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Oldest living Filipino WWII veteran is 107, recalls Bataan Death March

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By Ben Cal

MANILA (PNA) — At 107, former Army Capt. Jose P. Javier is the oldest living Filipino World War II veteran who survived the infamous Bataan Death march.

But despite his old age, Capt. Javier, a medical doctor by profession, still managed to write a 143-page book entitled “A Century’s Journey” -– a story about his life, particularly as a soldier, who was always in the front-line attending to the wounded.

This writer was granted the rare privilege for an exclusive interview with the now bed-ridden Capt. Javier by the latter’s ever caring wife, Filomena at their residence in Quezon City last Monday as the nation prepares for the 75th anniversary of the “Araw ng Kagitingan” on April 9.

It was his wife who answered my query during the interview, although she said “there are some occasions that her husband could utter something, like when he is hungry or thirsty,” Mrs. Javier said.

“But during the praying of the Rosary, her husband is very attentive that when someone replies incorrectly, he immediately corrects him,” she added with a smile.

Mrs. Javier said her husband’s “passion for prayer trusting God and putting the Lord first has not diminished to date.”

In fact, in his book, Capt. Javier disclosed that he attended Mass and received Holy Communion at every opportunity even during the war. It was a Belgian priest who said the Mass held secretly in their mountain hideout in Luzon.

In his book, Capt. Javier recalled that prior to the outbreak of the war in the Philippines, World War II was already raging in Europe. It was only a matter of time that the United States would be involved in the fighting “sooner or later.”

In 1938, President Manuel L. Quezon tapped US Gen. Douglas MacArthur to organise and train a Philippine Army to prepare for any eventually, on top of the Philippine Constabulary, whose task was mainly for peace and order.

“Doctors were invited to apply for military training to prepare them for possible active duty,” Capt. Javier recalled.

“After I submitted my application, I was called to report to Camp Murphy (now Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City) for six weeks of training. Together with other doctors, I had my first experience of military life,” Capt. Javier said.

For three years, from 1938 to 1941, he was assigned to various places in the country, particularly in Mindanao as World War II had not broke out in the Pacific.

However, there were talks that war “which had embroiled Europe would involve the U.S. and the Philippines. But nobody thought that would happen soon. And everybody believed that if war did come to the Philippines, the mighty forces of the U.S. would quickly vanquish the enemy (Japan). How mistaken we were!” Capt. Javier wrote in his book memoirs.

On Sept. 1, 1941, he and other Filipinos were inducted into the U.S. Armed Forces of the Far East (USAFFE).

Capt. Javier was assigned as the executive officer of the 21st Medical Battalion under Lt. Col. Eliseo Bringas as the commanding officer. The unit was under the 21st Infantry Division commanded by Gen. Mateo Capinpin.

It was only on Dec. 9, 1941 that the earthshaking news that war broke out in the Pacific.

“Gen. Capinpin broke the news that Pearl Harbor in Honolulu was bombed by the Japanese the day before and that the U.S. Congress had declared war on Japan. On that day the Japanese bombed Clark Air Force Base (in Pampanga),” Capt. Javier said.

Immediately, the 21st Infantry Division was deployed to Lingayen Gulf where the Japanese Imperial Army was expected to land.

American and Filipino troops engaged the Japanese forces, but the invaders pressed their searing attack, Capt. Javier said, saying that “we began our retreat while our infantry engaged the Japanese to delay their advance.”

Despite the raging war, a handful of Filipino Catholics, celebrated Christmas Eve on Dec. 24, 1941 in dim light with only two candles in Camiling, Tarlac where the Filipino and American guerrillas had retreated.

On Jan. 1, 1942, they moved to Angeles City in Pampanga on their way to Bataan where they saw massive destruction with many bridges burning.

He said it was in Bataan where American and Filipino forces would make their stand against the pursuing Japanese.

“Those who planned the strategy were confident that our troops fighting a defensive war could hold the enemy until reinforcements would arrive from the U.S.” Capt. Javier said.

However, he said, the planners “did not occur to them that a successful attack on Pearl Harbor at the onset of the war would initially incapacitate the U.S. for some time.”

Pearl Harbor was devastated in a surprise attack by Japanese warplanes. This had spurred the Americans to go to war against the Japanese.

In his memoirs, Capt. Javier described how the Filipino and American troops fought gallantly in their foxholes in Bataan against the highly armed Japanese forces.

“Our cannons fired continuously day and night. But the Japanese could not be stopped. Their advances could not be stopped. Their advances could only be delayed,” he pointed out.

He also said there were times when heavy fighting stopped but they were temporary as the Japanese were only reorganising before they would resume their offensive.

He said that fortunately Japanese planes did not incur much damage during their sorties in terms of troop casualties because Japanese pilots were targeting “our artillery which was wreaking havoc on their troops.”

During these aerial attacks, they wished they had their own warplanes to engage the Japanese aircraft.

Capt. Javier also said that every time they received words from America that reinforcements were coming as promised by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, they were buoyed up only to be dismayed later that there was none.

