My Father Was A Veteran Too
by Ruby Bayan
I'd like to talk about my father on this Veterans Day. He was a veteran, too, and a real inspiration in more ways than one. He died in 1991 at the age of 84.
My parents had a military wedding in 1937, just before the war broke out, just before my father, then a reserve officer, was called to serve the Allied Forces under General Edward King. My mother hid with relatives, while my father fought with the American soldiers against the Japanese in Bataan.
Several months into the war and weakened by malaria and lack of food and supplies, Gen. King surrendered the US and Filipino forces to the leader of the Japanese Bataan Campaign, Gen. Mashuharu Homma. While history immortalizes the atrocities that happened after the surrender, I know exactly what happened then because my father was a survivor of the Bataan Death March.
My father was one of about 75,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war captured by the Japanese and made to march a total of 63 miles under tropical heat, with no food or water. The prisoners were kicked, beaten, bayonetted, or decapitated by Japanese soldiers who believed that Americans were dogs and should be treated as such. Only 54,000 prisoners made it to Camp O'Donnel, Capas, where they continued to perish like flies, from disease, starvation and torture.
My mother and a few close relatives followed the prisoners to the camp. Some nights my mother would sneak close to the fence to meet my father. She would throw bread over the fence, hoping the Japanese wouldn’t catch her. My father, then about 35, held on to dear life.
The nightmare ended almost two years after, when Gen. MacArthur returned to the Philippines. The war that had claimed millions of lives was finally over. My father came home weak and weary. He spent a good number of years trying to recover from the trauma. He mourned for his friends and peers who were killed in the march or failed to survive the prison camp.
[My parents just after the war -- 1948]
Historians say that the Bataan Death March strengthened the bond between Americans and Filipinos, for having suffered together. It also created a major rift of bitterness between Fil-Americans and the Japanese. But when my father told us his stories, he had no anger or bitterness for his captors -- he said they were all just victims of the war -- no winners, no losers, all victims.
My brother and I were born ten years after the war, and every chance we got to hang around with our father, we would be all ears for those war experiences he would share with us. They were usually in the form of life lessons, parables on the secrets of survival.
While we helped him water the plants or feed the fish in our backyard pond, my father would recall how he and his co-prisoners had dug up bamboo shoots and sipped coconut water for sustenance, and how they had used herbs to heal their wounds. While he showed us how to rig up a kite or build a Christmas lantern, he would advise us to learn to use our hands because "you never know when you will have to plow the field or build a shack," like they had to, in order to survive.
I remember, too, back when I was still a child, how much my parents loved tending to our gardens. While my mother brought in freshly cut daisies and ferns from her huge flowerbed, my father lugged in a basket of freshly picked fruits and vegetables from the backyard. We could see clearly how much they derived pleasure from making plants grow, from renewing and harvesting the bounty of the earth.
My father loved to plant vegetables and fruit trees; he was 80 when he decided to plant a mango seedling. He wasn't sure he'd still be around when the tree finally bore fruit, but his philosophy was that the children and grandchildren would enjoy the shade and reap the fruits someday.
My parents taught me my first lessons on how to appreciate the beauty of nature. But my father was the one who taught me how to appreciate life -- he taught me to respect and value the life force in plants, animals, and fellow humans.
He taught me how to endure, persevere, and overcome, how to be resourceful, how to live off the land -- how to survive. He also made me understand that helping others appreciate the significance of life is as precious as the breath of life itself.
I will always be grateful for the lessons I learned from my father. Especially because I know that most of them were lessons he himself had learned the hard way -- many years ago -- during the war.
IN MEMORY OF MY FATHER
Brig. Gen. Jose Bayan
More stories about the horror and heroism at the Bataan Death March:
* Bataan Death March - comprehensive history with photos
* Memories of a Japanese Prisoner of War
* Bataan Diary Reviews
* Bataan Death March Survivor Honored