“I cheated death”—An Interview


 (as published in Silangan, Philippine News and Views, Vol. I No.1, Vancouver, BC, Canada)

“I recycled my urine to drink!” 

Thus declares Col. Anselmo de la Rea, BC’s only surviving—and still “standing” at 90—veteran of the Fall of Bataan, the Death March and Camp O’Donnell in Capas, Tarlac during World War II. A founding member of the Philippine Veterans and Ex-Servicemen Society of BC, he now lives in Surrey. 

He leans his head slightly to the side as if to peer through his memories of what could still be one of the most unimaginable specters of war: the transfer of 78,000 captured Filipino and American contingent at the Bataan peninsula stronghold to the prison camp in Tarlac 100 miles up north. The Fall happened on April 9, the “march” started next day. In the Philippines, April—as T.S. Eliot wrote in the “Wasteland”—is literally the “cruelest month”; heat shots up to 38 degrees Centigrade. 

The passing sun on this spring day lends contrasting light to the grimness of his story so long ago in his youth. Yet a rueful smile passes through the colonel’s countenance; in his mind, he is holding his water canteen, which the Japanese sentries would fill with water once a day during the six-day march or more precisely, “trudge”, as other historical records describe it. 

“I would sip half of it throughout the day, and soak a hanky with the remaining half,” he says. He needed to wipe his own self with that wet hanky or his burnt skin would slough off. 

Along with the water, he and his fellow Prisoners of War (POWs) would get as the only meal for the day a fist-sized serving of salt-dipped rice and one boiled sweet potato. Stamina turned into mockery for the POWs who by the time of their Bataan surrender had been weakened by malnutrition and malaria. But for Col. De la Rea stamina is the virtue behind being poor. “Most of those who survived come from poor families; those who died or surrendered belonged to wealthy families. I survived because I grew up poor and I’m used to all that.”

According to historical records, “Their rations were reduced by half in January, and to quarter rations in March (about 800 calories a day). Mosquito nets were not available and quinine, the main drug used to treat and prevent malaria, ran out.” 

Reinforcements and rations promised in Gen. Douglas McArthur’s War Plan Orange, which moved contingents guarding Manila to Bataan took too long.  “We held our lines from Pilar to Bagac along the South China Sea for almost three months,” de la Rea recalls.

“What came instead were Japanese reinforcements,” he quips.

 Fall of Bataan

The Japanese Imperial Army that had landed in Lingayen and Mauban were massing in from opposite sides toward Manila. General Douglas MacArthur had by then moved the Commonwealth Government under Manuel Luis Quezon to Corregidor, the island fortress by the mouth of Manila Bay and ordered the move to form a main defense line in Bataan. 

Historical records note the following facts: “About 1,000 men from the 24th Pursuit Group and 19th Bombardment Group fought alongside U.S. Army soldiers, sailors, marines, and Filipino soldiers and police, to drive the Japanese out … After three weeks of bitter fighting, the Japanese positions were completely eliminated. This vigorous defense helped Bataan hold out for two more months, which brought more time to prepare Allied defenses elsewhere.”

“But all we had were Springfield bolt action rifles from WWI, some water-cooled machine guns and very few cannons,” de la Rea continues. He weaves in and out of his retelling by offering his visitors snacks his wife had prepared—aromatic brewed coffee and a slice of lemon cake. 

He moves on to the next moment of remembering that without anti-tank weapons or artillery, they were helpless to stop the Japanese in close pursuit. They fell back to establish another defensive line. Eventually, the American surrender of Bataan ended “their courageous but futile efforts.”

Maj. Gen. Edward King, Jr., commander of Bataan, told his troops, “You men remember this. You did not surrender … you had no alternative but to obey my order.”

Death March  

In the mass the Japanese assembled were about 12,000 Americans and 66,000 Filipinos. The Japanese were obviously unprepared as to how the prisoners would be moved to a camp. Their only choice was to make them walk on their own. Among them were aircraft mechanics and pilots forced to fight as infantrymen. Colonel de la Rea was then only a year past his 4-year ROTC and 2-month summer cadre training. He had just been commissioned as 3rd lieutenant with the reserve force of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and called to active duty at the outbreak of the war in the Philippines. Three months before that imminent war, Filipinos like him were inducted to the United States Armed Forces in the Far East (USAFFE).

