Tuesday, August 1, 2006

Between the Lines: A Son’s Tale

by Sluggo Rigor

My father’s contemporaries tell me he was an authentic war hero---with emphasis on the word ‘authentic.’ This of course makes us in the family genuinely and silently proud. But I often wonder why there are lesser stories told about victories earned by Filipino soldiers during the last world war. Were they not also key players who belonged to the triumphant Allied Forces of World War II in the Pacific theater? Except for the overplayed MacArthur U-turn to the archipelago, contemporary history seems to lean towards defeats and infamy like Bataan, Corregidor, and the Death March. We commemorate these woeful events of subjugation every year but hardly mark those where the Filipino soldier had dutifully helped defeat the enemy.

In one crucial and bloody military operation towards the end of World War II, my father had led three all-Filipino battalions of the 121st Infantry, USAFIP-NL. Reinforced by gritty bolomen from Abra, they assaulted Bessang Pass in the rugged mountains of North Luzon. It was Dad’s unit that broke through a formidable enemy defense line entrenched within the mountainous terrain. That hard-fought battle that lasted six weeks led to the surrender of the feared Tiger of Malaya, General Tomoyuki Yamashita, and other high-ranking Japanese Imperial Army and Naval flag officers who had come from nearby Asian cities hoping that the fabled Tiger could protect them. Among them was a known Admiral who had led the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor years earlier.

My father, “Daddy” to us his nine children and to our mother, Erlinda, was not much of a talker. He was the quiet, self-effacing-to-a-fault type. In intimate circles of friends, he was noted more as an upright, ram-rod-honest soldier-scholar, a poet, artist and writer. Close friends and associates called him “CB” or Condring. In his writings, he had paid homage to poets E.E. Cummings and Jose Garcia Villa when he studied philosophy and letters as a government scholar at the Columbia U in New York right after the war. He took up courses there with the then Col. Dwight (Ike) Eisenhower. After a three-year stint in the U.S., he returned to the Philippines to help establish what is now a military institution, the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) in Loakan, Baguio.

Throughout his forty-six abbreviated years on this planet, he rarely spoke about his wartime exploits. But his comrades-in-arms had recognized his dedication to the cause of the veterans when he was unanimously chosen to be the first secretary general of what is now the Veterans Federation of the Philippines (VFP), an organization that he had helped to found so that there would be voice and substance to the peacetime campaigns of the forgotten Filipino soldier.

His comrades-in-arms (who later on became distinguished personages) like Fred Ruiz Castro, Macario Peralta, Carmelo Z. Barbero, Pilar Normandy, Ernesto Rodriguez Jr., Francisco Bautista, Roberto Reyes, Eulogio Balao, Simeon Valdez, Cris De Vera, Jose Crisol, Nicanor Jimenez, Jose Banzon, Arnulfo Banez, Amador Daguio…to name a few…would recount what he had accomplished that fateful day in June of 1944 when the morning sun was hidden by the clouds in the rugged ridges of Bessang Pass.

What Dad had dubbed in his post-war writings as “The Battle of the Clouds” is said to have marked the official end of hostilities in the Philippines after General Yamashita and his staff were escorted down the foot trails of the Cordilleras to Camp Spencer in La Union. From there the popular Japanese General was taken to Manila for his celebrated military trial and eventual execution as a war criminal in Los Banos, Laguna.

Dad in his journal writings pointed to the battle in Bessang Pass as an “engagement of redemption,” coming full circle after “the shame and ignominy that was Bataan.” His colorful lines about the battle at Bessang would later be used rather extensively by then Senator Ferdinand Marcos when he campaigned for the highest office of the land in 1966. A wordsmith at heart, Daddy had unwittingly laid out through his after-battle reports and writings a clear path for the ambitious Senator Marcos to tread. The politician from Ilocos Norte and his apple-polishers created in the process the impression that the dreaded General Yamashita had surrendered to him---when in reality he was safely tucked away as staff in an obscure military personnel office. He had supposedly feigned sickness 85 kilometers away from the site of the bloody battle. Asked by one of Dad’s officers why he was not in the frontlines that day, the then Maj. Marcos, who was in bed at Camp Spencer’s dispensary, replied wryly, “I am not in the mood for heroics.”

