Three of Seattle's Filipino-American World War II veterans, who were among those fighting on the Bataan Peninsula, were honored for their bravery at a ceremony Saturday, Feb. 4, and with a new monument at Beacon Hill's Dr. José Rizal Park.
Seventy years ago, they were young soldiers, Merchant Mariners and sailors faced with what for many would become impossible odds for survival, after the American surrender to the Japanese forces in the Philippines in 1942.
The event would become known as the Bataan Death March, one of the most horrific war crimes in history.
Saturday, three of Seattle’s Filipino-American veterans, who were among those fighting on the Bataan Peninsula, were honored for their bravery.
Beneath a tent in the front row, all now in their 90s, were Rosendo Luna, Gene del Rosario and Mariano Berona.
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On the sunny day at Beacon Hill’s Dr. José Rizal Park, dozens of people from the Filipino community gathered to hear excerpts of their written recollections; to hear the men praised by U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott and Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn; and to see them honored with a military color guard and a new monument.
The Association of Bataan and Corregidor Survivors, a group founded in 1959 by 157 Filipino-American veterans from Washington towns, made the monument, which details the historic event, a reality so future generations would not forget.
While three survivors were able to make the ceremony, two others were not: Nick Golla and John Abuan.
As committee member Fannie Sumaoang, whose husband fought on the Bataan, filled plates with dessert before the reception, she said she wants her “children to remember, even my great-grandchildren to talk about it.”
Taking pride in the Filipino-American veterans’ heroism is like “a new birth for the community,” said Luna, 96.
Most of the veterans served with the American military but, because of U.S. laws at the time, were denied veterans benefits until 2009 when President Obama approved the Filipino Veterans Equity Compensation Fund.
“The U.S. made promises to these people and then we forgot,” McDermott told the audience.
Thousands of soldiers would be executed before the grueling march began. Of the 78,000 American and Filipino prisoners who began the 60-mile march from the Bataan Peninsula to Camp O’Donnell, only 54,000 would make it to the prisoner-of-war camp.
Forced to march without water and little food, sometimes going barefoot over hot rocks, suffering from dysentery and malaria, some 15,000 Filipino soldiers and 4,000 Americans would be killed en route.
Numerous Filipino civilians who tried to aid the soldiers by throwing them food or giving them water were killed. And at the camp, 25,000 Filipinos would die.
“Each of our groups were fed only once, a saucerful of rice,” Luna wrote in a remembrance. But others were fed only every seven days.
“Along the road we were laughed at, spit upon, struck down and beaten,” he said. “I cannot forget the kindness and caring of my Filipino countrymen who threw food and cigarettes at us, leaving us cans of drinking water near the end of the march. … I witnessed my comrades dying at 30 to 50 men a day.”
Berona, who was with the Philippine Scouts, was among those marching to the prisoner-of-war camp. When he saw the opportunity to escape, he lay down next to a dead man and pretended to also be dead. Eventually, he was able to run into a ditch, cross a stream and with the help of civilians, he escaped, becoming a guerrilla in the Philippine resistance.
Del Rosario was a Merchant Mariner when his ship was bombed by the Japanese. He decided to join the U.S. Navy and was part of a unit that landed behind enemy lines in Bataan, on a mission to pick up straggling American soldiers after the U.S. surrender there.
In the crowd Saturday were great-great grandchildren of those who made the infamous march, among them Isaiah Luke Cambronero-Harris, 11, who didn’t know about his family history.
“I don’t think you ever told me,” he said to his mother Mildred Cambronero-Harris, who pledged to tell him the stories she’d heard from long ago.
Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @BartleyNews.