By FORMER SENATOR ATTY. JOEY D. LINA
As the nation celebrates Araw ng Kagitingan, we remember the heroism of the more than 60,000 Filipino soldiers who fought alongside 15,000 American soldiers in their valiant efforts to resist the advance of Japanese enemy troops in the Bataan peninsula 77 years ago.
Today marks what used to be called the Fall of Bataan when the Filipinos and American soldiers belonging to the United States Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) surrendered to the Japanese Imperial Army on April 9, 1942, that set off the infamous Death March from Mariveles, Bataan, to San Fernando, Pampanga, during which thousands of the prisoners of war perished.
But why commemorate the day of ignominious defeat and humiliating surrender? In an apparent response to criticism of what used to be known as Bataan Day, the shift to Araw ng Kagitingan was made in 1980 to more aptly observe the valor of those who had made a last stand against superior invading forces.
It was the stubborn Bataan resistance, lasting about three months, that has served its noble purpose – to delay the advance of Japanese forces, considering that the Philippines was the last country in Southeast Asia to yield to Japan’s conquest while expected time periods were easily attained everywhere else.
“The Japanese gave invasion commander Gen. Masaharu Homma 50 days to conquer the Philippines, probably thinking that their combat-hardened veterans who had fought in China could easily overwhelm the half-trained and ill-equipped recruits of the Philippine Army,” according to a historical account by Benito Legarda Jr.
The surrender in Bataan “was never a question of individual courage,” explained Dr. Jose Maria Edito Tirol of Ateneo de Manila University’s Department of History. “Rather, it was the results of months of hunger, thirst, disease, and the failure of the United States to send reinforcements. In other words, although from a military standpoint, defeat was inevitable, the ability of the USAFFE to hold out beyond the expectations of both sides remains a historical achievement for the Filipino people.”
The frustration over the crucial failure by the US to send reinforcements to help the beleaguered forces in Bataan was expressed in a Jan. 28, 1942, letter sent to US Gen. Douglas MacArthur, written by then Philippine President Manuel L. Quezon who said: “This war is not of our making… We decided to fight by your side and we have done the best we could and we are still doing as much as could be expected from us under the circumstances. But how long are we going to be left alone?”
As archived in the Philippine Diary Project, Quezon lamented that America apparently prioritized the defense of Europe than Asia at the start of World War II. “Has it already been decided in Washington that the Philippine front is of no importance as far as the ﬁnal result of the war is concerned and that, therefore, no help can be expected here in the immediate future, or at least before our power of resistance is exhausted?” Quezon wrote. “If so, I want to know it, because I have my own responsibility to my countrymen whom, as President of the Commonwealth, I have led into a complete war effort. I am greatly concerned as well regarding the soldiers I have called to the colors and who are now manning the ﬁring line,” he pointed out.
“I want to decide in my own mind whether there is justiﬁcation in allowing all these men to be killed, when for the ﬁnal outcome of the war the shedding of their blood may be wholly unnecessary,” Quezon stressed in the letter.
Quezon’s letter to MacArthur was forwarded to US President Franklin Roosevelt who wrote to the Philippine President: “I have read with complete understanding your letter to General MacArthur. I realize the depth and sincerity of your sentiments with respect to your inescapable duties to your own people and I assure you that I would be the last to demand of you and them any sacriﬁce which I considered hopeless in the furtherance of the cause for which we are all striving. I want, however, to state with all possible emphasis that the magniﬁcent resistance of the defenders of Bataan is contributing deﬁnitely toward assuring the completeness of our ﬁnal victory in the Far East.”
Amid Quezon’s frustration over the absence of US reinforcements, leading to the Bataan surrender, the gallantry of Filipinos despite terrific odds is beyond doubt. I agree with Dr. Tirol in his assessment: “The willingness, the courage, the valor of thousands of ordinary Filipinos — with or without formal training but took up arms anyway, soldiers who had not surrendered or had escaped, and civilians providing logistical, intelligence, and moral support — to find ways to continue the struggle against the occupation forces says much about what we are as a people.”