The march began from up the east coast of Bataan. Historical notes say the POWs were unaware their destination was Camp O’Donnell, a distant north from the peninsula. On dirt roads often filled with broken stones, those who were too weak to go on would be beaten or shot. Not a few just collapsed and died. “Their ferocity grew as we marched … they were no longer content with mauling stragglers or pricking them with bayonet points. The thrusts were intended to kill,” wrote Capt. William Dyess, 21st Pursuit Squadron commander.

“We were not allowed to talk while walking,” Col. De la Rea remembers. They simply watched when as another eye witness wrote, “Japanese soldiers on passing trucks would hit some prisoners with rifle butts or savagely toyed some by dragging them behind trucks with a rope around the neck. At times, just to be cruel, the Japanese would take the water canteens from POWs and poured the water. And if some men driven mad with thirst broke through a line on seeing muddy water, he would be bayoneted or shot.”

“A few times while we were on bivouac at night, I would sneak to a swamp, where carabaos soaked, and fill my water canteen. Then using my shirt or hanky as a filter drink the water,” he says. At the small table by the window of his Surrey apartment, he had reached for a glass of water, adding a poignant contrast to the memory.

The prisoners dug pits or trenches along the way: the first to bury the dead, the second to use as toilets. For the trenches to be usable, they laid planks of wood crosswise that is if it had any use for the rest of them who relieved their own selves while walking; stopping for any emergency was not allowed.

After six days, the trudge reached San Fernando, Pampanga where the POWs were loaded on boxcars used for cargo such as coal. These were made of steel and meant to fit in only 40 men if used for human travel at all. The Japanese crammed in them 150 POWs. When they got to Camp O’Donnell in Capas, Tarlac, more have died of dehydration.

Camp O’Donnell and Beyond

“Some 200 died everyday. We were ordered to roll the bodies up with army blankets, carry them on bamboo poles to open fields where we dug a pit for burial,” the colonel recalls, reciting the figures as if in passing. What he remembers most are the giant fleas, which infested their clothes. He recalls how it became a game for them to squash these with their thumbnails. 

By June 6 when the Japanese ordered amnesty and rumors that those who could walk would be among the first batch, Col. de la Rea flexed his leg muscles everyday. He now traces with his fingers on the table how he circled the camp, practicing to walk again. He reveals that by this time, he had long gotten used to the stench in the prison camp. No one had taken a bath since Bataan. Too, everyone had turned into skin and bones with big heads so much so that no one could recall how they once looked.

Around June 15, the camp started releasing the prisoners. “I walked from the camp to the train station in town,” he says, smiling now as he relives what he saw: “My father was waiting for me along with our town mayor. They gave me a biscuit and a bottle of sarsaparilla (root beer).” 

It had seemed to him like miracle food as he now enthuses, “I saw the light!”

Back home in Amadeo, Cavite, he was nursed back slowly with gruel and small portions of solid food by a girlfriend from his college years. Within fifteen days, he could eat a normal meal. “I complained at first. Why was she still starving me?” he says. 

He eventually married her. He later realized that more had died on going home because they didn’t know that food turns into poison after a long period of starvation. “My girlfriend knew what to do,” he says. 

A young Mrs. De la Rea, Thelma Marcelino, has been fussing about the untouched lemon slice on my saucer. They met after he retired and joined a security and investigation agency owned by an uncle of Thelma. They have a daughter, Irish, who works in optometry. She finished a degree in biology at UBC.

Thelma has carried old picture albums to the table. I would later pull out a group picture in sepia of a Philippine Constabulary company based in Laguna. “It’s the oldest existing photo of him in his 30-year military career,” Thelma says.

Col. De la Rea cheated death that snatched so many young men like him, totaling 11,000 on random count. He met death again, cheating it the second time during guerilla warfare. He had joined Marking’s Fil-American Guerilla in Cavite after he regained his health from the Death March. His unit was attached to the 11th Airborne Division of the US Army in Tagaytay City. While fighting the Japanese at Mt. Gonzales between Tagaytay City and Batangas, a Japanese sniper wounded him thru and thru in the neck. He sustained shattered bones on his right jaw, which an operation at the US Army Station Hospital at what was then known as Camp Murphy restored. 

