Dignity in death by firing squad

THIRD EYE - Ramon J. Farolan - The Philippine Star

The period from May 28 (today) to June 12, Philippine Independence Day, has been declared by law as “Flag Days.” The government enjoins all its offices, agencies and instrumentalities, all business establishments, all institutions of learning, and private homes, to display the flag. We ask our fellow countrymen to unfurl and display the flag outside of our homes not because of any legal pronouncements but because the flag, the strongest unifying symbol of our nation, signifies our love of country and of our people. Its display also represents in a simple manner, an act of faith and confidence in the future of the nation.

After the EDSA Revolution, I was posted to the Philippine Embassy in Jakarta. One of the great things about our Indonesian cousins is their strong sense of nationalism as reflected in the pride and reverence they hold for their national colors. For days prior to marking their Independence Day on August 17, the simple red and white flag of Indonesia is prominently displayed in front of most homes in all parts of the land. On the day itself, August 17, the city of Jakarta and the outlying communities becomes one vast ocean of red and white flags.  

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Before we leave the month of May, let us pause for a moment and recall that May 2 was the 81st anniversary of the death by firing squad of Chief Justice Jose Abad Santos. In a tribute honoring the late magistrate from Pampanga, President Diosdado Macapagal hailed Abad Santos as “the greatest martyr of the Filipino race, next only to Jose Rizal.” President Manuel Quezon spoke of Abad Santos as “one of the noblest, purest and ablest men the government ever had in service.”

The book “Honor: The Legacy of Jose Abad Santos” written by his grandniece-in-law Desiree Anne Pua Benipayo, provides us with details on his execution by Japanese forces in Malabang, Lanao del Sur in 1942.

At the time of his death, Jose Abad Santos was in fact head of the Philippine Government by virtue of a Letter of Authority signed by President Manuel Quezon prior to his departure for Australia. Aside from his duties as Chief Justice, Abad Santos was also acting Secretary of Finance, Agriculture and Commerce.

On an inspection trip to the Visayas accompanied by his son Pepito and Col. Benito Valeriano, Abad Santos was captured by Japanese troops and taken to Cebu City for interrogation. They discovered that the prisoner in their hands was actually the head of the Commonwealth government. He was then presented with several demands by his captors: first, that he renounce his allegiance to the United States; second, that he serve in the puppet government that was being organized by Japanese authorities; and third, that he contact Col. Manuel Roxas and USAFFE unit commanders in Mindanao, ordering them to surrender. All three demands were turned down by Abad Santos, who declared “to obey your commands is tantamount to being a traitor.” From Cebu City, he and his son Pepito were taken to Mindanao, first to Cotabato and later, to Malabang in Lanao del Sur.

On May 2, 1942 after being served lunch, Abad Santos was summoned to the headquarters of Major General Kiyotake Kawaguchi, commander of Japanese forces in Mindanao. Here the general informed him that he was to be executed, mainly for his refusal to cooperate and give in to their demands. During his trial before a war crimes commission after the war, Kawaguchi would testify “I have never seen a man act as greatly as he did. I have never seen a man who was that calm in the face of death. Death is a serious thing to human beings but he acted as if he was just going home.”

When Abad Santos returned to his hut where father and son were being held, he told Pepito, “I am to be executed.” Bursting into tears, Pepito wept unashamedly. Holding him tight, Abad Santos gently said, “Do not cry, Pepito. Show these people that you are brave. It is a rare opportunity for me to die for our country. Not everyone is given that chance.” May 2, 1942 was a scorching hot Saturday in the seaside town of Malabang. Abad Santos kissed his son on the forehead and said, “God bless you, my son.” A knock on the door of their hut meant it was time to move on.

Seven soldiers of the firing squad then flanked them with the son remaining as Abad Santos was taken to a coconut grove at the turn of the road. He refused to be blindfolded and declined a last cigarette. He was shot under a tall coconut tree near a riverbank by the squad of seven. Witnesses at the scene related how Abad Santos “walked to the execution grounds with absolute tranquility.” After the war, the search for the remains of Abad Santos proved fruitless. His son Pepito would write in his memoirs: “I like to think that it is as he would want it to be – commingled with the brown earth of the country he deeply loved.”

In her epilogue, the author writes: “We are a privileged nation to have in our pantheon men like Jose Rizal and Jose Abad Santos who bravely faced the enemy’s musketry. It is one thing to be in the front lines and trenches, when enemy bullets are not too accurately firing at you, but it is another thing entirely to have seven rifles pointed precisely at you with the bullets having a clear target and a clearer intent.

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