The Death March

“Why is Auntie crying?” “She just heard that your cousin was killed in Bataan.”

The second world war began for me on December 8th 1941 (Philippine time} I was eight years old. For the foregoing reason I was living with my aunt and paternal grandmother in Capas, Tarlac. On that day I heard loud and close explosions. Then low flying bombers came right over the house.

I was appropriately frightened. I remember asking my aunt in terror what was happening. She said “The war has started.” I cried “let’s leave.” Her to put it mildly, discouraging answer was “There is no place to go it is a World War.”

The populace of that small village began getting ready for attack. All kinds of rumors went around. How do you tell a Japanese from a Chinese? The former were “fifth columnists.” Well, you look at their big toes, Japanese wear a sneaker with a mittenlike thumb for these toes. Spread toe equals Jap. I wondered if a Japanese fifth columnist would take off his shoes so I could tell.

The men dug L shaped trenches, which were then boarded over and sandbags placed over the whole works. The soil was weeping clay. Every tooth in my head was rotting out. Not a thing to take, not even alcohol. What a miserable memory. Tried to pull the damn things out myself. Never ever get a toothache squatting in a dark, damp hole in the ground.

It was decided that we should head for the hills. As is my luck we walked at night. So tired I fell asleep in a ditch. The moon bright and as I looked up there were the stones and family monuments of a cemetery. Ever wonder why I hate outdoor camping? Might as well sleep in a ditch.

But in time things got quiet. After some days, my older cousins decided I should join them in looting the abandoned Chinese stores (no big toes), By now I knew that looters were to be shot on sight. Went anyway. My loot was a single piece of orange hard candy. While we were on the premises a convoy of Japanese soldiers stopped. Soldiers got out of their trucks. I was terrorized. I can still flashback to my body going weak, my mouth dry and my heart racing. Not caught, not shot. Others were not so lucky.

After the Japanese had established a military government in the town, we were told that anyone who had looted was to place the stolen goods in the palenke (marketplace), where the rightful owners would reclaim them. No one showed up including yours truly with the hard candy. So…. we were all rounded up one afternoon and made to stand in the churchyard. Three men were brought in by truck. A clear day under the blazing tropical sun, If it wasn’t noon it should have been. This had to be most quiet day of my life. The men were praying, holding rosaries never saw such religiosity before or since. They were knelt in front of three previously dug holes. A Japanese officer then beheaded them. Not at all like I expected, since the heads did not lop off. Kinda hung to their bodies. The Japanese then kicked them into the holes, and an officer shot into the holes for the coup de grace. That broke the quiet. I didn’t peek to see if he hit anyone. Almost immediately they started shoveling dirt into the holes. Needless to say that was the end of all looting.

This small town of Capas is of import because it was the last village before the dusty road that ended up at Camp O’Donnell. Here the “death march” ended. Our town was on the road to Bataan and Corregidor. Day after day truckloads of Japanese headed south. Then to our disguised glee came back empty. We were sure the Americans and Filipinos (don’t forget two thirds of the troops were Filipinos} were killing them as fast as they could get there. Some odd sights in those days. Saw a busload of German sailors heading up that road. I have never figured out what they were doing in that part of the world.

But Bataan did fall. The march began. Stories preceded their arrival in our town. The women of the town made small loaves of bread since were told they were starving. We kids were designated to bring these and more importantly water to the soldiers. Some by now were being trucked in. The guys looked like skeletons. Americans are much taller than Filipinos and I thought you would have be dead to be any thinner. We brought the victuals to them. The Japanese were displeased to put it mildly. Fortunately they only hit and fended us off with rifle butts. Up the road they used the bayonet end. I didn’t know this at the time.

The very last truck carrying prisoners finally turned off our Macadamized road to the Death Camp. A surprising thing happened. The doughboys threw up all their money into the air for us to grab. I didn’t get any. I read a base canard later that the people gave or sold food to the soldiers. The latter did not happen. When you consider the danger we were in there was no way we could palaver with the soldiers even if were inclined to do so (which we were not just then).

The only act of kindness I witnessed on the part of any Japanese was a guard walking an American soldier to a small nipa shed so he could defecate. We knew that most of them had diarrhea. Initially I thought the soldier was taking the prisoner away to shoot him.

Guys were dying every day in the camp. We were close enough to see the burial details bring out the bodies. They would remove the deceased’s clothes and shoes because the living needed them. The body was wrapped in paper and buried outside the barbed wire fence. Now and then we would hear shots. These were executions. Somehow people of the village seemed to know why. I remember one poor guy had “radio parts.” The town had no electricity or running water. A soldier who could do anything electrical had a better chance of living. The Japanese made him do their wiring.

The village school reopened. The entire system was built on some 40 years of American occupation. Our books were the same primers used in the US. The teaching was in English. We were made to bring in rice paste and paste together any pages with American flags or indeed American looking scenes. Ended up with a rather bulky book.

We did have one Japanese teacher, Watanabe San, who taught us Japanese. He had been a teacher in his homeland. He was a gentle man. A Christian, who would furtively stand in the back of the church on Sundays. We villagers thought this was a risk to him since the rest of them worshipped the Mikado (at least that was our belief).

Once I told my aunt “Auntie, I want the Americans to come back.” She answered “Sush, somebody might hear you.” “But you do want them to come back?” She nodded silently. This attitude is why I never got to see HeidekiTojo on my return to Manila a couple of years later. I would not stand on the curbside waving a little Japanese flag at my enemy as I would have had to had I turned out for his motorcade.

The occupying troops would go to a house, where a lot of women with a lot of makeup lived. My eight year old eyes noticed that most of them had big bellies. I wondered what made them swell up. No one told me and I didn’t ask. I was one dumb kid.

The Battle for Manila


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Text Copyright © 1997 by Joseph J. Romero