The Explainer: Remember Bataan

That was a scene from the movie, “Pearl Harbor” where a cook played by Cuba Gooding, Jr. seizes a machine gun and fires at the Japanese planes that sank his ship.

World War II has been called the last good war; it was one that for the United States and the Philippines, began with defeat. The ranks of our own veterans who fought at Bataan and Corregidor have been greatly thinned in the fifty-five years since then. But as we prepare to commemorate Bataan Day on April 9, its our duty to recall their heroism.

Bataan and the Death March is our commemoration for today.

I’m Manolo Quezon. The Explainer.


I. Battling Bastards


We started with a film clip from “Pearl Harbor” because that scene made famous at the time and ever since. So famous in fact, that it inspired a pop song during the early days of World War II. Let’s listen to it. It’s called, “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.”


Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition

Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition

Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition

And we’ll all stay free


Praise the Lord and swing into position

Can’t afford to be a politician

Praise the Lord, we’re all between perdition

And the deep blue sea


Yes the sky pilot said it

Ya gotta give him credit

For a sonofagun of a gunner was he


Shouting Praise the Lord, we’re on a mighty mission

All aboard, we ain’t a-goin’ fishin’

Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition

And we’ll all stay free


That song, sung by Kay Kyser was the No. 8 hit for 1942 and Billboard Number 1 in 1943. But propaganda-boosting songs couldn’t cover over the fact that the Pearl Harbor attack was such a shock.

Within hours of Pearl Harbor being bombed, which was December 7, 1941 for Americans but the feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, for us, the Japanese had bombed Davao, Aparri, Camp John Hay in Baguio, Clark Field and the Iba landing field.

Carlos P. Romulo wrote this description of the day war came to the Philippines:

I stood on the balcony of the Herald building and saw the first enemy planes cut down through the skies like great aerial bolos.

Fifty-four Japanese sky monsters, flashing silver in the bright noonday, were flying in two magnificently formed Vs.

Above the scream of the sirens the church bells solemnly announced the noon hour…

The capital had stopped moving. Trams were frozen in their tracks. Cars and carromatas, drawn by skinny ponies, were pulled obediently against the curbs. There were no signs of panic- everyone was watching the planes.

For the world, the attacks on the Philippines came by way of radio. There was no TV of course then, the breaking news came by way of news bulletins that interrupted regular programming. Here’s a recording from NBC studios:

Another recording, is of the CBS correspondent Ford Wilkins, broadcasting from Manila, of how war news came and the immediate efforts made by officials to gain control of the situation.

Japanese Radio, on the other hand, had the Japanese Prime Minister, declaring war on the allied powers only after the Pearl Harbor Attack. Here’s the voice of Prime Minister Hideki Tojo:

These broadcasts can only give us a hint of the dizzying progression of events after the initial attacks.  Take a look at this map, to see the sweep of Japanese forces as they began a pincer movement to capture Manila.

On December 9, 1941 The Japanese landed at several points in northern Luzon, while bombing raids continue all over the Philippines.

On December 10 the Japanese Air Force launches heavy air attacks on Manila, Nielsen (that’s Ayala Ave. and Paseo de Roxas in Makati, today) and Nichols airfields, and the 16th Naval Base in Cavite City and Sangley Point.

On December 12 —The Kimura Detachment, a unit of the Japanese Army consisting of 2,500 men, lands at Lepazpi, Albay.

On December  22 —Landing of Japanese forces in Lingayen, Pangasinan, under the command of Lieutenant-General Yuichi Tsuchibashi.

On December 24—Japanese troops land at Atimonan and Mauban, Quezon. On that day, the  seat of the Commonwealth Government was transferred to Corregidor. On December 26, Manila was declared an open city by General Douglas MacArthur. Japanese troops arrived in Manila on January 2, 1942.


This period was one that saw society shaken to its foundations. As Journalist Teodoro Locsin, Jr. wrote this in his diary on December 29, 1941:

The rich and the influential are the pitiful ones. They have so much to lose! They shake for their lives, they shake for their office, they shake for their bank accounts. They read all the literature on the established methods of avoiding death and damage by bomb, bullet and gas. They sit in a circle all day and worry over every rumor and report of disaster. They scan every threat to their security with the passion of scholars poring over a newly recovered line from the Greek Anthology.


But what were the young ones doing? They’d been called to colors. Originally, the Philippine Army tried to stop the Japanese at the beaches, but proved no match for the Japanese. American war plans had to revert to an old plan, “War Plan Orange,” which said Filipino-American troops should retreat to Bataan, and hold out, until American forces could fight their way from Hawaii to reinforce the Philippines.

Compounding the problems of the defensive force was that the Us Army Air Corps fighters and bombers had been destroyed in Clark Field, when they landed for lunch and to refuel. The Usaffe forces had no air cover.

This picture is of Jose Calugas. He died in 1998, but in his time, he gained great prominence for winning the Medal of Honor, American equivalent of our Medal of Valor, for his heroism on Bataan. Here’s his citation for the Medal of Honor:

The action for which the award was made took place near Culis, Bataan Province, Philippine Islands, on 16 January 1942. A battery gun position was bombed and shelled by the enemy until 1 gun was put out of commission and all the cannoneers were killed or wounded. Sgt. Calugas, a mess sergeant of another battery, voluntarily and without orders ran 1,000 yards across the shell-swept area to the gun position. There he organized a volunteer squad which placed the gun back in commission and fired effectively against the enemy, although the position remained under constant and heavy Japanese artillery fire.

