Aging veterans remember torment of Bataan Death March

This picture, captured from the Japanese, shows American prisoners using improvised litters to carry those of their comrades who, from the lack of food or water on the march from Bataan, fell along the road." Philippines, May 1942.


By CAROLYN JONES | San Francisco Chronicle (MCT) | Published: May 26, 2014

It's been 72 years since the Bataan Death March. Pedro Pineda, 94, thinks he might be ready to start talking about it.

"Here is something I cannot forget," he said last week while meeting with fellow veterans in a San Francisco apartment. "During this march, we had a short rest by an artesian well. We were so thirsty. But the Japanese sentries changed their mind, and told us to go back. On the way back, they bayoneted this guy ...

"Oh my gosh, I saw that," he said, tears rolling down his cheeks and his fists clenched. "I never talked about it. But it happened. I saw it."

Pineda, a retired cardio technician from Daly City, isn't the only one who rarely speaks of the infamous World War II massacre in the Philippines, a scorching, 63-mile trek Japanese soldiers forced upon 78,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war following the Battle of Bataan. The incident is rarely taught in schools and is often overlooked in war retrospectives, in part because it was among the worst defeats in U.S. military history and in part because of the sheer horror of what the soldiers endured.

But a Berkeley woman is trying to change that. Cecelia Gaerlan has launched a nonprofit, Bataan Legacy, to educate younger generations about the sacrifices and courage of Bataan soldiers. She visits schools, lobbies for Bataan to be included in textbooks, and on Monday is hosting a reunion for Bataan survivors at the Philippine Consulate in San Francisco.

"These soldiers gave so much, but people just don't know. That's the double tragedy of Bataan," said Gaerlan, whose father, Luis, 94, is a Bataan survivor. "These men are now in their 90s. Time is of the essence."

MacArthur's plan

The Bataan Death March was in April 1942, four months after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. As a U.S. territory, the Philippines was an early and central player in the war's Pacific Theater, and thousands of Filipino soldiers fought the Japanese under the leadership of Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

With much of Southeast Asia under attack by the Japanese, MacArthur's plan was to hold tough on the Bataan peninsula and, after the arrival of supplies and reinforcements, attack north from there. But the Japanese blockaded Bataan, and thousands of American and Filipino troops were left stranded without food or medicine. After a three-month siege in which 10,000 American and Filipino troops died, the U.S. surrendered.

The Japanese then marched the prisoners of war - who were severely weakened from hunger and malaria - across the jungle to an internment camp. During the march, Japanese soldiers executed, bayoneted and tortured thousands of prisoners.

To survive, the prisoners ate grass, maggots, worms and crickets. They sucked water off guava leaves. How they survived is a mystery, still.

"I don't know why we lived. Luck? Something," Pineda said.

Internment camp

Proculo Bualat, 96, of San Francisco survived, then went on to endure months at the internment camp, where he worked burying the bodies of his cohorts, and then three years performing slave labor in a manganese mine before escaping.

He's almost never spoken of those years, his wife Johanna said, but a few memories have stayed with him: that once, while on burial detail, he almost shoveled dirt over a soldier who was still alive; and that the worms that infested a deep wound on his leg probably kept him alive, because they kept away infection.

Bualat went on to serve more than 20 years in the U.S. Army before finally retiring as a mechanic with the U.S. Postal Service.

David Tejada, 91, of Daly City started talking about his Bataan experiences a few years ago, after he sought treatment through the Veterans Administration for post-traumatic stress disorder. Talking to other veterans has been enormously helpful, he said.

He saw pregnant women bayoneted, girls raped, friends and relatives executed, and countless others starved to death. But it's not those incidents that gave him nightmares in later years, or what drove him to seek help.

It was a brief incident on a boxcar at the end of the march. He was jammed on the train with more than 100 other men, packed so tightly and in such excruciating heat that many died on the train, wedged among their fellow prisoners. The train slowed for a minute, and a woman ran over with a basket of cooked chicken. She gave it to Tejada and said, "Can you give this to my son?"

"I grabbed it and 100 other guys also grabbed it," he said, his face wincing at the memory. "I took two pieces and gave the rest to the group. I never gave it to her son. I didn't even know who her son was. But I felt so guilty - I thought maybe he died because I never found him. I had nightmares about that for 40 years.

"But then the psychologist at the VA said I didn't need to feel guilty any more," he said. "He said I probably saved my own life. ... I think we all just wanted to survive."

POWs on the Bataan Death March.