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Legacy of Bataan

Cecilia I. Gaerlan
The mission of the Bataan Legacy project is to achieve social justice for the Filipino veterans of WW2 through the power of theater and literature

Cecilia GaerlanTwo years ago, while doing public readings of my World War II novel “In Her Mother’s Image,”  I discovered that not too many people in this country have heard of the Fall of Bataan.

My father, Luis Gaerlan, served in the the 41st Infantry Regiment and survived the Bataan Death March and his incarceration at Camp O’Donnell. His stories about the war served as the inspiration for my novel, the story of the emotional toll of war on a Filipino family. 

Although the storyline is fiction, the circumstances surrounding the story were based on real life.  I started doing extensive research and interviewing Bataan and Corregidor veterans and, to my horror, I realized that my knowledge about the war was just the tip of the iceberg; I also discovered that most history books in the United States only mention the American defenders of Bataan. The Filipino defenders are ignored, derided and in some cases, even maligned.

After the Spanish-American War in 1898 the Philippines was ceded to the United States for US$20 million. On March 24, 1934, The Tydings-McDuffie Act was enacted for the eventual independence of the Philippines after a 10-year transitional period of Commonwealth Government. The Act also reclassified all Filipinos, including those living in the US, as aliens. 

In 1935, Gen Douglas MacArthur was appointed as the US American Military Advisor. His longtime friend, Commonwealth President Manuel Quezon, also asked him to serve in a dual capacity as Field Marshall to help build the Philippine Commonwealth Army. 

On July 26, 1941, immediately after the fall of French Indochina to the Japanese Imperial Army and under threat of impending war, then President Franklin (erratum: we had mistakenly put the name Theodore earlier; our apologies) Roosevelt signed an executive order absorbing the Philippine Commonwealth Army under the service of the United States Armed Forces of the Far East. 

Ill-prepared, ill-equipped

At that time, the combined troops of the Philippine Commonwealth and US Army numbered 22,532. A massive mobilization took place beginning September 1941, so that most of the men barely received any training by the time the Philippines was attacked on Dec 8, 1941, several hours after Pearl Harbor. In addition, the Filipino troops, with the exception of the Philippine Scouts, were poorly equipped and artillery and ammunition were nil and outdated.

Barely two weeks after the war started and with the Japanese Imperial Army descending swiftly from all directions, MacArthur’s national defense plan to meet the enemy at the beaches was switched back to the old War Plan Orange 3, which called for defense of the islands from the Bataan Peninsula where the troops were to await relief from the US. 

Countless resources did not reach Bataan as a result of the last minute change in defense strategy on Dec 24, 1941. In January 1942, the troops were already on half rations. By February, quinine prophylaxis was limited to hospitals and by March, the troops were on quarter rations with 500 soldiers falling victim to malaria every day. 

LIMITED OPTIONS. Generals Douglas MacArthur and Richard Sutherland in the headquarters tunnel on Corregidor, Philippines, 1 Mar 1942. Photo credit: US National Archives and Records Administration

But the troops managed to hold on for 4 months and disrupted the timetable of the Japanese Imperial Army from occupying the entire Asia Pacific. From the beginning, the soldiers were told every day that help was on its way from the US but in reality, their fate was already sealed on Dec 22, 1941, when Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill secretly agreed to save Europe first during the Arcadia convention in Washington. 

When MacArthur left for Australia on March 12, 1942, the men realized that no help was ever going to come.

The fall

By March, less than 25% of the troops were able enough to do combat and 1,000 soldiers a day became victims of malaria. By April, combat efficiency was close to zero and with only a few day’s worth of rations, Gen Edward King was forced to surrender the men of Bataan. The Fall of Bataan on April 9, 1942, is always described as the largest single surrender of American military troops in history.    

HEADLINES. The Tribune's headlines signal the completion of the Japanese occupation of the Philippines. Photo credit: World War II Database (

Because of the stigma of surrender, the men of Bataan have never been given their rightful place in history. It must be remembered that 87% of the main line of resistance was manned by the Filipino defenders.

During the infamous Bataan Death March, between 10,000 to 15,000 Filipino and 750 American soldiers died mainly from disease, starvation and Japanese atrocities. 

About 29,589 soldiers, a majority of whom were Filipinos, died inside Camp O’Donnell.

Manila was the second most devastated city during World War II, next to Warsaw, Poland. It is estimated that around 1 million Filipino civilians died during the war.

In 1944 the G.I. Bill of Rights granted benefits to all those who served during the war. But 5 months after the war ended, President Harry Truman signed the First Surplus Appropriation Rescission Act in February1946, which appropriated $200 million to the Philippine Commonwealth Army. 

Unknown to the Filipinos, a legislative rider was attached to this Act which deemed the service of the Filipinos (Philippine Commonwealth and, 3 months later, the Philippine Scouts) as not active in terms of benefits, rights and privileges except to those who were disabled or died in action. 

The $200-million appropriation was refused by Carlos P. Romulo, then Philippine Resident  Commissioner to the US, and was never received by the Philippine Army. Nearly every year since the 1990s, a Filipino Veterans Equity Bill wass introduced in Congress to overturn the Rescission Act. But to this day full equity for the Filipino veterans remains an elusive dream.

LAST STAND. Brigadier General Vicente Lim led the 41st Division which defended a portion of the Bataan defense line as US and Philippine forces retreated to Corregidor. Photo courtesy of Brig. Gen. Vicente Lim Facebook page

Bataan legacy project

In February 2009, President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act authorizing the release of a one-time, lump-sum payment to eligible Filipino World War II veterans. However, the only records that are accepted by the US Veterans’ Administration are the ones from the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri. 

In the 1970s, a fire destroyed the records of many veterans including those of the US Army. As of January 2013, 18,728 applications were approved and 24,440 applications were denied.  Most of the veterans are now in their 90s and their numbers continue to dwindle every day.

Recently, the scales of justice were tipped even further when the 9th Circuit of the Appellate Court dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims with prejudice for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. 

I started the Bataan Legacy Project to address the lack of information on the Filipino defenders and the Filipino nation’s sacrifice as well as to draw attention to the enormous injustice that the Filipino veterans were dealt. 

Since my first reading of  “In Her Mother’s Image” in February, 2011, several projects have resulted: Bataan Legacy presentation, a multimedia presentation using Powerpoint, film, music, pictures and live interviews with veterans; a one-man show entitled, “Breach of Faith – The Men of Bataan” based on research and interviews with veterans; stage adaptation of  “In Her Mother’s Image;” and an anthology of stories from survivors of the war in the Philippines.  

For so many decades, only the contributions of the American defenders have been presented to the public. The mission of the Bataan Legacy project is to achieve social justice for the veterans and those who suffered during the war through the power of theater and literature.

Its objective is to define the major role of Filipinos during World War II and to inculcate a sense of pride in knowing that it is the Filipinos who did most of the fighting and the dying in the Philippines. 

As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, we in the Filipino community should join hands and overcome our many differences to present a resounding and unified voice in support of our Filipino veterans and the thousands of men and women who sacrificed in defense of freedom.  

There are only a handful of veterans left. The time is NOW! Mabuhay ang mga Pilipino!

Cecilia Gaerlan is a Bay Area playwright/novelist/activist based in Berkeley, California. She created the Bataan Legacy Project to address the lack of information about the role of Filipinos during World War II in the Philippines and to seek justice for Filipino veterans whose rights as soldiers were rescinded in 1946.

Visit the Bataan Legacy website.

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