There’s a remarkable book titled “Occupation ‘42” by Dr. Benito Legarda, Jr. He notes that the Japanese allocated 50 days for t5he capture of Bataan, Instead it took five months. What did this delay mean? It meant stopping the momentum; by the time Bataan fell, it was a mere ____ days before the turning point of the war: t5he Battle of Miday.


When we return, the Death March.


II. Death March


That was a scene from “300,” a modern retelling of the Spartans who fought to the last hoplite, and whose epitaph has served as heroic epitaph for countless other last stands.

Japanese radio was proudly announcing the fall of Singapore to the Imperial Japanese Army. Listen to the announcement over the NHK network:

And the Filipino-American troops were still holding on. But hunger and disease, and better command on the part of the Japanese, had worn down resistance.

This map shows the stages in the fighting in Bataan. A period of some advances, then holding the line, then a series of Japanese offensives in May to April, leading to surrender.

Brig. Gen. Royal Reynolds, in an interview published in the Bulletin of the American Historical Collection, recounts the confusion surrounding the surrender:

At that time I came across Eddie Wright… He informed me that there had been a surrender. Well, it was obvious to me that the whole position had collapsed because I could hear this firing well to the south of me, and the question came up for me, “what do I do now?” I frankly did not feel like chasing after the Japanese and saying, “I surrender.” So I talked to Eddie Wright. We had some scouts with us, and we decided that instead of going south we would go north. We didn’t know what we were going to get into, but we decided to go north. It was pretty rugged going. We came to a clearing. In the clearing there were about two or three hundred Philippine Army soldiers. All of them had been bayoneted, decapitated, shot in the head, and then stacked up like cordwood. Well, Eddie and I looked at each other and said, “If that’s surrender, to hell with it.”

Most everyone else, though, had to surrender. And the transfer of Filipino-American forces from the front lines in Bataan, to prisoner of war camps, is what has come to be known as the Death March.

The American officer we quoted earlier, ended up in the Death March, anyway, and here’s his account of what it was like:

…The Japanese formed us in a column and we started heading up the East Road out of Bataan. We marched without any food or water for a few days. We got to San Fernando, Pampanga, and the Japanese halted us there…

People were dropping by the road. Whenever there was any semblance of water, a stream of any kind, even with bloated bodies in the streatm, they would push the bodies out of the way and fall face down and start drinking the water. I had about ten men in my group and we were getting our canteens filled whenever we could in these streams but not drinking any of it until we spiked it with about 10 or 15 drops of iodine. ..

When we got to San Fernando… we were loaded into cattle cars… We were packed in to where people would die and could not fall down… We rode like that from San Fernando… up to Capas…


In 1956, the Philippines Free Press carried an account of the Death March from a civilian eyewitness’ point of view. This is part of what Romeo Arceo, who lived in Bacolor, Pampanga, had to say of April 14, 1942:

The next morning, when the second batch of “death marchers” arrived, a soldier with a bandaged head broke from his ranks and walked toward our house. He was saying; “Maawa po kayo. Bigyan ninyo akong kanin.” (“Please, have pity. Give me rice.”)

Even as he talked, a Japanese guard came from behind and hit him with the butt of his rifle on the head—once, twice, thrice. To this day, I can still see the look of agony in his face as he turned to rejoin his ranks, to fall on the shoulders of a comrade.

The Jap motioned to us to get away from the windows. We obeyed and peeped instead through slits in the sawali wall. By this time, the Japanese were driving all civilians away—for many had been so bold as to help prisoners escape and give them food.


Writing about his harrowing experiences during that march, one young officer, Felipe Buencamino III, remembers one awful scene:

Noontime came… but we had no lunch. We just sat under a tree… and stared at each other. I saw a 3-year old girl… sitting beside a bush… crying. Her face was dusty. Where was her mother? I looked around… and in a nearby bush… there was an awful smell. There lay a rigid body, and the torn clothes and the bayonet thrust on the belly told the story. I felt like bringing the child with me… she looked sick and so hungry… but I left the child… without help. I can’t forgive myself. I tried to ease my conscience by saying that thousands of soldiers passed that child also… that many more would see it. I tried to tell myself that the Japanese Red Cross (surely, they probably had a Red Cross) would help the kid. As I walked and walked and walked… the child haunted me. But on the way… there were more such children… some asleep from sheer exhaustion… but still breathing. I carried one out of the curve… because a truck might just rumble over her. Again I felt like bringing the child. I already had her in my arms. But I laid her down alone… under a tree.


As this poster shows, the Death March, when news leaked out to the world, became a rallying symbol for the allies.

As for the the garrison at Corregidor,  which of course, broadcast the famous announcement of Bataan’s fall. It held out for another month. But the siege came to an end, with General Jonathan Wainwright’s broadcast to all American forces to surrender. Here’s the actual broadcast, broadcast over KZRH, which we now know as DZRH:

What followed of course, was the topic of a previous episode of this show. The resistance movement.


When we return, we’ll talk to a man who was an officer on Bataan.


My view


The imbeciles who, every year, moan that we shouldn’t commemorate defeats such as Bataan, forget that a nation is better measured by its defeats than by its victories. The ancient world and the modern world still look to the defeat of the Spartans at Thermopylae as glorious; we remember Hannibal and the defeat of Carthage; the Germans of today look to their defeat at Stalingrad to find meaning out of World War II; and of course, generations of Americans have looked to the defeat at the Alamo as one of their great national legends. We are fortunate to have the story of Bataan; remembering Bataan makes for a humbler, but nobler country, than if we had a fleeting and vainglorious history of meaningless victories.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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