SURIGAO CITY, Philippines – Japanese military personnel who died in naval battles with U.S. forces during World War II were remembered last week at a ceremony unveiling a historical marker in the southern Philippines where many were cremated.
Historians and war veterans say as many as 500 Japanese sailors and soldiers were cremated at a public high school in Surigao City, about 710 km south of Manila. They were defeated by the U.S. Navy in the Battle of Surigao Strait on Oct. 24 and 25, 1944.
“This historical plate is installed on this site in proper mourning for the Japanese soldiers and navy men who died in action in this part of Mindanao. These men died fighting for Japan and the Imperial Japanese Army burned them here,” the marker reads.
Japanese forces deployed in Surigao Del Norte Province made what is now the Surigao Del Norte National High School its headquarters, said Leslie Bauzon, a professor at the University of Tsukuba in Ibaraki Prefecture.
Japanese history researcher and translator Mari Furusawa said that according to the published memoirs of war survivor Hisashi Hiraoka, who served in an army hospital in Surigao, soldiers used this site as one of the places “where soldiers burned the war dead.”
Earlier in the day of last week’s ceremony, the people of Surigao celebrated the 63rd anniversary of the Battle of Surigao Strait, which historians say was the last time a battle line formation by U.S. naval forces was used in warfare.
Representatives from the Allied Forces, including the United States and Australia, along with Japan commemorated the event overlooking the tranquil waters of the strait, vowing never again to engage in war and build a community of peace and friendship among nations.
In the Battle of Surigao Strait, the Japanese fleet was led by Vice Adm. Shoji Nishimura with two battleships, a heavy cruiser and four destroyers. Behind him was Vice Adm. Kiyohide Shima, with the support of two heavy cruisers, a light cruiser and four destroyers.
But Nishimura’s battleship, the Yamashiro, was engaged by a much stronger 7th Fleet force under Rear Adm. Jesse B. Oldendorf at the far end of the strait.
The Yamashiro sank, together with Nishimura, the highest-ranking Japanese officer drowned in Surigao waters. Shima made it back to Manila, but with only one heavy cruiser and two destroyers.
Hundreds of bodies from the sunken Japanese fleet washed ashore. Some of them were cremated on the spot, while others were taken to the nearby cremation site, said Irenetta Montinola, executive director of the Surigao Heritage Center.
“It was not a battle between two equally matched naval fleets,” but a battle won by the overwhelmingly stronger U.S. Navy, she said, reading from a narrative of the battle written by Philippine and Japanese historians.
In January 1945, U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur invaded Luzon, taking Manila two months later, in a prelude to the ultimate Allied victory.