By James Tabafunda
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
“We will fight until the last.” This is a line from a cheer that he learned in school.
Capt. Felipe Fernandez of the 26th Cavalry kept it in mind as Japanese mortar shells landed around him. He and his platoon were stranded in his homeland, the Philippines, during World War II.
Earlier this month, the 94-year-old resident of Seaside, Calif. joined other survivors of the Battle of Bataan, the Battle of Corregidor, and the Bataan Death March from around the country. They met at the Philippine Scouts Heritage Society’s 26th annual meeting and reunion at the La Quinta Inn and Suites in Tacoma.
The Battles of Bataan and Corregidor were part of Japan’s invasion of the Philippines from 1941 to 1942, which was aimed at preventing the country from being used as a base of operations by the United States as well as expanding Japan’s influence and resources in Asia. The United States and the Philippines were defeated. The defeat resulted in harsh treatment against American and Filipino survivors, which included the Bataan Death March, when 75,000 prisoners of war were forcibly transferred to prison camps. Many were physically abused or murdered.
“These are the men who were there, and we’re blessed that they continue to come and participate,” said John Patterson, national president of the Philippine Scouts Heritage Society.
The two-day event, which ran on May 7 and 8, included business meetings, a memorial service, a 45-minute documentary about the history of the Philippine Scouts by Donald Plata called “Forgotten Soldiers,” and a discussion — The General’s Corner — led by Brig. Gen. Oscar Hillman.
“It’s a time that we listen. It’s a time of friendship. It’s a time that we have the opportunity to celebrate the history of this wonderful U.S. Army unit,” said Patterson. “There’s nothing more that we can do than to keep alive the memory of the [Philippine] Scouts, and, indeed, that’s our purpose.”
The society seeks to also raise public awareness of the role that these soldiers played in the early stages of World War II and the cruel treatment they received as prisoners of the Japanese Army.
Fernandez still carries shrapnel in his neck from the bombing at Corregidor. He also carries memories of one American nurse who saved his life. He eventually received a Purple Heart medal in 1998 for his war-caused injury.
While he was being treated for his injury at a Corregidor hospital, Japanese soldiers were collecting dying patients.
“When they came to my bed, I jumped out of my bed, and one of those nurses threw me a towel to cover my loins,” said Fernandez. “I was saved. … And, I would like to express my gratitude to all of the nurses who served in Corregidor at that time.”
Filipino and American soldiers surrendered to the Japanese after the Battle of Bataan in the Philippines on April 9, 1942. The next day, about 66,000 Filipino and 12,000 U.S. prisoners of war were forced to march 65 miles through the extreme heat and humidity of the Philippine jungles to the Cabanatuan prison camp, an event known as the Bataan Death March.
Lacking food, water, and medicine, about 11,000 prisoners died during the six-day journey, according to the U.S. Air Force. Thousands more died during their imprisonment at Cabanatuan.
Only 512 prisoners managed to survive while in Japanese custody,and they were rescued on Jan. 30, 1945, by a group of U.S. and Filipino soldiers.
Re-enactors dressed in World War II uniforms served as visual examples at the reunion of what Philippine Scouts looked like almost 70 years ago.
Highly trained Philippine Scouts, reinforced by Philippine Army infantry divisions and U.S. Army National Guard units, were responsible for holding back the Japanese Army and Navy.
Anthony Zendejas, a senior at Klahowya Secondary School, presented his 15-minute, one-man play about the Bataan Death March on the first day of the reunion. After interviewing several former POW and eight POW authors, he wrote and directed “Through the Valley.”
His goal is to remind others, especially those in his generation, what the Philippine Scouts experienced during World War II. Zendejas will soon present his play and his research to university students and professors in Japan.
“As long as he can keep telling the story, he knows the story doesn’t die,” said Margot Zendejas, Anthony’s mother.
Only 130 out of the original 12,000 Philippine Scouts are still alive and live in the Philippines or the United States. ♦
For more information about the Philippine Scouts Heritage Society, visit www.philippine-scouts.org.
James Tabafunda can be reached at email@example.com.