Today, Araw ng Kagitingan, we formally remember the valorous Filipino and American soldiers who, having finally surrendered to the Japanese invaders 75 years ago, set off at gunpoint on the terrible march from Mariveles in Bataan to San Fernando in Pampanga, and thence to Capas in Tarlac by a brutal train ride.
The Filipino and US forces in the Far East had dug in for a determined last stand after being surrounded by the Japanese Imperial Army. On April 9, 1942, US Gen. Edward P. King surrendered to Japanese Gen. Kameichiro Nagano, ending the resistance in the Bataan peninsula. Reported the Voice of Freedom in its radio broadcast: “Bataan has fallen. The Philippine-American troops on this war-ravaged and bloodstained peninsula have laid down their arms. With heads bloody but unbowed, they have yielded to the superior force and numbers of the enemy.”
The Philippines was the last country in Southeast Asia to yield to Japan. The surrender of 60,000 Filipino and 15,000 American soldiers served its noble purpose: to delay the Japanese advance. It also led to the infamous Bataan Death March, during which thousands of Filipino and hundreds of American prisoners of war died.
There had been much criticism of what used to be called Bataan Day, to mark the “Fall of Bataan.” The stinging question was: Why commemorate the defeat, the surrender, when it is the uncommon valor of Filipino and American soldiers that should be remembered?
The change to Araw ng Kagitingan was made in 1980. What has not changed is the nation’s appreciation for the fighting men of Bataan, whose number has dwindled to a precious few. Araw ng Kagitingan itself is now part of Philippine Veterans Week (April 5-11), an occasion to honor both veterans of World War II and all who served admirably in the military.
A perennial issue is the poignant conditions of the war vets. The government is mandated to provide them a monthly pension, death and disability pension, medical benefits, and burial assistance. Those financial benefits come up to a minuscule amount for the surviving vets and their families. And yet they have to deal with a mind-boggling bureaucracy and an unconscionable wait to collect what is due them, let alone whatever pitiful increases are offered, as though their faltering voices are too faint to be heard.
And the soldiers fight still. Last year, the guerrilla Maximiano Gama, 90 and almost blind, fought to reclaim the old age pension that just stopped coming in 2004. While the Philippine Veterans Affairs Office (PVAO) promised to review his case, his plight is not unusual for war vets who constantly have to prove their identities. Gama, for one, a member of the Hukbalahap’s Squadron 24, Battalion 2, used an alias as a guerrilla. “If you didn’t have an alias back then, you would be easily traced. The Japanese had many spies,” he said.
In August, President Duterte ordered the release of P4.7 billion in unpaid benefits to the war veterans. His predecessor, President Benigno Aquino III, had approved the allocation but it was held up due to the election ban. The money is intended for retired soldiers 80 years and older, and the PVAO has promised prompt distribution.
There is no time to lose, as more and more war vets are lost every month. In the January celebration of the 72nd anniversary of the Lingayen Gulf landing in Pangasinan, only 76 of the 370 surviving vets in the province were able to attend. “Most of the veterans [here] are already bedridden. Those who come to my office are already in their wheelchairs,” said PVAO regional head Romeo Madriaga.
It’s important to remember this day in a country that continually seeks heroes. Perhaps the young can think in terms of the war veterans as being as new to the world as they are when called to fight for flag and country—no more than boys with their lives ahead of them, thrust into war and the constant peril of death. It is important to think of these men when we think of the word “Kagitingan,” and honor them beyond one day or one week of the year. Real heroes, when remembered, never die or fade away.
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