Last Czech survivor who fought the Japanese in Manila honored
Ninety-five-year-old Karel Aster, the last living survivor of the Czechs who volunteered to take fight alongside Philippine and US troops against the Japanese invaders during World War II, was awarded the Medal of Victory and Medal of Defense by order of the Philippine Secretary of National Defense “in recognition of his honorable civilian combat service in the Philippines.”
On the same occasion, Aster was conferred the Gratias Agit Award of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic, the highest civilian award bestowed by the Czech Minister of Foreign Affairs on prominent personalities who had committed themselves to work for the benefit of society, for the promotion of friendship among nations, and for the promotion of the Czech Republic in the world.
The ceremony held in Aster’s Florida hometown on April 23 was attended by Czech Ambassador to the United States Petr Gandalovic.
“Karel Aster’s motivation to join the Army immediately after the Philippines was bombed in order to stop the advancing armies was formidable,” said Jan Vytopil, deputy head of the Czech Embassy in Manila.
Aster was then an employee at the Manila shoemaking facility of the famous Czech conglomerate Bata Co.
As Aster explained: “The Japanese were now our enemy, as much as the Germans, and we fully understood that if we wanted to regain our liberty for our fatherland, we would have to do whatever we could to contribute to their defeat.”
Aster became one of 14 Czech nationals who immediately volunteered, becoming part of the Philippine and US war effort in Bataan and Corregidor. He ended up in the Cabanatuan concentration camp and later survived weeks on Japanese hell ships where prisoners were held like rats in wretched conditions.
Aster was freed while on forced labor in coal mines in Japan.
In a long letter dated Nov. 10, 1945, Aster detailed his experiences as a volunteer in the US Army Service in Manila and as a prisoner of war.
He also depicted in his memoirs the fate that other Czech volunteers met—seven of whom tragically died either in the Bataan Death March or under Japanese captivity.
“The conditions were so terrible it is hard for me to describe them,” he wrote in the letter to his parents. “We no longer behaved as human beings and the only thing that helped us survive was one’s instinct for self-preservation. It shows the human being can endure more than most animals.”
The Czechs were the only other nationals that volunteered en masse and took part in the wartime activities beside Filipino and US troops during the Japanese Occupation. Their memory is preserved in a special memorial at the Capas National Shrine in Tarlac.
“Every year, it is the honor of every Czech ambassador to pay tribute to these courageous compatriots, whose names stand alongside their Filipino and American brothers-in-arms,” Czech Ambassador to the Philippines Jaroslav Olša Jr. noted.
Czech nationals living in Manila continue to honor the valiant heroism of the Defenders of Bataan in an annual Memorial Walk where they trudge the 102-kilometer historical path that stretches from Mariveles, Bataan, to San Fernando, Pampanga, retracing the 1942 Bataan Death March.