Barely twenty three years later, after stints as a congressman of Ilocos Norte and later as a senator, Ferdinand Marcos would create a big controversy because of a film story and campaign line, “For every tear, a victory,” the very lines Dad had written about Bessang Pass in post-war published articles. Shortly after Dad suddenly died in May of 1960 at the age of 46 due to asthma complications (and because of indifference by military medical staffers at the V. Luna Medical Center in Quezon City), his writings, files, records and journals all vanished. According to my mother, she had turned them over to some of Dad’s comrades-in-arms to be used in recording the USAPIP-NL’s role in World War II. As if the trauma of Dad’s passing away was not enough to his still-in-shock family, a devastating storm and flood two weeks after he was laid to rest nearly washed away the brand new home that he had lovingly built in Little Baguio, San Juan. Wet, torn and muddied, all of his library books, records, journals and files were damaged beyond repair. Whatever remained in his library about “The Battle of the Clouds” were lost forever. Only in the writings, recollections and testimonies of those who had fought with him would remain. Only the tamper-free World War II files of the United States military would now reflect the names and the true roles of Filipino fighting men in the benighted peninsula of Bataan, the infamy that was Corregidor, the Death March and then the shining redemption and gallantry that was Bessang Pass. But many still wonder to this day whether bias, envy and prejudice that lurked in the hearts of those who had recorded these historic military episodes would forever diminish the glory of the brave Filipino soldiers who fought a war that was hardly theirs.

The book written by a communications officer and dear friend of Daddy, Ernest Rodriguez Jr., organizer and first president of the College Editors’ Guild, now a prestige-laden organization of young Filipino academics, entitled “The Bad Guerillas of North Luzon,” is considered by historians as a factual chronicle of the complicated military campaign in that region during World War II. The book chronicles the day-to-day pursuit of Yamashita’s retreating army by the Filipino soldiers who were under the telegraphic command of Col. Russel Volkmann of the United States Armed Forces in the Philippines-North Luzon (USAFIP-NL). The desperate Japanese Imperial Army had ravaged Manila and parts of Central Luzon as they retreated northward.

In a rare storytelling episode on our way to Dolores, Abra for a visit one summer in the early 50s, when we kids were all still in grades school, Dad pointed to us the mountain ranges in the distance where he had fought side-by-side with brave Filipino soldiers as they pursued well-entrenched Japanese forces. He said that many of those who were fighting against his troops as the war was ending were Korean boys not more than 15 years old. Frightened, hungry and sick, these young Koreans were really prisoners of war who were forced by Yamashita to wear ill-fitting Japanese uniforms and fight against the Filipinos. Many of them ran from their battle trenches to surrender to Dad’s men.


About two decades after Dad was buried at the Libingan ng Mga Bayani in Fort Bonifacio, I met up with several of his old comrades-in-arms who had fought side-by-side with him in Bessang. Each one of them expressed not a little amount of dismay about that epic battle that could have been the highest glory hour of the Filipino soldier of WW II. The surrender of the highest-ranking, most feared Japanese Imperial Army General to a gritty battalion of Filipino military officers and supported only by a band of barefoot and spunky Ilocano bolo men from the provinces of Abra and the Mountain Province was all but erased. Why? Because the American officers behind the battle lines—far away in La Union----upon learning of the break through in the tough Yamasita lines by the USAPI-NL’s 121st Bn., ordered the Filipino detachment in Bessang not to announce the victory “until further orders.” Only after two days when the Americans hurriedly arrived in Bessang that the announcement of Yamashita’s surrender was bannered to the whole world. Dad’s comrades today can only shake their heads in silent dismay. One outspoken officer commented: “Well…the ‘I Shall Return’ PR campaign had to have a glorious spin to it and Bessang Pass was it.” And, like that proverbial imagery goes, Dad and his brave comrades “just faded away…”