My father, Luis Gaerlan, was about to turn 22 years old when the Japanese Imperial Forces bombed the Philippines on December 8, 1941. It was barely nine hours after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. My mother, Felicitas Ilano, just turned 18 [at that time].
My parents’ stories differed in delivery. My father, who has always been full of piss and vinegar, was like a stand-up comedian. His stories were filled with antics on how he outwitted his Japanese captors. On the other hand, my mother, who is a very sensitive person, always told her stories with dread and horror.
My father was drafted into the U.S. Armed Forces of the Far East (USAFFE) 41st Infantry Regiment, on Nov. 4, 1941. This was in pursuant to an order given by President F.D. Roosevelt to create the USAFFE under the command of General Douglas MacArthur, who had jurisdiction over the Philippine Department and the military forces of the Commonwealth. Between Christmas 1941 and New Year of 1942, my father’s regiment was transferred to the Bataan Peninsula.
The Philippines was ill-prepared for the invasion of the Japanese. Nine hours after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the planes in Clark Field in Pampanga, Iba Field in Zambales and Nichols Field in Manila were sitting ducks and were obliterated in a short period of time on December 8. The Filipino and American troops were not equipped for a long battle so that by January of 1942, they were already living in half rations. But they valiantly held on to defend Bataan. MacArthur left Corregidor on March 12, 1942 for Mindanao and eventually for Australia.
General Edward King, was forced to surrender approximately 15,000 Americans and 60,000 Filipino troops to Major General Kameichiro Nagano on April 9, 1942. Most of the soldiers were suffering from disease and malnutrition. As the Japanese Army was not equipped to transport 75,000 men to Camp O’Donnell and Cabanatuan some 60 miles away, the soldiers were forced to march under searing heat with no provisions for food, water or medicine.
During the march, my father recalled the harsh and inhumane treatment by the Japanese. He remembered a Japanese soldier getting all the possessions of USAFFE soldiers (watches, rings, etc.). He had a ring that was given to him by his parents and instead of giving it to the Japanese, he threw it to the townspeople along the way. He also recalled a Japanese soldier who wanted to get what looked like a fountain pen from his pocket. My father reluctantly gave it to him. It turned out to be a toothbrush! My father laughed at his captor’s expression. He was hit on the head with a rifle butt by his Japanese captor. He rolled down a knoll and was [again] forced to march.
Another instance was when a Japanese soldier threw a ball of rice in the air. The prisoners tried to grab the ball of rice but it landed on the ground. Around 15,000 soldiers died during this march in what became as the infamous Bataan Death March.
My father was at Camp O’Donnell from April until August of 1942. The Japanese considered surrender a most dishonorable act and did not observe the Geneva convention. As such, the prisoners were treated harshly, sometimes beaten or even executed (bayoneted or decapitated). There were no provisions for medicine with only meager food rations mainly consisting of runny porridge cooked with leaves to give it some flavor. The extremely sick men were placed in beds close to an open pit. Around 1600 American and 26,000 Filipino soldiers died in captivity.
My father was fortunate enough to serve in the kitchen inside the camp. He also became part of the Guava Detail, a group of medical men who foraged the surrounding land for guava leaves that were used to treat dysentery and other illnesses. He was hanging around the doctors so much that he was often mistaken as one, earning the title “Doc.” But he ultimately suffered from malaria and beriberi. His family was not sure if he survived the march but my Grandfather went to Tarlac with other men searching for their sons. They rented a house so that they could hang around Camp O’Donnell in the hope of finding their sons. My father recalled the first time they saw each other. My grandfather ran towards him but the Japanese soldiers instantly raised their guns. My father shouted at his father not to come any closer in order not to get shot.
He was released in August 1942 after a written guarantee from Cavite provincial governor Luis Ferrer and was [forcibly] made to sign an oath of allegiance to the Japanese government.
During the early months of 1945 when the Americans were gaining ground in Asia and after MacArthur landed in Leyte, the Japanese rounded up most adult men in many towns in what was called the “zona.” Men or women with their faces hidden under a paper bag with only their eyes showing were forced to identify former soldiers who were enlisted in 1941. The ones who were caught and identified were shot or decapitated. My father was able to escape and hide in the fields when the Japanese started arresting the men. But my grandfather who was my father’s namesake (Luis, Sr.), was arrested along with other former soldiers and town officials and taken to a remote spot in the outskirts of Imus. Fortunately, he was recognized by a former “kasama” (land tenant) who told the Japanese that they arrested the wrong man. He was subsequently released but his companions were executed on the spot.
In the meantime, my mother was a young lady of 18 in 1941. She recalled how they used to bow before the Japanese soldiers at the checkpoints. There were two instances when she was called to come inside the checkpoint and was asked questions. During that time, there were many women who were raped and even killed by the Japanese soldiers and the thought that she could be one of them terrified her so much. Even after many decades, one could still see the fear in her eyes as she related her story.
My parents married on July 29, 1945 and settled down in their hometown of Imus, Cavite. My father worked for Bank of America in Manila from 1947 until his retirement in the 1980’s while my mother became a full-time housewife who took care of 6 children, one of whom died at the age of 4 from hemorrhagic fever. My father is now 92 and my mother is 88. My father was quite agile until about three years ago when he suffered a traumatic brain injury as a result of a serious fall. My mother was diagnosed with dementia 5 years ago. But they continue to have moments of laughter and remembrance. Once in a while, when I ask them questions about the war, their eyes would light up and memories come back to life. They were at the peak of their youth during the war years. A time of love and suffering, a time of joy and sorrow, a time that will forever be etched in their minds.