Photo courtesy of the National Archives
Seventy years ago, one of the greatest sacrifices of World War II was made by Filipino and American soldiers at Bataan and Corregidor. After a fierce and bitter four-month battle, Bataan fell on April 9, 1942 and Corregidor a month later on May 6. This delayed the timetable of the Japanese from occupying the entire Asia Pacific and gave the Allied forces time to marshal the forces that impeded the Japanese invasion of Australia. And yet, in the United States, this important date is not commemorated, not taught in schools. It didn't even garner a footnote in major publications on its 70th anniversary. In this country, few people know that most of the fighting and dying were made by Filipinos. On top of this, their rights as veterans were rescinded by the US in 1946. To this day, these rights have not been fully restored.
Approximately 10,000 soldiers were killed in action in Bataan and another 800 in Corregidor. Another tragedy of Bataan lies in the death of another 15,000 soldiers, mostly sick and emaciated, when they were forced to march some 60 miles away to their prison camp. What led to this unfortunate disaster?
When I was growing up in the Philippines, General Douglas MacArthur was lionized and hailed as the savior of the Filipino people during World War II. His unforgettable words, “I shall return” have been etched in the minds of many Filipinos, and his arrival on Oct. 17, 1944 in the shores of Leyte established his status of the conquering hero. However, if we examine MacArthur's series of decisions regarding the Filipino soldiers, nothing could be further from the truth.
In 1935, MacArthur became Field Marshall of the Philippine Commonwealth Army, as well as its Military Advisor -- with the task of creating an army in preparation for its eventual independence in 1946. So confident was MacArthur of his defense plan, that he declared: "no Chancellery in the World will ever willingly make an attempt to willfully attack the Philippines.” On July 26, 1941, because of worsening relations with Japan, the US Congress ordered the Philippine Commonwealth Army into the service of the United States. MacArthur was placed in command of the US Forces of the Far East (USAFFE). The new recruits were only provided with a month or two of training using World War I artillery, and many were not provided proper uniforms, shoes or helmets.
A few hours after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, General Brereton of the Far East Air Force requested permission from MacArthur’s Chief of Staff Col. Richard Sutherland to bomb the Japanese harbor in Takao, Formosa in compliance of Rainbow 5 War Plan. His multiple requests were withheld by MacArthur and ultimately deferred in favor of a photographic reconnaissance. As a consequence, Japanese bombers attacked Clark Field, Nichols, and Iba Air Bases -- destroying more than half of the air force fleet that day.
Photo courtesy of the National Archives
Furthermore, instead of enacting War Plan Orange #3, which provided for the prolonged defense of Luzon from the peninsula of Bataan, MacArthur ordered his men to meet the Japanese on the beachhead. The Japanese army proved to be a formidable match, so that by December 24, MacArthur switched his plan to War Plan Orange. There was not enough time to transfer much-needed food, medicine and ammunition to Bataan. Ten million pounds of rice at Cabanatuan could not be moved out of the province, and by law, had to be destroyed instead of transported to Bataan. General MacArthur’s staff also forbade the transfer to Bataan of Japanese-owned stocks of food and clothing. As a result, the men of Bataan only had a thirty-day supply of unbalanced field rations for 100,000 men.
Little did the men in Bataan know that their fate was already sealed on December 22, 1941 when Roosevelt and Churchill decided that their prime objective was to save Europe first. But even on February 9, 1942, President Roosevelt continued to reassure President Quezon of his support: "So long as the flag of the United States flies on Filipino soil," Roosevelt assured Quezon, ". . . it will be defended by our own men to the death."
MacArthur's message to the troops was also a promise of aid and a call to valor. "Help is on the way from the United States," he had said. "Thousands of troops and hundreds of planes are being dispatched. The exact time of arrival of reinforcements is unknown as they will have to fight their way through...." Help and relief never came. MacArthur made only one recorded visit to the Bataan front, earning him the name “Dugout Dug”.
The desolate men of Bataan called themselves the “Battling Bastards of Bataan”. A poem was written by American correspondent Frank Hewlett in 1942:
We’re the battling bastards of Bataan
No mama, no papa, no Uncle Sam
No aunts, no uncles, no cousins, no nieces,
No pills, no planes, no artillery pieces
And nobody gives a damn
Nobody gives a damn.
In 1979, historian Carol Petillo discovered a memorandum from the papers of chief of staff General Sutherland, revealing a conveyance of $640,000 made in January 1942 from the Philippine Treasury to the personal bank accounts of MacArthur and his immediate staff. Philippine Commonwealth President Quezon provided MacArthur a bonus of 46/100 of 1% of the defense spending up to 1942, and yet the Filipino troops were not provided proper uniforms, shoes, or even helmets.
Most books written about Bataan are from an American perspective. Some even deride the Filipinos’ role. In the April 2007 issue of America in WWII, a division commander reported, “the native troops did only two things well. One, when an officer appeared to yell attention in a loud voice, jump up and salute; the other, to demand three meals per day.”
The voices of the Filipino soldiers who served in Bataan and Corregidor are slowly fading into silence. Will they ever receive justice? Will they ever get their due glory?
Cecilia Gaerlan is a Bay Area playwright based in Berkeley, California. She has recently adapted for the stage her debut novel In Her Mother's Image. During the past year she has been creating awareness of the Fall of Bataan and the Bataan Death March in a series of lectures.