Remembering those who died ...and those who still live

- John L. Silva () - February 13, 2005 - 12:00am
The yearly memorial to the end of Japanese occupation in the philippines occurs in the month of February. The weather is temperate, there is a constant cool breeze and the light is still not so harsh. It is a pleasant time to visit the cemeteries and memorial sites to lay flowers and utter a prayer to loved ones and fellow citizens who died this month 60 years ago. For the over 100,000 innocent civilians who perished in Manila in February, their deaths were tragic and unnecessary. If it wasn’t at the hands of a barbaric Japanese soldier it was from the excessive mortar fire of American "liberation" forces.

The remembering this year has been more acute with the visit of Hampton Sides, author of the best-selling book, Ghost Soldiers. It is a about the rescue of 500 American prisoners in a Cabanatuan prison camp by a selected team of 121 soldiers from the U.S. Army’s Sixth Ranger Batallion.

The book, which appeared in hardcover in 2001, has been a national bestseller in the United States and received several literary prizes for the author, who is a native of Memphis, Tennessee. Many distinguished American writers from the south like William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote excel at good storytelling. Hampton Sides has now joined the ranks by giving a gripping historical rendering of the most successful American rescue operation on Philippine soil.

Actually, Sides would amend that statement. In his talk at the United States Embassy, and in speeches to a variety of audiences during his two-week stay in Manila, Sides would repeatedly emphasize the invaluable role played by the Filipino guerrillas in helping and supporting the rescue operations. He never fails to mention the names of Captain Juan Pajota and Captain Eduardo Joson, two veteran guerrilla fighters who, with their hundred men provided reconnaissance, tactical information, and their lives fighting the Japanese forces while the raid on the prison camp occurred.

This is refreshing insight for many Filipinos weaned on past biographies, history books and movies of World War II Philippines written by Americans who by omission left out a wide swath of Filipinos that played fairly significant roles in that period. A lot of the forgetfulness came with the thinking in those days: The historical movers were the Americans; the Filipinos and the Philippines merely the backdrop.

Hampton Sides is one of a growing number of enlightened American historical writers who’ve discarded long standing notions about America’s incursion into the Philippines, replacing them with sober objectivity. In Ghost Soldiers he introduces the Philippines to readers as the colony won after "…a vicious campaign against the Philippine people which came to be known, inappropriately, as the Philippine Insurrection, as though the local citizenry were displaying an outrageous insubordination for seeking a voice in the future of their own archipelago." Just twenty years ago, this kind of statement in the United States would have been branded pure Communist piffle.

Not only does Sides acknowledge the role of the Filipino guerrillas, he gives them a flesh-and-blood rendering. Captain Pajota he describes as having a …"round, high-cheekboned face and a penetrating stare. His voice was grave, his English clipped and richly accented but quite fluent". A fellow American guerrilla leader who knew Pajota said he was "a very unflamboyant guy with a natural bent for leadership. He was resourceful, organized, and extremely imaginative. He was from Nueva Ecija, and knew it like a book." Just the phrase "knew it like a book" speaks volumes of an important guerrilla attribute.

Sides spent only a month in the country five years ago to research this book. It’s simply amazing considering the minutest details he adds in describing the Philippine countryside. Much of the story is about the travel on trucks, on foot, and eventually on all creeping fours by the 6th Ranger led by Lt. Colonel Henry A. Mucci with 120 men to reach the prison camp site in Pangatian, four miles from Cabanatuan City.

Cogon grass, Sides writes, was good for cover for the Rangers but "bore hundreds of silky hairs that made the Rangers’ skin itch". There was "dried carabao dung" they had to crawl over on the "cracked earth" of rice fields. There were "deeper thickets with miscellaneous noise– buggy noises, reptilian noises." Oftentimes Sides would switch to poetry. If the trudging soldiers tired of the vegetation and wanted to look anywhere, "…the Rangers had to look up at the powdering of stars and the fat moon dancing in and out of stray cumulus clouds."

The setting Sides describes is so intense that one can hear the pulsating sounds of cicadas while reading his book. His acknowledgement section numbering eight pages answers the vividness in his writing. In addition to having read a significant body of World War II material, he interviewed most of the Ranger soldiers and former American prisoners still alive. If they had passed away he interviewed their relatives and children. He was given access to private letters and diaries. Sides did very comprehensive research and the result is evident in every sentence packed with detail, nuance and emotion.

