A Filipino Victory in Defeat
by Manuel L. Quezon III
Today used to be one of the most important days in the national calendar of Filipinos. On April 9, 1942 — “Bataan Day” until the 1960s, and since then, “Day of Valor” — beleaguered Filipino-American forces in Bataan surrendered to the Japanese. From Corregidor came the immortal broadcast, “Bataan has fallen,” which generations of Filipino schoolchildren from the 1940s to the 1970s memorized and declaimed.
A young officer, Felipe Buencamino III, born to wealth and privilege, educated at the Ateneo de Manila, and a budding journalist, kept a diary during those days. His entry on the eve of surrender is poignant. The evening of April 9 found him in a chance reunion of sorts, of friends:
“It was a reunion alright… but a sad one. We thought we would meet each other in Manila in some victory banquet… not on the night of defeat. But as things turned out… there were… gathering on the dry bed of a stream… not knowing what the morning had in store for us. Would the Japanese kill us? Would they imprison us? Would they free us? We were discussing those questions throughout the night. I was thinking of escaping, thru the mountains of Bagac via Zambales. But they said… ‘Let’s stick together… till the end.’ We talked of our happy days in Manila… the way we used to run around town… Jai Alai… Casa Manana… Manila Hotel… drinking, dancing, feasting…
“I guess we were all changed men… and we all agreed that we didn’t regret our experience. I don’t think any of us were the worse for the hardships we endured. They had made men out of us… and above all… it put our country on the map. It was not all in vain. That’s what I was thinking of… when the ground began to shake and the stones in the stream started to roll. It was an earthquake. Was God going to rescue us in the final hour? My heart beat fast… I was sure something would happen… to turn the tide of defeat… but nothing did…”
What followed, of course, was the Death March. Writing about his harrowing experiences during that march, Buencamino 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 three-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.”
These excerpts are from Memoirs and Diaries of Felipe Buencamino III (1941-1944), recently privately published, and one of those books of which it is no exaggeration to say, is a crucial book to read. Most of all, the book is a facsimile of the original manuscript: a genius of an idea. You feel like you are reading the original itself, complete with scribbles and the handwriting and typing of the author.
Buencamino’s book contains this poignant passage, too, as he and his fellow soldier-prisoners prepared to march into captivity in a concentration camp:
“We marched in fours… to O’Donnell… the concentration camp… where most of us were destined to die. There were thousands of Tarlaqueños at the station. They lined the roadside. They were crying… many of them… men, women, children. They threw bread, rice, sugar, panocha… and everything they could get a hold of. I couldn’t help crying. Every 200 meters they placed cans of water. Here was real Filipino patriotism and kindness. The Japs couldn’t stop them. They shouted: ‘Heroes! Mabuhay!’ Some were looking for their brothers, sons, fathers. A woman asked: ‘Si Mr. Julian?’ When they told her… they didn’t know… she gave out the food she prepared for him. I couldn’t hold my tears anymore. I just let them roll down my cheeks. Our fight was, after all, not in vain, I thought. At least, here were people that appreciated it. But I tried to control my tears… Because I didn’t want my friends to see me crying. But when I dared look at them… I saw that they were also wiping their eyes. The Japanese guards then gave up the attempt to drive the people away. What they did was to help the civilians give us food. A Japanese guard handed a panocha to me… and he pointed at a pretty girl who took pity on me.”
For the first time, he wrote, he realized the truth of Rizal’s words: there are no tyrants where there are no slaves.
The imbeciles who, every year, moan that Filipinos 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.