Bataan survivors mark 75th anniversary of surrender in the Philippines
BATAAN, Philippines — It’s been 75 years since Oscar Leonard fought alongside his American and Filipino buddies, affectionately known as the “Battling Bastards of Bataan.”
In those desperate days the allies were low on ammunition and supplies but ordered to delay the enemy’s advance along the Bataan peninsula for as long as possible.
By the time they surrendered on April 9, 1942, many defenders were too weak to survive a forced march north, and those who lagged were shot and bayoneted by their ruthless captors.
On Sunday, Battle of Bataan survivors, including Leonard, were guests of honor at a ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the surrender of the peninsula.
“I was damn lucky that I decided to leave Bataan before the [battle] ended,” said Leonard, who escaped the peninsula by swimming to the island of Corregidor while holding onto a floating log.
Representatives of the Philippines, the U.S. and Japan laid wreaths near the summit of Mount Samat, a spot where it’s possible to see most of Bataan and the waters surrounding it.
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte told veterans, family members and supporters that men and women held their ground there three quarters of a century ago.
“We fought shoulder to shoulder with a country that is now the Philippines’ only defense treaty ally, the United States of America,” he said.
The two nations should move their relationship forward with mutual respect, he said.
“As we fought together to stave off the enemy then, so we should help each other overcome the threats that confront society and the world,” he said, listing challenges such as terrorism, violent extremism and the illegal drug trade.
Leonard sat behind Duterte near Filipino generals, diplomats and other VIPs during the speech. The gray-bearded 98-year-old was spry enough to walk to his seat without a cane.
Leonard enlisted in the Army in 1939 and qualified as a top marksman. He later requested the Philippines as his first overseas duty station because his father had served there during the Spanish-American War.
Leonard, then a staff sergeant serving with a coastal artillery unit, was among the troops ordered to evacuate Clark Field in dozens of red buses and head for Bataan. Japanese zeros flew overhead but didn’t bomb the convoy, he recalled.
“That was a big mistake,” he said. “Had they kept us from getting onto Bataan it wouldn’t have lasted long.”
On the peninsula, the troops were able to use the rugged terrain and rivers crossing it as defensive barriers. Leonard saw front-line action on the banks of one of the rivers, he said.
“We would wait until the [Japanese] got to fighting the current and we would pick them off with rifle fire,” he recalled.
His unit swapped out with another one, and the next day the Japanese mounted a massive attack on the river that killed everyone defending it, he said.
After escaping to Corregidor, Leonard then made his way to Mindanao with a cargo of dynamite to help organize Filipino insurgents.
He was forced to surrender there after his picture was given to the occupation force by a fifth columnist. The Japanese threatened to execute prisoners if he didn’t turn himself in.
Leonard met Death March survivors during 42 months in POW camps in the Philippines and Japan. The stories they told of atrocities highlighted the enemy’s ruthlessness, he said.
“They told us that they would move us to where planes were planning to bomb and our own forces would kill us,” he said of his captors.
Leonard has returned to the Philippines several times since the war, and he’s a regular at Bataan Memorial Death March events in White Sands Missile Range, N.M. He’s one of several World War II vets who shakes marchers’ hands when they cross the finish line.