By Rick Radin
Monday is the 70th anniversary of one of the most harrowing chapters in the history of the U.S. military — the defeat of U.S. and Philippine forces defending the Bataan Peninsula, a 60-mile-long strip of land east of Manila.
In the days and months that followed the fall of Bataan, the Japanese forced American and Filipino troops to walk more than 60 miles to a prison camp. More than 15,000 of the troops died during what came to be called the Bataan Death March.
The daughter of one Filipino veteran is helping to organize a commemoration of the fall of Bataan, to be held Tuesday on the Cal State East Bay campus.
“When I was growing up in the Philippines, I used to hear about the war from my father, who survived the Death March, as well as his incarceration,” said Cecilia Gaerlan, whose 92-year-old father, Luis, a San Francisco resident, has difficulty speaking because of a traumatic brain injury.
Cecilia Gaerlan, of Berkeley, has written a novel titled “In Her Mother’s Image” that describes the experiences of a young girl in the Philippines during the war and as an adult 30 years later.
She said the commemoration was inspired by the sponsors’ concerns that, unlike Pearl Harbor, the events at Bataan have been largely forgotten.
“I was surprised to learn that not too many people know about it,” she said.
The fall of Bataan came during the darkest days for U.S. forces in the Pacific after the Japanese attack on Pearl
Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
On Dec. 8, the Japanese attacked the Philippines, where the U.S. Army Air Corps had concentrated the bulk of its Pacific forces.
By January 1942, 12,000 U.S. and 63,000 Filipino troops had withdrawn to Bataan, in eastern Luzon. They held out for three months as rations dwindled and disease spread among the troops.
After the allied surrender, the Japanese marched the surviving defenders more than 60 miles to Camp O’Donnell, a prison at the southern end of the peninsula. Along the way, more than 15,000 of the troops died of disease or malnutrition, or were shot or bayoneted to death.
Many more died in the camp in the weeks that followed, and many of those who survived spent the rest of the war in forced-labor camps in Japan and throughout the occupied territories.
“They went into captivity in very bad shape,” said Fred Baldassarre, of Hayward, whose father, James, was a Bataan survivor. “In the weeks before they surrendered, 50 to 200 men a week were dying of diseases or starvation. They had no business marching around anywhere.”
James Baldassarre was in Manila when he received orders to go to Bataan after the Japanese attack, Fred Baldassarre said
“After the death march and Camp O’Donnell, he was sent to Manchuria,” he said. “The first winter was pretty horrific, where guys were coming from the tropics and having to deal with arctic conditions.”
After the war, James Baldassarre testified at the war crimes trial of Gen. Masaharu Homma, the Japanese commander during the invasion, Fred Baldassarre said. Homma was convicted and executed in 1946.
The fall of Bataan came at the beginning of a battle for the Pacific that was to continue for more than three years, culminating in the atomic attacks on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Japanese surrender. The few surviving Bataan veterans are getting up in years.
“There are no more than 10 left in the Bay Area and the three youngest ones are 88,” said Fred Baldassarre, who heads the historical society Battling Bastards of Bataan. “They joined the army when they were 16.”
Many affected by the war were even younger. John Ream, of Kensington, a former civilian prisoner of war, was 10 when his family was sent from Manila to a prison camp in the mountains. He and his father, mother and three sisters sat out most of the war there, where he said conditions were bad, but better than those in the military prisons and labor camps.
“We had two missionary women who shared the same toothbrush for three years,” said Ream, of the Bay Area Civilian Ex-Prisoners of War, and one of the sponsors of Tuesday’s remembrance. “Cooking oil was impossible to obtain, so we were using cold cream as cooking oil when we could find something to cook.”
J.D. Merritt, of Cape Coral, Fla., a friend of Fred Baldassarre, was in an army field hospital on Bataan when it was overrun by Japanese troops. He said he fled into the jungle when the Japanese began bayoneting the patients.
Merritt, 92, eventually was captured and spent the war in forced labor as a stevedore on the Manila docks. He said his Filipino girlfriend died in a refugee camp when Japanese troops burned it to the ground.
Only about 13,000 of the 75,000 U.S. and Filipino forces that surrendered at Bataan were still alive at the end of the war, Merritt said.