MANILA - Philippine officials and executives involved in caring for the country’s war veterans have urged younger generations of Filipinos to carry forward the memory of the 1942 Death March, and those in Japan to learn about it.
“We commemorate the Bataan Death March every year so that we will not forget, and so that the following generations — who may be in danger of forgetting the Bataan Death March and who may think that war is (just) a video game — will remember that this is not a video game,” said Roberto de Ocampo, chairman of the Philippine Veterans Bank, on Thursday at the launch of this year’s activities to commemorate what is considered to have been a war crime by Japan 76 years ago.
Speaking at the same event, Ernesto Carolina, administrator of the Philippine Veterans Affairs Office, spoke in particular to the “millennials” or “the young people” of Japan, whom, he suspects, “do not know what happened” in the Philippines during the 1941-1945 Japanese occupation. “I think it is important that the young children of Japan will continue to know what happened — not for them to condemn, but so that it will never happen again,” Carolina said.
Carolina recalled that during last year’s commemoration of the World War II Battle of Manila, a group of young Japanese in attendance confessed to hearing about the wartime atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers for the first time.
“She said candidly that they never knew what their forefathers did,” Carolina said, referring to the leader of the Japanese group who spoke at the commemorative event. “It occurred to us that maybe in Japan the children do not know what happened. And we hear about this revising of history and slowly covering it up so that one day, nobody would know in Japan about what happened at the Death March.”
The Death March refers to the forced movement by the Imperial Japanese Army of more than 70,000 Filipino and American soldiers from their point of capture in Bataan Province to prison camps in Tarlac Province, both north of Manila. The forcible transfer, mainly on foot, began on April 9, 1942, and lasted six days.
They were forced to march “day and night, under blistering sun or cold night sky,” and were only given “brief rest and some water,” according to markers put up by government on the Death March route. “Many were ill, most were feverish, but none might rest, for the enemy was brutal with those who lagged behind. Thousands fell along the way.”
In the town of San Fernando more than halfway through the ordeal, “the Death March became a Death Ride by cargo train when the prisoners were packed so densely into boxcars that many of them perished from suffocation,” the markers said.
When the evacuation ended at what would later be the concentration camp in Tarlac on April 15, 1942, it is estimated that only 54,000 arrived alive.
Carolina said that only a small number of Death March survivors are among some 7,000 living Filipino war veterans.
Japan has apologized for its wartime atrocities and offered reparations to the Philippines. The two countries currently regard each other as “strategic partners.”
“When images of the Death March are brought back, we see the cruelty and the suffering. But beyond that, we would like to highlight the ideals that those who survived, those who participated in the infamous Death March represent — love of country, selfless sacrifice,” Carolina said.
“I was fortunate to meet a lot of them, and many of them had a chance to escape during the Death March. But they did not. They could not leave behind their buddies, their comrades who were sick and who would be killed and bayoneted by the Japanese,” he added.
Carolina said images of captured soldiers sharing what they had, as well as of civilians taking the risk of giving food to the POWs, are the “ideals that we would like to stay and be imbibed by our citizens, especially the young people.”
Noting that “the relationship (of the Philippines) with Japan over the years has improved to the extent that there is no need really for us to emphasize in any way the Japanese part of the occupation,” de Ocampo expressed confidence that “the friendship” between the two countries “will not be dented by the fact that we are honoring an event that really highlights Philippine heroism.”
A multievent race called Freedom Trail will be held on March 24 and 25 as part of the commemoration. As in the inaugural edition held last year, participants will trace the entire route in three categories: a 160-km ultramarathon relay, a motorcycle tour, and a road bike ride.
In addition, the fifth annual “Bataan Freedom Run” is scheduled for April 8, and also follows a portion of the Death March route.
“The Bataan Death March was of course a horrific experience. The Freedom March is the joyful one. But nevertheless, it is a commemorative one,” de Ocampo said of the upcoming events.
Carolina said that while static reminders of the Death March are already in place, “it is not enough that you see; it is important that you feel (it), you go through it, and you experience it.”
Mike Villa-Real, vice president for communication and corporate affairs of the Philippine Veterans Bank, said the fees that will be collected from participants who will register will be used for maintenance of the Death March markers.