His prison camp scenes are harrowing. The healthiest of the three thousand original prisoners had been sent to Japan and the very sick and injured remained in the camp with no medicine. Starvation and diseases exacerbated the men’s condition. It was really not a prison but an ill-equipped hospital for the dying. As the news spread that, after three long years, the American forces had landed, the Japanese guards exacted greater cruelty. When the first of the Rangers eventually reached their prison barracks and told them to leave, the prisoners initially didn’t budge, incredulous that they would never meet friendly faces again.

It was only a matter of time, given the book’s immense popularity, that a Hollywood movie would follow. It has, and recently with Sides still present, there was a special movie screening at Greenbelt Cinema in Makati of The Great Raid, a Miramax adaptation of Sides’ historical material with the addition of a requisite fictional love story, lots of ear-splitting exploding trucks and tanks, orchestral dirge and, for some comic relief, good old Yankee guffaws between two Ranger soldiers at the end of the movie.

There was considerable applause during the ending credits for local movie star Cesar Montano who plays Captain Juan Pajota. The applause was certainly to acknowledge his great acting but moreover, the applause was to the producers of the film who gave ample scenes and character development to the guerrilla fighters and the Manila underground movement as integral to the overall story, fiction or otherwise. We’ve come a long way from movies like Back to Bataan (1945) with Anthony Quinn as the guerrilla captain named–get this–Andres Bonifacio. Montano spoke better English than Quinn as Bonifacio, who spoke in grunts with an accent that was part Tex-Mex and part Italian Mafia.

The very evident role of the Filipino guerrillas in this Hollywood movie and in Ghost Soldiers brings up the pervasive unsettled question that the United States Government has not addressed: The compensation of Filipino guerrillas who fought with American troops on the promise that they would be entitled to all the benefits due them as veterans.

Shamefully, right after the war, the U.S.Government enacted the Rescission Act (public law 79-301, now U.S. code sec. 101, title 38) rescinding any benefits and comensation Filipino war veterans could claim, including–and most importantly–health benefits.

When I asked Mr. Sides what his thoughts were on Filipino veteran compensation, he was unequivocal. He said that every Ranger veteran he interviewed for the book attested to the role the Filipino guerrillas played in the successful Cabanatuan rescue operation. "If the U.S. Government can spend $250 billion dollars in Iraq," Sides says, "I don’t see why it cannot settle our old accounts with the Filipino veterans. I am very sympathetic to this issue even though I know there are difficulties in proving guerrilla identification and the like. But when you have to draw the line, you have to side with the Filipino veterans and sadly, this may cease to be an issue with fewer veterans left."

The Philippine Government is not exempt from criticism over the veterans issue. The Filipino guerrillas fought not just for the United States but they fought for their country. This country. The compensation they have received from this government is niggardly and a national shame. In the final analysis, we can pounce all we want on the United States for ingratitude. But these veterans are here in this country, destitute and unrecognized. After a while, whining at the American Government is really just a mask for the failure to care for our own.

The book, the movie, Mr. Sides’ visit to the Philippines and the smattering of memorials throughout the country to remember our dead accentuates the no-win situation of wars. The victorious American forces were to our liking and welcomed as saviors but at a tremendous loss of Filipino lives and the wanton destruction of our cities. In the case of our veterans, The United States and the Philippine governments may tend to delude themselves to thinking that valor and heroism should be enough psychic compensation. But there’s a life to be lived decently and health to look after. Our decimating veteran heroes today get little or nothing of both.

A poignant part of Sides’ book is seeing the photographs of the Ranger veterans fifty-plus years later. They sport ruddy faces and the expected wrinkles, but the streaks of courage still appear on their faces. They gambled their youth for a war still considered today "the good fight," and lived to tell Hampton Sides about it.

There was one Cabanatuan prisoner he did not interview for he died during the war. His name was Lt. Henry Lee. He was a soldier and a poet. This poem, written while in Cabanatuan, is a lament for young fellow soldiers who came to our country to fight and die here. It is a lament we need to softly remember as we lay flowers on graveyards in this pleasant yet sad month of February.

Westward we came across the smiling waves,

West to the outpost of our country’s might

"Romantic land of brilliant tropic light"

Our land of broken memories and graves

Eastward we go and home, so few

Wrapped in their beds of clay our comrades sleep

The memories of this land are branded deep

And lost is the youth we knew.

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