On Bataan and Balikatan

Posted: Apr 05, 2002 12:00 AM
To your average Howard Stern fan, the Philippines is nothing more than a carnival land of shoe-crazy, dog-eating jungle dwellers who are a perennial source of cheap jokes. Some Americans know better. Just ask the thousands of surviving U.S. soldiers who fought in the trenches with Filipinos against the Japanese during World War II. Many have returned to the Philippines to mark the 60th anniversary of the fall of Bataan and the commencement of the Bataan Death March. "Despite our bittersweet memories, we still see the Philippines as our second home," writes death march survivor Steve Raymond in a series on his return to the country for The Tampa Tribune. Veterans from both countries, says retired Maj. Richard M. Gordon, another death march survivor, share a common belief that "Freedom is not free." Gordon is a member of the "Battling Bastards of Bataan," an organization that reminds us "that the precepts of courage, devotion to duty and sacrifice displayed by the men and women of Bataan, both Filipino and American, have not and will not become outmoded." As many of our so-called allies go wobbly in the continuing War on Terror, it's worth remembering who in the world has stood shoulder to shoulder with us in the past -- and who walks the talk today. Over 100,000 Filipino soldiers joined the battle against the Japanese under the command of General Douglas MacArthur, including my maternal grandfather. Thousands of other Filipinos took up arms as guerrillas, providing intelligence to Gen. MacArthur's forces and rescuing downed American airmen. On April 9, 1942, some 76,000 Filipino and American soldiers were forced to surrender to Japanese troops at Bataan, located on the main island of Luzon. For the next 10 days, in insufferable heat, the Japanese marched the prisoners 65 miles through the jungles and on to concentration camps at Cabanatuan. Japanese soldiers committed merciless atrocities against their white and brown captives -- from cigarette burns to water and food deprivation, bayonet stabbings, fatal beatings, and decapitation with samurai swords. Some 25,000 Filipinos and 2,500 Americans died behind barbed wire. When the war ended, more than 1.1 million Filipinos -- soldiers and civilians alike -- had sacrificed their lives. "In the defense of Bataan from February to April 1942, the cause to which you were called was the defense of the freedom of the United States and the Philippines," U.S. Ambassador Francis Ricciardo noted in a speech last week to march survivors. "Sixty years later, our governments, our two peoples and our soldiers once again stand shoulder to shoulder in that same cause. This time the enemy is not a racist, militarist aggressor empire, but international terrorism born of hate, ignorance, fanaticism, corruption and poverty." In Tagalog, the native language of the Philippines, there is a word for that willingness to bear a shared burden, side by side: "Balikatan." It describes the spirit that united American and Filipino heroes who suffered and died together six decades ago. And it is also the codename of the joint military exercise now being held in the southern Philippines where Abu Sayyaf rebels tied to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network have been holding American missionaries Gracia and Martin Burnham hostage for more than 10 months. Both countries have their naysayers and nitpickers -- intellectual elites, media critics, politicians and celebrities who oppose any semblance of military intervention. But among ordinary citizens, there is overwhelming support for Operation Balikatan. Polls show 85 percent of Filipinos support U.S. assistance to defeat Abu Sayyaf. Recently, an almost disbelieving New York Times report described a scene in the southern city of Zamboanga that bears repeating: "Under a hot morning sun, nearly 2,000 residents turned out -- grandmothers, students, government employees, the unemployed. They sang and prayed, waving Philippine and American flags and placards. It was the largest rally here in many years, residents said. ... After two hours, the rally was over. It ended with a long line of men and women on the platform, many in baseball caps, including one with the New York Yankees logo, leading the demonstrators in a song. With their arms in the air, swaying, the demonstrators sang 'America the Beautiful.' All the verses." That's balikatan. Would that we knew more of it here at home.