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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
markers in towns that assisted them during the campaign and the march. The first four were in Samal,
San Fernando and Bacolor in Pampanga – a solemn tribute
to the civilians in those towns.
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
Samat or in
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
HELD AT THE BATTLING BASTARDS OF
BATAAN MEMORIAL IN CAPAS, TARLAC.)
Prof. Ricardo Jose and the BBB.
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