I saw the death march
by Romeo J. Arceo
“The Japanese were not burying the Filipino dead: That much was certain”
April 14, 1956–THEY started coming—through Bacolor, Pampanga, our town—on the morning of April 13, 1942. From half-opened windows in our old, small house, we looked at them—dead men on their feet, moving on in broken ranks.
It was hard to distinguish one face from another. Everyone was pale and thin and sickly—and only the really familiar faces which one can hardly forget because of ties of love and friendship were to be recognized, but only after a hard, second look.
There was Cpl. Demetrio Santos, half-carrying his sick brother, Lt. Librado Santos, in his arms…yet after the hell that was O’Donnell, it was Librado who came back. The younger one, Demetrio, did not make it.
There was Pvt. Bonifacio Mangio, our neighbor, looking more dead than alive…yet he lived through O’Donnell, malaria, and dysentery to become a successful businessman today.
One soldier made a dash for freedom across the street from where we were. One shot from a Japanese guard stopped him short…under the stairs of the house of my compadre, Marciano Manese. Later, in the evening, some neighbors headed by Rufino Torres took his body and buried him in the Catholic cemetery in town.
And near our own backyard, another soldier tried to escape. But a Japanese guard overtook him and shot him dead on the spot. Not contented, he beat him mercilessly with a big stick until his head was a broken mess. I don’t know who buried him, but he was buried there, where he fell, in a small hole unmarked by any white cross to the present day.
The Japanese were not burying the Filipino dead. That much was certain.
The next morning, when the second batch of “death marchers” arrived, a soldier with a bandaged head broke from his ranks and walked toward our house. He was saying; “Maawa po kayo. Bigyan ninyo akong kanin.” (“Please, have pity. Give me rice.”)
Even as he talked, a Japanese guard came from behind and hit him with the butt of his rifle on the head—once, twice, thrice. To this day, I can still see the look of agony in his face as he turned to rejoin his ranks, to fall on the shoulders of a comrade.
The Jap motioned to us to get away from the windows. We obeyed and peeped instead through slits in the sawali wall. By this time, the Japanese were driving all civilians away—for many had been so bold as to help prisoners escape and give them food.
By noon, rifle fire increased. More men were making dashes from their ranks. Many of the “death marchers” escaped in our town. There was only one guard for every 100 prisoners, although sometimes, there were Japanese guards riding around in trucks.
For the Americans, there were no guards at all. Apparently, the Japanese knew that should they attempt to escape, it would be very easy to pick them up. They could easily be traced because of the color of their skin.
I knew one American, Lt. Charles Naylor of Salt Lake City, Utah, then only 22 years old, who was saved from the “death march.” He used to come to our evacuation place in Barrio Potrero (Bacolor) and talk of his America. Later, he joined the guerrillas.
I don’t know if he lived through the Japanese occupation. But if he did, maybe he’d like to know that the man who took care of him, “Iso” Singian of Maliwalu (Bacolor), did not make it. The Japs came and killed him—for saving his life, I think.
There were two other Americans who were saved. But in mid-1943, there were caught by the Japs in Barrio Talba (Bacolor), some five kilometers from the poblacion. Two more Americans who escaped showed up in town some time in 1943 and asked for shelter in the residence of the parish priest Msgr. Andres Bituin. The town policemen heard of their presence and surrounded the house. The two Yanks shot it out and made good their escape. In the shooting, Judge Arturo Joven was killed by a stray bullet.
There were several sons of Bacolor who escaped from the “death march.” Like M/Sgt. Juanito T. Bognot. He made his dash for freedom in Guagua five kilometers before Bacolor. On reaching Sta. Rita, he changed to civilian wear and started walking to Bacolor…to help his comrades escape. We convinced him to go to the barrios and hide…there were already many of his townmates who were braving danger to help our boys, whether natives of Bacolor or not.
Bacolor’s example of the famous “Sullivans” of America, the Samia brothers, did not all make it. Two of them, Federico and a physician whose name I don’t quite remember, died in Bataan. Both were lieutenants. Their younger brothers, “Edong” and “Dedy”, returned home. “Dedy” is dead now, a victim of a disease he first contracted in Bataan.
It might be mentioned that their two other brothers, Eleazar and the youngest in the family whose name I don’t remember, were killed by the Japanese during the occupation period for guerrilla activities. Thus, the Samia family lost five young boys in the cause of freedom and democracy.
But our town also had its casualties.
There was a young boy, Abelardo David, who answered his country’s call to arms before Christmas 1941. He didn’t have to go and fight—as the war was already very much on and the USAFFE forces were in retreat. But like the good soldier that he was, he reported for duty. Everybody waited for him to come back.
But he was long in coming. He died fighting in Bataan.
There were other young boys like him who died. Like Segundo Angeles, Ricardo Torno, Federico Samia and his medic brother, Leopoldo Malig, another Malig, “Goito” Joven, Miguel Santos, a certain Gopez from barrio San Antonio, and a brother of Bishop Alejandro Olalia.
Demetrio Santos and Paulino Manese died in Camp O’Donnell.
In honor of these young boys who gave their lives for our country’s cause, Councilor Emerito L. de Jesus today plans to enlist the aid of his fellow councilors and other town officials headed by Mayor Adriano Puno into sponsoring a move for the construction of a monument—that the memory of these boys who upheld the glory of Bacolor may live forever.
In passing, it may be mentioned that many others were saved from the “death march” in Bacolor.
Porfiria Gutierrez of Potrero (Bacolor), in whose house we evacuated, opened wide her house to a young man, whom we knew only as Juanito, a native of La Paz, Tarlac. He spoke neither Tagalog nor English. He died of malaria and dysentery four days after he came, and we buried him in the Potrero cemetery.
It is likely his folks do not know yet of his sad fate. But should they come to read this article, I would gladly give them the story. In La Paz, Tarlac, there may only be one missing Juanito.
There was Domingo Talento of Camarines Norte whom Ruperto Mercado saved. He finally married a Bacolor girl. There was also Sgt. Celestino Samalca of Bohol who was saved by the Navarros. He married their daughter. And the incumbent chief of police of Bamban, Tarlac, was saved in Bacolor, too.
There were many others.
Today, little white crosses dot those spots where our soldiers fell and died…all along the death march route. But there are still places unmarked by white crosses—where some soldiers are buried unknown. They may be lonely, lying there all alone, forgotten and unknown.