Commentary: Veterans march in recognition of Bataan Death March, in year after official recognition by Congress
by Sonny Busa
A group of six to eight veterans and spouses from San Antonio will travel to White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico to honor the Bataan Death March. One marcher writes on why he chooses to march.
When dawn breaks on the morning of March 19, 2017, over White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, I will be standing tall and proud with 7000 patriots from all over America as we get ready to honor the fallen and the survivors of the Bataan death march which took place on April 9, 1942 after the surrender of Filipino and American troops in Bataan in the Philippines. There are days of infamy and there are days of horror. The Bataan death march will always be remembered as one of the most horrific wartime atrocities ever. Of the 56,000 Filipinos and 11,000 Americans who were captured and forced to endure the death march to a distant prison most did not survive either the march or imprisonment.
For the past 29 years the Bataan Memorial March has been conducted at White Sands Missile Range to keep alive the memory of that tragic event 75 years ago. New Mexico sent 1500 of her sons to Bataan and over half did not come back alive. For a sparsely populated state this was a staggering blow. No other similarly sized American unit suffered as greatly. Everyone in the state knew someone in that unit.
This year the Filipino American community has special cause to celebrate. On December 14, 2016, President Obama signed into law the Filipino World War ll Veterans Gold Medal Act of 2015, a bill granting recognition to Filipino and American soldiers who served in the Pacific theater. The recognition is 75 years in the making. What better way to celebrate its passage than by marching in honor of those brave veterans, both Filipino and American.
After a somber and reflective opening ceremony filled with stirring and emotional speeches, songs, bagpipe music, and rabble rousing cheers, the 7000 marchers who represent many active duty and reserve Army units, ROTC contingents, veterans groups, wounded warriors, and civilian support teams, along with relatives and friends of Bataan and World War ll veterans will head grim faced and determined into the New Mexico desert to march all or part of a track that is sandy, hilly, and beaten down by an unforgiving sun.
I march in memory of my father-in-law, Pantaleon Cawagas, who as a 20 years old Philippine Scout, was assigned to an anti-aircraft battery on Bataan. He reluctantly obeyed the order to surrender and was soon sent out on the 50 mile death march to a prison camp. Along the way he endured unspeakable cruelties where their captors routinely shot or bayoneted their prisoners at the slightest whim. Cawagas escaped his captors along the way and spent the rest of the war as a guerrilla fighter where he gain a measure of revenge against his torturors.
This is my fourth march. I do it for my father in law and for all the Filipinos and Americans who have been denied the recognition due them for their sacrifices. The Bataan death march is not taught in American schools. In the Philippines the march is a central story in the formation of the national pride narrative. To see many Americans marching to honor Filipinos as they honor their own is inspiring and is a tribute to all veterans.
Hundreds of marchers will have pictures pinned on their clothing of their loved ones who were on the death march in the Philippines. The marchers will greet each other and tell the tale of the picture they carry. The accounts are all similar: a young man away from home for the first time in a strange country was caught up in a conflict that he did not start ,but knew in his heart that what he was doing was noble and was going to do the best he could for his country. Some stories end with a death, others end with a life well lived. But all end with pride.
So we will march and feel no pain in memory of those that did the march under more telling circumstances. It is said that a person dies twice, the first time is when the last breath is taken. The second time is when their name is mentioned for the last time. We marchers will make sure that the Bataan veterans do not die twice.