Why Bataan Day Became Araw ng Kagitingan

Today we celebrate Araw ng Kagitingan (“Day of Valor or Heroism”, in Tagalog) , which is supposed to be on April 9, but was moved up two days earlier to make it a three-day weekend. All part of the government’s “holiday economics”, the intention being that a longer weekend would boost local tourism, which is actually a good idea.

The day commemorates the Fall of Bataan on April 9, 1942, when vastly superior Japanese forces trapped the combined American and Filipino troops of the United States Armed Forces of the Far East (USAFFE) which had retreated to the Bataan peninsula. After months of fighting, the decimated USAFFE forces, running low on food, medicines and materiel , without hope of resupply or reinforcements, abandoned by their commander who was ordered to flee to Australia weeks before, surrendered Bataan to the Imperial Japanese Army. The Japanese promptly and systematically proceeded to slaughter the remnants of the Philippine commonwealth army. Those they couldn’t kill outright, they proceed to murder at leisure at the concentration camp in nearby Tarlac province, after putting them through the infamous Bataan Death March.

An abject defeat, made all the more painful by the deceitful promises of Washington that help was on the way when in fact the decision had been made to abandon the islands to the tender mercies of the Japanese. In his outstanding biography of Douglas MacArthur, American Ceasar, historian William Manchester noted that U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and Secretary of War Henry Stimson had:

privately told the British prime minister (Churchill) that they had written off the Philippines as a lost cause. “There are times” Stimson said “when men have to die”.

And so they did, heroically, in droves.

The President will of course make the standard speech full of the usual bromides about paying tribute to the brave soldiers who gave up their lives during the siege of Bataan so that all of us today may enjoy the blessing of freedom and how we should honor their heroism and martyrdom at Bataan and Corregidor (which held out until May 1942) and relate this to our own lives yadda, yadda, yadda.

It was realization of the ignoble nature of the debacle that prompted the renaming of “Bataan Day” to Araw ng Kagitingan, to make it a sort of generic Memorial Day, and paper over the awkward fact that the United States abandoned the Philippines in Bataan as a matter of cold expediency, but not after feeding our leaders a string of lies to the very end. In Manchester’s account:

Upon leaving his capital (Manila) on Christmas Eve, he (President Manuel Quezon) writes in his memoirs, he and his cabinet had been “very hopeful that before Bataan and Corregidor were forced to surrender, sufficient help would come for American and Filipino forces to take the offensive and drive the enemy out of the land.” But now his doubts were growing. Each time he had mentioned them to MacArthur, the General had reassured him, “I will bring you in triumph to the points of my bayonets to Manila.” Quezon replied submissively, “I am willing to do what the government of the United States may think will be most helpful.” Now, however, he was growing mutinous. On January 22, while he was sitting under a canvas canopy outside the tunnel entrance (in Corregidor) and swatting at passing flies, his radio set picked up a Roosevelt fireside chat. The President spoke vehemently of the Allied determination to defeat Berlin and Rome first; Tokyo’s turn would come later. As the broadcast continued with no mention of the Philippines, it’s president’s face grew redder and redder. Finally, he shouted to everyone within earshot: “Come listen to this scoundrel. Que demonio! How typical of America to writhe in anguish at the fate of a distant cousin, while a daughter, the Philippines, is being raped in the back room!”.

Quezon’s rage subsided, but without consulting MacArthur further he sent FDR a wire. “This war is not of our making, ” he reminded Roosevelt. No government, he said, “has the right to demand loyalty from its citizens beyond its willingness or ability to render actual protection.” He said, “It seems that Washington does not fully realize our situation nor the feelings which the apparent neglect of our safety and welfare have engendered in the hearts of the people here, “ and he pleaded for help.

FDR’s answer to this eloquent appeal is hard to comprehend, let alone defend. Roosevelt said: “Although I cannot at this time state the day that help will arrive in the Philippines… vessels…have been filled with cargo of necessary supplies and have been dispatched to Manila. Our arms, together with those of our allies, have dealt heavy blows to enemy transports and naval vessels… A continuous stream of fighter and pursuit planes is traversing the Pacific… Extensive arrivals of troops are being guarded ny adequate protective elements of our Navy.” It would be difficult to frame a statement more at odds with the truth, or one surer to boomerang. Ten days later the President radioed the defenders (of Bataan and Corregidor) that no more could be done for them. At the end of this singular about-face he told MacArthur: “I… give you this most difficult mission in full understanding of the desperate situation to which you may shortly be reduced.”

That FDR was a cold-blooded SOB.

2 thoughts on “Why Bataan Day Became Araw ng Kagitingan

  1. related to your entry are the feb. 6-8 entries of gen. basilio valdes, in his diary, here:

    http://philippinediaryproject.wordpress.com/category/diary-of-gen-basilio-valdes/page/7/

    manchester was not the most accurate though the most famous of macarthur biographers. richard connaughton’s “macarthur and defeat in the philippines” is more interesting.

    eventually i’ll be posting the bataan-related entries of f.b. harrison who interviewed the protagonists in corregidor.

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