Then they received orders to hold their lines and “no more retreat…but our troops could only hold for a period of time. Finally, we were pushed to the foot of Mt. Samat.”Fighting continued to rage without letup with the medical unit under Capt. Javier treated and evacuated Filipino and American casualties.

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Every time there was a lull in the fighting, Capt. Javier said he visited his men at the front-line to cheer them up. Nevertheless, Japanese reconnaissance planes dropped bombs occasionally that one of his medical staff, Dr. Juan Itchon, developed shell shock.

The Fall of Bataan

Capt. Javier wrote in his book the saddest day in his life when the Filipino and American soldiers in Bataan had surrendered on April 9, 1942 after more than three months of holding their fort against the mighty Japanese troops.

Suffering heavy casualties and short of ammunition, food, medicine and other supplies running out of stock, Bataan had fallen.

In his diary, the 31-year old Capt. Javier recalled that every Friday for the past three years how Fr. Fernando Guerzon, the division chaplain, led the Station of the Cross. But on Good Friday in 1942, there was none as the Japanese had overrun Bataan.

“For a while we hiked without direction or destination. Japanese soldiers overtook us. Some of them seemed to be friendly,” he said.

“You may go home now,” Capt. Javier heard some Japanese soldiers telling them.

“After one day of hiking, we were stopped and made to join many others. We were made to sit down on the ground while a Japanese soldier made a count touching each head with the end of a pole. I met Julio Abadilla who shared his little rice with me. We parted. I did not wait for anybody, nor look for a companion. I was eager to get out of Bataan. Are we really free, I asked myself?” he said.

Death March

Then Capt. Javier realised they were prisoners of war upon reaching Dinalupihan in Bataan at the boundary of Pampanga.

“From there we were made to march in columns, with a Japanese soldier at the head and another at the tail of the column,” he said.

Day and night they had to walk without stopping. Worse, they were not given food and water. They were weak and exhausted.

People who lived along the highway gave them water to drink that gave them some relief to quench their thirst.While they were walking, he saw his friend, Dr. Fernando Tinio, who was agonising in pain because his feet were full of blisters. Tinio had to take out his shoes to continue walking with towels wrapped around his feet.

“Fortunately, the Japanese guard was not cruel, he just prodded us to walk faster to catch up with the rest,” he said.

During the long walk, some of them managed to escape, but some who were caught were bayoneted to death.

Capt. Javier also related when they reached San Fernando in Pampanga they were put inside a fence with barbed wire.

“It was then that we realised we were prisoners,” he said.

There were thousands of them with no food and other basic needs. In fact, Capt. Javier described the location as a “big pit” where there were no toilets and “where everybody went to relieve themselves. It was nauseating. We were given a ration of rice.”

The next day, they were hauled aboard a train and brought to Capas, Tarlac.

At that point, the Death March had not started yet. The Death March covered a distance of 65 kilometres from Balanga, Bataan to San Fernando, Pampanga — about 50 kilometres, and from Capas to Camp O’Donnel, about 15 kilometres.

When the Japanese invaded the Philippines, they expected to capture Bataan at the end of April 1942, but Bataan had fallen on April 9 of that year.

This had created problem of evacuation by the Japanese.“Perhaps they (Japanese) had prepared a plan but it broke down because they underestimated the number of U.S. forces. Their intelligence estimated the number of U.S. forces to be less than 40,000. The correct number was about 80,000.

The Japanese did not think of the civilians who had to get out of Bataan because they could be killed by artillery from Corregidor aimed at the Japanese,” Capt. Javier wrote in his book.

The Japanese expected that about 100,000 would be evacuated, but they underestimated the bulk of the evacuees which was twice the number.

“The result was that the evacuation was utterly disorganised, at least from the point of surrender to the town of Orani at the base of the peninsula,” he said.

They were ordered to march in columns but “what made it worse for the prisoners was the ill treatment by the Japanese, who either did not know or ignored the instruction of General Homma (the Japanese commander).”

“With rare exceptions, the Japanese officers and enlisted men were cruel and brutal. For no reason at all or for minor infractions, prisoners were slapped in the face, punched, or hit with the butt of rifles. Those who could no longer keep pace in the march, those who were caught trying to escape were given the ultimate treatment – bayoneted or shot. It is estimated that at least 600 Americans and between 5,000 and 10,000 Filipinos lost their lives during the march,” Capt. Javier said.

As a prisoner of war during the Death March, Capt. Javier always prayed for his safety. God answered his prayers when he was able to continue the Death March without being stricken ill.

Capt. Javier regained his freedom when the Japanese released him in Manila sometime in August 1942 when the war was still raging.

He joined the guerrilla movement until the Philippines was liberated in 1945 by American and Allied Forces led by Gen. MacArthur.

During the interview at his residence, Capt. Javier smiled and shook my hand firmly with the strength of a young soldier. It was an indication to thank me for the interview.He looked me straight in the eyes as he signaled to his wife, Filomena, who was beside him to serve me a snack which she willingly obliged.

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