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Opinion | National

ARAW NG KAGITINGAN | How to honor Bataan heroes? Don't pander to Japanese, resist Chinese bullying
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(Editor’s note: Jose Antonio Custodio holds a master’s degree in history from the University of the Philippines in Diliman. He specializes in military history and occasionally teaches at several universities in Metro Manila.)


Every year, Philip Garcia returns to the Philippines and visits Bataan as part of his advocacy to preserve the memory of one of the greatest and most tragic battles fought in our country’s soil. Although he is now an American citizen who works in Singapore, this has not stopped him from his advocacy and he is part of an organization based in the United States which is known as the Philippine Scouts Heritage Society (PSHS). The PSHS is composed of surviving Filipino and American members of the old Philippine Scouts which was a US Army unit that was originally set up as a counterinsurgency force during the early 20th Century but faced its greatest test fighting a doomed battle against the Japanese at Bataan.

Not many are aware that the bulk of even the regular US Army that fought in 1941-42 in the Philippines was made up of Filipinos. The Philippine Scouts (PS) was distinct from the Philippine Commonwealth Army which was the largest military formation facing the Japanese invasion.

In the recent return of Mr. Garcia to the country, I had the opportunity to accompany him as we toured Bataan and visited the various battlefields and memorials that dotted the province. There was Layac Junction which is today a busy intersection connecting Zambales, Bataan, and Pampanga and during the war was the chokepoint that if the Japanese had succeeded in controlling would have prevented the rest of the Filipino and American armies from proceeding to Bataan to make their stand there. They were prevented by the heroic actions of people like Sergeant Jose Calugas, who put back into service an artillery piece. Even as his crew was killed, they successfully repulsed Japanese attempts to overrun the defenses. Calugas was awarded the US Medal of Honor.

At Morong, Filipinos commanded by an American junior officer named Edward Ramsey launched a cavalry charge and this small force of a little more than several dozen Filipino PS horsemen succeeded in disrupting the Japanese advance on the town.

At Mabatang near the town of Abucay, a Filipino of the PS named Narciso Ortillano single-handedly held off a Japanese infantry assault by first using a machine gun and then in deadly hand to hand combat that was more fantastic than anything found in Hollywood action movies. Ortillano managed to kill scores of Japanese and received many wounds including the loss of his thumb while fighting a Japanese soldier attempting to bayonet him and for that he received the US Distinguished Service Cross.

At the Battle of the Pockets along the Orion Bagac Line of defense, Capt. Alfredo M. Santos of the 1st Regular Division of the Philippine Commonwealth Army earned the title “Hero of the Pockets” when he led a successful defense that sealed and cut off the enemy advance and in the eventual destruction of the Japanese who became trapped there. He earned a battlefield promotion to major.

These Filipinos either serving in the US Army or the Philippine Commonwealth Army fought at Bataan with distinction together with much more well-known heroes like General Vicente Lim, who commanded the PCA’s 41st Division, and Captain Jesus Villamor of the Philippine Army Air Corps.

Yet how do we remember these heroes?

At Bataan there is no shortage of people willing to contribute to preserve the legacy and memories of those who had fought there. People like Hershy Masayon from Orani, who despite working abroad as an OFW still finds time to propagate the wartime history of his province through artwork he makes such as paintings, illustrations, and even sculptures that have become available to the general public while he himself conducts free tours for those interested in the battles there.

Mario Magat, who hails from Balanga, Bataan, is the executive director of an organization that is composed of volunteers; he set up the Bataan World War Two Museum located at the Balanga Elementary School with the support of the local government. This museum has the potential of becoming the best repository of data on the Second World War in the province and may eventually outshine that of the Mt. Samat Museum which had seen better days and is more of a firearms and weapons display than something that will tell the story of the battle.

Aside from the activities commemorating the Araw ng Kagitingan at Mt. Samat, the local government of Balanga has commissioned the Philippine Living History Society to reenact the Battle of Mabatang, Abucay under the direction of Albert Labrador, on April 9, 2014 as part of the overall effort to preserve these historical events in the public consciousness.

Visiting Mt. Samat and the 302-foot high Dambana ng Kagitingan which is easily the highest man-made structure in Bataan, can leave one pondering on the deeds and sacrifices of those who had fought there if not only for that sense of commercialism that seems to have taken over the place with some small shops at the base of the cross that sell stuff, snacks, and drinks and the throngs of ill-disciplined tourists who lack any respect for the site and toss their litter here and there. Instead of evoking patriotism in me, I ended up feeling like Jesus at the Temple in the midst of the vendors and in fact I had to order one tourist to pick up the ice cream wrapper he had tossed on the ground.

The relevance of Bataan

Does the Battle of Bataan still remain relevant today? Indeed it does. The sacrifices of those who fought in Bataan serve as an inspiration for all Filipinos and it is the duty of the Department of Education and even the Commission on Higher Education to see to it that this is included in the curriculum of all courses to instill patriotism and nationalism as these values are under threat by materialism and self-interest and we see that in every election in the manner we Filipinos choose many of our leaders.

It is ironic that as Japan continues to skirt responsibility in the atrocities and its role in the last global war, the DepEd and CHEd has sought to diminish history courses in primary, secondary, and tertiary levels. It even gets more absurd as some Filipinos for reasons of promoting tourism and whatever else in the Philippines has resorted to suppressing the atrocities of Imperial Japan did here in 1941 to 1945 so as not to offend the sensibilities of Japanese tourists. Can one imagine the Chinese shutting down the museum at Nanking so as not to offend Japanese investors and tourists?  All these will only produce generations of Filipinos with little or no regard for the Philippines and who will be impossible to mobilize should government seek the support of the people in times of national emergencies and who collectively will be responsible for the further weakening of the country.

We do not realize it but at this very moment, what happened in Bataan is happening all over again, but not in the same picturesque province, but at the western frontiers of the Philippines. At our Exclusive Economic Zone and territorial possessions at the West Philippine Sea, Chinese maritime vessels backed by elements of the Chinese navy are progressively establishing a blockade of our garrisons there.

As the defenders of Bataan in 1942 called themselves the Battling Bastards with no Mama, no Papa, and no Uncle Sam, and felt abandoned by the Europe First Policy of Franklin D. Roosevelt, let us not make the defenders of Ayungin, Pagasa, and elsewhere at the WPS suffer the same fate and be forgotten by the Filipino people who may be more inclined to focus their attention on the latest antics of entertainers or some clowns who pass themselves off as leaders of the people.

Yes, the Battle of Bataan remains relevant up to today and will be so even in the future.