Dad fought in Bataan but got no recognition
MANILA, Philippines—It was with justifiable sadness that I read in the Inquirer the proud announcement by American ambassador to the Philippines Harry K. Thomas Jr. that “Pinoy vets got $214 million from the US last year,” in reference to the Filipino Veterans Equity Compensation Program.
My father, who passed away on June 16, 2010, at age 103, had the misfortune of being excluded from the “… more than 18,500 World War II veterans … who received a total of $214.4 million in benefits … from the United States’ Department of Veterans Affairs …” due to what I believe was a mere technicality.
Reason for denial
The official reason for the denial given by the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) based in St. Louis, Missouri, was that it “found no evidence” that my father served in the Commonwealth Army of the Philippines, including the recognized guerrillas, “in the service of the Armed Forces of the United States.” That he was recognized as a war veteran by the Philippine government did not seem to count.
After this rejection, my father made a subsequent request for assistance in accessing his files, but the NPRC wrote back that the information he requested “… was lost in the July 1973 fire that destroyed millions of records at the (NPRC).”
Since my father was already bedridden and ailing on June 15, 2010, I filed on his behalf a notice of disagreement with the Department of Veterans Affairs and enclosed additional supporting papers for his claim. The claim was again denied on December 21, 2010, as a result of my father’s death.
Losing war again
For my father and for the thousands of hapless defenders of Bataan, the denial of their claims was like fighting another war and losing again.
I remembered how, as my father was getting dressed at 4 a.m. on the day of his required personal appearance at Camp Aguinaldo, he turned to me and in all seriousness asked, “Will they laugh at me?”
I thought, what a strange question! Then I recalled his story about being ridiculed while in captivity by Japanese soldiers who were in a drunken stupor. Those dreaded war memories lodged in his subconscious have a way of flashing back when the right trigger is pulled, in this case, being “ordered” to report to a military camp.
When we got to Camp Aguinaldo, however, we were turned away because they had “ran out of numbers to give out.” We were instructed to proceed instead to the US Embassy. On reaching Roxas Boulevard, we were confronted by the pitiful sight of a queue that snaked from the far end of the Manila Bay breakwaters to the gates of the embassy. Lining up patiently were confused, white-haired and bent old men, most of them in wheelchairs, with a few determinedly standing or leaning on the shoulders of their companion.
On our second day at the US Embassy, I watched a veteran, probably in his 80s, as he struggled with the help of a relative to step down from the sidewalk to the street. He was clutching a plastic pail. Given his age, it was not hard to surmise what the pail was for. At their age and with all their unimaginable infirmities, it would definitely take these octogenarians, nonagenarians and centenarians forever to negotiate the distance from their place in the line to the closest lavatory. To this day, this heart-rending scene keeps playing back in my head.
The arduous Bataan Death March scarred my father for life and to his dying day, its horrible memories hounded and haunted him. Malaria, which he contracted in the concentration camps, and an enlarged liver brought about by poor nutrition and the lack of potable water, did irreparable damage to his body. Psychological injuries, meanwhile, battered down his spirit.
Daily ration of ‘kangkong’
As prisoners of war (POWs), my father recounted how they subsisted on a daily ration of kangkong (swamp cabbage) leaves and a thin slice of beef swimming by its lonesome in a cauldron of what looked like pig swill. This was on a good day when their captors were feeling “benevolent.” The POWs were also made to dig with their bare hands trenches for the five to seven corpses a day, under the scorching heat of the sun or in drenching rain. Some had to run and catch a cow for the officers’ meal.
The long march from Bataan to Capas, Tarlac, rendered the prisoners exhausted beyond human endurance. So as night fell, they lay down to sleep wherever darkness caught up with them. There were times when they woke next to a dead comrade. But there were also times when the Japanese guards were not looking, that a handful of them managed to break away from the group, running to the bushes or taking refuge in houses of Filipino sympathizers before eventually escaping to freedom.
Unfortunately, others were not as lucky and were shot on sight. My father chose to stick it out to the end, not knowing what fate awaited him.
No sanitary facilities
Since my father was a medic in the Air Corps, he was made to attend to dysentery patients with no sanitary facilities. One time, he ministered to a fellow soldier who was so sick that he practically swam in his own feces. The monstrous health problems brought about by improvised and hastily dug latrines that were left open and which served as breeding ground for flies, were compounded by the utter lack of a decent water supply.
In our family’s genealogical tree record aptly entitled Arbol, my father proudly wrote: “I wish to be remembered as somebody who has contributed his bit to the defense of the Fatherland, being a member of the USAFFE (United States Army Forces in the Far East) of the Second World War.”
Sadly, my father died without him being remembered as such.
Pittance for unsung heroes
It has been said that of all the virtues, gratitude has the shortest memory. If one may ask, who owes a debt of gratitude to whom in the battle waged against the enemies of freedom? Is there a price tag on gratitude? Indeed, what is the $9,000 for, this sum being promised to every Filipino war veteran? Isn’t it a pittance of a recompense for all the cruelties that these unsung heroes suffered?
Today, as we revisit the memories of World War II and recall once more the denial of claims for benefits among Filipino war veterans, we sadly realize that as in the Death March, these soldiers have lost another battle. It is a battle for what was justly and rightfully theirs, a battle fought with absolute determination for what seemed like an eternity. It is a battle of attrition that, sadly, was lost not in the battlefield but in the confines of air-conditioned rooms and through the callousness of bureaucratic rigmarole.
My father, the late Maj. Ramon Guerrero Figueroa, was a bona fide veteran of the infamous Bataan Death March, and an enlisted Captain of the 54th Infantry Regiment, 5th Military District, under the command of Lt. Col. L.P. Lapuz.