When the Philippines was granted independence by the US in 1946, then junior officer of the 14th Military Police Co. de la Rea was stationed in Imus, Cavite. During the campaign against the HUKs, a nationalist guerilla unit turned rebels, he was already promoted to 1St lieutenant and assigned company commander at what would later be the 105 Philippine Constabulary Company in Cavinte, Laguna.  Under his watch, the HUKs attacked headquarters one midnight in an exchange of fire that lasted until dawn.  

By the time he retired as full colonel after 30 years of military, he had long withdrawn from field and combat duties and worked for 20 years at the PC Headquarters supply center and logistics unit among other assignments. 

His children from his first marriage live either in the US or here in Canada. It was during a visit to one of them here in Canada that he decided he rather liked to live here; he migrated in 1983. “After my first wife died, I married Thelma,” he says, finishing off his lemon cake with a relish and that half-smile that hints at his constant joy of the moment—it is a mark of peace often belonging to those who had faced death.

Col. de la Rea has begged off from attending the memorial to Bataan heroes, with him as honoree, by the Philippine Veterans and Ex-Servicemen Society of BC, of which he remains its only surviving and “still-standing” member. The memorial date coincides with his 90th birthday weekend celebration. It will be held in Las Vegas hosted by his five children, 17 grandchildren and 22 great grandchildren. 

The colonel has since stood up from his chair to answer my question about a large picture frame on a wall, a group picture I had mistaken as his family. It is but a gift from his co-workers at the last company he worked at, here in BC, where he says with a mischievous smile, his job was “touring”. Catching my quizzical brow-knit he nudges me, translating it from the dialect, “putting in screws” (tournillo in Pilipino). 

Our laughter ripples, sweeping away fragments of grim memories that this visit was all about. The ripples bubble through the patches of sunlight in his home where a life he did not count as heroic continues to ripen and bear fruit as in the ever-moving moments of his war memories he shared this morning.

Copyright (c) 2009 by Alegria Imperial

A Memorial to Memories

I would like to thank the 18 who have signed my petition to Pledge to End All Wars. Thank you greatly.

As Bataan Day or the date is again ‘in the past’ in the march of days, I’ll recast this petition in a few days toward the setting up of a memorial to memories. Intriguing? Enigmatic? Only in words if that is how it sounds. This memorial will perhaps be the first monument not cast in stone but built on words.

The landscape of memories on WWII in the Philippines might be crowded by now with all kinds of retelling. But, each time anything about it is said or discussed, a swarm of memories start buzzing. It is truly amazing how the telling seems endless.

No matter how long ago that war is often referred to, its reality re­mains as vivid as if it were the day before. Apparently, war never dies with its heroes or its traitors both know and unknown. Time actually doesn’t heal the wounds inflicted on families who are innocent of a war, or in the case of Filipinos, the only war they ever experienced–and it wasn’t even theirs.Time it seems merely suspended the grieving as families coped with survival.

I know because I was born into one such family–my grand­father was executed by the Japanese. A pall sort of hovered in my childhood among my mother, aunts and uncles whose lives the war drastically changed. Until I migrated to Vancouver two and a half years ago, I was still uncovering shards of that day they lost him forever as not even his body was recovered.

Mention of that war even here in Vancou­ver–years removed and thousands of miles from the Philippines–hardly ever fails to touch a painful chord among Filipinos. For example a small item that I sent and was published in the Vancouver Courier on the two documen­tary films my cousin Lucky Guillermo came to screen for the 2008 World Peace Forum in November drew a small group. Wounds refreshed with the films “Manila 1945: The Forgotten Atrocities” and “ Unsurrendered: 100 Voices” as children and grandchildren of veterans shared impassioned memories; most were told the first time, and thus, too precious to be lost. We all agreed the only memorial worthy of their memories is yet another collection of such stories. 

A collection of all collections of stories or a gathering of these is the memo­rial that is yet to happen, this memorial of memories. How and when would it turn out and what shape it would take in what way will words become solid depends on what value the world gives to peace and the world is you.

We will hold on to and nurture this pledge to peace by keeping our memories alive. What better flame is there indeed.