The Invisible Veterans

Thousands of Filipinos fought and spied and suffered and died under American command to help us win World War II. The U.S. government says the soldiers who survived -- now elderly, often living in poverty -- aren't worthy of military benefits. Four storie

On April 9, word came that the Bataan Peninsula had fallen to the Japanese. The U.S. Armed Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) had defended the peninsula for three months, but ultimately a lack of food, medicines, and arms led to defeat.

All U.S. forces, including Ayes' division, were ordered to Corregidor, a small island at the mouth of Manila Bay that had become the headquarters of the USAFFE. Corregidor would be the last defense against the Japanese.

The men fought desperately in the jungles off the beaches at Corregidor. But the Japanese proved too strong. The Japanese had machine guns and cannons; the Filipino soldiers had only rifles. The Japanese were well-supplied; the U.S. forces had nearly run out of food and water.

Day and night, the Japanese bombarded Corregidor from the sea, air, and land. Orange flashes of Japanese artillery lit up the clear night skies almost constantly. After 10 days of fighting, the U.S. forces surrendered. The Japanese had taken the Philippines.

Ayes' unit did not surrender. Wounded, exhausted, and starving survivors hid in the jungle, found boats, and sailed to the island of Leyte, where they withdrew to the mountains and continued to resist. Of the 50 men in Ayes' platoon, only 17 were still alive when Corregidor fell and the Japanese seemed invincible.

Bataan Survivor: Leonardo Asuncion, 75
Leonardo Asuncion still has nightmares. He dreams that he is being chased by Japanese soldiers who have rifles with bayonets attached to them. The Bataan Death March is not something that fades from memory, even after 55 years.

On April 9, 1942, after three months of hunger, sickness, air raids, and retreat, the U.S. Armed Forces in the Far East surrendered to Japan. The following morning, the Japanese ordered their new prisoners in the Philippines -- more than 70,000 Filipino and American soldiers -- to begin the infamous 65-mile trek from the Bataan Peninsula.

Asuncion, then 20 and a medic with the U.S. Armed Forces in the Far East 1st Regular Division, was herded into a group of 50 men who fell under the direction of five Japanese soldiers. The 55 men set out from Little Baguio and headed north from the base of the Bataan Peninsula toward Japanese internment camps in central Luzon.

Barefooted and starving, with no food or water or rest, the prisoners marched for four days straight. Along the way, the group passed decapitated bodies of American soldiers.

It was one of the hottest months of the year. The temperature exceeded 100 degrees. Desperate with thirst, several prisoners pulled out of line to drink the free-flowing water from the artesian wells along the roadside. Those who did so were immediately bayoneted or shot.

Those who fell, and those who were injured or sick, were killed or left to die. Anyone who went to assist the fallen or ailing faced a similar fate. When a Japanese guard saw one prisoner helping two others who were barely able to walk, Asuncion says, the guard shot all three men and then laughed.

On the fourth day, Asuncion's group stopped overnight at San Fernando, a midway point, where the Japanese fed them a little rice and water. The next morning, they were loaded into a truck heading for the Japanese concentration site at Camp O'Donnel, still farther north.

Asuncion entered the Japanese prison camp on April 13, 1942. He and his fellow prisoners slept on bunk beds in long rectangular barracks made of bamboo and grass roofs. Meals were meager: sometimes rice and boiled sweet potatoes; sometimes rice and rotten boiled sweet potatoes.

He was first assigned to help carry 50-gallon drums of water to the camp from a nearby spring; the camp had no water system. Then Asuncion was put on grave detail. On the detail, he had to arrange the bodies of dead prisoners in 6-by-12-foot holes, sardine-style, for "maximum space conservation." When the holes were filled, they would cover the pile of bodies with a thin layer of dirt to keep the flies and dogs away. Often, he says, he would bury 10 prisoners a day.

He became progressively sicker, and by June 1942, he had contracted malaria, dysentery, and avitaminosis, a disease resulting from vitamin deficiency. The Japanese agreed to release him that month, certain that he would die. When his uncle came to take him home from camp, he was barely able to stand. He had to be lifted into his uncle's wagon.

After recuperating for a year and a half in his hometown, Gerona, Asuncion rejoined the fight against the Japanese. He became a guerrilla fighter under an American-led division, the 202nd Squadron in Western Tarlac, central Luzon.

Equipped with carbines, machine guns, and ammunition delivered by U.S. submarines, the 202nd Squadron would hide in the jungle late at night and ambush Japanese trucks carrying reinforcements and supplies to the northern part of the Philippines. Asuncion wanted to retaliate against the Japanese for what they had done to him, and to everyone else at Bataan. It was 1944, and no one was certain how much longer the war might last.

Boy Soldier: Marcelino Garcia, 68
Marcelino Garcia was 11 years old when the Japanese army arrived in the Philippines early in December 1941. That month, the Japanese destroyed more than half the U.S. Air Force on the ground, and landed troops on Luzon and Mindanao islands. By Christmas, the occupation of the Philippine Islands was virtually complete.

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