet was lost. Sometime after the war ended, he and his friend went up to the Capas municipio to ask if they still had these items. The person at the desk said yes, they were still there, intact, and they had been waiting for them to claim the items all this time. Others had also left their valuables with the government and had claimed them earlier.

The American POWs, of course, were never released and were eventually moved to another POW camp in Cabanatuan. Jose Llanes Escoda and her husband Antonio, and other concerned civilians – including a German priest, Fr. Theodore Buttenbruch  (SVD) – actively solicited food, medicine and other items which they could provide to the American POWs. A young lady afflicted with leprosy, Joey Guerrero, served as one of their conduits (the Japanese would not touch her because of her leprosy) and thus she successfully got aid – as well as messages and information – into and out of the camp.

The Escodas and Fr Buttenbruch were eventually arrested by the Japanese and were executed.

The Bataan veterans remember the assistance given by the civilians in their hearts. Individually, some of the veterans tried to look for their benefactors to personally thank them. After the war, Sgt. Marfori, every time he went up north from Manila, would stop by the towns he had passed as a POW on the train. He asked about the man who prepared the rice for him, seeking to thank him. But he never found him, after numerous attempts to locate him. No one even knew his name.

In the 1980s, the Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor, Inc. installed a number of “Eternal Gratitude”
markers in towns that assisted them during the campaign and the march. The first four were in Samal, Bataan; Lubao, San Fernando and Bacolor in Pampanga – a solemn tribute to the civilians in those towns.

The US recognized some of the civilians who aided the POWs with the highest medal the US government could bestow on civilians – the Medal of Freedom. Fr. Buttenbruch, Joey Guerrero and others were given due recognition. Similarly, the Philippine government also recognized the work of some of its civilians with the Legion of Merit. Josefa Llanes Escoda is now memorialized in the 1000 peso bill. The main building of the Society of the Divine Word in Quezon City (a prewar building) was only a few years ago named Buttenbruch Hall. But few people today recognize the contributions of these people. There is no memorial in Mount Samat or in Camp O’Donnell commemorating the unselfish efforts of these civilians to help in their country’s defense or to aid their countrymen and their allies who fought for them. It is high time a memorial be established for them.

(SPEECH OF PROF. RICO JOSE, (PROFESSOR OF HISTORY IN THE UNIVERSITY OF THE PHILIPPINES) ON THE OCCASION OF THE COMMEMORATION OF THE BATTLE OF BATAAN, HELD AT THE BATTLING BASTARDS OF BATAAN MEMORIAL IN CAPAS, TARLAC.)

Credit: Prof. Ricardo Jose and the BBB.

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