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MANILA, Philippines - “Philippine will shine today, Japanese goes down. Philippine will shine today, all over the land. Philippine will shine today, when the sun goes up, when the sun goes down, Japan goes down today . . .” This was the chant, 70 years ago, that prisoners of war used to sing to uplift their spirits and their wounded bodies.
“It hurt me to see them die … dying fighting is better than languishing in the prison camp,” World War II survivor, Felipe Fernandez Sr. declared in an interview with InterAksyon.com. He was recalling his ordeal in Camp o’ Donnell in Capas, Tarlac, where the Japanese occupation forces had set up a huge prisoners’ camp for those who survived the trek from Mariveles, Bataan, billed in history as the infamous Death March, 70 years ago this month.
Fernandez, of the 26th Cavalry, Philippine Scouts, himself did not experience the Death March. When Bataan fell, he and others in his unit refused to surrender and went to Corregidor to join the forces there.
The 26th Cavalry was among the units that held back the Japanese invaders long enough to allow American and Filipino troops to withdraw to the Bataan peninsula where they set up defensive lines and staged a fierce four-month resistance.
Eventually, their lines thinned by battlefield casualties and starvation, the American and Filipino troops surrendered when American field commander General Edward King decided to yield to Japanese General Masaharu Homma.
King made the fateful decision to surrender rather than see any more of his starving, disease-afflicted men slaughtered by the advancing Japanese Army.
The four months they tried to hold back the invaders is believed to have prevented the Japanese from moving farther south to capture Australia.
On May 6, 1942, when the Japanese staged the final assault on Corregidor, Fernandez and his comrades in the 26th Cavalry fought as best as they could to repel the enemy from Hooker Point up to the mouth of Malinta Tunnel.
“Hooker Point is a beach. And the Japanese came over and landed on Hooker Beach, and I was told to go and stop them. There were people over there that had positions but the line had broken down. I was tasked to go over there and stop them, but how could I stop them, when I only had two machine guns left?” he recalled.
Fernandez was wounded and captured, waking up in Lateral Number 8, a ward for the badly wounded inside the Matina Tunnel. When the Japanese did a headcount of wounded captives, intending to kill those too badly injured, he forced himself to stand up.
Soon after, the troops captured on Corregidor were brought to the Bilibid Prisons and, later, to Camp O’Donnell in Tarlac where they shared the fate of the Death March survivors.
Pausing every now and then as the flood of memories and emotion filled him, Fernandez recalled his experiences in what he calls the “dreadful war prisoners’ camp.”
And dreadful it was, with close to 60,000 Death March survivors crammed into a camp built to accommodate only 10,000. There was little running water, barely any food, no medical care. Narrow trenches along the sides of the camp served their sanitation purposes.
The heat was intolerable. Flies swarmed the latrines and then covered the prisoners’ food, making disease spread so quickly. Malaria, dysentery, beriberi and a host of other diseases felled the men, who began to die at the rate of 400 per day.
Fernandez said only 17 men from his platoon survived Bataan and Corregidor. Two of them, Ñeves and Private Estrada, would later die in O’Donnel because of sickness.
Since the Japanese neither understood nor spoke English, their prisoners found ways to rise above their despair. Filipino and American soldiers expressed their anguish and hopes through a chant.
To this day, seven decades later, Fernandez hears the chant over and over in his mind, undimmed by the years, each time he goes back on that journey to a moment of extreme cruelty -- but also of courage and compassion: “Philippine will shine today, Japanese goes down. Philippine will shine today, all over the land. Philippine will shine today, when the sun goes up, when the sun goes down, Japan goes down today . . .” was what kept them going.
He himself composed a song to boost his comrades’ morale:
Are we downhearted?
No! No! No!
Bravely we face the foe.
We have conquered in the past,
We will fight some more sometimes;
Are we downhearted?
No! No! No!
Aside from the chants and songs, they also read aloud the propaganda write-ups of the Japanese government, just to humor their captors and to find something to take their mind away from the disease and death that was so near to them at all times.
Fast forward: Seven decades later
Today, only about 100 of the original 12,000 Philippine Scouts are still alive, scattered around the Philippines and the United States.
Starting April 7 up till April 10, the Philippine Scouts Heritage Society lined up a series of activities for the survivors, both those who are based in the US and the Philippines.
Survivors of the Battles of Bataan and Corregidor, and the Bataan Death March banded together at the Hotel Stotsenburg to mark the 70th anniversary of the April 9 Fall of Bataan -- one of those few events in history that have puzzled many younger generations who thought it strange that their elders seemed to “celebrate defeat.”
But to Fernandez and those who lived through it, there is no need to explain why they celebrate. They celebrate the life they were able to keep but which was denied tens of thousands of others; they celebrate the freedom of their country; they celebrate the memory of heroism and courage and compassion that formed an invisible thread through that long line of bodies marching from Bataan to Tarlac.
Last week’s event was the first time, after 70 years, that Philippine and American veterans or survivors held a reunion of this magnitude in the country since the end of the World War II.
Hosted by the Fort McKinley Chapter of the Society, the reunion entailed two days of discussions of history, business meetings, but mostly, celebration.
On April 7, Fernandez sat on the Veterans panel, presenting “Life at the Fort before the War.”
On Easter Sunday he rendered the Eulogy at the heroes’ cemetery at the boundary of Makati and Taguig cities, giving honor to fellow soldiers who fought and died for the country.
Philippine Scouts: a unique group, a proud legacy
By hosting yearly gatherings of varying scales, the Philippine Scouts Heritage Society seeks to preserve the sacred memory of war, so that the current generations may cherish the peace they enjoy; and raise public awareness of the heroic role thousands of young men played in the early stages of World War II, and their gallant defense of the Philippines.
The Philippine Scouts were a unique and special organization within the U.S. Army, consisting of highly-trained Filipino soldiers, and American Filipino officers, who formed the backbone of General Douglas MacArthur’s United States Army Forces in the Far East.
USAFFE included the Army of the Philippine Commonwealth, the US Army’s Philippine Scouts and U.S. National Guard units that were brought from the States shortly before hostilities began, and were then ordered to hold back the Japanese advance.