By Roy Mabasa
The last living survivor among all the Czech defense volunteers who took part against the Japanese invasion of the Philippines during World War II and suffered in the Bataan Death March has turned 97 this week.
In celebration of Karel Aster’s birthday, the Czech Embassy in Manila paid tribute to the heroism of the last Czech defender of Bataan.
In a statement, Czech Ambassador to the Philippines Jaroslav Olša Jr. said it is an honor to commend Aster and his “courageous compatriots, whose names stand alongside their Filipino and American brothers-in-arms.”
Aster was born on May 15, 1920. He was an employee of the Manila shoe-making facility of the famous Czech conglomerate Bata Co. when Japan invaded the Philippines in 1940.
Aster immediately became one of 14 Czech nationals who volunteered, becoming part of the Philippine and US war efforts both in Bataan and Corregidor. He ended up in Cabanatuan concentration camp and later survived the weeks on Japanese hell-ships where prisoners were held like rats under wretched conditions.
In a long letter dated November 10, 1945, he detailed his experience as a volunteer in the U.S. Army Service in Manila and as a prisoner of war. He also depicted in his memoirs the fate that met other Czech volunteers—7 of whom tragically died either in the Bataan Death March or in 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 can endure more than most animals.”
Aster was later liberated while on force labor in the coal mines in Japan.
In 2014, he was awarded the Gratias Agit Award, the highest civilian award bestowed by the Czech Minister of Foreign Affairs to acknowledge prominent personalities who have 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 following year, he was bestowed the Medal of Victory and the Medal of Defense in recognition of his honorable civilian combat service in the Philippines by the order of the Defense Secretary.
The Czechs were the only other nationals who volunteered en masse and took part in the wartime activities beside the Filipino and U.S. troops during the Japanese Occupation.
Their memory has been preserved with a special memorial at the Capes National Shrine in Tarmac beside the Philippine Scouts and U.S. Memorial. No other nationalities are present there.